Anthony Braxton has planned on writing 12 operas to outline his philosophical ideas, and as of this writing, he is two in: Trillium R: Shala Fears for the Poor and Trillium E. Both of these works come packaged in four-CD box sets. If this trend continues, just how much does Braxton have to say about his thoughts? He’s already made many of them clear in his Tri-Axium writings (check out what he has to say about western critics), but Braxton must feel that there is a missing link between his unmusical ideas and his readers. The Trillium series uses opera to enact various skits, seemingly unrelated on the surface, to drive home some very subtle points that the liner notes just barely skim over with many sweeping philosophical terms. Figuring out what Trillium E is trying to tell us is tricky to say the least. It’s even more difficult to imagine where the whole thing will go from here. But Braxton has had a musical career stretching back more than 40 years and has hundreds of large-scale compositions to his name, so we’re just going to have to trust him on this one.
Trillium E‘s four acts are divided into four CDs, each lasting roughly 40 to 49 minutes with each act divided into two tracks purely for listening convenience. Braxton’s Tri-Centric Orchestra, boasting more than 40 members, is tasked with stirring up an eerie, modernist sky of sound in which the 12 vocalists can rubato through their lines. These vocal lines are deliberately erratic, probably designed to give the performer some freedom for them to cram in text like “the reality of principle information” and “the concept of primary information.” The first page of the liner notes state that this particular Trillium installment is dedicated to composer of ancient chants Hildegard Von Bingen, though it sounds a lot more like Shoenburg.
Act I finds a family going for a stroll on the beach when they happen upon a magic lamp…and they accidentally rub it. Though the genie that appears comes across as a gracious and conscientious fellow, the family can’t stop asking for the stupidest things when given the three-wish opportunity. Even when a magical being appears to give them whatever their hearts desire, they can’t help but run to the catalogs to find the best deals on boats. I believe the last thing they ask for are baseball cards. More than once the genie verbally spars with the family, asking them to take full advantage of his powers, but they can’t. The underlying lesson is one of the more obvious ones, the shame of human underachieving. When the sky’s the limit, we just take a swipe through the air with our hands and call it a day.
Things start to get fuzzy in the second act. A scientist has figured out a way to rapidly clone things. She and her team are ecstatic about their ability to replicate inanimate objects, but everyone balks at the head scientist’s idea to clone a human. She eventually talks her team into cloning her with successful results. After this, Braxton twists his own little space/time continuum, as he does throughout the opera, to zero in on various scenes. They are all romantically hapless, a number of suitors talking about hats, vague accusations at the fairgrounds and a polygamist talking about his day at work upon his home arrival. The head scientist floats in and out of these scenes, and they don’t seem to make any linear sense. But it could be that the cloning of human life can only lead to a confusion of our romantic lives.
Act III is a Star Trek-type setting, complete with a Starfleet ship captain beaming down to a planet with his landing party only to find a strangely hostile form of life waiting for them. The ship’s captain rattles out a prime directive of sorts, sees that it does not register with the planet’s inhabitants, and jumps to conclusions. His landing party unilaterally falls in line, taunting the alien race for thinking they are the superior ones. Without giving anyone there a benefit of the doubt, the captain turns his diplomatic missions into a demolition by ordering the planet to be destroyed. I’m wondering if the simplest explanation is the correct one here, but open-and-shut xenophobia feels too rudimentary to be a message in this opera.
The final act is, by this point, characteristically unclear (Braxton admits in the introductory liner notes that the listening audience does not need to glean all of the subtext). A group of early 20th century explorers are on their way to rob the burial chambers of an ancient king with the most philanthropic intentions in mind. In addition to the comfort that wealth brings, the people on the expedition reassure themselves that they are enriching the knowledge of the world by generating future cash flow and giving their forthcoming children many valuable history lessons. Before the explorers/robbers attempt their break-in, a guardian giant fatally wounds the expedition’s leader. As he draws his last breath, he gives the team a pep talk in why what they are about to do is so important and to go on without him – as if they needed more encouragement. However, once inside the burial chambers, the ghost of the team’s leader appears before them and gives many cryptic and discouraging remarks about…well, everything. Every motivation the other people can name for their treasure plundering, be it something socially responsible or frivolously vain, he shoots it down with a “no way!” or “give me a break!” Does this burst their bubble? Nope, they go about their grand plan of taking the historical valuables, put them on display for the public, use their money to open a blossoming chain of libraries and all those good things. Suddenly, centurions usher the crowds around. The prophecy of bad luck associated with plundering the tomb doesn’t seem to come to fruition, but a totalitarian law pushes its way into the picture. It’s difficult to tell if these are related, since the thieves were the ones warned about the curse of bad luck yet they’re living the high life by this point.
Anthony Braxton’s breakdown of the Trillium approach involves a degree of spiritual examination. Anyone who has tried to read Aquinas before knows that getting a feel for someone else’s religious beliefs through conventional means of communication can be stifling. Four CDs and a thick booklet for Trillium E only takes you part of the way. There are many performance aspects that understandably don’t come across in this package, though Braxton goes through a lot of trouble in writing out what he has in mind for stage choreography and the shape shifting images on a projection screen used to alter the space/time continuum. Some of these are explicit instructions and some of them are just suggestions. But no matter how many details are packed into the box, Trillium E probably has more impact in person than on your mp3 player. Scratch that – it has to have more impact in a performance setting. This is an opera, involving many characters, disparate storylines and heavy philosophical messages all supported by a brooding classical cacophony. Call it high art or rough sledding, this is for people who are deathly serious about their Anthony Braxton. For anyone else – perhaps coming to a theater space near you?