Composition n. 247 is one of the few Ghost Trance Music works tailored for a
specific instrumentation: two saxophones and bagpipes (Anthony Braxton,
James Fei, and Matthew Welch). It's been recorded live, and the striking
quality of this recording will be evident immediately upon first hearing.
Detailed notes by the insider James Fei will guide you through the piece:
"The music on this disc is unlike anything I have participated in, in terms
of mental and physical endurance, mobility between different sets of
material, and sheer sonic intensity."
Total duration: 61'37.
The striking quality of the present recording will be evident immediately
upon first hearing, guaranteed by the instrumentation of two woodwinds and
bagpipes. Very little new music has been composed for the bagpipe, and its
abilities and constraints helped shape both the formal and performative
innovations in Composition No. 247, a striking work even in the context of
Anthony Braxton's already unique Ghost Trance Musics.
The Ghost Trance Music series (from hereon abbreviated GTM) have been
Braxton's sole compositional output since 1995 with very few exceptions,
most notably his opera cycle, Trillium. In light of the diversity of his
previous output (e.g. No.18 for string quartet, No.19 for one hundred tubas,
No. 20 for two single line instruments and tape), its limited parameters
were a significant and drastic departure. GTM has, however, undergone
extensive developments in the past five years, and as recordings begin to
become available from different stages it will be easier to see its
continuity and where No.247 fits in the picture.
Braxton has described GTM as a 'melody that doesn't end' citing musical
traditions from other cultures such as the Native Americans and the
Indonesian shadow puppet theater as influences. As these originating ideas
for GTM have been well documented in previous liner notes, I refer the
reader to these recordings for further information, particularly Francesco
Martinelli's notes on the first GTM release (Sextet (Istanbul) 1996 Braxton
House 001), Bill Shoemaker's text on the first GTM compositions (Four
Compositions (Quartet) 1995 Braxton House 005), and Graham Lock's notes for
Composition No. 192 (Leo Records 251), a duo for voice and woodwinds. As a
participant in several recent GTM projects, I will first attempt to provide
the 'nuts and bolts' of a GTM piece, hopefully shedding light on the basic
practices a musician is confronted with in performing this music, then
proceed with the specifics of No. 247. Ghost Trance Music Basics
Each GTM composition consists of two parts. The primary portion is a long
melody based on a steady stream of 8th notes, ranging anywhere from 20 to
50+ pages.1 This is sometimes accompanied by lyrics, as in No.192, which
Braxton calls his telemic musics (see the recording for more on this
subject). Any GTM piece can be performed by any combination of instruments,
facilitated by the fact that the music is notated in Braxton's diamond clef,
which can be read as any clef (treble, bass, alto, etc), in any
transposition. The melody is also embedded with repeat brackets which set
the ensemble in a loop until cued by its leader to proceed.
Each GTM piece also has four secondary compositions, which are one page
miniatures scored for trios. These can be cued up anytime, in addition to
the 400+ Braxton compositions which can also be inserted into a GTM
performance (Braxton calls them tertiary pieces in this context), continuing
the collaging practices that was developed in his coordinate musics with the
Crispell, Dresser and Hemingway quartet. Furthermore, language music (based
on the twelve categories developed for Braxton's music for solo alto
saxophone) is deeply integrated into GTM as well, focusing improvisations on
particular elements (e.g. long sound, intervallics) that may be combined
with each other (e.g. glissando long sound, multiphonic intervallics), as
well as compounded with the melody (e.g. trill each note, play a multiphonic
on each note). As is evident from even just these building blocks, one can
see that this is a music with many layers, capable of shifting from the
steady 8th note melody to tremendous complexity.
Most GTM performances begin with the entire ensemble in unison at the
opening of the work.2 What happens afterwards, however, differs widely
depending on the piece, the make-up of the ensemble, and the ever-changing
performance practices. At designated points of the line, often in the looped
sections, one may decide to switch into an improvisation, play a
secondary/tertiary piece, or play the melody at a different tempo. There are
no fixed rules pertaining to when this happens or for how long, it may also
be done individually, while other members of the ensemble are continuing the
line, or in groups of any size. Depending on the situation, one may return
to the ongoing line or synchronize with the others at a different point (a
set of hand signals have been devised to traverse across the melody, cue up
other compositions and different combinations of language musics). The exact
shape of the performance is therefore only determined at the moment of
execution; 'anything is possible' within the context of the material given.
In the present recording, for example, one can find several instances where
the three musicians play unsynchronized material, as well as solo or group
improvisations while a loop is maintained by the other player(s). Tertiary
pieces are also inserted by the two reeds while the bagpipes continue
independently, the polyrhythmic No. 173 occurs twice with different
instrumentation (at ca. 13:50 and 46:10), and the jagged No. 131 enters at
ca. 34:45 on soprano and alto.3
A consistent approach in Braxton's methodology, whether in notated pieces or
improvised strategies, has been to build smaller components that can be
recombined into larger forms. This is evident already in his earliest works
for solo saxophone, where a few isolated parameters often constituted their
sole focus, establishing the possibilities of each basic unit of his
saxophone vocabulary. From these categorizations, more elaborate mixtures
can be made, eventually developing into the intermixing of solo compositions
with his solo recordings in the nineties. GTM follows this trend as well,
especially in recent performances where smaller quadrants are organized
within the ensemble, each guided by its own group leader and capable of
complete independence. The Ghost Trance melody, secondary and tertiary
pieces, language music, here all become building blocks of Braxton's
'erector set,' to be recombined within the layered hierarchy of small to
large groups. A performer's (and the listener's as well) role then, is to
constantly 'navigate through form.' Rather than being assigned fixed roles
in notated or improvised environments, one is confronted with multiple
events that synchronize and move apart over time, no longer traversing in a
predictable fashion from A to B.
No. 247 is one of the few GTM works tailored for a specific instrumentation,
the only other recorded example being No.222 (Four Compositions (Washington,
D.C.) 1998 Braxton House 009), a work for violin and piano commissioned by
the Library of Congress. The entire 21-page line is to be played
continuously, something idiomatic to bagpipe performance but requires the
wind players to circular breathe throughout. When asked recently during a
lecture in Antwerp why he decided to use this particular instrumentation,
Braxton responded first that the opportunity was available, since Matthew
Welch is currently a graduate student at Wesleyan University (where Braxton
is professor of music), and both he and I are 'circular breathers.' He also
pointed out his love for marching music as a connection to the bagpipes, and
proceeded with characteristic enthusiasm to speak about realizing a GTM
performance with 50 pipers (which will certainly make a remarkable
introduction to the outdoor GTM concerts Braxton has been hoping to put on).
First, a note on bagpipes, whose properties are so integral to this
recording. Matthew Welch plays Scottish Highland Bagpipes on this recording,
consisting of one conical-bored chanter capable of sounding nine notes (plus
two more using alternate fingerings) in a mixolydian mode, plus three
drones, two tenor and one bassóon the fundamental pitch. 4 He also plays
'mouth blown smallpipes,' whose chanter has a cylindrical bore, and is much
quieter, during passages such as the trio with bass and contrabass
clarinets.5 Each GTM work has a distinct approach to pitch material, and No.
247 is especially notable since it uses only the nine notes available on the
bagpipes (plus a few accidentals). The construction logics of the work will
be made available through Braxton's composition notes in the near future.
Because each of the three musicians read in treble clef with different
transpositions, the resulting parallel 'harmony' depends on the instrumental
combination employed, Braxton transposes in Bb, Eb, or F depending on his
various instruments, I play everything in concert, and Welch's bagpipes
sound a half step above the notated pitch. For example, in the initial
setting, Braxton's F-saxophone is a perfect fifth lower than my soprano, and
the bagpipes are a half step above the soprano; while in the concluding
instrumentation, the two sopranos are a whole step apart, and the bagpipes
are again another half step above. The intensity of these close intervals is
further complicated by the fact that bagpipes are in just-intonation (tuned
to whole number ratios in accordance with those found in the overtone
series), clashing with the equal tempered woodwinds. Consequently, although
the three lines are in parallel for the most part, their interval 'width'
shifts from note to note, adding a destabilizing element.
Bagpipes play at one dynamic level only, extremely loud. The sheer amplitude
coupled with the above mentioned qualities create intense psycho-acoustic
phenomena, which is particularly vivid when heard live. Difference tones,
summation tones and beating patterns (resulting from the interference
between sounds) are easily audible; and since these are non-harmonic
relations, they shift roughly in similar motion with the three instruments
but not in exact parallel. Furthermore, the acoustic interference often
causes spatial dislocation, where sounds seem to project from different
positions (difference tones, in particular, often sound as if they are
coming directly from the listener's own ear). Although these effects are
rarely replicable in a recording, they can be experienced to some degree
when one listens to this disc LOUD.
On the Recording
No. 247 was first performed in concert one month prior to this recording, by
the same personnel. That version lasted just over thirty minutes, and was
critical in testing the waters', allowing us to tackle its difficulties
before committing to tape. When the music first arrived in my mailbox, I was
as much surprised by its apparent simplicity as the problems it entails,
executing the rapid rhythmic abruptions accurately, not getting lost in the
extended permutation of nine notes, and circular breathing the whole time.
Unlike most works of music, physical endurance is here a major factor, also
meaning that only one take was practical for the recording session, a
daunting task indeed!
Hearing each other clearly is always a challenge in GTM, since several
different activities can switch in-and-out at any given time. During the
Yoshi's concerts in 1997, for instance, where the practices of multiple
quadrants within a large ensemble were first significantly developed, duo
tertiary pieces were often cued up at opposite ends of the stage.6 This
could take place in the midst of several other compositions with different
tempi and dynamics, or even complete cacophony where one can barely hear
each other. Having these experiences were invaluable in coping with the
complications of No. 247, which is furthered by the tremendous volume of the
bagpipes as well its different intonation.
The music on this disc is unlike anything I have participated in, in terms
of mental and physical endurance, mobility between different sets of
material, and sheer sonic intensity. GTM and No. 247 also continue to expand
upon the aspect of music that first drew me to Braxton's work, the creation
of new forms where composed and improvised elements are synthesized, not
just co-existing in an on-off manner, but deeply integrated into a unified
and multi-layered system.
James Fei, New York City
1. The melody of No. 247 not only consists of a stream of 8th notes, but
also very rapid 'abruptions,' rhythmically complex figures that burst and
subside. This characterizes what Braxton calls the second species of GTM,
which began with the Library of Congress pieces: No. 222 and No. 223. A
detailed explication on the three species of GTM will have to wait for
future opportunities due to considerations of space.
2. The upcoming Ljubljana recording of Compositions No. 169, 186, 206, 214,
performed by four reeds/conductors and string orchestra, is an exception.
3. No. 173 is originally scored for four actors, two soloists and ensemble,
composed in 1994. No. 131 is a quartet piece from 1986. For recordings of
these works in their original form, see Composition No. 173 (Black Saint
120166-2) and Five Compositions (Quartet) 1986 (Black Saint 0106).
4. In this case, the drone is sounding B-flat. Drones have been featured
prominently in several Braxton compositions, most notably No. 132 (for
dancers, soloists, organ, and two orchestras), a long work with gradually
shifting organ drones and orchestras at opposite ends of the performance
5. Welch also plays the chanters on their own, as a double reed instrument,
from time to time.
6. The Yoshi's (Oakland) performances took place over twelve sets in six
days. The recordings are slated for release on Leo in two-set packages.