Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

Anthony Braxton + Genevieve Foccroulle
Anthony Braxton + Genevieve Foccroulle                                                                      ©2009Jos Knaepen

I was recently accused of “perpetuating” a “false” distinction between improvisation and composition. In fact, the complaint ran “willfully perpetuating” and “entirely false,” but I feel an unwontedly avuncular urge to protect other writers from their adverbs and besides, the second one is redundant and the first one is either unnecessarily aggressive or else makes an unwarranted assumption about my thoughts and intentions.

It’s only worth mentioning, all this, because the very next day I set down to interview an eminent American musician whose polite preamble was a request not to be asked questions about what he described as a “non-issue” and described as the “impro/compo divide,” a term which irresistibly made me think of some contested area or demilitarized zone in a long forgotten civil war. ‘Earlier today, IMPRO troops took control of the capital Parkerville . . . government-backed COMPO forces, led by General Webern, claimed significant successes against the rebels . . .’

And there it might have been forgotten, with a wry smile, had I not been asked, another day later, to write a piece about Anthony Braxton, or rather “Anthony Braxton-the-composer,” as if he were somehow a different person, not to be confused with Anthony Braxton-the-saxophonist. This brought a lot of things flooding back, because exactly twenty years ago I edited a reference volume called Contemporary Composers. It’s long since out of print and out of date, though given its bulk I can recommend any surviving unsold copies – and there must be a few of those – for repairing flood levees or constructing temporary dwellings.

Everyone knows that reference books only receive one kind of review, which is essentially a list of “baffling” omissions and “mystifying” inclusions. Almost invariably, I was taken to task for giving space, alongside Bernstein, Boulez, Cage, Copland, Langlais, Messiaen, Stockhausen, all of them still living at the time, to . . . Anthony Braxton. Because? Because Braxton is – or let’s be generous and say was – not a composer. One reviewer praised the book on the sole ground of my having “recognized” Braxton as a composer, so for one reason or another, this became something of a pivotal issue.

Everyone also knows that reference book reviews encourage a curious syllogistic logic, which is actually non-logic. If X, they argue, then surely Y as well? If Anthony Braxton is a composer, then surely Mike Westbrook is too? As you can probably tell from the sarcastically italicized delivery, this is an argument that appeals equally to those think that, of course, Mike Westbrook ought to be included in the same category and those who’re pretty damned sure that neither of them belong there and the whole thing’s just plain silly.

It’s an easy game, this, played without rules and without result. I gave it up years ago. But it’s one thing to accept that the COMPO/IMPRO civil war was always about ridiculously finessed distinctions – akin to parachuting in the dark and trying to work out whether the guy who’s fishing you out of a ditch is a South Korean or a North Korean – and quite another to think that current ceasefire is the same as a long-term peace, North and South Korea being again the apposite analogy.
The would-be peacemakers come in various shapes and forms. There are those who like to point out that Beethoven and Liszt were great improvisers, but we still consider them great composers, so maybe, like, we should accord the same courtesy to Jelly Roll Morton and Eric Dolphy, because, like, jazz is African-American classical music . . . which is the point where I reach for my revolver. For myself, I intend no harm to others, and you’re entitled to your view, but I can’t easily contemplate living on amid such blatant nonsense.

Stay with me for a moment longer. There is – surely? – a logical flaw in the suggestion that because Beethoven and Liszt, identified in most mind with classical, or formal, or scored, or art music, were also skilled in another branch of musical expression that two different artists who established a reputation in that second branch should somehow be identified commutatively with the first as well. This just doesn’t work, though when we get down to cases few of us would quibble about Morton’s or Dolphy’s gifts as composers. There is absolutely no mileage in the argument, one still trotted out at regular intervals, that jazz somehow represents the African-American contribution to the classical canon. For that, one has to turn to a canon of achievement that runs from William Grant Still to Olly Wilson and beyond, a canon that I would argue has received significantly less recognition and understanding than it deserves, for, uh, obvious reasons. It was widely assumed that I included Anthony Braxton in Contemporary Composers in order to have an African-American in the roster, a suggestion that failed to recognize the presence of several other African-Americans (not always obvious) in the coverage and added an unfortunate charge of tokenism.

So why was Braxton there? Because he seemed to me (in 1990, as now) to be a significant modern composer, whose rapidly growing body of work did seem to divide along a certain stylistic parallel into work that was primarily the result of or intended as the object of real-time improvisation, and work that tended to more formal and fixed procedures. Even this was and remains unsatisfactory. Braxton, remember, was the musician who attracted a certain horrified attention in the 70s when it was revealed that some of his solos were written out, or otherwise predetermined. Critics adopted shocked poses, like figures in an H. M Bateman cartoon (‘The Man Who . . .’); fans felt obscurely cheated, as if a safety wire had just been detected. What was lacking was a proper sense of musical history and even a glimmer or awareness that such things were neither unprecedented nor necessarily undesirable. But it was always clear that Braxton was fated to bestride a fault line, not so much in music as in social perception of it. Perhaps that geological anomaly is what defines him: the grinding of plates, the massiveness of movement, the sudden, dramatic slippages, and the sulphurous whiff of magma.

Inevitably, a good deal of the debate, cleaned of its politer evasions, revealed nothing more edifying than old-fashioned racism. It was fine for Stockhausen to hypothesize inter-planetary performance, but not for Anthony Braxton, for fairly obvious reasons.

There is a context to all of this, and that is the decision to feature Braxton-as-composer (hence the article mentioned above) at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Genevieve Foccroulle is to reprise her recording of the music for piano. There have been stirrings. HCMF – in which I have to declare a small interest, having attended the majority of its thirty returns, and having a hand in some program material – was once a regular stop-off for the likes of Cage (who picked mushrooms on Castle Hill, and still exerts an influence on local restaurateurs, even if his music isn’t whistled in the Queensgate), Messiaen, Boulez and Stockhausen (who once took over a local sports centre for a performance of the “park-music” “Sternklang”), and was regarded as a valuable meeting-ground for the high-priests of  high modernism and their younger British, European and American followers. Recent years, under artistic director Graham McKenzie, have seen the festival shift – or open – focus on a wider spectrum of musical styles and approaches, with improvisation a central concept and practice.

There have been glum reactions to this from those who think the festival should be devoted largely to exploring the (post-)modern canon, and HCMF has recently offered major retrospectives of James Tenney’s music and of the epochal Cage Town Hall concert, but tellingly with the over-familiar “Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano” replaced by brand new work. Openness and resistance to genre are keynotes. When saxophonist John Butcher appeared last year, it was to unveil a new “composition” rather than to deliver an improv set. Braxton’s presence this year – and at time of writing it wasn’t clear whether he would also be there in person as well as in score – is offset by a rare British account of Emmanuel Nunes’s luminously intellectual music.

In short, here’s a zone where the IMPRO/COMPO stand-off has long been fruitfully suspended, and it seems to work. HCMF isn’t by any means unique in this regard, of course. There are similar events in Europe and the US and their cumulative existence, both geoculturally and across time, is presumably exerting some impact on audience expectation. But here’s a good tactical moment to plead guilty to the initial charge. I suspect I really do want in some small way to perpetuate a distinction between these two countervailing philosophies. The persistence of terminology is enough in itself to persuade me that there is enough mileage in both to keep them active in our debates.

It’s tempting to suggest, as many have done, that the distinction is a purely academic or scholastic one. Are improvisation and composition of identical substance or merely of like substance, homoousian or homoiousian? Men have been burned over questions like this. But we not instinctively understand a difference, just as we understand there is a difference between libertarian and authoritarian, market and command societies, individualism and collectivism, and do we not as mature citizens and cultural animals understand that society re-calibrates both constantly. Anglo-Saxon instinct immediately suggests that the middle ground is safest and best and that both extremes are best avoided. That’s a comfortable position to adopt but it’s troubled by the recognition that the extremes – absolute control, absolute freedom – are not morally or philosophically identical and that there are deep differences between the written and the unwritten, the composed and the improvised which it is in our interests to preserve, and which an event like the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival allows us to explore in some depth.

Even if I understand the essential continuity between Braxton’s New York, Fall 1974 and Foccroulle’s recording of the piano scores, even if I sit and watch Braxton unfold a solo interpretation of “Impressions” or “Naima” in a similar spirit to seeing his ensemble deliver one of the higher opus numbers, I have to be aware that perception and value change with time and the knotty logic of repetition and ‘performance’ changes the rules at an unconstant but steady evolutionary rate.

I’ve never been entirely happy discussing these matters, as should be obvious. The improvisation/composition divide is a consoling superstition, easily demonstrated as false or groundless, archaic in spirit, embarrassing to reveal, but difficult to give up. My only happy moments talking about it were in company with that sorely neglected American master Donald Erb, who passed away last year. The composer of The Seventh Trumpet and Klangenfarbenfunk, as well as some strikingly unstuffy concertante works, had started life as a dance band and jazz trumpeter and liked to retain a measure of improvisational openness in his more formal work. Donald didn’t fetishize improvisation. He simply regarded it as a musician’s duty to learn all he possibly could about music, not in order to reduce everything to an itemized flight-plan, but in order to fly by the seat of his pants. Improvisation was a fundamental condition of creativity; composition was a valuable function of memory. Beethoven could ‘also’ sit down at the keyboard and improvise gloriously for hours, but that suggests those famous flights were somehow different from the Ninth Symphony. It was improvised, too, and far more spontaneously than we might imagine, but based on the memory of past excursions in the form and long exposure to his contemporaries’ rival attempts. Life is high-school and a cutting contest, an endless series of SATs and corridor passes, high moral demands and scary freedoms. Improvisation, composition; taking apart, putting together; life; music.

Brian Morton©2009

Michael Wilderman Jazz Visions Photography

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