Time and Anthony Braxton.
No art form is more closely wedded to the unfolding of time than music. Indeed philosophers from St. Augustine to Edmund Husserl have turned to a consideration of music when attempting to come to grips with the perception of time. When we are "in" a piece of music, time bends and warps. Music articulates time and demonstrates the mutability of our experience of time's passage. Certain composers--including John Cage, Olivier Messiaen, and Karlheinz Stockhausen--have concerned themselves particularly with the presence of time within their music. Among the ranks of such composers, we doubtless find Anthony Braxton, whose work has experimented with extended durations, ranging from a total lack of pulse to regular and predictable pulsation, and who has at times decentered the very notion of a shared time by employing multiple conductors. Thus one would expect a book entitled Time and Anthony Braxton to be a rich resource for the musicological and philosophical investigation of the profound and complicated relationship between music and time. It is not.
Author Stuart Broomer begins with the right source material, opening the book with an introduction that he dubs "Riffing with Augustine." Unfortunately, the citation of the famous passage concerning past, present, and future from Augustine's Confessions only serves to set the stage for Broomer to make rather vague assertions regarding the enigmas of time. This is fine for an introduction but the book never really progresses beyond base generalities.
Broomer demonstrates that he is out of his depth from the outset of the book. In an attempt to outline Braxton's approach to time within his musical compositions, he specifies "simultaneity; a matrix equally open to planned and unplanned events; 'secret' parts unheard by musicians and audience alike that suddenly blossom into sound; a detailed and extended investigation of old repertoire; changing approaches to the same material; and numerous modes of repetition" (p. 10). The problems Broomer faces loom large in this seemingly innocuous list. First, one might wonder whether or not the emergence of "secret" parts or even differing approaches to the same material are the most productive avenues into an investigation of Braxton's handling of time in music. Certainly they both involve time in some sense. To take the former example, it goes without saying that the "blossoming" of some secret music would occur at a given time just as a bus arrives at a given time. However, that arrival in and of itself does not necessarily tell us much about time per se. Of course, what is more immediately troubling is that Broomer never bothers to inform us what he means by "secret" music.
The second and more damning problem with the passage--a problem that follows from the overarching lack of specificity--plagues the book as a whole. Broomer enumerates various examples of time in music. Some instances involve duration or tempo, others a time point, others a notion of the relationship between a given present and the past, and still others involve a projected future (Broomer is at his most rhapsodically absurd with respect to the latter). The issue, of course, is that these various examples involve very different notions of time and Broomer makes no attempt to coordinate them. More disconcerting still is that he never acknowledges that such differences exist and ought to be considered. To study musical time with respect to duration is not the same as studying a composition's putative relationship to one's musical past. Both investigations involve time but in very different ways that require different methodological and philosophical apparatuses.
In place of a concerted unraveling of the complexities of the relationship between time and music, Broomer offers us overly simplistic, quasi-evolutionary views of music history that, more often than not, end in blatant self-contradiction. For instance, Broomer proposes velocity as "a fundamental principle of jazz" (p. 16) and attempts to illustrate his point with a potted history of the art form that articulates the use of ever-accelerating tempi from Louis Armstrong and Art Tatum to Lester Young and Charlie Parker, and culminating in Sonny Rollins and Albert Ayler. Leaving aside the fact that such a trajectory ignores a wealth of counter-examples (movements and artists--including the Cool School and Miles Davis--that sought to rein in the celerity of the pulse), this narrative merely gives rise to the rather tired platitude that such an increase of musical information serves to reconcile us to a world that moves at an ever-increasing pace. Broomer claims that this velocity allows us to "live fully in the structure of the instant" (p. 23). Yet, just as he reaches the moral of his story, no matter how tenuously secured, he must abandon it altogether insofar as Braxton is not overly concerned with "progressivist" acceleration. Therefore, just as Broomer aligns Braxton with the culmination of his evolutionary narrative, he finds himself declaring Braxton to be "post-modern and post-historical" (p. 28). Perhaps such an assertion is justifiable and perhaps it is not. The problem is that Broomer never attempts to justify; he merely asserts. Moreover, much time is lost waiting for the author to articulate something about time.
Such issues never seem to trouble Broomer inasmuch as, the title of his book notwithstanding, he doesn't really concern himself much with the issue of time. Instead the body of the book comprises a series of prosaic descriptions of various pieces within Braxton's oeuvre without much in the way of interpretive comment (aside from some banal flights of fancy), without any substantive analysis (there is not a single music example within the book), and without much of an attempt to connect Braxton's work to the wider context of a compositional concern with time (or much else for that matter). As Broomer freely acknowledges, he adapted large chunks of his text from liner notes that he authored for various compact disc releases and journalistic pieces for jazz websites. While it is imaginable that a compilation of liner notes might produce an interesting book, the descriptions of Braxton's music contained in Time and Anthony Braxton never rise above the perfunctory. Thus he manages to cobble together some descriptions of works with random quotations from interviews with Braxton coupled with cloying attempts at poetic proclamation, and rounds off each chapter with some ill-considered feints toward a discussion of time if only to justify the book's purported subject. One can forgive a book that attempts too much and falls short; it is difficult to excuse a book that attempts so little and fails so miserably.
This then raises the issue of the book's intended audience. Just who is meant to read this? While it ought to be clear from the above that the book lacks the intellectual heft to be considered a scholarly work, it also assumes the reader to be aware of fairly specific trends in concert and jazz composition thus eliminating its appeal to a general readership. Those who know nothing of Braxton's music will find nothing here that will give the reader any real sense of why one ought to get to know it, and devotees of the music will most likely get frustrated by the paucity of genuine musical insight evinced by the descriptions. This is a shame. There is a growing thirst for material on Braxton both on the part of the musicological community and the burgeoning non-academic audience for improvised music. Too much of the literature on Braxton (even some of the best writing on the composer) concerns itself with his quasi-mystical status. Too little of it treats the music with any depth of thought.
In this sense, nearly every page of Time and Anthony Braxton represents a missed opportunity. Broomer resists the various opportunities thrown his way--Braxton's avowed allegiance to Wagner's aesthetic (what aspect of that aesthetic?), the vicissitudes of dealing with Braxton's notational system, and so forth. Granted, music such as Braxton's is difficult to analyze; it is difficult even to represent adequately in notation or description. However, this does not justify vitiating one's critical response by supplying mere platitudes; it does not justify refusing to engage with the music in favor of talking over it.
Toward the end of the book, Broomer turns to the Ghost Trance Music and suggests that there is an ironic edge to Braxton's habit of placing an hourglass on stage during performances. Broomer writes: "There is far more time inside a Braxton performance than might be measured by a clock" (p. 119). One might say that there is far more time wasted with Time and Anthony Braxton than might be measured by its mere 176 pages. On the other hand, one ought to remind oneself that there are far more things to be said about Braxton's music than can ever be said within a single book. Therefore, let us turn our attention toward the production of more successful endeavors.
City College of New York
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2010|
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