* Telemann: The Complete Tafelmusik (d.1-2) (Freiburgurger Barockorchester) (Harmonia Mundi 4CD)
* Mussorgsky, et al.: Pictures At An Exhibition, etc. (Chicago Symphony/Reiner) (RCA-Victor/Sony SACD)
* Cage: Sonatas & Interludes (Tilbury): Sala Verdi, Milan Conservatory 10-21-07 (FM CDR)
* John Coltrane: Interplay (d.1-3) (Prestige 5CD)
* Andrew Hill Sextet: Haus der Berliner Festspiel, Berlin 10-31-02 (FM CDR)
* Andrew Hill Sextet: Lausanne, Switzerland 11-01-02 (FM CDR)
* Anthony Braxton: Quartet (Moscow) 2008 (Leo CD)
* Anthony Braxton: Quartet (Mestre) 2008 (Caligola CD)
* Anthony Braxton Diamond Curtain Wall Quartet: Opera Théâtre de Besançon 6-27-08 (AUD CDR)
* Anthony Braxton Diamond Curtain Wall Trio: Chiostro di Villa d’Este, Tivoli 7-02-08 (AUD CDR)
* Derek Bailey: Pieces For Guitar (Tzadik CD)
* Chick Corea & Return To Forever: Light As A Feather (Polydor LP)
* Weather Report: Mysterious Traveler (Columbia LP)
* Weather Report: Black Market (Columbia LP)
* Weather Report: Heavy Weather (Columbia/Legacy SACD)
* Weather Report: Mr. Gone (Columbia LP)
* Weather Report: Night Passage (Columbia/ARC LP)
* Pat Metheny Group: Still Life (Talking) (Geffen CD)†/‡
* Pat Metheny Group: Letter From Home (Geffen CD)†/‡
* Steve Tibbetts: Safe Journey (ECM LP)
* Parliament/Funkadelic: Convention Center, Dallas, TX 11-05-76 (SBD CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Betty Nelson’s Organic Raspberry Farm, Sultan, WA 9-02-68 (SBD CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco, CA 10-12-68 (SBD CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco, CA 10-13-68 (SBD CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Municipal Auditorium, Austin, YX 11-22-72 (d.1) (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Winterland Arena, San Francisco, CA 2-23-74 (SBD 4CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Knickerbocker Arena, Albany, NY 3-28-93 (SBD 2CDR)‡
* Joni Mitchell: Shadows And Light (Asylum 2CD)
* Genesis: Genesis (Atlantic LP)
* Fushitsusha: Withdrawe, this sable Disclosure ere devot’d (Victo CD)
* R.E.M.: Murmur (I.R.S. LP)
* Yo La Tengo: I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass (Matador CD)†/‡
* Beck: The Information (Geffen CD)
* Beck: Modern Guilt (Geffen CD)(‡)
* Boston Spaceships: Let It Beard (GBV, Inc. 2LP)
* Circus Devils: Mother Skinny (Happy Jack Rock Records LP)
* Tortoise: Beacons Of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey LP)
* Broken Bells: Broken Bells (Columbia LP)
Way back in December of 2008, I raved about Leo’s rush-release of Quartet (Moscow) 2008, a live recording of Anthony Braxton’s Diamond Curtain Wall Quartet featuring guitarist Mary Halvorson, brass player Taylor Ho Bynum, bassoonist Katherine Young and Braxton on reeds and laptop. It is an extraordinary document of one of Braxton’s most viscerally exciting ensembles and one of my favorite records of all time. Now, three years later, the tiny Italian label, Caligola, has released another recording from this tour, Quartet (Mestre) 2008, and it might be even better! The sound quality, anyway, is significantly improved. The Leo disc disc sounds OK, if a little distant, but this multi-track recording has been meticulously mixed-down for optimum fidelity. Each instrument is crystal clear, occupying a precisely defined space in the soundstage and the wide-spectrum dynamics are vividly lifelike—truly an audiophile-quality representation of this band. And what a band! The performance is, as usual, spectacular and it is interesting to compare it to the Moscow concert (and other verité recordings from this tour) to appreciate the sheer inventiveness of the musicians and their uncanny, telepathic interplay.
It’s an unconventional ensemble, for sure, with no percussion to hold things together (or weigh them down) and the bracing squall of the Supercollider computer software adds an electro-futuristic dimension unique to Braxton’s hyper-expansive oeuvre. Moreover, the Diamond Curtain Wall compositions are abstract in the extreme: a score consists of splashes of colored paint supplemented with lines, numbers and other hieroglyphic symbols developed out of Braxton’s complex, peculiarly idiosyncratic notational systems. An example (via The Tri-Centric Foundation) from Composition 366c looks like this:
In his liner notes to Quartet (Mestre) 2008 (which contains a performance of Composition 367c), Stefano Zenni refers to the music as “improvisations” and, to some degree, the term is appropriate. After all, the musicians are not constrained by prescribed pitches, schematic harmonies or rationalized rhythms but, instead, must “interpret” the seemingly obscure symbolism on the page, decode an image far removed from conventional notation. But I do believe Braxton’s markings contain practical meaning to the musicians (who are long-time Braxton’s initiates) and while it may appear to be pure improvisation, it is not, really; the score is obviously integral to the music’s process of becoming. It is a Braxton composition, even if it doesn’t sound like any other. Unlike Braxton’s other recent activity, the Diamond Curtain Wall Music does not rely upon the hypnotic, pulse-driven Ghost Trance material or the collagist layering of various existing compositions, which has been the usual modus operandi of his working ensembles since the 1980s (and now taken to an extreme with the Echo Echo Mirror House Music, where every musician also plays an iPod loaded with Braxton’s complete catalog of recorded works). The screeching electronics and (sometimes) rockish guitar only partially defines the uniqueness of the Diamond Curtain Wall Music: the cryptic yet visually delightful score, in these hands, produces something akin to magic. But how?
Recently, composer Pat Muchmore wrote a fascinating online column in The New York Times about what he calls “ergodic notation,” the various sorts of creatively unconventional methods of notating music dating back to the 15th Century. His term is derived from Espen J. Aarspeth, a game and literary theorist who coined the phrase, “ergodic literature,” to describe “writings that require some amount of effort to read beyond simply moving one’s eyes and flipping pages” (e.g. Mark Z. Danielewski’s 2000 novel, House of Leaves). But Muchmore goes on to distinguish between elements which are purely graphical and those that are musically functional while defending what has been too often dismissed as Augenmusik—“eye music”—scores which are perhaps interesting to look at but (supposedly) impossible to play and worthless to listen to. The article is generously illustrated with pages from such luminaries of the field as George Crumb, Peter Maxwell Davies and, of course (everybody’s favorite), John Cage. Muchmore makes several cogent arguments in favor of the technique and demonstrates his own use of a circular notational scheme in his own work. Whether the term “ergodic music” will catch on or his vigorous defense of “eye music” prevails remains doubtful (the comments section is typically contentious). Nevertheless, for the “musically fluent” know-it-alls, Muchmore offers an intriguing observation regarding the elegantly rendered manuscript of “Belle, bonne, sage” by the Renaissance-era composer, Baude Codier (c.1380-c.1440):
Take another close look at the heart-shaped ars subtilior example above. Unless you’re quite familiar with European Renaissance notation, it’s probably difficult to imagine precisely what sounds have been encoded here, and it would remain so even if the score weren’t graphically altered. It should be familiar — after all this is a direct evolutionary antecedent of modern Western notation — but the specifics remain tantalizingly out of reach without further study. The note shapes are just that: shapes. It’s a potent reminder that ALL notation is entirely graphical, even though it’s as hard to see standard modern notation purely visually as it is to look at a sign in your native language and appreciate solely the contours of the familiar characters without their usual meaning.
What we think of as “standard notation” was at one time a radical creative leap and it evolved and developed—and ossified—over time. The “classical music” establishment fetishizes the score—the notes on the page—while using it as a cudgel to stifle the supposed evils of Modernism and the anarchic indeterminacy of improvisation. “Ergodic notation” loosens the shackles of received wisdom and the entrained habits of “professional” musicians and makes possible something conventional notation cannot, having reduced mystical abstractions to an inviolable standardization.
It’s corny, but I guess that’s why I love both creating and reading these scores; it’s ever so slightly magical. Even for those who can’t particularly read music, I think it can add to the appreciation of a composition to see such scores while listening to the music and know that, somehow, when the former is put in front of the right eyes it becomes the latter. Even if the music alone does relatively little for you, surely it’s at least fun to know that it was generated by splashes of color, a spiral or a baroquely-detailed heart.
Braxton may come across to the uninitiated as forbiddingly austere but there is this sort of magic-making happening with the Diamond Curtain Wall music—and it is seriously fun to listen to! As Muchmore so aptly puts it, “the creative process of devising such a piece utterly fuses the visual and the musical” and the highly unconventional score causes something to happen that is more than just free improvisation. I may not be capable of deciphering Braxton’s marks on the page—much less correlating them to what I’m hearing—but the efficacy of “ergodic notation” is, nevertheless, obvious. Quartet (Mestre) 2008 is some of the most compelling—and enjoyable—music of his long career. Most highly recommended!