DUO PALINDROM 2002. INTAKT CD 089 / 2004



Interview with Anthony Braxton by Ted Panken

Anthony Braxton. Photo by Francesca Pfeffer

Anthony Braxton: I first met Andrew Cyrille in 1969, when the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins and I were in Paris, getting a chance to meet some of the musicians from New York. Of course, I heard him play with Cecil Taylor, and at the time Andrew did a solo recording for BYG that I recall thinking was exceptional, and I was surprised that it generated so little feedback. Later on, I experienced Andrew's percussion ensemble music at a festival in Harlem in 1972-73. He played drums on my Lennie Tristano project for Hat Art in 1988, and at that time we talked about a duo project, but it didn't work out. We had to back away from the idea and wait for a time space when it was possible.

I think of Andrew's work as consistent with the summation rhythmic logics that the great master Roy Haynes is a point of definition for. Summation in the sense that, for instance, if the subject is time, he doesn't play BAHT, BAH-BUHP-BAH-BUHP-BAH, but works with devices that give the illusion of strict time. But the way he arrives at the components or syntax to establish that summation involves independent processes that he has evolved to suit his own needs. He is a conceptualist who is able to respond to the moment in a dynamic array of syntaxes and propositions, while at the same time, his work is very mature and he goes to the HEART of the problem. He is a creative and serious musician who has practiced his work for forty or fifty years with total integrity, never selling out his music, always involved in research and development.

Ted Panken: The qualities you describe denote Andrew's affinity with the ideas the people in the AACM were working with in the '60s – the expansiveness and willingness to work within a wide array of musical logic structures.

Anthony Braxton: Yes. And the embrace of transidiomatic conceptual states, as opposed to working just in a post-Coleman state, or thinking of oneself only as an energy player or bebop player. Andrew Cyrille has demonstrated a dynamic creative music that sheds insight into transidiomatic proclivities. Andrew was – and is – of the vibrational persuasion where he was working along the same lines as we were in the AACM, but in a different environment. After all, the AACM had the opportunity to see what gains came through the first wave of restructuralists, like Ornette Coleman or Sun Ra or Cecil Taylor. Of course, Andrew worked with Cecil Taylor during that important time space of Cecil's music, and it's hard to imagine how much he got from working with the great man. He's a restructural-minded player, able to function in the totally open space. He's a professional researcher of music, a musician who respects music's scholastic and scientific components. He's positive, high-spiritual and ethical, and his music is like the person.

Ted Panken: At the time, his open attitude towards what the Midwestern musicians were doing was maybe somewhat less common among the New York musicians.

Anthony Braxton: I agree that this openness put him in a very different psychological and vibrational space from many New York musicians, who had set their agendas based on Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor or John Coltrane, and would spend their lifetime working through those possibilities, in the same way that so many musicians in the '50s, because of their fascination for the great work of Charlie Parker, spent their careers working through that information. That's beautiful, too. I respect stylistic evolution and I respect those musicians who, for instance, talk of their work as jazz, and I understand their insistence upon defining jazz in a way that respects the work that they've done. At the same time, I think we're really talking about something that's more than jazz. We're talking about an awareness of changing vibrational synergies, an awareness of a change from an ethnic-centric psychology to a composite universal psychology. More and more, it was not about jazz or African-Americans, but rather about being in the world, learning from the different things taking place in the world, and including that information in one's formulation of creativity or information dynamics in general.

Ted Panken: When I asked Andrew Cyrille (Andrew Cyrille-Anthony Braxton. Vol. 1) what he found distinctive about your tonal personality, he spoke of your phrasing, particularly in the quartet musics, as pointillistic. He said, however, that your recording with Max Roach, which he paid attention to, had a more legato feel, and he thought the flexibility you displayed was a mark of musical mastery. Where I'm leading is: How do drummers affect your improvisation?

Anthony Braxton: The most fundamental axiom that I grew up with was the importance of finding something of your own, and when that happens, either everyone can hear it or they can't. Fortunately for me, many of the musicians and percussionists I hoped would be open to my music were, in fact, open to it. In this time period the business complex puts forth a notion of idiomatic certainty, where everyone uses the syntax from a generic perspective, and this is called jazz. But when I was coming up, it was the opposite. Generic was not seen as a point of mastery. Generic was part of the learning process. We start from imitating our heroes, and from that point evolve a position.

My experience has been that the percussionists are like me. They are interested in working with people who are playing something that isn't generic, and kicking it about based on possessing a vocabulary that respects the experiences I've had and the aesthetics and conceptual and vibrational parameters and/or proclivities that attracted me into music as a life's work and music as a spiritual decision.

I've always been deeply interested in the great rhythmic logic tradition of the music, and I have tried, when possible, to study and learn from and play the great master percussionists. I hope to have more experiences, say, with Roy Haynes, whom I've played with only a little. He was always a hero. I've never played with Elvin Jones. I used to hang with Philly Joe Jones in Paris! I've been isolated and kicked out of jazz as a black man who is not "black" enough, a jazz guy who is not “jazz” enough. But when the mature histories are written, I will be seen as a guy who had extensive experiences with Wilbur Ware, and whose work, in fact, came up right through the tradition. But not just the idiomatic tradition. I was as interested in Schönberg and Stockhausen and John Philip Sousa as the post-Parker continuum.

Ted Panken: I'm not interested in regurgitating the "Does Braxton swing/Does Braxton not swing?" question, which is a tired old thing. My interest is in the dynamics by which you respond to rhythms in real time in an improvised situation. You very deftly play off of Andrew's rhythms, as you did on those duo projects with Max Roach.

Anthony Braxton: We never talked about anything, Andrew and I – or Max and I. We wanted the experience of improvising and challenging one another. Playing with Andrew, I am free to try to do my best. I don't have to worry about anything. At the same time, he will present me with very mature ideas and propositions either to accept or transform.

It was axiomatic during the whole post-Jelly Roll Morton continuum that the individual brings his or her language to the circle, and from that point you interact with another person, with the hope that when the real "Is" moment comes, where the action space is happening and you have to respond, your ideas and devices will be correct. Andrew Cyrille has experienced and learned and gone through 4 billion devices. When you play with him, you're not so much matching experiences as finding those components of your experience that best fit where the It of the music is going.

The musics that push my buttons, whether improvised or notated, have a transparency and give-and-take. How that give-and-take is arrived at and what transparency means arises in what I call the "magic space" of the actual It moment, where there's no time to do anything outside what you've learned about yourself, because you're responding to a moment that itself is constantly changing, to an input from your duo partner that has its own personality and vibrational spectra. All these things are happening all at once in x time instant. It's not about Braxton's theories or Andrew's theories, and it transcends any one relationship to technique. It's about two musicians responding to each other, hopefully on the highest possible level. That includes learning what NOT to respond to and how not to over-respond, finding a way to work with the space, looking for vibrational points of change, knowing when to change, working together within a conceptual parameter.

The House of the Circle, which is the domain of open collective improvisation, is beautiful, because it's always changing and being reshaped. But the sub-logics of reshaping, in my opinion, become the difference between a mature improviser and a not-mature improviser. Part of the beauty of this duo with Andrew is that he throws out a broad spectrum of conceptual propositions and gambits, with rhythmic and arrhythmic logic time spaces. Andrew Cyrille is able to define components of the set to work with. It's not like we do everything we can come up with. We're musicians who define parameters and work inside those parameters.

So yes, playing off of rhythm – within a rhythmic time space, within a rhythmic logic target point – is one of the experiences that we have. But there are also sections that demonstrate extreme timbre states, where the saxophone is very high and the percussion is very low. There are sections which take silence into account. This is what I like about musicians who have developed a really broad vocabulary. It's the same with Max Roach. He has enough ideas and experience to make a whole concert on the hi-hat and not bore you, because he has learned how to divide in a way where he could help the friendly experiencer through all the various shades of expression and exploratory concepts that exist within what I'll call the principal concept spaces. Andrew Cyrille has that kind of understanding.

Ted Panken: Andrew Cyrille speaks of the duo as a musical conversation. Conversation can contain an encoded narrative, or even one that's not so encoded. In transafrican music, rhythms are encoded narratives, because of the role rhythm played in the African cultural matrix and the survival of those rhythms during the diaspora. Now, you've devoted a lot of effort in the last 15 or so years toward bringing narratives more explicitly into your expression. Where does rhythm fit in with your views on narrative in music?

Anthony Braxton: Narrative form spreads have always permeated the creative music tradition. For instance, narrative is one thing that distinguishes the music of the great improvisers, whether it's Charlie Parker or Paul Desmond or Miles Davis, is their ability to understand how to go from A to B in a way keeps the friendly experiencer's interest from beginning to end. Now, there are many ways to go from A to B with radiance. But certainly, the phenomenon of narrative linear radiance is a component that could be talked of as a way of looking at a solo by Max Roach playing on a Charlie Parker album – the way he puts a solo together, the logic of decision-making. A good story, like a good form, celebrates the ongoing moment in a way that is magnetic. For instance, in my duo with Andrew, there's an improvisation where Andrew is playing his body, doing hambone and making vocal sounds, and using click sounds on the drumset. He's demonstrating that as a percussionist he's not confined to the drumset, that in fact, percussion and percussion logics transcend the drumset or any other set, and can be applied to anything. Whatever Andrew starts working with at some point becomes very clear, because it will be expanded or contracted. It's not about just anything can happen in the space.

What we're really talking about is how something unfolds and moves into the forward space in a way that holds your interest because of how the musician is setting the propositions up. It's narrative in the sense that, when it's all over, someone can say, "Oh, that made perfect sense," someone else might say, "Oh, that was a great story, it was complete, it was a multi-veer, and he expanded it in this way and ended it in this way – and it kept my interest." What for me is most important is that it keeps my interest and demonstrates what I'll call fundamental music proclivities. We tend not to want to look at our music in terms of fundamental proclivities, but even so, it still can be factored. Everything that happens can be factored in some way, and used or duplicated or transformed.

Ted Panken: In referring to narrative, particularly in improvised music, we recognize a cultural signification as well, just in terms of the choice to play a particular idea in response to a postulation. It takes on a quality that transcends the actual information that's being laid down. So for people like you and Cecil Taylor and Andrew Cyrille, who came up when the idiomatic tradition was more or less in the air around you, there was a psychological imperative to leap away from it.

Anthony Braxton: I think that what you just stated is fundamental. I've spent real time going through the early musics, and I'm still a professional student of music. But we are not talking about a decision to not learn some aspect of the tradition because we just wanted to be free. Rather, we're talking of a concept that said the challenge of the post-Ayler-Taylor musics and the challenge of the post-AACM musics would require reexamining syntax to adjust to the fact that we're now in a time space that says composite reality assumptions are the norm, where you can walk down the street with your boombox listening to "Parsifal," while a car passes you playing Gagaku, and in someone's window we'll hear Hip-Hop, while someone else is playing opera – that this is the normal state, not the idea of jazz in a little box and you can only do what Charlie Parker did or what John Coltrane played. So we're not talking about a negation of fundamentals, nor are we talking about no interest in the tradition. Rather, because of the tradition and the fundamentals and our experiences coming through and still going through those parameters, we're able to look at the forward space and have a better basis to take a snapshot from not having kicked out everything or limited what a concept is.

Ted Panken: In noting the profusion of musical information available on just a walk down the block, you're also saying that the world is smaller. But not just in a virtual sense. It's that way in real time. The world of improvisation now comprises a constant series of feedback loops from numerous sources, intersecting at all sorts of odd points, and the dialectic has taken us in many unexpected directions. How has this process affected you in recent years?

Anthony Braxton: When I made the decision to embrace music as a life's work, I understood, first of all, that I was very lucky to be able to make that decision, and that there's always something new to learn. Forty years later, I don't know where I'm at, but I have had many more experiences, and I still find myself thinking there's everything to do. The work of the last forty years has parlayed into a new set of propositions that should be able to go for another century. A new generation of young people have come up, and they're pushing things forward.

Your question is hard to respond to because it contains so many different aspects. For instance, I feel that the African-American community and the African-American leadership are going through complexities that mirror what happened when trans-ethnic psychologies were used to partition off the music – in a way, to block this ongoing flow of world culture in the third millennium, and to reclassify the generic experiences and make them the It. I think that has been the defining gambit of the last 20 or 30 years, and from my perspective, that has been the profound mistake of the African-American nationalists and the post-Abernathy Antebellumists.

Ted Panken: I assume by "post-Abernathy" you're referring to the civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy, but how do you mean "Antebellumist"?

Anthony Braxton: "Antebellumist" in the sense that the Antebellum psychology says that you had better stay in your place. By staying in your place, with respect to our conversation, it's blues and swing.

Ted Panken: You've also referred to this as the "Southern Strategy," I believe.

Anthony Braxton: Yes. Southern Strategy in the sense that that's why Wynton Marsalis and the Neoclassic continuum is in power. They were put in power. This is a political decision that came about in the 1980s, when Dr. George Butler brought Wynton to New York. When the mature histories of this music are written, I hope that there will be a section on what I'll call the Great Purges of the 1980s. It involved kicking out anybody who had any originality or was unwilling to have the marketplace define their music, and bringing in a philosophical backdrop from Albert Murray consistent with what I'll call the "Christian gambit." That gambit states that Black people have this special rhythm, that the evolution of what we now call Jazz is just an African-American thing, that the proclivity spectra of African-Americans goes from hip-hop and blues and whatever, but not to a guy like me. Only a certain spectrum of black or of African-Americans can be accepted in this reseeded idea of blackness.

Ted Panken: But Mr. Braxton, you're a trained dialectician. It can't be that what happened in the '80s is merely because of a singular corporate or political decision. There have to have been factors in the zeitgeist that made it make sense for that to happen.

Anthony Braxton: My viewpoint is this. If the Lincoln Center, post-Murray, Neoclassic continuum had defined their right to do what they wanted to do, I would say great. But they said, "Jazz starts at Louis Armstrong; it stops in the middle '60s." That is very different. Defining it in that way is reductionist. When Stanley Crouch talks about Negro rhythms and what are the correct psychological and vibrational components to keep this Negro affinity in the position he wants it, he's really talking about something else. He's not talking about the African-American community as a composite spectra. He's talking of the African-American community as perceived through a Christian framework, as perceived through the Southern experiences, and how those experiences were defined among the intellectuals in the South. I love New Orleans, but I'm not from New Orleans. I'm glad I'm not from New Orleans. As far as I'm concerned, when King Oliver and Louis Armstrong came north, that's when Louis Armstrong discovered extended improvisation.

This idea of entertainment as the optimum state is another antebellum idea. And also, the idea that these people have established a perspective on the Atlantic slave experience that says they're the only people who have suffered. In America, when the railroads started expanding West, they brought in the Asian-Americans! Nobody has a monopoly on being a victim.

In my opinion, the dynamic implications of the exclusionary reverse racism that comes from the African-American community will put it in a much worse position in the next 10-20-30-40 years. I feel very sad about that. I think among the factors that have contributed to this are: (1) the purges of the 1980s; (2) a reductionist viewpoint of the Negro that corresponds with antebellum sentiments and with the trans-activist Christian agenda; and (3) the inability of the African-American community to accept the idea of total equality with all of our people. This racist exclusionary psychology is only possible because certain people were put in positions of power because they would espouse these viewpoints.

Ted Panken: I think it was a less passive process. I think that they positioned themselves to seize the moment, looked for their spots, and created an ideological climate where they would then be inserted into those spots.

Anthony Braxton: I disagree. By 1974, it was clear that, for instance, there were many groups of young people – African-Americans, Asian-Americans, European-Americans, men and women – begging to come together to be involved in a new universal music to push things forward. This was not able to happen. Who do I blame? I don't blame the conservatives. I blame the liberals. I blame Black Power. I blame the feminist movement. I blame the Left. I'm talking about identity politics, and I'm also talking of politics as reflected through the decisions that would define the '70s and '80s, in terms of who would have support, who would be suppressed, "all the news that's fit to print." You buy the Sunday "New York Times," and wow, they have an article on some guy who just got out of prison who can say "motherfucker" in four different vibrations who is set to get millions of dollars, but there's not one serious article on Cecil Taylor or Bill Dixon! I came up in a generation of young men and women who wanted to change the world, who wanted to go out and fight and build up the world, to reconnect with composite humanity. We were all shot down, man! And we were shot down … well, one, by the liberals; two, by putting certain African-Americans … It's Booker T. Washington all over again.

I think we're at one of the most complex periods in our history. A lot of components are being realigned in this time period, and I don't mean simply to heap the problems of modernity on the Neoclassic explosion. But if the subject is percussion, I wonder how many young African-Americans know about the great work of Andrew Cyrille. I wonder if Andrew is still considered Black enough where his work would be respected and talked about. In many spaces, his work would no longer conform to what used to be called black music.

Ted Panken: Is there a palpable difference between playing with world master improvisers as opposed to the environment where your more quotidian activity occurs, or is it a more holistic continuity type of thing?

Anthony Braxton: I would say it's a palpable difference AND a holistic kind of thing. Andrew Cyrille is from my generation. We know what we have gone through, and this duo is a chance to celebrate that sonically. I approach collective open improvisation with young students from the perspective of "if I decide to play with you, then I am definitely going to respect you, listen to you and try to learn from you." At the same time, I have a chance to talk to students about the encoded components that have come out of the last forty years. Not everything about our experience is a mystery; there are things that can be talked about. Among those things are compositional and improvisational design and ways to approach those mediums, based on the fact that those of us who were open to think of the music in that way had forty years to think about it. Not everybody wanted to think of it that way. Of course, because I wanted to think of the music in that way, my work would immediately be called "anti-black." Why? Well, if you're an African-American, you're not supposed to think of the work in terms of the formal space or the scientific space. Part of my struggle has been against the idea that everything is intuition, that any attempt to model anything in some so-called "intellectual" way automatically means you're not Black. That viewpoint is a distortion of trans-Africa, of America, and of African-Americans.

I'd like to discuss your evolution as an instrumentalist, which isn't talked about that much. How many instruments are you working with functionally these days? Is intense practicing still part of your regimen?

Anthony Braxton: In this period, I'm emphasizing practice on the piano. I practice every day, because there's always something to work on. I embraced the challenge of multi-instrumentalism in the middle '60s in the AACM. I made that decision because in that time space we were starting to redefine what it meant to be an instrumentalist and multi-instrumentalist. I wanted to have an experience as an instrumentalist that would give me the possibility to be in the high register, the low register, and the middle register. Along with that, I wanted the possibility to write solo music, chamber music and orchestra musics. In that time space we really redefined the concept of multi-instrumentalism to bring in little instruments, or sound tools, or instrumental sounds. Speaking for myself, I was experiencing compositions like "Refrain" by Stockhausen or "Concepts for Piano and Orchestra" of Cage – all of these musics helping to open up my understanding of what would be possible.

Ted Panken: George Lewis mentioned that one of the fundamental principles of AACM music was to create a non-hierarchical environment, and that that principle is fundamental to the Voyager musical software that he created. Is that notion also pertinent to you? If so, what are some of the broader implications of non-hierarchicalism?

Anthony Braxton: I agree with George. In fact, I was the first person who remarked that the AACM was multiple-hierarchic. What has it meant to me? It's meant everything. When I talk of my work in this time period, I talk of a tricentric belt unit/offering that involves a multiple hierarchic array of components that is designed for 12 different friendly experiences. The model that I tried to construct demonstrates 12 different proclivities, 12 different identities, 12 different logics and navigations, and 12 different axiomatic principles for form-building.

How does that relate? In my opinion, it relates in this sense. I believe every community has something to add to the hope of the Third Millennia, and I'd like for my work as a multiple hierarchic unit to be among those bodies of information that is open towards a resolidification of a new spiritualism that celebrates God, Goddess and Mystery Children. The importance of multiple hierarchic is that this model is not Pythagorean. I think multiple hierarchic is going to be a key password in the next time cycle. There will be models that allow for many different ways to experience it, models that can be used to construct more than one target objective.

In my music system, every composition connects together. The first component would be "primary identity." That's the normal way we talk of composing a piece of music, the defining specifications for instrumentation, like the baroque masters. Two is secondary identity. Secondary identity says I can take the saxophone parts from one composition and have 400 tubas play it, or any other instrumentation. Three is genetic identity. Genetic identity is to take one measure out from Composition 4 and place it into Composition 24. So the system I am building is akin to an erector set that can be put together in any different order. By its nature, this system will allow for a fresh set of structural dynamics and a fresh platform of ongoing poetics. It will also take into account that people have different proclivities, but it's not about some proclivities being better than others as much as having methodologies that take into account the broader array of possibilities, as opposed to the reductionism of this time period. So multiple hierarchic might be the first axiomatic degree moving towards universality.

Ted Panken: In real time improvising, how much of the whole philosophical or aesthetic superstructure that you have conceptualized is in your mind?

Anthony Braxton: I agree with Paul Desmond, who said that the problem and challenge of emotion could be looked at many different ways, but the most important thing for him was to approach it honestly, and not have the emotion in front of the real intention. I would say that I am me all the time. I have tried to approach my music from having fun. I have tried to approach my music as a mystical discipline. I have tried to approach my music as a scientist, looking at structure and isolated components. I have tried to approach my music with respect to vibrational radiance and motivation. I have tried to approach my music with respect to the memories of an ongoing moment, and to build from that point based on the idea implications of it.

And so what does all that mean when the Real comes? Well, I've never tried consciously to approach my music as science or as feeling. All of that blanks out and not-blanks out. I'm not interested in denying any aspect of who I am unless it's a negative something. And I don't want to be negative; I want to try to be as positive as I can be. But I try to bring my life to the radiant circle when it's time to play. I try to remember the sense of awe that helped me decide to embrace music as a life's work. Part of that embrace is reflected in the model that I built. I wanted to build a model that demonstrates meditative inputs, rational inputs, instinctual inputs. I wanted a model that respected the known, the unknown and the intuited, all as one thought unit.

Ted Panken: Discuss the dynamics of Compositions 310 and 311.

Anthony Braxton: Yes. Compositions 310 and 311 are examples of extended compositional structures that make use of traditional notation, graphic notation, language, and visual notations. Compositions from this prototype class seek to create an extended structural platform for the musicians to go in and out of various types of improvisation, including target repetitive spaces, target spaces with defined pitches or rhythmic sets, and this kind of thing. I composed Composition 310 and 311 as a way for Andrew and I to have a color where the notated space changes the vibrational parameters. I attempted to create a thought plane internal structural component that would have maximum flexibility, with area spaces that are elastic and spaces which are very metric. It was an attempt to bring balance to the project. We have rhythmic compositions, timbral compositions and spatial compositions, and I wanted us to have two structural models as well.

Ted Panken: Can you talk about the dynamics of playing Andrew's compositions?

Anthony Braxton: Playing Andrew Cyrille's compositions is very hard. I find his work totally refreshing. It contrasts very much with my work, and at the same time we have a lot of similarity. I like the way he works with very complex rhythms. But what affected me the most is that he knew exactly what he wanted. He didn't just write something and then say "make something out of it." At the same time, his work has enough flexibility that I can apply myself to it and come out with fresh experiences as well. It sounds like you and Cyrille reached the radiant circle. When I met this guy in 1969, it was clear to me that he was the kind of gentleman and musician I've always admired. There was never any ego sickness. He's always been very clear and respectful. At the same time, one always had the sense that this guy had a deep sense of what he's about, and that what he was working on meant something to him. So even in 1969 or '70, meeting him was an opportunity to be in a radiant circle.

Conducted and edited by Ted Panken, New York, 2003. © Intakt Records