ANTHONY BRAXTON--Composition No. 247
Liner Notes by James Fei (Leo Records LR306)


The striking quality of the present recording will be evident immediately upon first hearing, guaranteed by the instrumentation of two woodwinds and bagpipes. Very little new music has been composed for the bagpipes, and its abilities and constraints helped shape both the formal and performative innovations of Composition No. 247, a striking work even in the context of Anthony Braxton's already unique Ghost Trance Musics. 

The Ghost Trance Music series (from here on abbreviated GTM) have been Braxton's sole compositional output since 1995 with very few exceptions--most notably his opera cycle, Trillium. In light of the diversity of his previous output (e.g. No.18 for string quartet, No.19 for one hundred tubas, No. 20 for two single line instruments and tape), its limited parameters were a significant and drastic departure. GTM has, however, undergone extensive developments in the past five years, and as recordings begin to become available from different stages it will be easier to see its continuity and where No.247 fits in the picture.

Braxton has described GTM as a "melody that doesn't end," citing musical traditions from other cultures such as the Native Americans and the Indonesian shadow puppet theater as influences. As these originating ideas for GTM have been well documented in previous liner notes, I refer the reader to these recordings for further information--particularly Francesco Martinelli's notes on the first GTM release (Sextet (Istanbul) 1996 Braxton House 001), Bill Shoemaker's text on the first GTM compositions (Four Compositions (Quartet) 1995Braxton House 005), and Graham Lock's notes for Composition No. 192(Leo Records 251), a duo for voice and woodwinds. As a participant in several recent GTM projects, I will first attempt to provide the "nuts and bolts" of a GTM piece, hopefully shedding light on the basic practices a musician is confronted with in performing this music, then proceed with the specifics of No. 247.

Ghost Trance Music Basics

Each GTM composition consists of two parts. The primary material is a long melody based on a steady stream of 8th notes, ranging anywhere from 20 to 50+ pages.1 This is sometimes accompanied by lyrics, as in No.192, which Braxton calls his telemic musics (see the recording for more on this subject). Any GTM piece can be performed by any combination of instruments, facilitated by the fact that the music is notated in Braxton's diamond clef, which can be read as any clef (treble, bass, alto, etc), in any transposition. The melody is also embedded with repeat brackets which set the ensemble in a loop until cued by its leader to proceed. 

Each GTM piece also has four secondary compositions, which are one page miniatures scored for trios. These can be cued up at anytime, in addition to the 400+ Braxton compositions which can also be inserted into a GTM performance (Braxton calls them tertiary pieces in this context), continuing the collaging practices that were developed in his coordinate musics with the Crispell, Dresser and Hemingway quartet. Language music (based on the twelve categories initially developed for Braxton's music for solo alto saxophone) is deeply integrated into GTM as well, focusing improvisations on particular elements (e.g. long sound, intervallics) that may be combined with each other (e.g. glissando long sound, multiphonic intervallics), as well as compounded with the melody (e.g. trill each note, play a multiphonic on each note). As is evident from examining even these basic building blocks, one can see that this is a music with many layers, capable of shifting from the steady 8th note melody to tremendous complexity.

Most GTM performances begin with the entire ensemble in unison at the opening of the work.2 What happens afterwards, however, can vary widely and depends upon the piece, the make-up of the ensemble, and the ever-changing performance practices. At designated points of the line, often in the looped sections, the performer may decide to switch into an improvisation, play a secondary/tertiary piece, or play the melody at a different tempo, among many other possibilities. There are no fixed rules pertaining to when this happens or for how long--it may also be done individually, while other members of the ensemble are continuing the line, or initiated by groups of any size. Depending on the situation, the performer may return to the ongoing line or synchronize with the others at a different point (a set of hand signals have been devised to traverse across the melody, cue up other compositions and different combinations of language musics). The exact shape of the performance is therefore only determined at the moment of execution; "anything is possible" within the context of the material given. In the present recording, for example, one can find several instances where the three musicians play unsynchronized material, as well as solo or group improvisations while a loop is maintained by the other player(s). Tertiary pieces are also inserted by the two reeds while the bagpipes continue independently--the polyrhythmic No. 173 occurs twice with different instrumentation (at ca. 13:50 and 46:10), and the jagged No. 131 enters at ca. 34:45 on soprano and alto.3

A consistent approach in Braxton's methodology, whether in notated pieces or improvised strategies, has been to build smaller components that can be combined and recombined into larger forms. This is already evident in his earliest works for solo saxophone, where a few isolated parameters often constituted their sole focus, establishing the possibilities of each basic unit of his saxophone vocabulary. From these categorizations, more elaborate mixtures can be made, eventually developing into the intermixing of solo compositions with his solo recordings in the nineties. GTM follows this model as well, especially in recent performances where smaller quadrants are organized within the ensemble, each guided by its own group leader and capable of complete independence. The Ghost Trance melody, secondary and tertiary pieces, and language music, here all become building blocks of Braxton's "erector set," to be recombined within the layered hierarchy of small to large groups. A performer's role (and the listener's as well) then, is to constantly "navigate through form." Rather than being assigned fixed roles in notated or improvised environments, one is confronted with multiple events that synchronize and move apart over time, no longer traversing in a predictable fashion from A to B. 

No. 247

No. 247 is one of the few GTM works tailored for a specific instrumentation--the only other recorded example being No.222 (Four Compositions (Washington, D.C.) 1998  Braxton House 009), a work for violin and piano commissioned by the Library of Congress. The entire 21-page line is to be played continuously, something idiomatic to bagpipe performance but requires the wind players to circular breathe throughout. When asked recently during a lecture in Antwerp why he decided to use this particular instrumentation, Braxton first responded that the opportunity was available since Matthew Welch is currently a graduate student at Wesleyan University (where Braxton is professor of music), and both he and I are "circular breathers." He also pointed out his love of marching music as a connection to the bagpipes, and proceeded to speak about realizing a GTM performance with 50 pipers (which will certainly make a remarkable introduction to Braxton's plan for outdoor GTM performances).

First, a note on bagpipes, whose properties are so integral to this recording. Matthew Welch plays Scottish Highland Bagpipes on this recording, consisting of one conical-bored chanter capable of sounding nine notes (plus two more using alternate fingerings) in a mixolydian mode, plus three drones--two tenor and one bass--on the fundamental pitch. 4 He also plays "mouth blown smallpipes," whose chanter has a cylindrical bore, and is much quieter, during passages such as the trio with bass and contrabass clarinets.5 Each GTM work has a distinct approach to pitch material, and No. 247 is especially notable since it uses only the nine notes available on the bagpipes (plus a few accidentals). The construction logics of the work will be made available through Braxton's composition notes in the near future.

Because each of the three musicians read in treble clef with different transpositions, the resulting parallel "harmony" depends on the instrumental combination employed--Braxton transposes in Bb, Eb, or F depending on his various instruments, I play everything in concert, and Welch's bagpipes sound a half step above the notated pitch. For example, in the initial setting, Braxton's F-saxophone is a perfect fifth lower than my soprano, and the bagpipes are a half step above the soprano; while in the concluding instrumentation, the two sopranos are a whole step apart, and the bagpipes are again another half step above. The intensity of these close intervals is further complicated by the fact that bagpipes are in just-intonation (tuned to whole number ratios in accordance with those found in the overtone series), clashing with the equal tempered woodwinds. Consequently, although the three lines are in parallel for the most part, their interval "width" shifts from note to note, adding a destabilizing element.

Bagpipes play at one dynamic level only--extremely loud. The sheer amplitude coupled with the above mentioned qualities create intense psycho-acoustic phenomena, which are particularly vivid when heard live. Difference tones, summation tones and beating patterns (resulting from the interference between sounds) are easily audible; and since these are non-harmonic relations, they shift roughly in similar motion with the three instruments but not in exact parallel. Furthermore, the acoustic interference often causes spatial dislocation, where sounds seem to project from different positions (difference tones, in particular, often sound as if they are coming directly from the listener's own ear). Although these effects are rarely replicable in a recording, they can be experienced to some degree when one listens to this disc LOUD. 

On the Recording

No. 247 was first performed in concert one month prior to this recording, by the same personnel. That version lasted just over thirty minutes, and was critical in "testing the waters," allowing us to tackle its difficulties before committing to tape. When the music first arrived in my mailbox, I was as much surprised by its apparent simplicity as the problems it entails--executing the rapid rhythmic abruptions accurately, not getting lost in the extended permutation of nine notes, and circular breathing the whole time. Unlike most works of music, physical endurance is a major factor here, which also means that only one take was practical for the recording session--a daunting task indeed! 

Making moment to moment synchronizations is always a challenge in GTM, since several different activities can switch in and out at any given time. During the Yoshi's concerts in 1997, for instance, where the practices of multiple quadrants within a large ensemble were first significantly developed, duo tertiary pieces were often cued up at opposite ends of the stage.6 This could take place in the midst of several other compositions with different tempi and dynamics, or even extreme density where one can barely hear each other. Having these experiences were invaluable in coping with the complications of No. 247, which is furthered by the tremendous volume of the bagpipes as well its different intonation.

The music on this disc is unlike anything I have participated in, in terms of mental and physical endurance, mobility between different sets of material, and sheer sonic intensity. GTM and No. 247 also continue to expand upon the aspect of music that first drew me to Braxton's work: the creation of new forms where composed and improvised elements are synthesized, not just co-existing in an on-off manner, but deeply integrated into a unified and multi-layered system. 

James Fei, New York City
11 XII 00



1. The melody of No. 247 not only consists of a stream of 8th notes, but also very rapid "abruptions," rhythmically complex figures that burst and subside. This characterizes what Braxton calls the second species of GTM, which began with the Library of Congress pieces: No. 222 and No. 223. A detailed explication on the three species of GTM will have to wait for future opportunities due to considerations of space.

2. The upcoming Ljubljana recording of Compositions No. 169, 186, 206, 214, performed by four reeds/conductors and string orchestra, is an exception.

3. No. 173 is originally scored for four actors, two soloists and ensemble, composed in 1994. No. 131 is a quartet piece from 1986. For recordings of these works in their original form, see Composition No. 173 (Black Saint 120166-2) and Five Compositions (Quartet) 1986 (Black Saint 0106).

4. In this case, the drone is sounding B-flat. Drones have been featured prominently in several Braxton compositions, most notably No. 132 (for dancers, soloists, organ, and two orchestras), a long work with gradually shifting organ drones and orchestras at opposite ends of the performance space.

5. Welch also plays the chanters on their own, as a double reed instrument, from time to time.

6. The Yoshi's (Oakland) performances took place over twelve sets in six days. The recordings are slated for release on Leo in two-set packages.


ANTHONY BRAXTON  (soprano, f and alto saxophones; e-flat and contrabass clarinets)
JAMES FEI  (soprano and alto saxophones; bass clarinet)

MATTHEW WELCH  (bagpipes)

Recorded by Jon Rosenberg in Middletown, Connecticut, May 15, 2000.