Don't expect a standard concert experience from Anthony Braxton's Sonic Genome Project.
For starters, the performance, taking place this Sunday as part of the Vancouver Cultural Olympiad, will run eight hours without pause or intermission, a test of endurance that, as the composer puts it, "breaks down the linearity of a one- or two-hour sonic experience." Then there's the fact that the orchestra - 60 musicians in all - will function not as a single unit but as a congress of smaller, independent, interrelated ensembles. And finally, there's the music itself, which is designed both to convey big ideas and upend listener expectations.
"We're looking for a surprise," Braxton says. "We're looking for an experience that can allow for single, group and transitory experiences to take place in a way that is equal to the new possibilities that we find ourselves dealing with."
If that last bit sounds a bit theory laden, that's Braxton for you. It's no accident that the adjective most commonly applied to the American saxophonist and composer is "professorial." Not only does he look the part - wire-frame glasses, cardigan, Oxford-cloth shirt - he has the proper credentials, having taught at Mills College (Dave Brubeck's alma mater) before moving to Wesleyan University in the late eighties.
Braxton, 64, also speaks like an academic, something that can make his musical ideas seem more intimidating than they ought. Take, for example, this description of the Sonic Genome.
"For the eight-hour experience that we will have in Vancouver, that experience is contained inside a form-spread schema, that calibrates and targets and activates functions in each hour," he says, over the phone from his home in Connecticut. "The hourly functions in this context will involve synchronous starting points, target area space points, target strategic points. ... There are trajectories that will be experienced. Those trajectories might be geometric trajectories from the music system, all the way to implanted and target-space objectives."
Head spinning yet?
Braxton has been intriguing - and confusing - listeners and musicians for more than four decades now. He was first recognized as a major force in creative music in the 1970s, when he made a series of genre-defying recordings for Arista Records that ranged from solo saxophone improvisations to the audacious Opus 82 for four orchestras. He was awarded a MacArthur "genius grant" in 1994.
Starting out on the free side of jazz, Braxton worked in the early seventies with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a Chicago-based co-operative that also produced the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But he also composed operas and orchestral works, and his compositional ideas have much in common with Charles Ives, John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Braxton will touch on both sides of his reputation in Vancouver. On Friday, his 12+1 tet - a combo he describes as "12 plus the old dog Braxton himself" - will give a performance of improvisational music at Christ Church Cathedral. Then at noon on Sunday, there will be a free performance of the most ambitious of his large-scale experimental compositions, the eight-hour Sonic Genome Project.
For the Genome, Braxton will employ the members of his 12+1 tet, as well as 47 "resident players" from the Vancouver area, a mixture of creative music veterans and high-school students. The group will be subdivided into performance cells, each led by a member of the 12+1 tet; there will be no "conductor" directing the performance.
"Everything is written down," he says, but the music won't work the way traditional Western classical music does. "I have tried to build a model that is not mono-hierarchical, where one guy is in charge and everyone is functioning based on that model." What he is hoping for is "sectional autonomy," so the players may act independently while adhering to Braxton's overall structure. Ideally, this would create situations where "the musicians are encouraged to develop internal surprises."
Perhaps it would be easiest to understand the Sonic Genome through its analogy. Just as the human genome describes how various chemical compounds combine to form the building blocks of human life, Braxton's work offers a structure in which various small ensembles playing combine to form a sort of musical organism, built from Braxton's musical ideas but animated by its own creativity.
"It's a philosophical system that doesn't tell you what to think," says the composer. "Rather, it gives you a set of tools, and you can think through that set of tools, using each tool as a transparency, a vibrational transparency. [It's a]navigation through the space, but not navigation based on Braxton telling you where to go."
As for how the listener should navigate, Braxton hopes they will literally wade into the music. "You're entering a space with music coming from different directions," he says. "The experience will involve different degrees of density, from very dense sonic events to very thin sonic events. I would ask the [listeners]to walk inside the music, just like walking inside the House of Mirrors.… Visit the cellular activities, cellular activities being three [musicians]or less. Or combinational activities."
Above all, he says, "Check out the whole space. Don't spend the whole eight hours in just one space, but move around and get different perspectives about everything that's happening."
Anthony Braxton's 12+1 tet performs at 8 p.m. Friday at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver. The Sonic Genome Project will be performed at noon on Sunday at the Roundhouse Exhibition Hall, 181 Roundhouse Mews (admission is free).