Post 26: 27/03/06
Limits of Open Form:
Language Writing and Anthony Braxton
Current Free Practices in Music and Poetry was a one-day conference, organized by NYU Music Department faculty and composer Elizabeth Hoffman, that sampled the work of improvising composers and poets. The day began with a rendition of part of Alvin Curran's six-hour "autobiographical" piano composition Inner Cities by Belgian pianist Daan Vandewalle and a keynote talk on the aesthetics and ethics of improvisation by trombonist and teacher George Lewis. Musica Electronica Viva founder Curran followed with a reading of "Spontaneous Music," a manifesto for improvised music (reminiscent of the kinds of prefaces Jackson Mac Low would write for his performances) and a performance of Phonotatooing, a composition for sampled ambient sounds on synthesizer and electronics. Koto improvisor Miya Masaoka followed with a manually played piece that provided samples for an optical/haptic interface in which she "plucked" out sounds, chords, and sequences in a grid of four parallel laser beams suspended over the koto, which she did not touch. The conference then shifted to a lecture hall, where I presented my talk along with two cuts from Anthony Braxton's work; a brief group improvisation was a part of the presentation. George Hartley's lecture, "Swallow the Red Hot Axe: Nathaniel Mackey's Song of the Andoumbalou," was a ghostly presentation in which Hartley stood at the podium, in a dark blue suit and red tie and silently turned the pages of his talk while a recording of his own voice presented it along, with vocal and oud background accompaniment. Citations to Mackey's work, as well, were read by a synthetic and distorted female computer-generated voice; these devices underscored the themes of "othering" and the transmigration of souls in Mackey's poetry. Returning to the studio, we heard a performances on piano and "Mouseketier" (a three-tiered home-built amplified percussion instrument with bells, whistles, door stops, plumbing, and funny poking things) by Stanford faculty and composer Mark Applebaum, followed by his discussion of the theory and practice of unique instrumentation. Then came a performance by a student improvising trio (Peter Evans, Amy Cimini, Michael Gallope), testing to the high level of improvising culture at NYU, and four graduate students talks back in the lecture hall. Dana Reason's discussion of the underrepresentation of women in experimental musics, in particular, led to a sustained discussion of the gender politics of avant-garde performance cultures and their support networks; I suggested, from the floor, that it would be worthwhile to compare the flourishing of writing in experimental genres to the the situation in music. The day was long and run on musician's time, i.e., things happened when they did, but a satisfying and often moving opening to a further discussion.
The turn to culture in literature and the arts, and specifically language-centered writing and improvised musics, coincides with a call to specify the cultural logic from which a given aesthetic practice derives and in which it intervenes. Interdisciplinarity is not merely the posing of questions outside cultural forms, genres, and disciplines toward their eventual revision or even reconstitution in new ones; it is also relative to the field of cultural meanings in which a practice makes its claim and finds its confirmation. A cultural logic is never merely exterior to the work, always reflexively mediated within it. Given this rough and ready framework, I want to look at questions of contact, influence, exchange, and divergence between the experimental jazz and new music traditions and language-centered writing in the late 1970s—specifically 1976–80, the time frame for a collective memoir of the San Francisco Language school, now in the process of being composed by ten authors online, under the rubric of The Grand Piano. Though the title refers primarily to the coffee house on Haight Street where the Grand Piano Reading Series took place from 1976 on, the connection to music is central for many of the authors. In the period, there was a range of experimental jazz and new musics that had immediate formal implications for the writings of the San Francisco Language School.
In 1973, for instance, I went with Ron Silliman to a performance of Steve Reich’s Drumming at the Asian Museum that led, literally the next day, to the beginning of Silliman’s prose text Ketjak, the first instance of Silliman’s own use of “the New Sentence.” A paratactic deployment of modular sentence units in incremental and repeating series to generate larger architectural structures, the New Sentence was employed by numerous writers in the group—including myself, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Kit Robinson, Steve Benson, Bob Perelman, virtually the entire group who are now writing The Grand Piano in, in turns out, incremental units of narrative and reflection. The New Sentence was more than a formal device; it was an ethical stance toward the construction of meaning in open forms that depended on their grounding in particulars of language, seen more as elements of information than as vehicles for expression. It was important that the privileged term for this construction was the sentence unit—that “complete thought” which could be indexed to its propositional content even as the larger horizon of language would work to undermine any determinate meaning founded in reference. The New Sentence thus would lead to the generation of complex “open” forms that at the same time were grounded in a radical self-reflexivity of language that tended to objectify them.
There were certainly many other musical influences at work in the period: Ted Pearson had had early contacts with jazz musicians of the order of Lee Konitz, Steve Lacy, and Paul Desmond (who, according to Ted, “turned him on to Robert Creeley”), and his development of a rhythmically accentual, semantically dense lyricism attests to them. Lyn Hejinian arrived in San Francisco in 1978 with her husband Larry Ochs, a founding member of the Rova Saxophone Quartet, whose reinterpretation of the free jazz tradition in ensemble work that was both notated and improvised would have profound influence on the writing community, both in terms of a syncretic fusion of musical possibilities from the jazz and new music traditions, and in the resulting revision of free jazz as an “open form.” In Hejinian’s work, as I have written elsewhere, the formal possibilities of improvised music led to the development of writing strategies that depended on an attentive practice of openness to language taken from “outside” the expressive intentions of the writer, as well as the use of strategies that the work be continually reconceptualized in the process of writing. What amounts to a scene of ethical decision occurs in her work, as in the work of each of the other writers in the group, where the determination of meaning in the act of composition is always suspended within a productive indeterminacy of the larger form. At the same time, values taken directly from the improvised jazz tradition—of spontaneity and openness, certainly, but also virtuosity and complexity—were immediately transposed in the forms of new writing. The resulting works were often as complex, multi-layered, obstructionist, in your face as any music of the period in question. Add to that the specific properties of the medium, language, and demands for meaning would become so complex and intractable that the situation of the reader or listener was seriously at risk. The ethics of the work, then, had as a first consequence the situation of reader, listener, community, and history to negotiate and, finally, fold back into the larger horizon of form. The move to the reader or listener as “making meaning,” however, was only provisional in a larger cultural politics in which values of expression and form would be recast. The move beyond expressive meaning may have paused briefly at the position of the listener or reader, but in radical shifting the ground of form it led beyond it to the recasting of a series of cultural logics—from questions of genre to horizons of culture.
Two points may be made at this juncture. First, in transposing formal possibilities from music to writing, there would never be an identity of the cultural aims of the work. Though the New Sentence evidently has analogues in sources from minimalism such as Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, John Adams, Ingram Marshall, and Paul Dresher, many of whom were active or frequently heard in San Francisco, the kind of “cultural work” it is doing is demonstrably different. If minimalism, in a rough and ready sketch, meant to replace the sterile end game of serialism with forbidden devices such as citation, repetition, and chromaticism, leading to ersatz auras that would have finished off Adorno had he not already succumbed to the politics of the 60s, the New Sentence and other kinds of radical form in Language writing had the expressive subjectivity of the New American poets, from Robert Duncan to Denise Levertov, as well as the expressivist politics of liberationist identity, to contend with. A certain gentrified sensibility clung to the ersatz auras of minimalism, an indication of the ease with which the style would find its institutional patrons, while the Language school has been ever the site of struggle and contestation in the field of cultural meaning, seeing its own production as the best vehicle for its politics.
Second, it was as much in the array of musical options, many of them contradictory, rather than in any simple revision or extension of a given lineage, that the new musics mattered in the late 1970s. Daniel Belgrad’s The Culture of Spontaneity, in this sense, is an account of an earlier period, the 1950s, in which literary possibilities such as Projective Verse, the musical moment of Bop in jazz, and the gestural elements of abstract painting would combine to describe an overarching cultural politics of improvisation in the Cold War period. At that moment, “open form”—from Charlie Parker to Jackson Pollock to the Beats—could be accurately sited in relation to the “closed forms” of mainstream culture, ironically reproducing the “us/them” binary that was the hallmark of the Cold War. At later moments, of course, the logic of “us/them” would still be common to any oppositional movement; however, there is also the relative historical differentiation of competing possibilities in both arts. In music, for instance, the progressive teleology of “open form” had broken down, with the embodiment of spirit in musicians such as John Coltrane and Albert Ayler; one could argue that, by 1970, the unfolding of jazz history, seen as moving ever upwards from its early beginnings downriver to mainstream modernism to postmodern complexity, was shattered by the dismaying political and cultural horizons of the 1970s.
Without being able to adequately map this moment of rupture, I can still point to two results: the establishment of a consensus jazz mainstream that would keep the tradition alive, and the relative isolation of experimental musicians from that mainstream. There could not, as a result, be any possibility of a single-valued identification with bop or even free jazz as cultural destiny, as there was for many writers in the 1950s and 1960s, from the 1970s onward. At the moment of ruptured teleology, stylistic pluralism could only result—and teleological rupture did seem to be common to all genres of music and writing in the period. As a result, one could identify simultaneously with aspects of chance-generated procedures after Cage, repetitive minimalism after Reich and Glass, European radical composers from the 1960s after Boulez, Berio, and Nono (later, Gubaidulina and Scelsi), American postmodernism after Cowell and Partch, the New York School after Feldman and Brown, Bepot after Parker, free jazz after Coleman, fusion after Davis, electronic music, and world music. Postmodern relativism’s peak was our point of departure.
My point of departure is the music I was listening to between 1976 to 1980, which provided—directly or through some kind of formal osmosis—ways of thinking about writing, form, and culture enacted in my collection of experimental verse 1–10 in 1980. Memory of necessity condenses onto representative examples, from which I would select John Cage’s Sonnets and Interludes for Prepared Piano and Etudes australes, Cecil Taylor’s Conquistador and Unit Structures, Steve Reich’s Come Up to Show Dem, Violin Phase, and Drumming, Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz and Dancing in Your Head, Henry Cowell’s piano works and Harry Partch’s instrumental ensembles, Leroy Jenkins’s version of Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen (performed one night at Keystone Korner) and Paul Zukofsky’s renditions of Paganini as key examples—a field of music that centers around the kinds of musical synthesis I saw in the works of Anthony Braxton at that time: For Alto, Saxophone Improvisations Series F, Creative Orchestra Music, Five Pieces, In the Tradition—the entire range of his output seen as circling around an empty center of divergent strands at a moment of radical pluralism. Braxton, in other words, enacted the conflicts of our ateological moment at the level of composition, or so it seemed without benefit of an insider’s knowledge of his influences, development, or possibilities for distribution. The “Braxton” that one constructed at the time was simply that which congealed from both recordings and his frequent visits to the Bay Area, anticipating his 1980s residence at Mills College and work with Rova Saxophone Quartet. Braxton, then, was a representative figure of a moment of cultural dysphoria, articulated in the pluralism of his own musical idioms and in his explicit enactment of cultural decentering. (In this sense, the holism of some of Braxton’s self-description has always seemed to be in a productive tension with the radical particularity and incommensurability of his forms and styles.) In what follows, I want to try to figure out what I was hearing in Braxton’s music at the time, and try to identify the way in which analogous logics surfaced in my poetry.
The Logic of Transposition
What is a “cultural logic” and how does one see it in Anthony Braxton? We might begin, intuitively, with his identifications with Paul Desmond or chess as an element of his self-description, and move quickly down the road of an all-too-obvious account of the cultural politics of expression in which “nonidentity” meets “identity” at the level of creative form. Centering his work on the expansive potential of nonidentity, Braxton on this account would be a version of a constructivist author in the terms of The Constructivist Moment:
The constructivist moment is an elusive transition in the unfolding work of culture in which social negativity—the experience of rupture, an act of refusal—invokes a phantasmatic future—a horizon of possibility, an imagination of participation. Constructivism condenses this shift of horizon from negativity to progress in aesthetic form; otherwise put, constructivism stabilizes crisis as it puts art into production toward imaginary ends. (192)
A constructivist author (in music, composer/improviser) would thus be defined by two aspects of a single cultural moment: negativity and fantasy. In Braxton’s work, one sees precisely in the gap between styles, genres, instrumentations, traditions, and purposes a negative moment that leads, in the event of composition/improvisation, to the scale of capacious fantasy. Take, for instance, the third cut on side 1 of Creative Orchestra Music 1976. [The cut should be played now; it begins with a passage of crisply played marching band music.] The listener is shocked into awareness by the “horizon shift” that follows the meditative, spaced-out improvisation of cut 2 through a kind of unison playing uncommon in jazz (that said, uses of cultural irony had a distinct place in improvised musics in the 1970s such as Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra and the work of Lester Bowie, Carla Bley, and Fredric Rzewski). The structured measures of the march are repeated precisely eight times, at which point they devolve into less-structured repetitions which provide the backup for an agonizing trumpet solo that declares itself in sentence-like units, set free from the degraded measure, spaced out by perceptible pauses. The second break occurs with the end of the entropic march that promises to build anew a form of unison playing, but in woodwind increments that repeat a simple cadence that is then joined in by a second instrument and a third. The fourth, a trombone, plays the unruly opposite to the purported consensus, leaving only ironized intentions in place of the ghost of unity. A third break ushers in series of anxious brass triplets and long saxophone tones, against which Braxton’s clarinet noodles and a glockenspiel dissociates; the clarinet line, at the height of anxious declaration, morphs into alto saxophone squeaks in the upper register. At the fourth, final break, an imposition of snare drum taps interrupts the frenzy, and the most conventional marching band music realizable by Braxton’s troop of improvising All-Stars kicks into gear, unstoppable. The band marches on to fully realized musical closure, an emphatic undoing that terminates all possibility of fantasy. As in Bush America, either you like the music or you are not playing: it is a political allegory.
The cultural logic I am interested in here is not at the level of citation, although of course it is important that Braxton was in fact a member of a military marching band on tour of Korea, and that he returned to the US in 1966 at the height of the Vietnam War. Creative Orchestra Music 1976 was recorded exactly ten years later, after the war’s end and at the outset of a period of political and cultural instability. As I wrote in Bad History, the problem of the Vietnam War for history was how to end it, a dilemma that may be extended to many forms of bad history, and is demonstrated in Braxton’s composition. In the allegory that comes readily to hand, unison playing in the Vietnam Era breaks down into modes of agonistic opposition that are measured in their resistance to the war (section 1); the attempt to build up an alternative unison, step by step, fails at the same level of oppositional agency defined in relation to the war and thus can only achieve a form of irony (section 2); the effort to maintain oppositional agency against the anxious background of contrary forces can only result in states of anxiety (section 3) that will be easily co-opted by the return to militarism in section 4, which structures bad history into the field of discrepant meanings. Hence, opposition can only point to its own undoing; the best that can be accomplished is a conscious play among preconstituted structures.
The cultural logic of Fredric Jameson’s postmodernism is close: irony yields to pastiche; opposition ends in simulacrum; progress ends up in a postmodern football stadium/theater of war where it is impossible to find the exit; the moment of closure figures history as cipher. However available such irony is, it does not finally account for Braxton’s cultural logic as a constructivist composer/improviser. Rather, it is the relation between the negativity of the piece—heard in the several breaks between sections, the self-conscious and exaggerated gaps in phrasing, the ironic foregrounding of solo instruments against collective contexts that empty them of impact, the emptying out and relativizing of the meaning of musical genres and traditions, and finally the radical ambiguity of culture as the closure that results—and the impulse to construct capacious effects for postmodern ensemble playing that most indicates a “cultural logic.” The form of the work becomes the moment of its own destruction and invention, as it internalizes in its form of metacritique the relation between individual (solo) and culture (ensemble) that constructs its politics. For Braxton, free jazz and marching band music are both forms of unison playing; the implications for the politics of culture are great.
Such a logic of negativity and construction extends readily to the major contours of Braxton’s career, which as Ronald M. Radano shows in New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton’s Cultural Critique, constantly unfolds at the cusp of the incommensurate. Where Radano agrees that Braxton’s work functions as a cultural intervention, however, his analysis tends to positivize the gaps between components that motivate it. One must begin with logics of race and class that underscore Braxton’s progress from South Chicago to the Army in Korea to his induction into the utopian project of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Music). Braxton’s negotiation of his arrival is never a simple affirmation of a progressive destiny, and it uncomfortably aligns with the progressive teleology of jazz history itself. Rather, numerous biographical details underscore discrepant moves of disidentification from the tradition—his marching band experience in the Army, his interest in amateur electronics, and his use of chess moves as musical metaphors. These elements show up in the wiring diagrams that Braxton from early on used to label his compositions, which would be clearly unreadable from the perspective either of the dominant culture or mainstream jazz.
Braxton’s avant-gardism is thus double, at the site of double consciousness, constantly playing one cultural code off against another. Chief among these would be his endorsement of Paul Desmond, whose “thin” and “analytic” sound was felt by many as betraying the cultural politics of jazz, a moment of deracination. What did it mean that Braxton not only was inspired by Desmond but advertised the influence (with no sense that the tradition leading from Bop to free jazz and culminating in the expressive unity, sonic density, and utopian politics of Coltrane’s late 60s ensembles, especially Ascension, would be disrupted by it)? A dialectic of “mainstream” and “innovation” does not do justice to this or other such citational moments, which tend to complicate the progressive history necessary to make the distinction in the first place. Rather than seeing Braxton’s “traditional” recordings on Arista through the late 1970s, then, as an attempt to enter the mainstream by increased “accessibility,” one is authorized by moves Braxton made early on to read his re-presentation of the tradition as a transposition into another register, making it available as an abstracted archive of effects rather than as an homage to continuity. To follow Braxton’s emergence, from Chicago to Paris and New York through the 1970s, is to locate a series of shifts of context leading not to a progressive unfolding of jazz history but by a simultaneous undoing and critique of musical and cultural assumptions, internalized at the level of form. This critique leads both to the distancing of prior conventions and an embrace of alternative ones, from Desmond to Braxton’s early and continuing endorsement of Webern, Stockhausen, and Cage.
Two logics seem at work here. In the first, Braxton disrupts the continuity of a given culture and tradition and reappropriates its contents for compositional purposes. This is precisely how Braxton cannibalizes the tradition in his abstract work for solo alto saxophone—from his earliest recording For Alto (1969) on. What is important for Braxton in this repertoire are the combinatorial possibilities of instrumentation and motif, in which supporting musical structures are referenced only to be emptied out and dropped away. What seem to be self-reflexive, meditative, lyrical solos likewise perform an abstract and negative distancing from both instrument and motif. In attending to contour, structure, and constraint, expression is sacrificed for what Braxton would call “language music,” motives stripped down to an elemental vocabulary—the postmodern "turn to language" in musical form. In an alternative logic, however, Braxton imports cultures and tradition whole at a recombinatory level. This may be seen in his use of the marching band music in the prior example, a determination of total form that may be transposed, as with the other cuts on Creative Orchestra Music, dissociating Ellingtonian big band music, or Schoenbergian serialist composition, or Coleman free jazz ensembles as structures primed for an appropriation and redefinition—a transposition in the key of the negative. It is not hard to see a cultural politics here in which the dialectic between mainstream and opposition has been, not turned on its head, but ironized, dissociated, made available for reuse.
Compositionally, Braxton is without question a constructivist. At every level in his oeuvre, one can find processes of negative undoing and fantasmatic elaboration at work. Braxton’s own use of “technical” visual icons to title his pieces is a perfect example of this: the negativity of their unreadability combines with the science-fiction fantasies they evoke. It is interesting that Braxton, working in composed/improvised jazz, shares these fantasies with other African-American artists, from Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler to the technogods of Detroit such as Mike Banks, Derrick May, Carl Craig, and Kenny Larkin, who foreground technology in their constructions of capacious fantasy. It is this relation, of fantasy to negativity, that seems best to explain Braxton’s own cosmic vocabulary for this work: arcane and difficult, it outlines a hierarchically organized archive of musical ideas within a capacious fantasy of global, pan-African, cultural form. Language, however idiosyncratic, must be seen as a dual component of musical structure; however, how does one reconcile the logics of negativity and reappropriation that seem everywhere to generate Braxton’s musical structures with the potentially univocal holism of his writings about his music? Here, the notion of “double consciousness” may come in handy: in explaining his work to an absent interlocutor, one who is assumed or internalized as part of the lived experience of class and race, Braxton speaks of a totality that, without any sense of irony, has none of the relativism that otherwise informs his work:
As we continue to move deeper into the third millennium the challenge of creative music will extend into many fresh and exciting directions—there is the hope of dynamic positive celebration and trans-global ‘actuality’. My hope is that the approaching time cycle will continue to fuse global and idiomatic qualities (experiences)—concerning style, rhythmic logics, and vibrational spirit factor—until the next set of ‘opportunities’ are understood and we can rejoice in the ‘luck of existence’ and the dynamics of fate. In the middle of the churning radiance of cosmic ether (that we call reality) is the phenomenon of ‘sound wonder and vibrational instigation’ (and imagination)—life is really something. The wonder of music is the single most central component in the material/vibrational fabric of perceived existence (‘it’-ness). I would like to hope that a broader acceptance and openness for all creative possibilities will surface in the coming time cycle—for the spectrum of world creativity extends in every direction/territory and time space. (booklet, 14)
Full discussion of Braxton's writings about his music must await further reading, especially of the three-volume Tri-Axium Writings, which plan to gain a sense of through some form of sampling technique. I cite the passage above because I am simultaneously sympathetic to the genuineness of his appeal to the universal (“life really is something”) and disappointed in the un-self-conscious re-presentation of the clichés of cosmic consciousness that have, finally, circumscribed and diminished avant-garde agency at least since Fourier (a study awaits to show how the traces of spirituality coexists with the radical particularity and constructivism of transformative modern artists like Arthur Rimbaud, Hugo Ball, Velimir Khlebnikov, Kazimir Malevich, Laura Riding, and even Robert Grenier). An invocation of “spirit,” in any case, just does not achieve the level of insight in the form of the work; rather, it tends to cover over or level the work of Braxton’s continuous transposition. Here again, a cultural logic is at work: at the difficult boundary of race and class, the psychology of double consciousness does its protective duty, so that an unprotected perception of compositional possibility may arise from the “language music” of the material, rather than spiritual, facts of musical and cultural form. Against this holism, or better as its necessary complement, I would point to a passage in Braxton’s Series F improvisations from 1971. [About two minutes from side 1, cut 5, should be played now]. In this continuous meditation on and elaboration of rhythmic figures, we hear the work of the negative as structural elaboration: distancing, rethinking, repeating, questioning, materializing, contextualizing, constructing—“language music” of direct identificatory possibility across the abysses of culture.
The Politics of Form
Cultural logics reproduce themselves, but never in identical form. Across the gap separating the San Francisco Language school from the AACM, granted numerous common motivations in the politics and culture of the 1960s and 1970s—from refusal of the Vietnam War to skepticism about public discourse to an affirmation of liberation through any means at one’s disposal to the need for alternative and oppositional language—I listened to Braxton at a synthesizing and syncretic moment. I was listening to many other things as well, in the strong sense of listening as a form of investigation and cognitive mapping, much as John Cage performed in mapping the stars of the Southern hemisphere onto the form of Etudes australes. What I heard, in retrospect, was lucid and direct: the transformative work of structural invention, the distancing of musical conventions and traditions toward their reconstruction, the play of the negative in the determination of form. I also heard a refusal on Braxton’s part to be pinned down, aesthetically or culturally, but to shift between forms and genres (and modes of statement, including the didactic) in order not to be trapped too easily within the conventions of genre, however other-directed. I also heard a commitment to the social work of collaboration and multi-authorship, in the numerous and generative ensemble forms that Braxton explored, the other side of the radical self-focusing of the solo saxophone music, almost a music of consciousness itself. Yet not: Braxton's is a social music of radical particularity, of instrument and tone, not of individual expression, a music of structural transposition via the constraints of recontextualization. Braxton’s anti-expressivism was a confirmation of my own critique of the postmodern romantics identified with the “culture of spontaneity” and its immanent meaning. Meaning, in this sense, ought to be post-authorial, other-directed, generically syncretic.
Identification with Braxton, among other figures, is importantly a way of defining the limits of the aesthetic ideology that preceded my own cultural moment: that of “open form.” From the defining usage in Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse,” open form was temporalized, embodied, oppositional, and positive. It was its own rationale, bringing into being the culture it argued for merely through the continuity of presence. The limitations of open form as a politics, in this sense, would be immediately evident: the cult of personality rather than a culture of opposition; a return to mythic investments rather than demystification; a valorization of self-destructive so-called “genius” that was a form of blindness as much as any agency. The poetics of the New American poetry, however revisionary they were, latent with new gender possibilities, and breaking through the confining boundaries of formalism in the “closed” sense, failed at the moment they reinvested the subject as history in a way that eventually would become no more than a defense. The turn to language was an undoing of the romanticism of presence, entailing that the abstract potential of spontaneity would need to be relativized and rethought. In the development of the Language School the notion of open form survived as an aesthetic politics, in however a textualized form. Lyn Hejinian’s “The Rejection of Closure” is a pedagogically useful manifesto that proposes open horizons of composition as an antidote to socially regulated systems of meaning that are understood as “closed,” while not needing to invoke the embodied presence of the demiurgic poet to carry it off. Published in issue 4 of Poetics Journal, it was countered in issue 6 by Bruce Andrews’s “Total Equals What: Poetics and Praxis,” which argued for the social construction of meaning, even as open, within concentric horizons of language, society, and totality. The Constructivist Moment, written in the next decade, is an attempt to show how the negativity of open form—its refusal of closure—is simultaneously constitutive of larger cultural logics.
Comparing these debates in the Language school with the example of Braxton, I am structure by similarities and divergences. Both are concerned with a cultural politics that is generative and that can be read from the internalized decisions of the work of art. Braxton’s forms are allegories of the conditions of their constructions, in other words, in which the play of the negative is precisely the site of their further elaboration. However, Braxton assumes a holism that comes perilously close to a return to an expressive genius, being celebrated in New York even as we speak. Affirmative culture has room for a series of such geniuses, defined by their contributions to their proper genre; simply, such valorization of the overarching unity of Braxton’s project is not what we need. [At the conference, George Lewis responded that what I needed was a fuller account of the range of musics developed in the AACM.] Listening to the work now, and through prior instances of it, highlights possibilities for constructed form to which I would like to return, and which I would like to extend. At one end of the spectrum, the tectonic shifting of aesthetic and cultural traditions giving rise to a compositional imperative in the space between assumptions is something I continue to value. I see it in the move between competing systems of knowledge and affect in my mid-1980s poetic text “The Word,” which attempts by juxtaposition to exploit the negativity entailed in postmodern relativism for more properly constructivist ends:
Did they seem empty?
They seemed empty.
Do you like this one?
I like this one.
Is he ready?
Now he is ready.
A lecture on scalar waves zero vector waves created from the overlap of two waves 180[o] out of phase like squeezing a sponge in and out in space-time take zero vector waves and intersect at the zone of interference ordinary energy will occur the interference patterns will occur as ordinary electromagnetic waves this is how energy can be transmitted with no loss in transmission this kind of wave could influence global weather patterns clouds were dividing into even rows over Huntsville Alabama these patterns have been adjusted in since shortly after the death of Brezhnev low-level booms make continuous popping sounds we saw this grid pattern over Huntsville Alabama being adjusted in I can reach up and move the jet stream up and down it's as if the Russians were permitted to come in and build transmitters in each of the grid zones you're looking at a bunch of cone-shaped mountains all over North America around the cone of energy clouds will form in a circle with rays running directly out in all directions like a giant radial this is not a natural formation
A typical house
with porch, steps, etc.
will seem to decay into parts with age
if not carefully (extravagantly) kept up.
1. Continents were built up as a quality
2. Continents were built by drifting, colliding mini-continents. The only part of California that is "original" is somewhere near Death Valley.
The soap is really a sphere.
The child is really a fat one.
. . . for the opera fan who knows his syntax.
Few things are funnier than auto mechanics; it lays bare the inherent defects of all engines, which pivot on the "virtual" presence of parts we can no longer get. [In Frame (1971-1990), 193]
The shift in this text between incommensurate assumptions, still brought together within the larger form of the work and motivated toward a condition of agency, however ironic, is an effect the poem shares with some of the large-scale strategies of Braxton’s ensemble work. At the other end of the scale, the foregrounding of solo instrumentation might correspond to the distancing and language-centered frame shifting of work like Progress:
Peasants from Uruguay on super-
Human express trains wait
For underwear to be checked.
the great hem extended . . . .
The world in bands of searing
Change on a broad spectrum
A version of every missile
That sent up,
must come down . . . .
On the heads of panel members
To signify state of the art
For multiple reentry targets
At 300 meters,
I look up . . . .
The change is absolute,
Jump their beds in a flood
To reinforce a weak echo.
It is an essay on psychology . . . .
Men jump out of cars and run
To meet their deadline,
At midnight it will vanish.
No direction words will appear . . . .
Even all speeches say the same
hate I speech.
Not avoid a knot internal,
And these are hazardous days . . . .
In claiming to have listened to Braxton at a defining moment of my work, I hope I am not saying too much. And I’m not. As an extension of the work, our work is in the continuation and elaboration of the perception we had when what we heard was truly other. The transposition of the limits of open form occurs just there, in a necessary destabilization.
[Draft presented 25 March 2006. Copyright © Barrett Watten 1998, 2004, 2006. Comments welcome; not to be cited or reprinted without permission, except in short excerpts in electronic media.]