Composition no. 222 stands out in Anthony Braxton’s extensive catalog as a rare piece for specific instrumentation, or with suggested instrumentation in any event. The work for violin and piano was first heard on Braxton’s 1999 album Four Compositions (Washington, DC) 1998, played then by pianist Eric Ronick and violinist Rachel Thompson. In 2018, violinist Josh Modney included a solo rendition on his triple-CD set Engage, alongside works by Bach and works by Eric Wubbels and other of his associates in New York’s fine Wet Ink Ensemble.

Joshua Modney and Eric Wubbels © Kurt Gottschalk
Joshua Modney and Eric Wubbels
© Kurt Gottschalk

Modney and Wubbels took the composer at his word on 19 February and revisited the piece in its original duet configuration. As an early entry into the extensive concerts and events planned around Braxton’s 75th birthday in 2020, the pair gave 222 a concert length reading at Brooklyn’s Areté Gallery in a program produced by Braxton’s Tri-Centric Foundation.

The performance began with the pair stating the theme in a brisk staccato. It was a motif they would return to repeatedly through the course of the coming hour, but never precisely repeating it. In fact, it felt as if it wasn’t precisely played even in the initial iteration. The pair played it in unison, but the lines never quite repeated. The feeling was more of circling the perimeter, establishing a terrain then proceeding to define it with moments of dot-connecting glissando. The feeling was something like watching the pattern made by drops of water falling from a gently swinging hanging plant. The mechanics of the motion were there to be understood, but the circle was only suggested, never quite drawn.

That, at least, was the introduction. They broke from the pattern after several minutes and went through a quick succession of moods, generally a bit frenzied, before Modney dropped out and Wubbels played a quite lyrical interlude that slowly made its way back to the circuitous theme. Modney rejoined and in much quicker order they roamed and returned again.

To say that the musicians “take you on a journey” is beyond trite, especially in the jazz world from which Braxton sprung, but on this night it felt particularly apt. It was a journey, infused with a sense of purpose by virtue of having a predetermined structure. It wasn’t a traipse or a ramble, nor was it a mere errand. We weren’t being taken to a prescribed place and then returning. The musicians knew where they were taking us, if not entirely sure how they’d get us there. Like herding elephants across the Himalayas (it would seem), you keep going forward and you hope for the best.

Improvisation plays a distinct and unique role in Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music compositions, of which 222 is a part. The players are permitted extemporaneous soloing, but they’re also allowed to play other of Braxton’s compositions within the larger whole of the charted piece. Sitting in on an hour-long iteration of a single GTM piece, even with interpolations, can be an exhilarating, dizzying experience. There’s a very specific energy created by the mix of concentration and freedom to explore. The improvisations are, at least somewhat, guided; the focus is not entirely internal. The crystallization of the momentary can feel like the determined intensity of a Scelsi solo.

Strictly speaking, the Modney–Wubbels performance wasn’t purely a violin–piano duet. At about the half hour mark, Wubbels began triggering static and whirs from a laptop and small synthesizer. That didn’t last long, but it nicely complemented the subtle buzzes of his piano preparations and bowed cymbal. Soon after, Modney took a turn at a muted trumpet, creating an atmospheric respite. But the ambience didn’t last long, nor was it as engaging the more musical moments. Thankfully they were soon back to the mixed fixity and abandon of improvisations on a theme, ramping up to a ferocious polyphony, retreating again, and ending with a strong and solid restatement of the theme. It was an enjoyable performance to be certain, and a precursor to the coming year of Tri-Centric splendor.

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