Adès, Braxton, Barry, Beethoven

Thomas Adès and the Britten Sinfonia are surveying Beethoven chamber music and symphonies alongside diverse works by living Irish composer Gerald Barry. At Milton Court last Tuesday I heard an early entry in what promises to be a wonderful cycle for London concertgoers.

Interestingly, none of Adès’s own music is programmed, which makes it even a handsomer tribute to Barry, a new name to me, although he is well-known in the greater UK. (Tom Service’s guide is helpful.) It was kind of an insane thrill to sit in the front row in a terrific venue for chamber music and hear two major composers thunder out the two-piano Five Chorales from The Intelligence Park (excerpts from a Barry opera). It’s the only Barry piece I know so far but I can see why Adès digs him, the voice is surreal and witty yet utterly authentic to old-school harmony and flow. These two aren’t experimental composers, these are simply composers. My god, they are even composer-pianists! 30 years ago this breed simply wasn’t around, at least not like this.

The program began with Beethoven’s familiar Septet, an extended early potboiler that gets more inspired as it goes along. However I had never heard the Op. 70 No. 2 Piano Trio in E-flat. How many more utter masterpieces of the conventional canon am I still going to have a “first experience” with? There can’t be many, but, wow, what a piece. Adès is an excellent pianist, with a drive and urgent clarity recalling perhaps Rudolf Serkin. Beauty was there, but only as an afterthought to the taut lines and fierce argument. “Surprise” was the watchword, and while listening one wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Thomas Gould and Caroline Dearnl were excellent on violin and cello.

Last night in Moers, the Anthony Braxton ZIM Sextet became a septet with the addition of star saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock. I’ve long admired Laubrock’s playing, she’s got a kind of breathy Ben Websterism to her modernist ethos. The rest of the band included Taylor Ho Bynum (brass and conductor), Shelley Burgon  and Jacqueline Kerrod (both on harp), Tomeka Reid (cello) and Dan Peck (tuba).

In a way a typical Braxton configuration: Outrageous for anyone else, of course, but typical of Braxton. Most of the musicians played most of the time for 55 minutes, but the textures were transparent and engaging. The gently chiming atonal harps were wonderful, it felt almost as if we were lost in an old film score. A lyrical duet of Braxton and Laubrock accompanied by Peck’s burbs and burbles was almost a romantic moment. Bynum led the group in a few thorny ensembles and delivered scorching cornet and trombone.

At one point I felt some sadness, similar to the sadness I feel when seeing George Cables or Harold Mabern play. Whatever this is: Anthony Braxton: AACM: Black Experimental Music: the precise meeting between John Cage and John Coltrane: the fire of the late 1960s…Whatever this is, the clock is ticking and when it’s gone we will miss it.

Braxton played some contrabass saxophone last night. Braxton fucking invented the contrabass saxophone. Hearing Braxton play contrabass saxophone was like hearing Jo Jones play a high-hat.

Truthfully, as I get older, I’ve had to realize that experimental music is not my true love. Whether it’s Cage, Braxton, or other geniuses from that moment where it all went to the furthest dimension, I know that part of me rebels at the need to break that many rules.  (I might have been scarred for life by a set of Braxton playing standards on piano in the early ’90s.) Still, it’s important that this dedication to experimentation existed — one hopes for but does not expect experimentalists the caliber of Cage and Braxton to ever come again — and when the concert concluded I leapt to my feet along with the rest of the packed crowd.

There is also simply this: If someone reaches age 72 dancing to their own drum, there is profound gravitas to their bearing. I was reasonably close to Braxton twice yesterday, once at the canteen, once in the dressing room, and both times the impact was visceral. Waves of energy radiated off the old master.


Afterwards: Ingrid Laubrock, Anthony Braxton, Taylor Ho Bynum