06/11/08

Anthony Braxton in Pittsburgh

Anthony Braxton rarely performs in the United States, so his three-day appearance in Pittsburgh represented a unique opportunity matched only by the situation that lured him to town: performances at the National Aviary performing among—and, presumably, with—the various bird species there. Two performances with the local Syrinx Ensemble, which features fellow Wesleyan professor Michael Pestel, were the swing votes that helped make the visit more enticing. The weekend of events, known as Braxton Plays Pittsburgh Plays Braxton also included a performance by the multi-reedist’s septet and readings of his work by both a high school ensemble and a collective of veteran Pittsburgh musicians, both conducted by Braxton. In between all this, Braxton managed to record some duets with Ben Opie, the Pittsburgh saxophonist who masterminded the events.

Slightly more than half of the 350 seats at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild might have been filled Friday night, but the attendees greeted the Braxton septet with the enthusiasm of a packed house. He was joined by Jessica Pavone (viola), Taylor Ho Bynum (brass), Carl Testa (bass), Mary Halvorson (guitar), Jay Rozen (tuba) and Aaron Siegel (drums, vibes). Once his trusty hourglass was inverted, Braxton gave the group some hand gestures and counted them in. “Composition Number 361,” the final Ghost Trance piece, which appeared recently on a Victoriaville disc by the 12tet + 1, framed the music.

For the next 62 minutes or so—yes, they seemed to take some liberties with the hourglass—fragments of other compositions dating back as far as 30 years crept into music, via Braxton’s hand gestures and numbers written on a wipe-away board. Braxton left his bigger horns at home, utilizing sopranino, soprano and alto saxophones, although the contrabass clarinet was used for raspy blasts. Throughout the evening, he avoided coming off as the key soloist, and often stood holding his chin to his chest, listening to what was happening around him. One of the highlights came in the final minutes: the group created suspense with staccato blasts separated by pregnant moments of silence. Just as things seemed like they were winding down, they tore into some driving free-bop that brought the audience to their feet when it ended.

Opie, whom Braxton described in an interview, as a “Great American Composer,” teaches at the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) in downtown Pittsburgh. Antithesis, a group of his students, had been learning a series of Braxton and had a chance to play under the composer’s direction on Saturday night in the school’s auditorium. The Three Rivers Tri-Centric Ensemble, an amalgam of local players from various walks of music, jazz and otherwise, followed the students’ set.

Ten a.m. on a weekend morning might not seem like the most inspired time for improvisational performances; it is the time when most birds like to sing their songs. So the Syrinx Ensemble made its way into the Wetlands of the National Aviary on Saturday and Sunday, turning their backs to the audience but facing the pond where flamingos and other birds were fluttering about.

Rarely does a performance take place where every sound in the room shapes and impacts the overall direction of the event. On Sunday, one bird’s three-note cackle began before the group started, and it worked like an extended intro and sounded more like a synthesizer than the bird song samples produced by the local sound and visual artist known as tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE [sic]. Things never became raucous, though 30 minutes into the set, Braxton and Opie donned contrabass clarinets and created a swirling drone together with bassist Tracy Mortimore. Michael Pestel, who had an arsenal of game calls and various reeds, recreated a mating dance with cONVENIENCE, the latter dressed in a feather suit. Like Friday night’s show, the event seemed less about Braxton the legendary performing in Pittsburgh than it was a music event that just happened to feature him. In fact, when his serious expression broke occasionally into a mischievous smile, he frequently gave the distinct impression that he was as excited by the surroundings as anyone in the audience.

When the music died down after about an hour, the birds were still going strong. It seemed like the Syrinx Ensemble could have easily continued into the afternoon with a second set. (Some post-gig honking from the flamingoes revealed a missed opportunity.) Yet it was also the perfect way to close a monumental weekend.

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