Monday, September 10, 2007

People Get Ready - Guelph Jazz Festival + Colloquium 2007: Anthony Braxton Keynote Address on Tri-Centric Modeling

Prof. Anthony Braxton @ Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada
Friday, September 7, 2007

Adding considerable substance to the "colloquium" side of the Guelph Jazz Festival and Colloquium (he would later add substantial music contributions as well), Anthony Braxton offered a one-hour overview of the Tri-Centric theory that forms the basis for understanding and generating his life's work. Having read his thick, three-volume Tri-Centric writings along with Graham Locke's Forces in Motion and generally being immersed in the sonic reality of Braxton's universe I found his elaborate syntax to be remarkably consistent. This was exactly the kind of polemic I've been starving for and I would have hungrily devoured more even as this single hour proved to be a dense, rich offering that will take some time to fully digest.

Underneath the opaque sheen of Braxton's language lies a profound body of ideas so ambitious that it takes an invented vocabulary just to express them. While the words may seem "made up," the ideas behind them are deeply rooted in a lifetime of application and constant striving toward creative growth as an improviser, composer and thinker.

Braxton represents his Tri-Centric methodology with three geometric shapes forming the house of the circle, the house of the rectangle and the house of the triangle. This visual metaphor provides a valuable conceptual hook for peering into a broad reaching sonic framework built upon a synthesis of the theories, practices and ideas of Arnold Schoenberg, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Karlheinz Stockhausen and many others. Much of this elaborate theoretical structure has its origins in Braxton's life-long development as a solo improviser as he aggressively searches for new territories to explore.

The house of the circle encompasses improvisational space. It contains all that is possible and presents to the creative practitioner the challenge of expansion toward adding yet more potential through seeking out and claiming what was once regarded as "impossible." As a metaphor, this ideal promotes an awareness of potential that invites creative people to develop a constantly expanding range of ideas.

The house of the rectangle represents the idiomatic and stylistic confines of a given musical practice or tradition. It resides within the house of the circle and represents the creative space within an established tradition or practice. This has a strong parallel to John Cage's recognition that so much music exists within "rooms" of tradition and conceptual baggage and how his own music and philosophy centered around "opening doors" to reveal other rooms or even the wide world outside of the house itself. In this manner, Cage's music represents a journey into the house of the circle that does not include the house of the rectangle. Braxton's musical thinking takes a slightly different direction by celebrating and strengthening the idiomatic reality (of jazz practice, classical practice, etc.) that is informed by an understanding of possibilities found within the house of the circle. Thus allowing for trans-idiomatic and "non-idiomatic" approaches toward established and evolving traditions.

The house of the triangle represents transposition or transitional logistics. This is an extremely powerful leg of the Tri-Centric theory that gives it such broad implications as an analytical and generative tool. The house of the triangle stipulates that any idea can be applied or carried over to any parameter. For example, harmonic functions have potential application to spatial organization, rhythmic organization or social function. In this manner, Braxton has expanded his theories to encompass a holistic understanding of every imagineable real-world (and other worldly) phenomenon. In this manner, Tri-Centrics becomes a theory for analyzing history or politics and a container for projecting the idealism of music composition onto socio-political realities. When Braxton speaks of "foreign policy blunders" and the distressing state of American policy he does so with the same creative impulse and artistic integrity that animates his life's work as a striving toward realizing high ideals in all endeavors.

Over the course of this keynote address Braxton also went into some detail on the sonic units that form his sonic vocabulary/thinking (including a handout identical to the one he provided for me 14 years ago when I interviewed him for a graduate project) with short examples excerpted from his recordings over the years. Watching him dissect his own music makes it abundantly clear just how much vigor he applies to his music.

In the question and answer session that followed the keynote address, someone in the audience seized upon Braxton's "friendly experiencer" terminology and offered him a chance to address the ramifications of the "unfriendly experiencer" that this implies. "Friendly experiencer" is a nice way to acknowledge the sympathetic (or enthusiastic, in my case) ear. Braxton discussed this simply as his effort to invite people to "be nice," and he left the "unfriendly" variety unaddressed. This impressed me. For someone who has borne a completely unfair brunt of negativity, racially motivated attack and disgusting vitriol from music critics and the jazz press over the course of his long career Braxton has deliberately chosen to frame his discussion in positive terms. And he comes across as an even larger luminary because of it.

Another moment that appealed to me was Braxton's admonition that "anyone seriously studying composition and making music in this current time-space needs to pay attention to what the video game people are doing. They're navigating a dynamic system that can go just about anywhere at any time and we can learn a lot from their solutions." I rarely speak about my professional existence in this space. It's my work on video games that pays for the HurdAudio internet connection and has been my livelihood for some time now. It was nice to hear some vindication from a major hero in the HurdAudio constellation.

1 comment:

jerrie said...

Some graduate student is going to lift large parts of this for a paper, you know. It's that well written.