Anthony Braxton retired from academia in 2013, but at 73, he is far from idle. That much is clear when I recently walked into his apartment in Connecticut, a couple of dozen miles away from Wesleyan University, where he taught for more than two decades.
After shaking my hand and taking my coat, this composer and saxophonist — a MacArthur “genius” grant winner, an NEA Jazz Master and an eminence in improvisation and contemporary composition — showed me into a small but comfortable study, stacked with reams of large-format score pages.
This was “Trillium L,” the next opera in his long-gestating cycle of works for the stage. Each act of a “Trillium” opera tells a different story, while using the same cast of singers, who rotate roles. Playing with stock genres — including elements of gangster noir, futuristic dystopia and cutthroat boardroom intrigue — has given Braxton the chance to explore ideas regarding cultural progress (or lack thereof). But gonzo, satirical humor often leavens the fundamental seriousness, in both sound and word.
A previous four-act opera in the series, “Trillium J,” made a memorable impression when it was performed at Roulette, in New York City, in 2014. (It is available in a variety of audio and video formats.) Since then, Braxton has completed “Trillium X,” which his Tri-Centric Foundation, devoted to supporting his work, hopes to record soon.
He has spent much of the last four years on “Trillium L,” writing the libretto and coming up with rhythms for the singers and “guide tones” — essentially a floor of drone pitches — that will undergird the orchestral writing. The meat of the orchestration will come soon, now that those basic parameters have been set.
“The first story is about Ashton Downs,” he said, turning over the initial pages of the score. “My new hero.”
Having glanced at the lengthy libretto, I mentioned that this character seems like a striking addition to the Braxton operatic canon: a secret agent gifted in karate.
“He’s gonna beat the spit out of James Bond, in the future,” Braxton joked, using a saltier word. “That’s when I’ll make my money.”
“By the way,” he added, “this is a five-day opera.” He smiled knowingly when I mentioned that “Sonntag aus Licht” — the final opera by one of his heroes, Karlheinz Stockhausen — occasionally takes two days to perform. (There may be an aspect of cheerful one-upmanship going on here.)
Braxton admitted that he did not know whether “Trillium L” would ever be performed. But he is determined to finish it, and soon.
Other ambitious projects are closer to being realized. Later this month, Braxton’s label is releasing a 12-album set of his “Syntactical Ghost Trance Music.” Given the title “GTM (Syntax) 2017,” the set offers a revelatory new perspective on a series of works that once occupied him.
Originally inspired by classes Braxton took on Native American ritual music, his early “Ghost Trance Music” pieces — like Composition No. 181, from 1995 — featured purposely wandering, seemingly unending single-line melodies that unfurled with a pulsing, meditative quality.
“I discovered there’s a trance music coming from every direction, and every ethnic group,” he said. “And I found myself feeling that not only did I love this music, but it was relevant for me. I had come to a point where ‘intellectual interesting’ was not what I was looking for.”
In later “Ghost Trance” pieces, rat-a-tat subdivisions of select beats started to interfere with this even-keel patterning. (Braxton described this as “pulses with abruption.”) By the time of Composition No. 340, in the mid-2000s, these abruptions had multiplied.
Graphic notation elements, including some vivid, color-coded schemes, became nearly as prominent as the melody. Along with some of Braxton’s other conceptual strategies — like “secondary material” at the end of a composition that could be inserted throughout a performance — he increasingly emphasized the possibility of miasmatic swirl.
Yet even at its most raucous, the “Ghost Trance” catalog radiates joy and good humor. In the new box set, 12 vocalists tackle “Ghost Trance” styles from a decadelong compositional span — giving a relatively fleet tour of their variety. (The ensemble will perform at Roulette on Jan. 25.)
“For me the ‘Syntactical Ghost Trance’ compositions give insight into the expansion of the system, moving from sonics into signals into ritual,” Braxton said. “It involves people suddenly coming together in communities. The art of the relationship. How to deal with each other.”
Several of the singers are veterans of past “Trillium” performances, and it shows. When realizing some of the more extreme qualities of Braxton’s writing — like the hailstorm of sci-fi-style syllables that make up the “syntax” of these particular “Ghost Trance” pieces — the ensemble’s nimbleness and warmth suggest a highly caffeinated updating of Gregorian chant. And the vocalists’ collective understanding of Braxton’s flexible performance instructions makes the set an exciting document not only of “Ghost Trance Music,” but of his processes in general.
As in his widely celebrated, jazz-inspired quartet music from the 1980s, Braxton is keen to have different compositions layered atop one another. “One of the areas that interests me is taking stable logics and changing it into mutable logics,” he said. “Taking mutable logics and changing it into stable logics. Improvisation becomes composition. Composition becomes improvisation.”
During a new performance of Composition No. 220, the vocal troupe responds to this invitation by inserting the bebop-like melody from Composition No. 85, from 1978. Not long after, that vintage melody slips underneath new Composition No. 220 motifs.
As a result, music from different decades intermingles amiably — and gives a sense of the vast interpretive possibilities that subsequent generations of artists might yet bring to Braxton’s catalog. The rush of invention here captures an idea from his “system notes” for “Ghost Trance Music”: “past, present and future as one unit.”
As he drove us to a nearby Ruby Tuesday for dinner, Braxton emphasized that the Tri-Centric Foundation is not devoted only to his work. He mentioned a recent orchestral recording by the saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, a frequent collaborator of his, and noted with pride that an earlier performance of some of that material was presented by the Tri-Centric Orchestra.
Close associates of Braxton run the foundation and administer his label, New Braxton House. You can’t find the label on any streaming service. But the entirety of his self-released material has recently appeared on the Bandcamp platform, where impulse buyers can pick among individual projects, or acquire the whole digital catalog at a 25-percent discount.
That price naturally changes every time Braxton adds an 11-plus-hour recording to the mix. But at present, you can acquire more than 100 hours of his work for around $700. (That includes solo-saxophone sets, electroacoustic music, orchestral recordings and several 4-act “Trillium” operas — as well as nearly a dozen hours of Braxton’s ecstatic 1990s dive into the music of Charlie Parker.)
The Tri-Centric team is currently looking for additional donors — and album purchasers — to help with the cost of making more of Braxton’s scores and writings available. A raft of performances is being prepared to honor his 75th birthday, in 2020. And Tri-Centric also has ambitions to produce more recordings of various projects, including the “Trillium” operas.
Braxton wants it all to go on, even after his writing ends. “I have real hope that New Braxton House can somehow fight for its life,” he said. But he quickly added: “I am not ready to retire. And so I’ve got some cards up my sleeve.”
Keeping his eyes on the road before him, he said, “This dog is not finished.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.