The rap on composer and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton has always been that his music is difficult.
But Braxton himself is far from austere. He's easily approachable, so much so that he uses the term "friendly experiencer" to describe his audience.
"By the 'friendly experiencer,' I'm only saying, 'Oh, come into the music, you're welcome, and be nice, and bring your best self into the music,'" Braxton says. "Because we're trying to do the best we can do and do something that's positive. We're all trying to better ourselves and evolve our position.
Braxton's position has evolved since he first offered up his "new jazz" more than 40 years ago, in albums like For Alto, an unprecedented 73 minutes of solo saxophone. The 66-year-old Braxton has since recorded some 200 albums. He's collaborated with everyone from Dave Brubeck to Derek Bailey.
He's now known as one of the grand thinkers of American music. He is a product of Chicago's seminal free jazz collective, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. He's a MacArthur Fellow. He's written five operas. He's a professor at Wesleyan University; as a teacher, he's encouraged successive waves of creative protégés, many of whom have recorded and performed with him.
He's recently revived his Tri-Centric Foundation, a non-profit intended to support his art and that of likeminded others. This isn't the output of your typical "free jazz" player, but Braxton says even when high energy, no-rules music was in vogue, he had another model in mind.
"Growing up in the '50s and being in the '60s, in that revolutionary time space, I thought freedom was what I was looking for," Braxton says. "Slowly but surely, it became clear that the last thing I was interested in was freedom. Because if you're going to be free, you have to be free from something."
What Braxton freed himself from was assumptions, expectations and conventions. He asked the big questions.
"What's going to constitute the next cycle of the music?" he says. "Where are things now? My interests naturally would fall into convergence logics: bringing Stockhausen into Sun Ra, or bringing John Philip Sousa into Dinah Washington ... At that point, I began designing vocabularies."
Cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum learned those vocabularies from Braxton at Wesleyan. He's now president of Braxton's Tricentric Foundation.
"One of the things that's exciting about Anthony's musical system is from very early on, he laid out a series of defined musical languages that he would use as the building blocks for his compositions — and his improvisations," Bynum says, demonstrating a few basic concepts on his cornet.
Braxton himself has applied his vocabularies in fixed as well as improvised forms. For instance, he recently issued an opera called Trillium E.
Braxton has expansive plans for this opera: a 12-day staging of its 36 autonomous acts around the world.
"The concert could be in four or five different cities at once," he says. "And 4,000 musicians, each group on a different mountain. And the friendly experiencer could have inputs coming in from many different sources. The technology is coming into place!"
Big ideas might be dreams, or beginnings. Anthony Braxton has realized a surprising number of his, even if they haven't all gained widespread popularity.
"I have learned through time that not everyone is interested in the kinds of things that fascinate me. But for those people who might be interested, I want to have it available, and I want to be a part of the movement, working with young people to help them find their way. I'm seeking to have an art that is engaged as a way for saying, 'Hurray for unity.'"