- Time and Anthony Braxton
No art form is more closely wedded to the unfolding of time than music. Indeed philosophers from St. Augustine to Edmund Husserl have turned to a consideration of music when attempting to come to grips with the perception of time. When we are "in" a piece of music, time bends and warps. Music articulates time and demonstrates the mutability of our experience of time's passage. Certain composers—including John Cage, Olivier Messiaen, and Karlheinz Stockhausen—have concerned themselves particularly with the presence of time within their music. Among the ranks of such composers, we doubtless find Anthony Braxton, whose work has experimented with extended durations, ranging from a total lack of pulse to regular and predictable pulsation, and who has at times decentered the very notion of a shared time by employing multiple conductors. Thus one would expect a book entitled Time and Anthony Braxton to be a rich resource for the musicological and philosophical investigation of the profound and complicated relationship between music and time. It is not.
Author Stuart Broomer begins with the right source material, opening the book with an introduction that he dubs "Riffing with Augustine." Unfortunately, the citation of the famous passage concerning past, present, and future from Augustine's Confessions only serves to set the stage for Broomer to make rather vague assertions regarding the enigmas of time. This is fine for an introduction but the book never really progresses beyond base generalities.
Broomer demonstrates that he is out of his depth from the outset of the book. In an attempt to outline Braxton's approach to time within his musical compositions, he [End Page 340] specifies "simultaneity; a matrix equally open to planned and unplanned events; 'secret' parts unheard by musicians and audience alike that suddenly blossom into sound; a detailed and extended investigation of old repertoire; changing approaches to the same material; and numerous modes of repetition" (p. 10). The problems Broomer faces loom large in this seemingly innocuous list. First, one might wonder whether or not the emergence of "secret" parts or even differing approaches to the same material are the most productive avenues into an investigation of Braxton's handling of time in music. Certainly they both involve time in some sense. To take the former example, it goes without saying that the "blossoming" of some secret music would occur at a given time just as a bus arrives at a given time. However, that arrival in and of itself does not necessarily tell us much about time per se. Of course, what is more immediately troubling is that Broomer never bothers to inform us what he means by "secret" music.
The second and more damning problem with the passage—a problem that follows from the overarching lack of specificity—plagues the book as a whole. Broomer enumerates various examples of time in music. Some instances involve duration or tempo, others a time point, others a notion of the relationship between a given present and the past, and still others involve a projected future (Broomer is at his most rhapsodically absurd with respect to the latter). The issue, of course, is that these various examples involve very different notions of time and Broomer makes no attempt to coordinate them. More disconcerting still is that he never acknowledges that such differences exist and ought to be considered. To study musical time with respect to duration is not the same as studying a composition's putative relationship to one's musical past. Both investigations involve time but in very different ways that require different methodological and philosophical apparatuses.
In place of a concerted unraveling of the complexities of the relationship between time and music, Broomer offers us overly simplistic, quasi-evolutionary views of music history that, more often than not, end in blatant self-contradiction. For instance, Broomer proposes velocity as "a fundamental principle of jazz" (p. 16) and attempts to illustrate his point with a potted history of the art form that articulates the use of everaccelerating tempi from Louis Armstrong and Art...