A Contrarian View of Anthony Braxton’s Trillium E
From a music writer’s perspective, the question of how to approach Anthony Braxton’s recent four-disc opera, Trillium E begins with whether or not to cover it at all. Consider: it came out at the very end of last year (on the Firehouse 12 label), meaning that a large percentage if not all of its intended customers have already acquired it. It’s a massive achievement, over three hours of music, five if you count the avant garde jazz titan’s intended hourlong pre- and post-performance processionals. Innumerable, less challenging – at least in terms of sheer time – Braxton works exist which deliver his signature blend of wondrously defamiliarizing harmonies and rigorously cerebral thought. Yet Braxton is one of those artists whose cult grows every year, as another senior jazz performance class initiates a small but trustworthy percentage of the freshmen with something of a secret handshake: “Of course you know Albert Ayler..but do you know Braxton?” So in light of that consideration, a work of this magnitude from such an important composer demands some kind of examination, critical or not.
Some will take this as utter hubris, but this is an album whose zeniths are as exquisite as its nadirs are maddening. The 45-piece Tri-Centric Orchestra is the star of the show. Braxton’s close harmonies, use of microtones, melismas and minute rhythmic shifts make demands that few composers can or dare ask of performers, yet this ensemble pulls them off singlemindedly: very frequently throughout the piece, it’s as if it’s one mighty, majestic voice. The music is more horizontal than rhythmic, nebulously floating banks of sound with understatedly dramatic low/high contrasts, and throughout much of Act I, momentary, flitting motifs filtering through the murk with an intriguing, enigmatic dubwise effect similar to backward masking. The high woodwinds get more lively at the beginning of Act II, followed by long, slowly oscillating, rivetingly otherworldly tones leading into an absolutely luscious segment where Braxton explores the kind of creepily lush, jarringly rhythmic things you can do with a choir, taking a page out of Pauline Oliveros – or Jeff Lynne – both of whom were doing the same thing back in the 70s. Act III adds roughhewn string motifs and simple, vivid battering-ram percussion and a brief but chilling reprise of the creepy groupthink vocalese of Act II: the wavering, pitchy alien mantra “I am here and you are not” delivers a visceral chill.
This album is maddening because it’s an opera, pure and simple. Here’s a radical idea (something Braxton knows well) – eliminate the libretto. That’s right – 86 the vocals. That’s not to say that its rather academically worded existential philosophy isn’t worth considering, or that the sci-fi narrative’s heavy foreshadowing doesn’t maintain interest, or that it isn’t imbued with Braxton’s signature dry, ironic humor, only that there are parts where he actually seems to be mocking the art form itself. And the lyrics themselves, such as they are, hardly lend themselves to being sung. Here’s a random sample:
Bubba John Jack/Herald: I’m thinking more in the way of my own complete set of baseball cards – something more from the forties/fifties vintage series.
Zakko/Arfthro: You can’t be serious.
This also isn’t to belittle the singers, notably coloratura soprano Kamala Sankaram and mighty bass Michael Douglas Jones, who along with most of the rest of the cast do their best to bring some kind of cantabile phrasing to Braxton’s plainspoken, singsongey vocal melodies. But as the opera goes on, the singers veer in and out of voice to the point where they’re practically speaking – as perhaps they should. Consider: the bel canto style came to prominence in a language defined by its fluid, polysyllabic vowels. In general, the technique doesn’t translate well to the clipped sibilances of American English, and this opera is a prime example. Braxton has said that the style is well suited to putting his point across, and he’s just plain wrong. Since he imagines the work taking on many possible adaptations – for shadow puppet theatre, for example, an especially appealing proposition – then why not hip-hop? Or simply spoken word? Or…as a purely symphonic work. Orchestras worldwide have been doing instrumental interpretations of opera practically since it first existed, which ultimately may be the fate best suited to this perplexing, complicated, flawed yet often unearthly beautiful piece of music.