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  Anthony Braxton 
  Echo Echo Mirror House  
  (Victo) 


  
   review by Kurt Gottschalk
  2014-01-13
Anthony Braxton: Echo Echo Mirror House (Victo)

A concert experience especially a first one with Anthony Braxton's Echo Echo Mirror House can be beyond perplexing. Each of the players onstage has, along with their usual axe, an iPod from which they intermittently play past Braxton recordings. Visually it can seem like a whole lot of sitting around, while auditorially it is more information than can be processed. The resulting dissonance is both harmonic and cognitive while toying with expectations about what musicians are supposed to be doing while on stage. Scratching DJs is one thing, but musicians playing mp3s with no seeming rhyme or reason? It's a perplexing kettle of fish.

A recording of an Echo Echo Mirror House performance is, if nothing else, easier to mentally process than the concert experience, primarily by virtue of not having the distraction of looking at musicians without being able to associate their gestures to the sounds being received. Such is the case with the concert captured on Echo Echo Mirror House of a performance at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville festival in Quebec. The album arguably should be titled "Septet (Victoriaville) 2011" in keeping with Braxton's usual titling practice, and that epitaph is emblazoned on the back cover miscommunication or a mistake in cover design may be to blame, but in any event Echo Echo Mirror House has the benefit of a better or at least more traditional mix than was in the room that night. On record, the live instruments are a bit louder than the iPod tracks, giving a foreground / background dispersal which makes it easier to focus on individual players, as jazz is supposed to want us to do.

Whether or not the mix is actually better, of course, is open to argument. The composer Raphael Mostel tells a story of running into John Cage at an early Bang on a Can festival. They encountered some friends outside after the dinner break who urged them to sit in the back, where the sound was better. "Imagine," Cage is said to have responded, "a sound being better." And indeed, Echo Echo Mirror Houseis best received as a Cagean listening experience not in the overwrought-by-post-Cagean-and-quasi-scholars "listen to the wind, listen to the silence" sense, but to whatever extent we might establish guidelines and precedence for listening. There have been few listening experiences that compare to Echo Echo Mirror House, but one clear forebear is Cage's HPSCHD, a massive piece of controlled cacophony available on a couple of recordings and on occasion staged live (a recent and remarkable rendition was realized by Issue Project Room at Manhattan's Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in May). With multiple harpsichords being played live alongside recordings of harpsichords, computer generated sounds and video projections, HPSCHD (which received its premier at the University of Illinois in 1969) is an overwhelmingly immersive experience best received by simple absorption with intellectual questioning undertaken after the fact, if at all.

What is important about HPSCHD, and about Echo Echo Mirror House (both the project and the CD), is that it is not chaos, and in fact neither Cage nor Braxton often, if ever, descends into chaos. Both pieces work in layered, multi-linear structures, even if the levels of structure don't always correspond with one another. But what the brain might receive as chaos is just a simple processing problem: there's too much to take in. Little eddies of logic spin across the soundfield, overlapping and occasionally being overrun by the sound of one of the fine group of musicians [Taylor Ho Bynum (brass), Mary Halvorson (guitar), Jessica Pavone (voice, violin), Jay Rozen (tuba), Aaron Siegel (percussion), Carl Testa (contrabass, bass clarinet) and the leader on alto, soprano and sopranino saxophones], all of whom are allowed solos of sorts.

There's some fun to be had in listening for individual voices arising from the Braxtonic bog, and it's good game for the hardcore to try to pick out which Braxton records are being played underneath. But certainly this isn't a record for everyone. Hell, it's hard to say for sure if it's a record for anyone! But it's a fascinating, dizzying listen which should be experienced live or on record by anyone interested in 21st Century Gesamtkunstwerk totalism.



Anthony Braxton: Echo Echo Mirror House
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