The Book Cooks
One of the most dramatic markers in Braxton’s style has appeared on up-tempo numbers from the outset of his recording career: at times Braxton will double tongue every note against the rhythmic propulsion, creating a kind of stutter. In the stutter-line, each note seems to guess again at its identity. It’s pronounced whether he’s playing solo or working through traditional material with a relatively conventional rhythm section.
The “stutter” is a crucial topic in Braxton commentaries1, a highly personal appropriation of the high-speed double-tonguing of Coltrane and Dolphy. I would suggest in each case it’s also a conscious doubling of the improviser’s line, the expression of time’s duality of freedom and constraint; more specifically, it’s a deliberated representation of the two- places-at-once involved in working through historical repertoire, a repetition that’s constant from classical repertoire to mainstream jazz to the reiteration of popular songs, and which is hardly ever self-conscious.
In taking on so much of the canonical repertoire, Braxton repeats jazz history as a stutter (this prefigures both the locked groove and the digital artefact, a characteristic glitch of electronic media), exploring traditional repertoire but always with this insistence on the personal perspective, inviting us into the doubleness of this project, its fundamental ambiguity. He genuinely loves the tradition, and is himself a key part of it, but unlike so many, he does not confuse himself with it. The stutter is the compact and ambiguous articulation of a principle of difference.
In improvisation the stutter may also insistently emblemize the microscopic gap between thought and execution, ironically magnified. It is also the human condition of being both stuck in time and undone by time, a reality Braxton later dramatizes with an hourglass on stage. The stutter is an insistent sign of the human in his saxophone playing. Like the audible breath, it is the sign of the immediate existential reality, endlessly lived and articulated and dramatized2. The stutter is the binary nature of time and also its duplicity (and perhaps duplexity). It is the past and future movement of the instant, the instant of now/now that is also always the not-now of the past/the not-now of the future.
:The Repeat Sign:
A constant in the composition and performance of the GTM pieces is the repeat sign, signalling a passage that will repeat in lock-step until the conductor signals a change. The repeat sign looks like a colon before a bar line and signals a passage of music back to a colon just after a bar line. In the GTM the sound is very much like an extended version of the skipping record, an almost mechanical repetition with each iteration as close to identical to the preceding as possible. This moment of the stuck groove may signal the collapse of technology and the failure of the illusion of reality in hi-fi recording. It is also a musical principle unto itself, a sign of infinity and the perpetual motion machine. It appears as a deliberate feature—called a locked groove-- of certain LPs, perhaps most notably here Carla Bley and Paul Haines’ 1970 recording Escalator over the Hill, on which the skip occurs on the final sung phrase, “It’s again...It’s again...,” suggesting that their three-LP “chronotransduction,” an opera-like merger of music and poetry, will go on even longer. It occurs again some five years later at the end of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, stretching an hour of feedback out to the limits of time.
This glitch of an old technology has since become the signature of hip-hop and DJ culture, the effective fixing of time, a text of immobility at the putative end of history3. Conversely, the skip appears as chance (a particular skip in my teenage copy of Coltrane’s Tunji has remained with me for 45 years), and at some point, the skip suggests the idealized moment, the possibility of the ecstatic instant, the revelation, going on forever, sustained repetition, the locked groove. This resembles the repeating montuno phrase of Afro-Cuban music. Some jazz musicians—usually those strongly influenced by blues and Rhythm & Blues--had an improvisatory practice in which they would repeat a phrase as exactly as possible against (literally in contradiction of) the moving harmony of a song. The guitarist Grant Green had a genius for this, frequently managing to sound like a skipping record: the best of both worlds, the moving harmony, the skipping phrase.4
Bagpipes and Beat Patterns:
One of the GTM works, Composition No. 2475 is as extraordinary as it is singular, a work in which we experience time in a unique way. The piece is written for a trio and the instrumentation and performers are keys to its special sonic identity, combining bagpiper Matthew Welch with two saxophonists, Braxton and James Fei, who are using circular breathing. While Braxton insists that any part of his music can be played on any other instrument (in one notable instance, the percussionist Gino Robair recalls being handed a flute part to play on a snare drum), Composition No. 247 is written in a way that’s specific to the bagpipe (it would be very different even if adapted to organ or electric keyboard). Some of the work’s significances lie in the very roots of music, though they tend to persist as ethnography.
Circular breathing is a technique whereby wind instrument players hold a reserve of breath in the cheeks while squeezing the air into an instrument, breathing through the nose to replenish the air supply while they are still producing a continuous sound. Depending on the skill of the player, circular breathing can produce a smooth continuous sound. In recent years it has been practised most famously by the American pop saxophonist Kenny G. so it’s clearly a technique that holds some general fascination. It is, however, an ancient technique, and its very age suggests its significance, its larger meanings. The earliest known wind instrument is generally acknowledged to be the didgeridoo, a long hollowed-out branch that emits a low sound and which is often used mimetically, imitating bird and animal calls.
Circular breathing is commonly combined with the didgeridoo to create a low-pitched, humming sound. Despite the difficulty of mastering an “unnatural” technique, circular breathing is widespread in other ancient musical cultures. It’s used by players of the arghul, a middle-eastern instrument found in Turkey, Egypt and Iran in various forms. The arghul is a kind of double clarinet in which one pipe creates a continuous drone and the other has holes to play a melody; the principle is also found among Sardinian players of the launeddas, a triple-clarinet that plays melodies as well as a drone.
Among the most startling applications of circular breathing is in the music of Northern Indian shenai master Bismillah Khan, who possesses the kind of staggering virtuosity usually associated with Indian string musicians like Ali Akbar Khan on sarod or Ravi Shankar on sitar. Indian music is fundamentally monodic, a single note acting as the resonant pitch centre against which a scale is played. In most Indian ensembles a constant drone of the first and fifth tones of the scale is played on an open-string instrument called a tamboura, the performer making the plucked-string sound as continuous as possible. In the ensemble of Bismillah Khan, other shenai players use circular breathing to maintain a continuous drone. For the clichéd sound palette of the west, the suggestion of the snake charmer will arise immediately, but it’s also a sign of how extraordinarily involving the sound of the blown drone is.
There’s a direct relationship between the bagpipe and circular breathing. The bagpipe, though most strongly associated with Scottish music, is also found in several other cultures, both the Celtic culture of northwestern Spain and in Pakistan and India, where it is strongly tied to the drone of the shenai. The sounds of circular breathing and bagpipe are virtually the same because the technique is the same. The bagpipe has simply mechanized circular breathing, using an external bladder or bag to function as the lungs function in circular breathing. The bag is squeezed to play the pipe continuously and there is also a secondary pipe to create a drone, just as with an arghul or a launeddas.
While the didgeridoo suggests this sound has a very early and fundamental significance, the bagpipe testifies to its widespread adaptation. These elements become increasingly influential in the jazz of the 1960s and the increasing interest on the part of jazz musicians in Indian music and drones, most notably in the work of John Coltrane, though a jazz piper, Rufus Harley, appears in the same decade. It’s notable that the best-known practitioners of circular breathing in jazz emerge in this context: Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Roscoe Mitchell and Evan Parker (Braxton sat in with Kirk as a young man in Chicago; Mitchell and Parker are long-term Braxton collaborators). Coltrane’s friend Yusef Lateef has been a frequent explorer of middle-eastern winds, even recording on the arghul. Circular breathing often combines with extremely grainy, reverberant, doubled sounds. The most extraordinary texture in Coltrane’s music may occur in a live version of India (itself a transformed blues originally called Mr. Knight) in which Coltrane plays soprano saxophone, Eric Dolphy plays bass clarinet, and Garvin Bushell, a man who played with Jelly Roll Morton, plays contra-bassoon drone.
These interests in sonic novelty, the roots of music and its ability to shape consciousness all converge in Composition No. 247. While most of the Ghost Trance Music employs conventional instrumentation, it’s noteworthy that the series begins with another instrument capable of the reed-drone, Ted Reichmann’s accordion. The element of trance in music is very closely related to continuous sound, the drone, and to severely restricted elements of pitch. The highland bagpipe that Matthew Welch plays in No. 247 is restricted to nine pitches. The continuous melody is thus restricted to these nine pitches, unlike other pieces in the Ghost Trance series. One gets some sense of the human resonance of Braxton’s music as one realizes not only the focus on restricted pitches and continuous sounds, but that there may be something afoot even in the ethnic composition of the band, with three races represented in the trio.
The temporal canvas of No. 247 stretches from the beginnings of wind music through its world culture to the specific concerns and practices of Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music. Listening to it, we begin to experience the mystery of the fullness of time. The drone suggests the eternal, it is the word—the sonic event-- that initiates the world, it is the sound of its machinery working, the reliable machine of the cosmos, it is the concluding “hum” of “Om mani padme hum,” whether, aum, om, or hum. It is the formula for the prayer wheel, a circle of eternal repetition. No. 247 is an essential intersection in time. It sounds from the outset like a tape that is running backwards, our first thought when sounds don’t run out of breath or decay. It appears to be formed backwards, as if it already there, a relationship first suggested in Composition No. 94 which is literally in reverse, as if to erase itself. The illusion here is that the music is playing backwards, and that it is also going on forever.
The Phantom Voices of Beat Patterns
There is another fundamental issue in musical history addressed in No. 247: the gap between just intonation and equal temperament. Traditional musical cultures employed just intonation, pitch relationships that could be expressed in simple mathematical ratios. The result was pitches specific to individual scales, e.g., the 66 notes at work in the octave of classical Indian music. The western system of equal temperament—identical intervals between semi-tones—was developed in the 17th century, facilitating transposition of melodies and the chords and harmonic movement that are characteristic of western classical and popular music in the three centuries since. Both systems are at work in No. 247, the equal temperament of the saxophones played by Braxton and James Fei and the just intonation of Welch’s bagpipes.
This matter of intonation creates another convergence of pitch and time (see “Pitch into Time,” Part Three above). It’s not just sub-sonics that can be perceived as rhythmic elements. As pitches move very close together, usually in the process of tuning, they create “beat” patterns, audible sounds that pulse independently and which disappear when the instruments become “in tune. In the trio of Braxton, Fei and Welch these phantom voices become palpable presences in the music, the ghosts of ancient just pitch musics and all their practitioners and listeners. Composition No. 247 is a very special funhouse ride, a miniature of Ghost Trance compositions in which we travel to our origins and our ends. It concludes suddenly, perhaps mechanically, without any hint it is about to be over. It is Ghost Trance Music as a continuum of inhalation and exhalation.