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LIVE REPORT: Anthony Braxton At Cafe Oto
Sean Kitching , June 19th, 2018 11:59

Sean Kitching takes a voyage to the far side of composition at Anthony Braxton's recent Cafe Oto residency, and comes back with a sense of warmth & humour among the innovation. Photo by StarLynn Jacobs

"I have never wanted to be alive more than I do now, and I am hopeful that I can go out fighting, trying to evolve my position and trying to better understand what it means to be alive on a planet like this. Hurray for the cosmic forces of the universe." - Anthony Braxton, Cafe Oto 31st May 2018

With Cafe Oto celebrating its tenth anniversary earlier this month, it's apt that Anthony Braxton, who the venue say has been at the top of their wish list since opening in 2008, should finally appear there in a sold-out, three-night residency - his first as a band leader in the UK since a show at the Royal Festival Hall in 2004. The multi-instrumentalist, philosopher, teacher and self-identified student of music occupies a unique place in the world of modern composition. Hugely influenced by the abstract theories of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, yet also enamoured of the work of jazz greats like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Eric Dolphy, Braxton's vast back catalogue of over 350 compositions is somewhat bewildering to the casual listener. My own position is as a relative newcomer to his work, although in the run up to the shows, I do spend some time with the nine CD box set, 9 Compositions (Iridium), described by Braxton himself as: "The point of definition in my work thus far."

My first thought on the opening night is: "how on earth am I going to find words to describe this?" This is undoubtedly the most ineffable of all the abstract music I've ever attempted to write about. This is Braxton's Zim music septet, playing "gradient logic constructions... in the house or eleven." Jean Cook on violin, Jacqueline Kerrod and Miriam Overlach on concert harps, Dan Peck on tuba, Adam Matlock on accordion, Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and trombone, and Braxton on alto, soprano and sopranino saxophones. Eschewing the usual slow build route up so often taken in improvised music, the players launch instead right into the heart of the matter. A maelstrom of bubbling, percolating and swirling sounds are generated between accordion, violin, cornet and harps, with Braxton's circular sax residing at the eye of the storm. Squeaks, plucks, knuckles rapping on wooden harp frames and the wheezy breathing of the accordion conspire to turn raw sound into evanescent musical form arising out of seeming chaos. As Braxton himself has said often enough, this is not jazz, although his sax sometimes infers some lovely, almost sentimental jazz inflected tones. This is modern classical composition in its highest, most sublime form. The precision of it all is quite astounding, and yet there is still much freedom for the individual instrumentalists within the established rules of the game. Three different kinds of scores are set before the musicians. Actual scored instrumental passages, ones with visual additions suggesting types of playing - such as 'long sound,' 'accentuated long sound,' 'angular attacks,' 'legato formings' - Kandinskyesque, that look a little like a snakes and ladders board - and ones that look like geographical maps with line contours. Hand signals offer communication in the moment between band members. Circles and triangles, hand palm up, numbers expressed by digits held aloft and occasionally a thumbs up. It's fiendishly hot on the first night and perhaps this adds an extra sense of urgency to the hour long set. Braxton appears visibly exhausted by the end of it.

Despite this music being as far out on the edges of experimentation as one can imagine, there is a touching humanity to Braxton's saxophone work, and a sense of humour and honesty underlying it all that prevents the music from becoming a purely intellectual exercise. At one point, the scores themselves are utilised as sound sources, crumpled up and used to coax squeals from harp strings. During another, Taylor Ho Bynum makes a point of stirring his collection of cornet muting devices on the floor with his foot to exploit their percussive potential, whilst Braxton answers with a braying laughter through his alto. When I briefly talked to Matlock and Peck after the gig on the second night, I asked them if they rehearsed this music very often and the answer was resoundingly, "no". In fact, I rather got the impression that anything that might encourage a rote response during the performance, as over rehearsal might well do, was actively discouraged and that what Braxton was looking for was the musician's own compositional elements, made up in the furnace of the moment of performance.

The opening of night three is perhaps the strongest musically of the residency. Braxton is on fiery form - more energetic than on previous evenings, producing some great hard blowing sax lines, some of them even quite melodic, although retaining little twists of dissonance underneath the tunes. The importance of the accordion again strikes home, its wheezy, elongated gasping breaths seemingly stretching time. In the absence of drums to demarcate beats, 'breathing' is what a lot of these pieces do. The dual harps, cornet and accordion produce amazing, joyous swells of sound. Taylor Ho Bynum plays his cornet upside down, fast finger work eliciting chirping, bird-like sounds. Harps are played with knives and spoons, sponges are applied to strings. As I become momentarily lost in the middle of the last performance, the numerous random voices failing to coalesce in any meaningful fashion, a thought goes through my head: how exhausting it would be, for both musicians and listeners alike, if everyone strove all the time for a creation of a new music. Yet also, how impoverished musical language would become if there were no one taking such risks and attempting to take the organisation of sound into new realms. Anthony Braxton is such a musician - a scientist at the vanguard of musical research.

This impression is further reinforced after hearing Braxton in conversation with pianist Alexander Hawkins on the day after the final performance. Hearing the man talking about his mission is as inspiring as listening to his music. Braxton states: "I think one of the aspects of music that is so amazing is that music goes over the fence and everyone is affected by music. Music cannot be blocked out in the same way as stable logic components." He describes his attempts to integrate his work with the "changes taking place in science", and the need to learn "from other musics from different parts of the planet." Fascinatingly, Braxton also defines his impetus as to: "create a holistic music that can be manifested in different ways. The orchestra pieces represent large cities. Chamber pieces represent small towns, and it goes all the way down to the individual." What really interests him, he states, even more than music: "is something that reflects composite reality, where the friendly experiencer is walking down the street and everything is happening." As an illustration of this, we even get a joke.

"Mr and Mrs John Doe wake up at, say, 4.30, have breakfast and then Mr Doe goes out to work. As he goes towards the stop light, a truck passes him. That night when Mr Doe comes home, he and his wife go to an opera, where suddenly the same truck goes across the stage. Mr Doe says to Mrs Doe - it doesn't get any better than that."

After three nights of such beautiful, often indescribable, sometimes incomprehensible sounds, played with near mystic fervour, I can only agree.