Tasked with inventing the world’s most intimidating musician, a novelist could do worse than to create Anthony Braxton. If the name alone—building rhythmically toward that spiky, algebraic x—fails to daunt, consider this sentence from his voluminous writings: “Composition No. 105B is a material and principle generating structural world that establishes a multiple construction structural identity in its principal material identity (sense) as well as a medium tempo constructed sensibility in its extended sense.”

Note that rather than name his compositions, Braxton numbers them; he also “titles” them with schematic doodles that look like Feynman diagrams rendered by Keith Haring. One of the rare MacArthur “geniuses” for whom scare quotes are widely thought unnecessary, he has his own foundation—the Tri-Centric, a name ripe for conspiracy spinning by hats both tinfoil and red—devoted to the propagation of his work, which ranges from solo improvisations to opera cycles, and has, for half a century, been a crucial strain of yeast in the ferment of the avant-garde.