The Sounds of Now, Part Three: Anthony Braxton and the Ethics of Improvisation

Born in 1945 in the Chicago neighborhood Bronzeville (now known as the South Side), Anthony Braxton remembers being struck at an early age by the disparity between the American life he saw projected on the television screen and the life he experienced on a daily basis: “As a child I’d turn on the television and see one reality, but then I’d go outside and I’d see another.”

In coming to terms with Braxton’s views on and performances of his music, it is of the utmost importance that one understands the world in which he developed, the world against which he tested his musical approach as a means of existence, a means of coming into being. Or, to borrow the rather rarefied language that Braxton employs in his writings, one must come to recognize the “reality implications” against and within which Braxton forged his “vibrational science” that allowed him to experience and propagate his particular “affinity convergence”. (I will attempt to explicate these terms below.)

Do not mistake my intention here. I am not promoting the truism that an artist’s environment dictates (in part or totally) the output and outlook of that artist. Rather, I am insisting that Braxton’s “world” is integral to his musical expression (both as revealed in his performances and in his writings, which are themselves a type of musical performance) insofar as his very understanding of music involves an ongoing series of responses to the world.

Braxton grew up in a world suffused with technology, technology that (more than ever before) had been injected into daily life and the home. He grew up in the era following the atomic bomb, an era of space exploration, an era in which the news of global events was broadcast as it unfolded. Technology became a means of seeing ourselves in the world (both in the sense of locating our position within the world and in the sense of seeing ourselves “mirrored” by the world around us) and of manipulating that world — either to promote real change or to anesthetize ourselves by manipulating our self-representations until they resembled what we wished to see. Following the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, this was a world in which technology extended our nervous systems, allowing us to “feel” over greater distances and with greater palpability than ever before possible.

Technology etymologically derives from the Greek words techne (τέχνη, meaning “craft” or “craftsmanship”) and logos (λόγος, a recondite word to translate that ranges in meaning and includes such notions as “reason” or “logic”); technology is the systematic treatment of a craft. Techne finds its counterpart in Greek thought in the term episteme (επιστημη, meaning “knowledge” or “science” of a speculative nature). But whereas episteme concerns knowledge for the sake of knowing, techne involves knowledge for the sake of doing. As such, technology involves a set of rules that serve as the condition of possibility for instituting change. These rules are not monolithic nor all-pervasive; rather they constitute the “rules of the game” in response to which individual agents attempt to carve out a path of their choosing. Technology is the knowledge that allows us to grasp the world in a more than metaphorical sense; in this manner, technology becomes the science of possibility.

Braxton has always been fascinated by technology. In 1959 he enrolled in the Chicago Vocational High School where he studied subjects such as electrical systems and television repair and his interest in the schematics involved in creating mechanical devices would eventuate in the diagrammatic scores that serve less as a set of prescriptions for note-to-note performance and more as a set of guidelines for improvisation.

With his introduction to the school, Braxton also discovered another lifelong interest: chess (at times, Braxton earned his living as an adult by hustling chess games). Chess shares certain affinities with the notion of technology I am promoting here. It, too, begins with a set of rules that serve as the condition of possibility for the movements of individual players but these rules in no way predetermine the actual strategies employed by the players. Rather the player must respond to his opponent within the very matrix of the rules of the game. Hence, creativity as a chess player consists in submitting to the rules as persistent laws but pursuing one’s own course in response to another, within but not determined by the laws. There is a structure but there is also movement within the structure; there is freedom within law.

Simultaneously, of course, Braxton grew up in an environment polarized over the issue of racial integration versus militant separatism. Indeed, this tension between the possibilities inherent in cultural exchange and the desire to forestall the loss of personal identity forms the crux of Braxton’s musical endeavors. Moreover, the simultaneous interest in the black and white musical worlds informed Braxton’s earliest forays into music; he insists that his two foremost influences are Paul Desmond and John Coltrane.

Desmond (the saxophonist for the Dave Brubeck Quartet) seems to have been the impetus behind Braxton’s choice of the alto saxophone. Although he had heard Charlie Parker and Coltrane prior to Desmond, they didn’t, at first, appeal to him: “I thought they were interesting but they frightened me a bit. Then I heard Paul Desmond. It clicked.” Through his teacher Jack Gell, Braxton was introduced to the music of other white musicians including Stan Kenton (Braxton particularly admired the strangely beautiful Kenton performance of City of Glass, written by Robert Graettinger), Stan Getz, and Lennie Tristano. These performers, along with Brubeck and Desmond, evinced an intellectuality that promoted jazz as a vital creative art on par with (and perhaps even the successor to) European concert music. Furthermore, Braxton eventually found himself enamored of the avant-garde modernist concert music of composers ranging from Arnold Schoenberg to Karlheinz Stockhausen to John Cage.

However, the centrality of the black aesthetic to jazz expression did not dissipate. Black performers such as Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis were also hailed as jazz intellectuals while Ornette Coleman, beginning with his aptly titled The Shape of Things to Come, emerged as perhaps the most eloquent visionary of a new way of thinking about and within improvisatory music. And yet the racial tension surrounding this music (and indeed perpetuated throughout the social order of the United States) threatened to collapse any hope for substantial progress. The Watts riots, the murder of Medgar Evers — such events were the tumultuous irruptions of violence and disorder owing to the structural contradiction on which the United States was founded that allowed a country to promote the notion that “all men are created equal” while enslaving a large portion of its population.

Braxton seems to have looked to music as a means not to erase or ignore cultural dissonance but rather to confront it directly, thereby developing a form of critical engagement that refuses to disavow openness to difference while simultaneously resisting the seduction to treat all forms of expression as surface variations on an underlying homogeneity. In an interview, Braxton discussed his eclecticism and its bearing on the racial divide: “I was surprised by the racial feelings throughout the culture: whites didn’t listen to black musicians, and most black musicians didn’t listen to white musicians. I thought this was really far out. People were missing a lot of music…[I tried] to be open and learn.” But what was it that he was learning? What about this world (sketched in a necessarily brief manner here) impacted his musical understanding? Or better, what musical response did Braxton develop in order to navigate the structures he found embedded in the world surrounding him?

Aside from the music itself, Braxton’s most considered discussion of his musical philosophy (or what many commentators refer to as his “theosophy”) can be found in his three-volume work, Tri-Axium Writings (begun in the mid-’70s but published privately in 1985). Initiated as a corrective to what Braxton saw as the misrepresentation of the music promulgated by jazz journalism, Tri-Axium Writings became the most refined expression of Braxton’s vision of the structuring nature of the world and human history as well as music’s role as a vehicle for interpersonal understanding, ethical action, and social progress. These writings have been woefully neglected in the already scant literature on Braxton (the best book on Braxton, Ronald M. Radano’s New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton’s Cultural Critique devotes a mere eight pages to them — surprising in a monograph that seeks to elucidate Braxton’s “cultural critique”). On first reading, they are cryptic and repetitious, full of mystifying neologisms (some of which are pure redundancies), indulge in a few seeming malapropisms, and occasionally succumb to rather circular logic. Braxton himself claims that a reader cannot say he has understood the work until he has read it in six different ways: “Only after all of the approaches have been tried can the reader have some idea as to what I am trying to communicate.”

What follows is necessarily a partial, selective, and limited reading of primarily one section of the second volume of Tri-Axium Writings. I make no claim to exegetical accuracy; I shall take no umbrage should those who know these writings better than I tell me that I am mistaken. Braxton’s sixth manner of reading asks the reader to translate Braxton’s terminology with respect to one’s “own personal viewpoint”. This is perhaps the best way to view my endeavor here.

Braxton seeks to defend and justify what he terms “creative music” (by which I understand music that largely involves the simultaneous negotiation of structure and improvisation) insofar as “creativity, in its most real context, moves to give insight as to the ‘state of things’ (and in functional terms moves to give insight into ‘how to approach living’).” Notice that Braxton thus posits creativity (and its closely linked concomitant term, improvisation) as a type of techne — it is a form of knowledge that allows for purposeful action.

Creativity, on the one hand, gives us insight into the “state of things” — that is to say, the “axioms” or underlying rules of the social and historical structure that serve as the condition of possibility for all ethical action. For Braxton, one must respond to what he terms the “reality implications” of a given cultural moment in order to act efficiently. These “reality implications” involve the possibilities that are available in relation to the underlying conditions of a social structure. While these underlying structures are not immutable, they have a certain stability (arising from the slow but nearly inexorable development of the foundational conditions of a given society) that allows one to posit them as a system of axioms, or rules of the game (remember Braxton’s interest in chess) that must be taken into account in each individual action. In this sense, creativity seems to be a quasi-intuitive understanding of the limits arising from specific social forces that, despite the fact that they are themselves inherently contingent, exert a determining force on the parameters within which social agents are able to navigate.

On the other hand, creativity also gives us an insight into “how to approach living”. It provides us with the ability to negotiate possibilities and to discern opportunities — to read the specific quality of the present based upon the motive force of past contingencies and with an eye toward the variegated possibilities of the future so that we can respond to the present in a manner that allows us to shape its direction. Creativity is ultimately responsorial. At any given moment the game is already in play, so to speak. Our responsibility lies in our response to it — a response that we craft within the parameters (the rules, laws, or structure) of the game without capitulating to those parameters; that is, without ceding our own autonomy as creative agents. This is what Braxton seems to understand by “tri-axium”; the rules that structure the past, present, and future combined with our willingness to respond within those structures in such a manner that allows our responses to contribute to the shaping of those structures.

This is why improvisation is of integral importance to Braxton’s project. Braxton defines improvisation as “a discipline that involves the science of creative postulation as it unfolds in ‘actual’ time” or, more elaborately, as “the science and multi-discipline of existing — having to do with the appearance of ‘moments’ and making life choices (either with respect to ‘particulars’ or spiritual growth) and the gradual awareness of how best to proceed with that information in ‘rapid-moment-decision contexts’.”

Improvisation is itself a highly complex form of action. Despite popular romanticized misconceptions of extemporaneous creativity, when a performer improvises, he does not simply play “anything” or create anew out of whole cloth. A musician improvises based on patterns that were learned previous to the moment of improvisation, patterns that are inscribed in the very discourse of the musical language in which the musician is operating. Such patterns are not immutable; indeed it is their very mutability that makes them so effective as the material for improvisation. This observation does nothing to mitigate the creativity of the performer; it is only to say that in order to constitute music, such patterns necessarily emerge as “meaning units” within improvisational discourse. The patterns are altered, twisted, shifted into new contexts, truncated, expanded — to the point that the links in the chain recede from view and the variation takes on the character of having been created ex nihilo. In this manner, the improvisational musical language (whether it be Indian Classical music or jazz) is constantly renewed and perpetuated. The notion of improvisation thus involves a present response to “meaning units” (musical patterns) established in the past; the past is embedded in present action and the performer’s decisions in the present inflect the set of possibilities that emerge as a future.

Furthermore, improvisation is not only a response to a specific moment; it is also a response to other individuals. This is what Braxton seems to mean when he terms music a “vibrational science”. Performers (and in the larger ethical sense with which Braxton imbues improvisation, all people are potential performers) embody “individual vibrational tendencies”; Braxton defines this as “a concept which observes that given individuals vibrate to different areas of the same information.” “Vibrational tendencies” is a somewhat amorphous concept in these writings but it seems to signify an affective nexus within an individual’s propensity to act in relation to a given set of “reality implications”. In other words, the vibrational tendencies of an individual include their emotional and intuitive connection to the world. Each individual, of course, reacts to the world in a different way but it is through improvisation — relating on a moment-by-moment basis to the world and to others — that one can sympathetically harmonize one’s vibrational tendencies with those of another.

The point here is not the development of a sort of formal empathy in which one attempts to “understand” the point of view (or in Braxton’s terms, the “vibrational tendencies”) of another — this non-committal form of understanding relies upon distance and objectivity more associated with episteme. Rather the point is to exert effort, to work in conjunction with another to achieve a mutual sympathy that is the product of active creation. In Braxton’s terms, the effort must be made by working in tandem within the structure of the game to forge a confluence of “vibrational sensibilities” that would give rise to what he calls an “affinity convergence”. Improvisation is, in the end, the most prominent form of techne. It does not overcome (racial, generational, cultural) differences but rather it recognizes that at every moment one is situated within a certain perspective; this perspective can be as liberating as it is limiting.

Utopic visions of global harmony installed through the blandishments of a perfectly harmonious form of music run amok throughout the history of human beings. It was said that Pythagoras could heal the sick through music and dispel the senseless anger of a drunken youth. Plato articulated the proportions of the World Soul through recourse to those proportions found in the musical scale in his Timaeus; the proper worldly music would follow from similarly strict and established musical laws. Music theorists at the end of the Renaissance envisioned the coming of the perfection of musical science and Richard Wagner sought to instantiate the “Music of the Future” that would inaugurate a new manner of living, a new social order.

Braxton, it seems to me, stands somewhat to the side of this tendency insofar as he does not promote the notion of an endpoint for musical development. Rather Braxton proposes a mode of being (improvisation and creativity as a way to “approach living”) that allows for openness to change and an acknowledgment of the need for conflict even as one works to move beyond that conflict. Improvisation then means being alive to the possibilities of the moment, recognizing the vestiges of the past as well as the trajectory of social change, and preparing the way for a future not determined by our collective decisions but in which those decisions will serve as the conditions of possibility for continual development and cultural renewal. In the end, it is not such a bad vision of Utopia.

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The Sounds of Now, Part One: Brian Ferneyhough

The Sounds of Now, Part Two: Meredith Monk