Recently, I read an article quoting a Juneteenth activist saying something like: The time between Juneteenth and July 4 should be a sixteen day celebration of American freedom. Opal Lee, who championed the holiday for many years before it became a reality, said: “Juneteenth will be the bridge that we can all go over. We should celebrate from June 19th to the 4th of July!” As someone who grew up celebrating Patriot’s Day — April 19, or the commemoration of the Shot Heard Round the World — I agree that we need more days to celebrate the American dream of freedom. So I’m grateful that my employer decided Juneteenth is a paid holiday for staff at our congregation, and I’m using the day to celebrate American freedom.
Although maybe I’m celebrating U.S. freedom in an unusual way. For me, an important result of freedom in the U.S. is the freedom we have for artistic expression. And with that in mind, this Juneteenth I’m celebrating by listening to music by Anthony Braxton. National Public Radio has said of him:
“Anthony Braxton has always done things his own way. He’s famous for creating his own musical syntax and strategies, in work that straddles jazz and classical traditions but conforms to no established pattern. He is a true American original — and by his own account, a perpetual work in progress.”
Isn’t that perfect for a celebration of American freedom?… combining cultural influences… conforming to no established pattern… creating your own way… a perpetual work in progress.
With that in mind, today I’m listening to one of my favorite works by Braxton: “Composition No. 19 (For 100 Tubas).” A recording is available from Braxton via Bandcamp. You can also see two short video clips of an outdoor public performance here and here. While I suspect Braxton would resist any easy interpretation of this composition, I can’t help but hear this as being in small part a musical commentary on John Philip Sousa’s patriotic marches, but in a musical idiom that is much more powerful and much more nuanced.
Part of the problem with trying to define “classical music” is that musical genres are not so easily delineated. These days, musical genres are mostly created by people who want to sell you music: when you listen to a recording that you like, or attend a concert that you like, people want to sell you more recordings and more concert tickets of music that sounds pretty much exactly like what you just heard. So it is we have increasingly narrow genres, within the boundaries of which all the music sounds pretty much exactly alike.
But there are many composers who stretch the boundaries of musical genres. For example, is Anthony Braxton (b. 1945) a jazz musician? Well, he has recorded on jazz labels, played jazz clubs with some of the great jazz musicians, and is typically identified as belonging in the “free jazz” genre. But Braxton acknowledges a debt to “classical” composer John Cage, and you can see a Youtube video of him lecturing on Henri Messaien and Karheinz Stockhausen, and he has premiered his compositions at “new music” (i.e., contemporary classical music) concerts. So maybe he’s a classical composer?
The lines between jazz and new music are blurry at best, and sometimes the only difference between a jazz composer and a classical composer is that the jazz composer is black and the classical composer is white. Composer Anthony Braxton is black, he’s placed into jazz. Composer Terry Riley, who has worked as a jazz musician, is white, he gets put into classical. Duke Ellington is black, he’s a jazz composer; Gunther Schuller is white, he must be a classical composer. We accept these definitions, and even defend them, but at a certain point they don’t make a lot of sense.
I was hoping to present you with a really good video of Braxton’s music. Unfortunately, there just aren’t any good online videos of his music: only the usual crummy handheld video from someone sitting in the audience, or excerpts from one of his recordings with a static visual of the cover of the CD. But to give you a taste of Braxton’s music, I did find one 20 second clip of his mammoth “Composition No. 19 (For 100 Tubas),” written in 1971 and first performed in 2006. That’s Braxton in the foreground, with the drum major’s baton, conducting: