Perhaps the most restrained piece of music he's ever written, Anthony Braxton's "Composition No. 102" features a 36-piece orchestra and three puppeteers (the puppets they operate are 25 feet tall!). According to the liner notes, Braxton's intention here, besides trying to enter into a world of composition for the whole family, is to augment the listening experience with a visual one of controlled and carefully notated movement, and absorb the listener/viewer in a fantasy world where the bird's-eye view is either from the world of dreams or from the catbird seat on a cloud. Braxton's wild -- and often visionary -- theories are nothing new; his completely impenetrable Tri-Axium Writings are full of the stuff. The trick is that more often than not he actually pulls this stuff off. In the case of "Composition No. 102," he delivers with a score that is rich in tonal color -- the guitar section alone is five pieces -- while being both deceptively repetitive and hypnotically active. Long, slowly evolving phrases are played over and over in section one, the processional, to denote that this is ceremonial or ritual music. It gives way, after transforming itself into another phrase harmonically -- with different instrumental timbres standing in for the original voices, etc. -- before entering into a period of restricted spatial improvisation and contrapuntal discussion. The "First Ceremony," then, is a part of the work where the puppets are going through their solo and interactive engagements and the players are ushering the movement in, while creating a musical tongue that enhances the movement onstage and off. A transition then takes place, melding both consonant and dissonant voices before creating another "ceremony" from the resultant equations of the first. Finally, as dissonance and consonance become assonance, the final fanfare can take place. Brass, reeds, strings, electric guitars, drums, and other instruments wind around the themes Braxton has written to "reclaim" their individual tones, but as one orchestra. If it sounds academic, it is. But that doesn't make it unfeeling or unlistenable -- far from it. This is one of the more outstanding works for large ensemble he's ever written, highlighting the entire panorama of orchestral colors Braxton has always claimed were possible but hadn't displayed yet. A necessity for any listener who's studied Braxton with consistency -- a beguiling mixture of control and fantasy.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek