Benjamin Button, the fictional character portrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald and David Fincher, suffered the curious fate of being born a mature adult and dying as a young person. Anthony Braxton’s expansive œuvre has been developing for over half a century and bears a certain resemblance to Button’s syndrome. One can only register with awe that the work he is engaged in today – quite exemplary in terms of how wide-ranging his ideas and projects are – was prefigured in his earliest works in microcosmic form. “I think of my work as the gradual evolution of ideas which were there right from the very start.”[1] Can there be any stronger evidence of maturity at such a young age?

As for creativity, the soon to be seventy-five year old is bursting with youthful élan. However, he does not succumb to the illusion that his creative time is unlimited and his strength is the same as that of a man in his twenties. He knows exactly what his biological clock is telling him: “I’m running out of time.[2]” Aware that he has now reached the “senior cycle” of his life, he is working feverishly to complete his musical system – twelve concepts (prototypes) are planned, six of which have been realised with the most recent of them, “ZIM Music”, being presented at Jazzfest Berlin – as well as a gigantic opera cycle entitled “Trillium”. And as soon as he has the opportunity to present his major project “Sonic Genome” spanning several hours, he accepts it with remarkable fitness. The ever-growing pile of composing commissions is at fault for this passionate performer reducing the number of his appearances in recent years. This makes his concerts in Berlin on 31 October and 3 November all the more precious.

The career of an indomitable artist

His star rose at the end of the Sixties, when he was in his mid-twenties. On Chicago’s South Side he belonged to the first generation of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a group of African American musicians who would become the nucleus of avant-garde jazz in the USA. Equally fascinated by Coltrane and Schönberg, by Brubeck and Cage, by Coleman and Stockhausen, by Western and Eastern musical culture, Braxton pushed jazz and improvised music into areas way beyond their accustomed boundaries. For many, these places were off limits. In the USA foreheads became furrowed, there were irritated reactions and some colleagues got carried away into making shamefully derogatory remarks about him in public. His relationship with the major label Arista also proved short-lived. Whereas in Europe he was acclaimed. He performed here constantly during the Seventies and was able to produce albums one after another for small, independent record companies. Over time, there have been hundreds of them and none of them is like the one before, yet they all carry the same unmistakable signature: they are uncompromising, radically unconventional, aesthetically and intellectually challenging. Now he has his own record label New Braxton House[3] and a dedicated non-profit organisation, the Tri-Centric Foundation.[4] These are hard-won victories for independence.

Braxton, the unbowed, the indomitable. Under no circumstances will he as a musician include the laws of the market in his calculations, or current artistic fashions or the anticipated tastes of the masses. As a result this family man has spent many years living on the fringes of poverty. He has only achieved security since 1985, once he had attained professorships at Mills College and Wesleyan University. He openly struggled with academic work, which bound up a lot of his time in uncreative activities, and was delighted to be able to retire in 2013, though retirement has proved to be the opposite of not working. In musical terms his time spent in academia certainly had its pluses. Braxton is a skillful mentor who understands how to motivate the young generation. Now the American scene is full of musicians who are his former students and some of them will perform in the Berlin version of ‘Sonic Genome”. However, there is no clearly identifiable “school of” Braxton – for this would be impossible. To follow his example does not mean adapting his methods, concepts and forms of expression: it means finding musical forms of your own – Mary Halvorson, Steve Lehman, Taylor Ho Bynum, James Fei and Chris Jonas, to name just a few, put this into exemplary practice.

The art of improvisation and spontaneously shaping the moment are the vital core of his creative music. To this day when he performs he is an outstanding multi-instrumentalist. As a composer, he files away incessantly on solutions that will combine fixed (stable) and flexible (mutable) structures, precise guidelines and room to play in openly in surprising ways. The wealth of his ideas is record-breaking. His index of works has grown to include over 500 compositions, including complex scores for piano, (multi)orchestra and opera, written instructions for solo instrumentalists, works with graphic notations, ritual music, choral pieces, daredevil visionary pieces for 100 tubas, for puppet theatre, for musicians in costumes, all manner of works that are close to jazz, all manner of works that are far removed from jazz. You never know what he is going to do next. Only one thing is certain: standing still and repeating himself is out of the question.

He has seized upon contemporary technology with a youthful sense of adventure and childish curiosity. For example in his “Echo Echo Mirror House Music”, which sounds as crazy as its name suggests, on top of everything else the instrumentalists play on amplified iPods or computers containing Braxton’s live and studio recordings: a hell of a sound and a hell of a lot of fun! His delight in boundary-breaking musical collaborations – for example with noise and rock musicians – seems to grow the older – no: the younger – he gets.

Braxton in Berlin

Braxton has a long history of Berlin connections. In 1976 he performed at the Berliner Jazztage with his touring quartet and received the offer – as rare then as it is now – to also perform one of his compositions with “extended structures”; “No. 63” for two soloists and chamber orchestra. In the summer of 1977 he gave a packed outdoor concert at the Nationalgalerie in which amazed children sat at the feet of the musicians. It is now exactly forty years ago that he performed his “Composition No. 94” at the Berliner Jazztage with Ray Anderson and Richard Teitelbaum. And in 1985 he was twice a guest in the divided city: in April in a trio at the Akademie der Künste and in June in a quartet (with the East German bassist Jens Saleh stepping in at short notice) at the Jazzbühne in East Berlin: his only concert in the GDR. After that Berlin would have to wait a long time for him to return. In 2012 he presented his intuitive “Falling River Music” at the Institut français and one year later his electro-acoustic “Diamond Curtain Wall Music” at the A l’Arme! Festival. This brought Braxton’s relationship with the capital city into the present and with this year’s Jazzfest Berlin it is already advancing into the future.

Sonic Genome

“Sonic Genome” is one of Braxton’s musical meta-concepts informed by all his systematic elements and prototypes. He describes it as a “systematic model environment that contains the greater (composite) design/idea/vision of a totally integrated paradigm (idea)”.[5] This concept was already anticipated by his “Ghost Trance Music”, within which multiplied musical processes and compositional elements are intertwined inside an endless melody. “Sonic Genome” goes further. It is a kind of summation of his work until this point while at the same time taking it into new dimensions. Four ideas, on which he has been working for a long time in various contexts are realised in a remarkable way in this concept:

Synthesis of all compositions: All the music he has written can be combined. With the “holistic creative model” “Sonic Genome” he comes one step closer to achieving his dream of linking all these works – as I’ve said: over 500. The running order for a performance is arranged so that in principle all the compositions can be played entirely or in part, consecutively and simultaneously. The result is a dense musical universe that is highly diverse.

Transtemporality: This universe cannot accept any time limits. Ideally performances should last for eternity. For practical reasons the length is restricted to a minimum of six hours.

Spatial music: “Sonic Genome” is one of Braxton’s “area-space models”. The music becomes a property of the space and public spaces become the medium of the music. The division between stage and auditorium disappears. The audience of “friendly experiencers” and the artistic protagonists find themselves in constant mental and physical movement, creating a promenade through the location with an unpredictable route.

Multi-hierarchy: The route is an unpredictable one firstly because every “friendly experiencer” can follow the musicians according to their whims and individual preferences. And secondly because all that Braxton prescribes for each “Sonic Genome” is a rough timetable with certain agreed fixed points. All the remaining decisions – who plays with whom, when, where and for how long – are made spontaneously during the performance. All the participants are involved in the decision-making process: the artistic director, twelve “section leaders” from the Tri-Centric Foundation and the ensemble that is more than forty strong. “Sonic Genome” makes a reality of the social utopia of a self-organised, multi-hierarchical community in which all the participants take responsibility for the whole with a great expertise.

The Berlin edition is the third public performance of “Sonic Genome” after 2010 (Vancouver) and 2015 (Turin).

ZIM Music

Since its premiere in 2015 in Wroclaw, Braxton’s “ZIM Music” has been gripped by permanent conceptual expansion. No fewer than five different systems of notation are currently being used. What has remained the same are the use of two harps and the specific atmosphere of the music. Fundamental to these prototype is what Braxton calls “gradient logics”. The initiated will know that this means that “ZIM” belongs to the eleventh type in his twelve-part system assigned to the “house of ALVA”.

However, you don’t need to be one of the initiated to be fascinated by “ZIM”. The music is dynamic through and through. The tempi change abruptly, as do the pitches and volumes. Musical contours become discernible, forms materialise while others become unstable, dissolve and re-form – uninterruptedly for the entire duration of the concert. And this is how Braxton describes what he has in mind: “a music of ‘breath’”, “a music of ‘waves’”, “a music of ‘swells’”, “a form of ‘sunshine”’, “pushing out ‘anything negative’”, “is about ‘levitation’”, “a ‘roller coaster’ ride”, “patience”, “pacing”, “sliding on a ski slope”.

Sliding on a ski slope in Berlin. Braxton’s phenomenal septet makes it all possible!


[1] Brian Morton (2005): Anthony Braxton. The Wire. No. 252, p. 30.

[2] Anthony Braxton by Nate Wooley (April 7, 2014):



[5]  All following quotes are from his unpublished Tri-Centric System Notes: 2016.

Jazzfest Berlin 2019 opens with Anthony Braxton’s Sonic Genome on 31 October. With a variety of talk formats and an exhibition of selected scores at Haus der Berliner Festspiele from 1 – 3 November, the festival explores the work and significance of Anthony Braxton. This artist will close Jazzfest Berlin 2019 with a performance of his latest compositional system ZIM Music on 4 November.