Anthony Braxton’s music is inherently theatrical. It’s also serious, and hilariously entertaining.
It is not, however, performed with a frequency that befits Braxton’s stature, in a glaring, countrywide omission. More on that in a bit, but first: When seasoned practitioners of his work gather to explore some of his most overlooked pieces, which is happening this weekend at the Brick Theater in Brooklyn, that should qualify as a major event.
On Thursday night at the Brick, the scrappy Experiments in Opera company pulled off a delirious debut performance of what it’s calling “Anthony Braxton Theater Improvisations.” The one-hour show proved delightful; and the small, cozy venue was rightfully sold out. The run continues through Saturday, so grab one of the remaining seats while you can.
Those who can’t make it can still dig into this side of Braxton’s music, thanks to how doggedly he documents his projects. The Experiments show deserves attention, and perhaps documentation, given the way it provides a new lens on a corner of Braxton’s more conceptual side.
The evening is based on Opuses 279-283 in Braxton’s catalog: comedic efforts written for a narrator and an improvising instrumentalist. Back in 2000, Braxton — playing a range of saxophones and clarinets — recorded several of these works with a young stand-up comedian, Alex Horwitz.
In Composition No. 282, that narrator is called upon to read the day’s newspaper (with an option to crumple it for timbral effect), while the instrumentalist improvises. In No. 281, bebop-like phrases run underneath one-liners and observational humor.
But with just two people, the recording’s charm sometimes peters out. The Experiments show maintains higher energy, and brings three artists to each performance: a narrator-actor (Rob Reese, who also directed); another scene partner and soprano (Kamala Sankaram, a veteran of Braxton opera recordings); and an instrumentalist (on Thursday, the trumpeter Nate Wooley, who participated memorably in some larger Braxton ensembles during the 2010s).
Before the show, the saxophonist James Fei, who performs on Friday’s set, told me that Composition No. 279 is essentially a compendium of jokes. That piece didn’t make the cut in Braxton’s recording with Horwitz from 2000, but it was featured in the Experiments show.
Holding a top hat, Reese paced among the audience members and asked some of them to pick a card from inside it. A card might carry one of Braxton’s “language music” organizational prompts (like “intervallic formings”), paired with a genre of joke from Composition No. 279 (like “Republican/Democrat jokes.”)
While Wooley and Sankaram worked with strident, leaping intervals, Reese delivered a joke that tended toward the school of the one-liner king Henny Youngman (to whom Braxton dedicated Composition 282). I roughly transcribed one of the jokes this way: “Why are Democrats always in favor of gun control? Because they keep shooting themselves in the foot.”
On the page, this may not seem like much. But set against a duet of wildly leaping figures, it all produced a dazzling novelty that also reinvigorated a vintage form; the borscht belt never sounded so endearingly strange.
Reese, who collaborated with Sankaram on her imaginative opera “Miranda,” also improvised some scenic work at the front of the stage with her. Some of their material was less obviously connected to the Braxton compositions as previously recorded but felt in the right spirit — as did Wooley’s improvisations away from his horn. In the background of one scene between Reese and Sankaram, the trumpeter sat against the brick wall at the stage’s rear. While lit with the penumbra of a spotlight aimed elsewhere, he coolly mimed the smoking of a cigarette with a kazoo.
And since Braxton has written that “all compositions in my music system can be executed at the same time/moment,” the troupe reveled in that possibility. At one point, Wooley relished the languid, bop-tinged opening theme of Composition No. 23D, originally recorded on the album “New York, Fall 1974.”
Then Sankaram swung into one of the meatier passages written for her in Braxton’s Composition No. 380 — the opera “Trillium J,” which was recorded and performed in 2014 at Roulette in Brooklyn. In one scene, Sankaram plays the role of “Miss Scarlet,” a “helpless maiden who happens to own 400 nuclear weapons stockpile containers — not to mention the chemical gas warfare options.”
Coloratura singing, written for those lines? That’s funny. In the full opera — which is available on Blu-ray and as a paid download on Vimeo — the moment of humor that Sankaram really sells can whiz by amid all the orchestral complexity. But it had new verve when she brought it back around in the improvisational maelstrom of Thursday’s more intimate set.
All of this spoke to the unexplored potential of Braxton’s oeuvre. His catalog of over a half-century’s compositions and his playing on reed instruments are both rightfully talked about with awe, as is his record as a mentor. Wave after wave of celebrated player-composers, including George E. Lewis and Mary Halvorson, have cut their professional teeth in his ensembles. Aaron Siegel, the executive director of Experiments in Opera, has also served as a percussionist in those groups. In opening remarks on Thursday, he credited Braxton as one of his company’s original mentors.
Braxton has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Foundation grant, and an NEA Jazz Masters award. If you talk to leaders of forward-thinking orchestras and opera companies, you’ll often hear (off the record) about their desire to program Braxton’s ambitious pieces — the ones that carry traces of bebop and Karlheinz Stockhausen, of Hildegard von Bingen and American folk dances.
But it’s evidently difficult to make happen. When the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang was young and working with the New York Philharmonic, he tried pushing Braxton’s orchestral music on his superiors. No dice. Perhaps that’s because Braxton asks players to improvise as well as pay attention to complex notated material.
So, for now, we have to rely on smaller organizations like Experiments in Opera to find the right balance and bring Braxtonia to life properly. And this week, they’re nailing it.