Composition No. 96 has loomed large in Braxton's oeuvre. He not only refers to it often as a key work, crucial to his own development, but it is also one of the most common "sound territories" to appear in recordings by various of his groups.The present recording is by a 37-piece student orchestra with only two ringers: clarinetist Bill Smith and trombonist Julian Priester. Composition No. 96, composed in 1979-1980, is structured in alternating blocks, one dense and turbulent, the other soft and serene. The style in the former is that of somewhat academic serial technique, which is to say there is no "straight" thematic material (certainly nothing remotely "jazz" oriented) and no set meter. The listener is jostled about as if in an instrumental sea. Sometimes the writing is a bit reminiscent of Ornette Coleman's symphonic work, The Skies of America, which Braxton is known to admire, but more often it sounds like a slightly freer version of much contemporary serialist composing since the '50s. The quieter sections are more consonant though still complex, forming a rich stasis, a raft to which the listener lost at sea may easily grasp. Braxton biographer Graham Lock offers highly detailed liner notes both on the structure of the piece as well as its philosophical foundations. For confirmed Braxaholics, Composition 96 is a must-have, if only for its historical significance in his career. Listeners familiar with his jazz work, however, may be put off by its relatively severe classical orientation, lack of improvisation, and absence of overt themes. Also, note that Braxton does not play on this recording, but only conducts.
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AllMusic Review by Brian Olewnick