a column by
“By the shipwreck
Of the singular
We have chosen the meaning
Of being numerous.”
from George Oppen, Of Being Numerous
There is a tradition in modernism of totalizing works, works so inclusive that they cannot be enclosed or fully read, works that seek to include the world, whether through sheer collection of data, density of material or novel technical invention. Stéphane Mallarmé announced the ambition when he first postulated, “The world exists to end up in a book.” Since then other media have chimed in, including the multiple perspectives of cubist painting. Books include James Joyce’s vast tomes of day and night, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, and Gertrude Stein’s monolithic The Making of Americans. Michel Butor’s “Stereophonic Novel,” 6 810 000 litres d’eau par second, in French, Niagara in English translation, and his Mobile, a similarly multi-layered travelogue of America dedicated to Jackson Pollock, certainly speak to the impulse.
Part of the joy of engaging such works is that they resist any sense of completion. Every reading is distinct. We are free from the responsibility of ultimate cognition or understanding, while happily operating at our limits. If there is pleasure in knowing and understanding, there is a kind of ecstasy involved when facing the sublime, that which cannot be enclosed. In this, the joy of some art resembles the ecstasies of science and religion that show the same fascination with scale and quantity. Like the known world or the universe, such works expand in time. Anthony Braxton’s recent Echo Echo Mirror House Music (EEMHC) is such work, a machine for sheer proliferation – of sounds, of meanings, of musical relations. It suggests that the world exists to end up on a record.
Echo Echo Mirror House Music is the collective name for a series of compositions in which each musician in Braxton’s ensemble “plays” with an iPod of mp3 files of Braxton’s works as well as his or her usual musical instrument(s). As with many of Braxton’s recent pieces, the musicians perform a score with multiple elements. Each of the current EEMHM compositions has a complex graphic score; in addition, the musicians sometimes perform with a transparency of one of Braxton’s original solo compositions superimposed on the graphic score. There is, too, the very process of playing the mp3 files and improvising with or against the content of the files. The work engages our own complexity directly, the mix of memory and expectation, the confusion of the once-heard, the frequently reiterated and the unsounded.
Braxton has been playing with scale since the beginnings of his public career, whether it’s the two-LP set of solo saxophone music, a piece for a hundred tubas or the density of the early piano pieces. From there he went on to multiple orchestra pieces with multiple conductors and speculation about pieces realized with orchestras on different planets. He then created another pluralistic music when he had members of his quartet begin adding elements of other compositions – some old, some new – into the performance of a primary piece.
The first recorded example of Braxton’s EEMHM to be released came from the May 21, 2011 Victoriaville septet concert (Victo CD 125); there’s also NYC 2011 on Braxton House by a 15-member group, available as a download from the Tricentric Foundation. Firehouse 12 is releasing 3 Compositions (EEMHM) 2011, three hours of music recorded, May 20, 2011, the day before the Victoriaville performance. It’s available as both a 3-CD set (FH12-01-02-020) and an audio blue-ray disc (FH12-01-04-020). Recorded in a studio setting, these give added clarity and greater evenness to the wealth (and welter) of voices engaged in the performance. In Braxton’s note to the set, he mentions both the organization of the mp3s by genre and certain limits on when they are used and for how long, these qualifications further added to the overlaid graphic scores. Numerous simultaneous methods of composition may seem like constraints (Braxton refers to an aspect of the realization as “multitasking”), but it’s also another way of liberating the music itself, over-determination leading to formal breakdown, malfunction or interruption. Braxton’s work is about genuine unpredictability (even stretching toward unknowability) and he continues here to evolve techniques to free the music from its performers and its composer, resisting any kind of encapsulation even as his own instrumental voice stretches toward multitude.
Describing the sound of one of the EEMHM pieces isn’t easy: the design results in a kind of continuously shifting, evolving texture, elements entering to be never heard again, some becoming regular touchstones. While Braxton’s alto is a frequent presence, sometimes it appears in triplicate, playing different pieces from different eras and methodologies. The music teems with multiple voices and compositions carrying on simultaneously. Sometimes one will assert itself, but while a listener may create a certain biased orchestration in which one imagines the recorded present as “real,” this too may come unwound. Each trip through a recording is a different experience, different elements in the thick brew catching one’s ear.
The Echo Echo Mirror House Music constitutes a kind of autobiography of a music, not merely the autobiography of their original creator, but an embodiment in which a forum has been created for the parts of that music to engage with one another whether by chance, simultaneity or design. It is also the collective autobiography of a particular collection of musicians, a troupe of regular collaborators who have played key roles in Braxton’s work over the past decade and who are sometimes heard in the iPod recordings as well as the immediate ones: Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet, bugle and trombone; Mary Halvorson on guitar; Jessica Pavone on violin and viola; Jay Rozen on tuba; Aaron Siegel on percussion; and Carl Testa on bass and bass clarinet. As such, it’s a radical re-enactment of memory and of roles, the musicians making multiple interpretive choices at all times, sometimes over a span of a decade.
It’s easier to describe what it sounds like than to describe the effect. EEMHM is a machine for complexity, a method and mechanism that generates dense, shifting information that is also being shaped into a specific composition. One of the things that’s remarkable is the way it affects one’s sense of time. There is often a sense of vast undergrowth moving backward from the listener, seeming to recede as it comes into being. It often assert this rearward movement with tuba player Jay Rosen, whose long lines in particular seem to burble backwards.
The music induces reverie, rather than the anxiety one might expect, as parts arrive, develop interactively (or not) and disappear (sometimes to re-emerge). A well-constructed chaos becomes a comforting constant. There’s a strange sense of absolute calm about the music, because so much of it has already been realized and it sounds so assured, no matter how strange the context in which it has been placed. The sheer virtuosity of Braxton and his partners, now and through the years, projects a collective sense of accomplishment that reflects not only musicians and musics but actual eras in his work.
The listener is at one with the music in a kind of flux. On a recording it’s even harder to sort out the “live” and “recorded” voices, since they are all now recorded voices, degrees of “memorex.” The quality of the mixing is such that small ensembles and single voices in particular tend to blur into the “present.” A clear sense that something is recorded emerges most pointedly when an extended unison ensemble, a large orchestra work or opera appears. The same holds for unusual instruments, like Matthew Welch’s recorded bagpipe.
EEMHM is as radical and brilliant as any music Braxton has made, as rich in meaning and multiplicity as the quartet performances of the ‘80s and ‘90s when Crispell, Dresser and Hemingway shared in the vast collage compositions of the quartet, or the multitude of pieces in the Ghost Trance Music series, spilling into the trance space created by the even-accented eighth-note themes. With its rolling “white noise” quality, EEMHM is as hypnotic as the Ghost Trance Music which EEMHM frequently includes in its pre-recorded materials.
When Braxton brought the body of his recorded work to the performance space, he enacted a new space and a new kind of performer/listener experience, a kind of mechanism for biographical meaning. As such, EEMHM textualizes and contextualizes all of his work, the insistent relevance of the all to the all. The surface density of the Echo Echo Music House pieces is such that they are radically unstable. In a sense, everything is surface, background and foreground as much a matter of what catches each listener’s ear. As well everything is immediate, even the repeat hearing. As Braxton points out, the pieces are never the same twice. The density and complexity of each work is such as to make each listening, a listening to a new piece. It’s a function of the pluralistic rhythms as well. Each time through, something may function as a new beat. One is tempted to suggest they are never the same once.
Two antecedents to the experience of listening to EEMHM immediately come to mind. One is Messiaen’s “Grand concert d’oiseaux” in his opera Saint François d’ Assise. It consists of massed bird calls transcribed for a large orchestra, written on seventy simultaneous lines of staff paper in different rhythms. The other is John Cage and Lejaren Hiller’s HPSCHD which combines seven harpsichordists playing randomly generated pieces based on works by composers from Mozart to Schoenberg accompanied by 208 tapes of computer generated music. The former enscribes an arc from spirit to nature, the latter from history to technology; together, they measure the ecstasy of religion and nature and art and technology.
Coda: Two Texts for Echo Echo Mirror House Music
The ecstasy of great numbers and complex systems is a special space in our imagination, linking things from the natural world to the theological. Imagine every nematode and illuminated saint. Here is a recent reading in what might be called Darwinian ecstasy:
Nematodes [like Bodhisattvas]:
“You don’t get much more ubiquitous than a nematode worm. Practically every living animal on Earth is a nematode worm. It has been estimated that 80 per cent of the animals alive right now are nematodes. You can find a million individuals in a cubic meter of soil. Nothing teems like nematodes. ... So far 28,000 species of nematodes have been described, of which 16,000 are parasites. ... You really can find them anywhere. Fresh water, salt water, ocean trenches, mountains, deserts, every continent. It is reckoned that 90% of all life forms on the ocean floor are nematodes. They have been found far below the earth: even 3.6 km deep in a South African gold mine.” – Simon Barnes Ten Million Aliens: A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom (New York: Marble Arch, 2015) Barnes, the natural historian, invokes Finnegans Wake and Trout Mask Replica.
Here’s a passage I have loved for 50 years that suggests the effect of EEMHM:
Boddhisattvas [like Nematodes]: “No sooner had the Lord uttered these words than the Saha-world burst open on every side, and from within the clefts arose many hundred thousand myriads of kotis of Bodhisattvas with gold-coloured bodies and the thirty-two characteristic signs of a great man, who had been staying in the element of ether underneath this great earth, close to this Saha-world. These then on hearing the word of the Lord came up from below the earth. Each of these Bodhisattvas had a train of thousands of Bodhisattvas similar to the sands of sixty Ganges rivers; (each had) a troop, a great troop, as teacher of a troop. Of such Bodhisattvas Mahâsattvas having a troop, a great troop, as teachers of a troop, there were hundred thousands of myriads of kotis equal to the sands of sixty Ganges rivers, who emerged from the gaps of the earth in this Saha-world. Much more there were to be found of Bodhisattvas Mahâsattvas having a train of Bodhisattvas similar to the sands of fifty Ganges rivers; much more there were to be found of Bodhisattvas Mahâsattvas having a train of Bodhisattvas similar to the sands of forty Ganges rivers; Of 30, 20, 10, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Ganges river; of 1/2, 1/4, 1/6, 1/10, 1/20, 1/50, 1/100, 1/1000, 1/100,000, 1/10,000,000, 1/100 X 10,000,000, 1/1000 X 10,000,000, 1/100 X 1000 X 10,000,000, 1/100 X 1000 X 10,000 X 10,000,000 part of the river Ganges. Much more there were to be found of Bodhisattvas Mahâsattvas having a train of many hundred thousand myriads of kotis of Bodhisattvas; of one koli; of one hundred thousand; of one thousand; Of 500; Of 400; Of 300; Of 200; Of 100; Of 50; Of 40; Of 30; Of 20; Of 10; Of 5, 4, 3, 2. Much more there were to be found of Bodhisattvas Mahâsattvas having one follower. Much more there were to be found of Bodhisattvas Mahâsattvas standing isolated. They cannot be numbered, counted, calculated, compared, known by occult science, the Bodhisattvas Mahâsattvas who emerged from the gaps of the earth to appear in this Saha-world.” – Saddharma Puṇḍarīka or the Lotus of the True Law, translated by H. Kern, published 1883. p.282-283. Kern provides a footnote to this passage: “The text goes on repeating the same words, save the difference of number; I have given the contents in a shortened form.” p. 282.
Stuart Broomer © 2016
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