Braxton, Anthony

Braxton, Anthony
▪ 1995

      The two-hour, three-LP piece For Four Orchestras, composed by Anthony Braxton and recorded in 1978 by 160 musicians and 4 conductors, was to have been the first composition in a series. A subsequent work, Braxton anticipated, would involve simultaneous orchestras in separate cities linked by television; after that, he would compose a work for linked orchestras on several planets and, by 1995, a work for linked orchestras in several galaxies, assuming that humankind's progress in space travel could keep up with him. Instead, reality caught up with Braxton. He had to finance the four-orchestra recording himself, and though he was among the leading free-jazz improvisers on saxophones, clarinets, and flutes and leader of a topflight quartet, raising money through concert fees was a losing battle. By the early 1980s the Braxton family was living in poverty in upstate New York, in a telephoneless house heated by burning logs in a fireplace.

      If that was a low point of Braxton's career, a high point came in 1994 with the release of one of his finest recordings, Duo (London) 1993, with fellow saxophone virtuoso Evan Parker, and with a five-year MacArthur Foundation fellowship. The prize came shortly after the second book about him, New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton's Cultural Critique by Ronald M. Radano, was published and in the midst of his term as chairman of the music department at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn. What brought about this upswing in Braxton's life was dedication.

      Braxton was born on June 4, 1945, in Chicago, where he began playing alto saxophone in his teens, and in 1966 he joined the groundbreaking free-jazz cooperative Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. He quickly grew into an original player and was the first to record an entire album of unaccompanied saxophone solos. After 1969, when he went to Paris, he became an avant-garde hero while recording with the likes of free improvisers, pianists Muhal Richard Abrams and Dave Brubeck, the Globe Unity Orchestra, and bop musicians.

      Meanwhile, inspired by John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, among others, Braxton also composed prolifically for chamber settings, for orchestras, for 100 tubas, and for 4 amplified shovels and a coal pile. His compositions were titled with abstract diagrams and written in coloured graphs; they were also almost never played. That situation would change in 1995, however, when CDs were to be released of his Composition 174 for 10 percussionists and tape; Composition 175, "storytelling music"; and Trilium M, the first of his operas to be documented. "I feel the millennium that's coming will reflect on the beautiful universal 'balances' that will make up new evolutionary processes," he said. "My hope is to be part of these dynamic universal processes." (JOHN LITWEILER)

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▪ American musician and composer
born June 4, 1945, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.

      American composer and woodwind improviser, one of the most prolific artists in free jazz.

      Braxton, who named John Coltrane (Coltrane, John), Warne Marsh (Marsh, Warne), and Paul Desmond among his inspirations, began playing alto saxophone in his teens and continued to play in a U.S. Army band. In 1966 he joined the groundbreaking free-jazz cooperative Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and quickly became an original player. A tireless experimenter, he was the first to record an entire album of unaccompanied saxophone solos (For Alto, 1968).

      He spent 1969 in France and soon gained an international reputation. He toured and recorded as a soloist on flute, saxophones, and clarinets, as well as with his quartets, which included (in the 1970s) bassist David Holland and trombonist George Lewis, and (in the 1980s) pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Gerry Hemingway. He also worked with pianists Dave Brubeck (Brubeck, Dave), Muhal Richard Abrams, and Chick Corea (Corea, Chick); the Globe Unity Orchestra; bop (bebop) musicians; and Europe-based free jazz improvisers.

      Braxton also composed, inspired by John Cage (Cage, John), Karlheinz Stockhausen (Stockhausen, Karlheinz), and others; his pieces were written in coloured graphs and usually titled with diagrams. His works included For Two Pianos (1982); Creative Orchestra Music 1976, a major album of big jazz band scores; For Four Orchestras (1978), involving 160 musicians and four conductors; a series of operas titled Trilium; and works for chamber settings, for 100 tubas, and for four amplified shovels and a coal pile. He taught at Mills College in Oakland, California (1985–88), and at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut. In the 1990s Braxton also performed as a pianist. He was awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 1994.

Additional Reading
Graham Lock, Forces in Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-Reality of Creative Music (1988); Ronald M. Radano, New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton's Cultural Critique (1993); Mike Heffley, The Music of Anthony Braxton (1996).

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Universalium. 2010.

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