Peter Margasak, The Best Contemporary Classical on Bandcamp: June 2022 (30/06/2022)
Despite his prodigious, mind-expanding compositional output, the music of Anthony Braxton remains largely the property of his own ensembles. His pieces can be notoriously difficult and require real immersion in his systems, but it does seem like more musicians are finally beginning to confront his massive body of work on his terms—well beyond the realm of “jazz”—and often with a rigor and focus sometimes missing within the breakneck prolificacy of his groups. Braxton often seems more interested in pushing through to his next project than in refining past work. Thankfully the Dutch guitarist Kobe Van Cauwenberghe, who leads the six-string quartet Zwerm, seems eager to bring out the nuances and complexity of Braxton’s writing. In November of 202o, he dropped a knotty collection of solo Braxton music and now he’s back leading a terrific septet fluent in both improvised and contemporary approaches through four Braxton pieces. Scholar Timo Hoyer wrote detailed liner notes that analyze that pieces and detail the older works enfolded into these performances, which reveal a genuine sharpness and depth. There’s a clear mastery of this often unwieldy material that’s almost giddy in its energy. Each of the four pieces, spread out over two CDs, is packed with detail and quick-blink episodes, delivering such densely crafted journeys that I hope others will follow suit and give Braxton’s pieces the treatment they deserve.
Tor Hammerø, Nettavisen Nyheter. Norway (20/06/2022)
Totalt unikt og veldig spennende
Anthony Braxtons musikk er ikke for pyser. Det bekrefter det flotte belgisk-danske kollektivet Ghost Trance Septet leda av gitaristen Kobe Van Cauwenberghe
Jeg har få problemer med å innrømme at jeg har brukt lang tid på å komme innafor dørstokken til Anthony Braxton sitt univers. Jeg har enkelt og greit ikke helt skjønt hvor han ville med musikken sin. Om jeg har skjønt det nå? Ikke helt sikker, men jeg lar meg uansett fascinere.
På denne dobbelt cd-en spiller septetten fire Braxton-komposisjoner med navn mellom "Composition No. 193" til "Composition No. 358". Siden Braxton har godt over 700 låter i banken, så er det altså nok å velge mellom.
Som alltid er Braxtons musikk et sted mellom de "fleste" grenseland. Er det jazz, er det impro, er det samtidsmusikk? Svaret er som alltid både ja og nei - jeg sliter med og har eller ikke noe behov for å båssette Braxtons unike musikalske visjoner.
Tekstheftet til denne utgivelsen gir oss en god og lang innføring i Braxtons filosofi og måten han ønsker at at andre musikere skal "angripe" hans musikk på. Noe forteller meg at Van Cauwenberghe & Co har kommet godt på innsida av denne tankegangen og at de har makta å sette sitt eget bumerke på musikken.
Van Cauwenberghe spiller ymse gitarer, bassgitar, synther og gir også stemmelyd fra seg og ellers bidrar Frederik Sakham på bass, elbass og stemme, Elisa Medinilla på piano, Niels Van Heertum på eufonium og trompet, Teun Verbruggen på trommer og perkusjon, Anna Jalving på fiolin og Steven Delannoye på tenorsaksofon og bassklarinett til å lage noen lydlandskap få om noen har stifta bekjentskap med tidligere.
Det kommer sjølsagt ikke som noen overraskelse at Braxtons musikk er utfordrende. Det er akkurat det som gjør den så spennende og Kobe Van Cauwenberghe skal ha all ære for å ta dette universet til nye og egne steder.
Om knappe to måneder står sjefen sjøl, Anthony Braxton, på scena under Oslo Jazzfestival. Ganske mye forteller meg at der bør man være.
Eyal Hareuveni, salt peanuts (20/06/2022)
Belgian guitarist Kobe Van Cauwenberghe is fascinated with Anthony Braxton’s music. In 2020 he recorded three compositions of Braxton’s system for a solo guitar album «Ghost Trance Solos» (all that dust, 2020). A year later he performed another of Braxton’s elaborate sonic systems, Echo Echo Mirror House Music. On his new double album with the ghost Trance Septet, he performs one of the compositions from «Ghost Trance Solos», No. 255, plus three others, now arranged for a Belgian-Danish septet, featuring Van Cauwenberghe on guitars, bassist Frederik Sakham, pianist Elisa Medinilla, euphonium and trumpet player Niels Van Heertum, reeds player Steven Delannoye, violinist Anna Jalving and drummer-percussionist Teun Verbruggen. The release of «Plays Anthony Braxton Compositions No. 255, 358, 193 and 264» coincides with Braxton’s 77th birthday and Braxton’s European tour where he would share a stage with Van Cauwenberghe performing the master’s compositions.
German writer and Braxton’s scholar Timo Hoyer, who wrote the book «Anthony Braxton – Creative Music» (Wolke Verlag, 2021), added insightful liner notes that decipher some of the extremely idiosyncratic, uncompromisingly advancing compositional ideas of Braxton. His composition offers an infinitely inventive collage or synthesis of notated, partially fixed, intuitive and improvised components. First of all, Hoyer mentions that Braxton advises all potential performers and interpreters of his compositions, to have fun, to take risks and forget about playing it correctly, and to be creative, make mistakes and be sure to keep their sense of humor.
Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music (GTM) system marks a creative period that began in the mid-nineties and continues to this day. He composed 138 compositions in this system between 1995 to 2006. The eclectic GTM encompasses rituals of the Native Americans, the repetitive continuums of Minimal Music, the rhythmic diversity and trans-tonality of African music, the parallel sound events of street parades, and the intensity and improvisational passion of jazz, and much more. The scores consist of two parts – primary melody with all instruments playing it in unison, and secondary material where Braxton expects a creative, quite liberal handling of the material. Braxton allows the performers to include passages from any of his compositions.
Van Cauwenberghe’s Ghost Trance Septet is well-versed with Braxton’s immense material, follows Braxton’s advice and shines with spirited creativity, an imaginative energy, and an open, daring mind. Braxton has seen Van Cauwenberghe’s Ghost Trance Septet perform his composition No. 255 at the Rainy Days Festival in November 2021 and could hardly contain himself with emotion and excitement. This composition also opens the double album of the Ghost Trance Septet, and the septet performs it with a cerebral but quite sensual and uplifting spirit and references Braxton’s compositions No. 40f and No. 168, once written for a duo session with guitarist James Emery, in such brilliant manner that you can immediately identify with Braxton’s excitement. The following composition No. 358 highlights the emotionality and the rhythmic playfulness of this clever composition. The septet clearly enjoys creating the dissolving forms, mixing melodic veins into atonal chaos, and suddenly introducing quotes of Braxton’s a march-like Composition No. 58 with more references to compositions No. 168 and No. 108d.
The second album begins with Composition No. 193, one of the early GTM compositions. The septet slowly detaches itself from the primary melody and then slows down even further and lets the sonic substance become fleeting and transparent like a fascinating mirage. But then the septet charges with new energy and new nuances of the primary melody, while incorporating elements from compositions No. 48, No. 108c and No. 6f. The last composition No. 264 was not documented before, and the septet performance offers many contrasting timbres (and the choice of instruments is almost always left to the musicians in the GTM) and brilliant rhythmic changes. The septet incorporates elements from compositions No. 108a, Mo. 101, No. 204, No. 40b and No. 40o, and enriches its intricate dynamics with «post-be-bop thematic structure».
Great, inspiring performance.
Peter De Backer, de Standaard (15/06/2022)
Kobe Van Cauwenberghe, lid van gitaarkwartet Zwerm, is gefascineerd door Anthony Braxton. Die Amerikaanse avant-gardist wordt tot de jazz gerekend, maar is eigenlijk een hedendaagse componist die intussen meer dan 700 stukken schreef voor de meest uiteenlopende bezettingen. Van Cauwenberghe is vooral geboeid door Ghost Trance Music, een eigenzinnig concept van Braxton met specifieke richtlijnen voor de muzikanten die het willen toepassen. In vier lange Braxton-composities van meer dan 23 minuten gaat de band (met onder anderen Teun Verbruggen op drums, Steven Delannoye op sax en Niels Van Heertum op eufonium) ermee aan de slag, inclusief citaten uit vroegere Braxton-stukken. Met af en toe een rake solo, zoals die jankende gitaar van Van Cauwenberghe in het eerste stuk. Maar ze kleuren ook lekker buiten de lijntjes, want, zo luidt het advies van Braxton: ‘Als de muziek te correct is uitgevoerd, speelde de band allicht verkeerd.’ Deze band maakt kennelijk boeiende foutjes.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson, The Rambler (06/06/2022)
Beginning with this playlist, compiled deep in locked-down 2020, it has been something of a side project of mine to get to grips with the music of Anthony Braxton. Exactly two years on, I feel like I’m still only scratching the surface. For someone whose education and writing are so steeped in the author-work orthodoxy of Western art music, as mine are, Braxton’s music presents a number of challenges. (Those challenges are part of the reason for my interest, of course.) Among them is Braxton’s central role as performer and director of his own music. Braxton’s reputation is founded first on his saxophone and clarinet playing (he is still – as on the cover of Timo Hoyer’s recently published comprehensive overview – often pictured with one instrument or another to hand), and much of his discography features him as a performer. Often this has been forced by necessity: Braxton’s marginalisation by the art music establishment for much of his life required him to act as his own champion and impresario. For years, if he didn’t play his music, few others would. Nevertheless, the line between his different roles as composer and bandleader is a blurred one. This distinction is, to be sure, founded in a racially coded division between jazz and classical music, and in the different values the two respective genres (and the wider culture industry around them) place on writing and performing. But it does still heighten interest in recordings of Braxton’s music on which the composer himself is not present.
The Belgian guitarist Kobe Van Cauwenberghe has also been on a mission to explore Braxton’s music, although far more comprehensively and to much greater effect than I. In November 2020 he released an acclaimed solo album of three compositions in Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music (GTM) style (numbers 255, 284 and 358) on All That Dust. And a year later he brought a septet to Luxembourg’s Rainy Days festival to play Composition 255. A studio recording of this work, plus three other recordings with the same septet (Compositions 193, 264 and 358) make up this superb double LP. Braxton was in the audience in Luxembourg and, according to Hoyer’s somewhat effusive sleevenotes, ‘could hardly contain himself with emotion and excitement. Understandably so. I dare say he had never experienced his GTM concept from the listener’s perspective as varied, elaborate and fluid as on that day.’ My own view is that Van Cauwenberghe and his septet have redefined the landscape of Braxton recordings.
Ghost Trance Music is one of numerous compositional methods or styles Braxton has developed over the years, each of which adds new possibilities to his music while still accommodating those that have gone before (for a primer, see Seth Colter Walls’ introduction to Braxton’s compositional systems; for a deeper dive, see this article by Erica Dicker). Rather than moving episodically from one stylistic phase to another, Braxton’s career can be viewed as a tree or, better, as mycelium – a continually branching-converging network of threads that equally pushes forward and feeds back. Each compositional system is both spore, vessel and boring machine, offering ways of generating patches of this network, transiting through it, or cutting new paths across it. The GTM system – grounded in the Ghost Dance rituals by which the surviving fragments of decimated Native American populations pooled their knowledge and culture in the late nineteenth century in the face of colonial destruction – is one of the richest of these, and is the main focus of Van Cauwenberghe’s research. It is based around a form of endless melody, initially imagined in a steady, walking bass-type rhythm but later ornamented with complex rhythmic ‘breaks’ (irrational subdivisions of the beat). In Dicker’s analysis, this melody serves as a kind of musical highway, or ‘meta-road’, off which various diversions, off-ramps or intersections may be indicated, which the performer(s) may choose to follow (or not) according to Braxton’s suggestions. The system is designed, says Dricker, ‘to put the player in the driver’s seat, drawing his or her intentions into the navigation of the performance, determining the structure of the performance itself’.
Some of the diversions off the meta-road involve reference to secondary materials written on loose-leaf pages of score (a model of strict core and looser supplements somewhat like Ferneyhough’s Cassandra’s Dream Song, for example, although with a much wider range of freedoms and possibilities). Others involve the ‘language music’ that is one of Braxton’s first compositional systems – a set of twelve performance directives (trill every note, play legato melodies, play accented sustained notes, etc) indicated by graphic symbols. Still others involve tertiary or ‘outside’ materials, selected (prior to performance) from anywhere else in Braxton’s oeuvre. This may include primary melodies or secondary materials from any other GTM composition, or it might include material from any part of Braxton’s hundreds of other compositions. (The last section of Braxton’s tentet recording of Composition 286, from 2001, for example, features material from Composition 23A, first recorded on the seminal New York, Fall 1974 album.) As Dricker explains, over the eleven years that Braxton employed his GTM approach (between 1995 and 2006), he developed it in several ways, emphasising or de-emphasising different aspects, adding or substracting elements but always, in Braxton’s characteristic manner, with a view to increasing the music’s plurality and heterogeneity.
The collage approach – fundamental, I would say, to Braxton’s aesthetic – was developed in Braxton’s work with small ensembles, most notably his legendary quartet of the 80s and early 90s with Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway. It is documented in Graham Lock’s essential book, and on ferocious albums such as this. The fluidity of this music can be utterly thrilling, but if you are not familiar with at least some of Braxton’s other music, it can be hard to identify where the different collaged elements begin and end, and thus perceive the musical space in all its dimensions. In the meta-road approach of GTM, however, Braxton finds a sweet spot between freedom and control, between an easily identifiable foundation and easily identifiable diversion, without limiting the range or variety of those diversions (some of which are identified in Hoyer’s sleevenotes).
The four compositions on this album cover all four variations of the GTM style, from the simpler first phase of Composition 193, with its greater emphasis on the primary melody, no subdivisions of its regular pulse, and an emphasis on specified pitches in its secondary material (leading to a greater control of pitch overall); to the fourth, ‘accelerator class’, in which the primary melody beats are almost all subdivided or obscured (although still present on an intermediate level), and in which the melody moves through accelerating and decelerating waves; there are also fewer deviations from the primary melody indicated, although the melody itself is provided with numerous layers of colour, articulation and graphical elements that ensure that it is always different. Three, numbers 193, 255 and 358, have been recorded before – numbers 255 and 358 by Van Cauwenberghe himself on his solo recording. Number 264 appears to be given its first recording here.
In general, the septet’s playing is smoother than that of Braxton’s own groups: the staccato punch of the primary melody is less pronounced (it thus appears more as a continuous stream, albeit one whose contours are thoroughly unpredictable); the instrumental timbres are more blended (even though, paradoxically, they are often more diverse – compare Braxton’s sax duo version of 255 with Chris Jonas on GTM (Outpost) 2003). The septet’s renditions are also much more compact than Braxton’s, which can often – for my money – shade into indulgence. Whereas Braxton and his groups will often extend a composition to an hour or more, Van Cauwenberghe’s renditions (both in the septet and solo) all hover around the 20-minute mark.
None of this to say that these are compromised or limited performances. The septet’s playing – particularly its flexibility of idiom, from avant-garde to blues to hillbilly – equals or even exceeds anything I’ve heard in Braxton’s recordings (I’ve hardly heard them all, but for me Braxton ploughs more consistently a free jazz/modern compositional idiom than his music necessarily demands). A lot of that emerges simply from instrumental combinations within the group: more violin is going to sound more country, more drums and bass is going to sound more blues/funk. But Van Cauwenberghe’s players lean into those identities with a range of idiomatic rhythmic and articulatory nuances. Van Cauwenberghe repeats one of the tricks from his solo record by bringing in the funkily slinky Composition 40f in the last third of 255, but in the group setting it grooves that much harder; it has a counterpart in the post-bop central section of 264, in which Verbruggen, Medinilla and Sakham most clearly coalesce as a distinct rhythm section (only to tease themselves apart again within a minute or two).
The polystylism of some of the secondary and tertiary breakdowns – when the individual identities of the players come to the fore – are more Ives than Ives: melting and melding more than clashing. They are deliciously fluid, rippled through with energies of seven players continuously listening and adjusting to each other. There is the same unstoppable magmatic flow that is captured on the classic quartet recordings (Verbruggen’s skittering drums and Medinilla’s fistfuls of keys do a lot of work in capturing that mood), but there is also introspection, stillness, melancholy even, as in the slow breakdown into the central section of 193 or the Sciarrino-like glitter of 358. Newcomers to Braxton’s work may still wish to start with those quartet recordings, but for the sound of Braxton without himself at the helm, they will want to come here very soon after.
Mike Borella, Avant Music News (04/06/2022)
Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music (GTM) is a framework for composition, improvisation, and collaboration. It is based around repeating pulse-like melodies that can be of any duration. Inspired by Native American dance, Braxton evolved the framework over the course of a decade in over 100 numbered pieces. Like his other musical systems, GTM pieces are meta-compositions, in that they can be adapted to virtually any instrumentation, ensemble size, or tempo. Further, there are four distinct GTM species of increasing complexity in terms of notation and musical output.
The above is just a layperson’s attempt at describing GTM. A more comprehensive description can be found in Erica Dicker’s excellent GTM article from Sound American 16.
In any event, guitarist Kobe Van Cauwenberghe has been fascinated by GTM for the better part of two decades. Last year, he put together an ensemble of like-minded musicians to record and then perform GTM pieces. The result is this double album with four tracks, each around 24 minutes, and exploring each of Braxton’s GTM species. Instrumentation includes electric and acoustic guitar, electric and acoustic bass, synths, voices, piano, euphonium, trumpet, tenor sax, bass clarinet, violin, drums, and percussion.
Composition 255 begins with the “classic” GTM sound – a jagged circling melody with structured tempo changes performed by the entire ensemble. Over time, instruments fade in and out while occasional solos and accentuations are layered in. Certain passages downplay the melodic structure, with foreground instruments providing improvised lines, some employing extended techniques. At the midway point, Van Cauwenberghe breaks out on the electric guitar for a wailing “solo” with accompaniment by the horns. The sheer complexity of the piece is highlighted at this point, with multiple instruments heading in different directions while remaining loyal to the guiding foundation. Drones, quieter movements, and then a vocally-oriented burst round out the piece.
Composition 358 is of the fourth species and hides the melodic pulses under a more chaotic but structured set of interlocking themes. Not unlike some of Braxton’s more recent efforts, the overall sound resembles two or three pieces of music being played independently and yet somehow fitting together. The looseness of this track, at least when compared to its predecessor, is notable in how it varies between labyrinthine intricacy and relative sparseness. Indeed, some passages appear almost freely improvised at certain moments.
Composition 193 is one of the earliest GTM pieces, and thus employs a prominent pulse melody supported by at least two instruments at most points. The melody dances about playfully and at a rapid tempo while the performers take turns layering their own brief melodies, motifs, and bursts atop the structure. Sax, violin, and piano, in particular, add colors to the piece. The baton-passing of the pulse melody is relatively easy to follow, for example from guitar to sax and bass, to guitar and bass, and so on. Nonetheless, a few sections relinquish this structure for a more complex variation thereof or extemporaneous playing.
Composition 264 rounds things out with a lengthy pulse pattern. It is probably the most involved of the four, exhibiting multiple tempo changes throughout its cycle. After a few minutes, it morphs into an interlude with spiky blasts from various instruments. Van Cauwenberghe provides a notably compelling solo with plenty of bent notes that fit the strange forms underlying the track. A reprise of the pulse then emerges with the instruments jumping in and out of the pattern. An open-ended passage serves as a finale to the album.
When recordings of GTM first became available, I found them to be somewhat less interesting than Braxton’s earlier works. As a result, I did not pay as much attention to the evolution of this system as I should have. Thankfully, Van Cauwenberghe and crew have provided a truly inspired reading of GTM material that has rekindled my awareness of this phase of Braxton’s works. Ghost Trance Septet plays Anthony Braxton is one of the best interpretations of Braxton’s music yet by an ensemble not including Braxton himself. Very well done.
Ben Taffijn, Nieuwe Noten (02/06/2022)
Anthony Braxton wordt gelukkig steeds vaker ook als componist van hedendaagse muziek gezien en niet louter als saxofonist, actief binnen de vrije improvisatie en de avant-garde jazz. Iets dat hij vanzelfsprekend ook is. Een musicus die deze composities een warm hard toedraagt is gitarist Kobe Van Cauwenberghe. Eerder bracht hij bij All That Dust reeds ‘Ghost Trance Solos’ uit en nu ligt er het bij El Negocito verschenen dubbel album ‘Kobe Van Cauwenberghe’s Ghost Trance Septet Plays Anthony Braxton’, waarop we de composities nr. 193, 255, 264 en 358 horen, slechts vier van de ruim zevenhonderd die Braxton tot nu toe schreef.
Honderdachtendertig daarvan vallen onder de Ghost Trance Music, composities die Braxton schreef tussen 1995 en 2006 en waar ook deze vier onder vallen. Koos Van Cauwenberghe op zijn vorige album voor solostukken, op dit album werkt hij met een septet, met naast Van Cauwenberghe zelf, die we horen op diverse gitaren, basgitaar, synthesizer en vocalen, Frederik Sakham op contrabas en vocalen, Elisa Medinilla op piano, Niels Van Heertum op euphonium en trompet, Teun Verbruggen op drums en percussie, Anna Jalving op viool en Steven Delannoye op tenorsax en basklarinet. Braxton spelen, Van Cauwenberghe haalt in het Cd boekje de instructies van Braxton nog maar eens aan: “a. Have fun with this material and don’t get hung up with any one area. b. Don’t misuse this material to have only ‘correct’ performances without spirit or risk. […] If the music is played too correctly it was probably played wrong. c. Each performance must have something unique. […] If the instrumentalist doesn’t make a mistake with my materials, I say ‘Why!?’ NO mistake — NO work!’ If a given structure concept has been understood (on whatever level) then connect it to something else. Try something different — be creative (that’s all I’m writing). […] and be sure to keep your sense of humor”.
De composities kennen allemaal een zelfde soort structuur. Het eerste deel bestaat uit een nagenoeg unisono gespeelde melodie. Die kan urenlang aangehouden worden, maar ook esnige minuten, dat is aan het ensemble. Wat volgt zijn een soort van afgeleide melodieën van die hoofd melodie. In het wat en hoe geeft Braxton de uitvoerders bijzonder veel ruimte, geen twee uitvoeringen van een compositie klinken dan ook hetzelfde. Het tweede deel van een compositie, bijvoorbeeld nr. 255, waar het album mee opent, klinkt dan ook regelmatig veel vrijer dan het eerste deel, hier horen we duidelijk de improvisatie achtergrond van Braxton in terug, al zijn er ook zeker sterk ritmische en melodieuze fragmenten te bespeuren. Mooi gitaarspel ook, zo ongeveer halverwege dit stuk. In het aanvankelijk veel rustiger nr. 358, tegen het einde loopt de spanning behoorlijk op, is het hierboven genoemde onderscheid minder goed te maken, hier wisselen melodie en abstractie elkaar continu af. Aan het ritmische patroon aan het begin van nr. 193 is goed te horen dat Braxton zijn inspiratie voor deze muziek voor een deel haalt uit de straatparades, een belangrijke oervorm van de jazz. En mooi zoals dit motief iets verderop letterlijk uitdooft in de abstractie. Maar er blijft ruimte voor het ritme in dit stuk, steeds in boeiende afwisseling met die abstractie. In nr. 264 valt het slepende ritme op en als verderop het tempo nog verder naar beneden gaat, heeft de muziek veel weg van een klanksculptuur.
Sammy Stein, The Free Jazz Collective (23/05/2022)
Ghent-based el Negocito records will release Kobe Van Cauwenberghe's Ghost Trance Septet plays Anthony Braxton on June 2, combined with a performance at the Contemporary Arts Museum of S.M.A.K. In Ghent, showcasing the results of Kobe Van Cauwenberghe's research on Anthony Braxton and his spectacular Ghost Trance Music.
Anthony Braxton is one of the most innovative composers, musicians, and music theorists. His work has been featured on around 60 albums by other musicians, and his number of compositions is over 700. Belgian guitarist Kobe Van Cauwenberghe (Zwerm, Ictus Ensemble, Nadar Ensemble) recognised the uniqueness of Braxton's Ghost Trance Music systems and made it a mission to come to a deeper understanding of it and its implications for the interpreter. After his acclaimed solo album (Ghost Trance Solos), Van Cauwenberghe invited a group of musicians to take a collective deep dive into Braxton's musical wonderland of the Ghost Trance Musics and explore its unique communal aspects. In the summer of 2021, this Ghost Trance Septet recorded four GTM-compositions, covering the entire spectrum of the four different' species' of the G.T.M. system. The result is this present double CD, which will be followed by a double vinyl issue later in the year.
Anthony Braxton reacted to the Ghost Trance Septet's performance at the Rainy Days Festival in Luxemburg in November 2021 with emotion, and this ensemble comes with the full approval of the grandmaster himself
On June 5, Braxton's Birthday, there will be a 2nd concert at the Singel in Antwerp, followed by a performance by Braxton himself. Other activities are planned, including an expo and lectures.
With Braxton playing fewer concerts these days, this is a rare opportunity to see the grandmaster perform. Braxton has over 500 compositions to his name and has been a visionary pioneer of music, regularly reinventing himself. During the 1970s, Braxton considered creating streamed (or beamed) live performances alongside 100 orchestras in 4 different cities and wanted to mark the year 2000 by completing the music for multiple orchestras. The programme in the performances will feature his compositions from the 'Creative Orchestra' albums, where, in an 'Ellington meets Stockhuasen' manner, Braxton blends big band with contemporary classical ensemble. There will also be some pieces from the more recent 'Ghost Trance Music,' which balances music that is both notated and allows for improvisation. Braxton will perform himself with his new Saxophone Quartet, featuring James Fei (Roscoe Mitchell, Alvin Lucier), Chris Jonas ( Cecil Taylor, William Parker, Del Sol String Quartet), Ingrid Laubrock(F-IRE Collective, Siouxsie and The Banshees, Polar Bear) and Andre Vida (Brandon Evans, Sonny Simmons)
The opening track, 'Composition 255,' is a mesmerizing stream of music that begins with the ensemble delivering a punctuated stream of chords in union before, gradually, the percussion first; then the other instruments begin to shear off from the central theme, creating diverse and intricate side roads of improvised sounds. Follow any of these, and you end up eventually at a crossroads where the ensemble comes together, crosses, and then veers away on different pathways. Eerie vocalisation, underpinned by piano, then brass blats and percussive rhythms thundered out underneath. The subtle blueseyness of the central section of the number with the unsettling bass clarinet just audible beneath the intricate top lines reflects jazz roots, while the explosive, dissonant guitar reminds the listener that this is improvised jazz music in essence. The trance element comes from the palpitation of the rhythms and the endless stream of musical consciousness, which creates a link between the musicians, balancing the directed with the free. The piano rises to the fore playing chordal sequences, over which the rest add their responses - again, that link between the set and the unsettling—an incredibly diverse and creative opening sequence of music.
The following track,'Composition 358,' opens with the ensemble playing separate yet connected lines, each different yet creating a link to the rest, before snatches of melody rise like a nest of entwined cobras, entwining around the centrality of the number while maintaining their individuality. The glissandos, the responses, the interaction, the brief solos, the quiet moments, and the explosive end section before the fading all work to create another mesmeric number.
The next track, 'Composition 193,' continues the theme of collective creativity, the ensemble demonstrating how aggregation can be coupled with fractions of dissonance and subtle connectivity.
After the three-minute mark, the lines set by the piano are reflected and developed by the ensemble with the percussion adding rhythmic patterns that both fill space and create interesting modulations of the tempo. A violin rises in solo before playing spiccato, reflecting the percussive patterns. The bass weaves complex lines underneath. The ensemble then works together to create many hues, painting a colourful ribbon of sound that the listener can follow, leading to a tricky, intricate rhythmic middle section into which they are immersed. The sound curve becomes more complex before it simplifies, allowing individual instruments to be heard. The finish feels orchestral and fulsome.
The final track, 'Composition 264,' brings more of the same - a seemingly bottomless pool of sounds, from which individual instruments rise to the surface before diving back to the depths of sound created by the ensemble. This music exemplifies the ensemble style of blended notated and improvised sound and is a delight to both those with an ear for classical and those preferring a freer form of playing.
Braxton proves that comparisons to other composers are pointless, and Braxton is a rare thing nowadays - a composer whose work is unique. The recording feels like an immersion; the music washes over the listener in waves, cleansing and pure. It is a stream of consciousness that emanates from the musicians, serving as a guide between that which is known and the unknown. Clear guidance to form is tempered beautifully with an allowance for freedom that this kind of music gives. There is a sense of connection to the past, a sense of being very much in the present and with the future. Listening to this music is an experience, not an act, and Braxton creates a sense of endless potential.
Lynn René Bayley, The Art Music Lounge, an Online Journal of Jazz and Classical Music (07/05/2022)
It has taken me more than 40 years to “get” Anthony Braxton’s music. When I first heard it in the 1970s, I found it t be texturally thick and repetitive, complex but unswinging. Those adjectives still apply, but over the years I have learned to be more patient when listening to and assessing music that lies outside of both the classical and jazz spectrums, and now I get it.
Braxton’s music is a complex blueprint of sound using small but very complex musical cells in a repeated fashion, over which the performers are supposed to slowly deconstruct it, find the cell or cells that appeal to them, and then put it back together using improvisation—and I mean full improvisation, which in turn means recomposing the music however they wish to. It’s very cerebral music, then, and isn’t mean to swing, but it is meant to played with in an amusing way despite its very serious complexity.
Braxton himself has written these instructions for musicians who wish to play his material (taken from the liner notes of this CD):
“a. Have fun with this material and don’t get hung up with any one area/
b. Don’t misuse this material to have only ‘correct’ performances without spirit or risk. […] If the music is played too correctly, it was probably played wrong.
c. Each performance must have something unique. […] If the instrumentalist doesn’t make a mistake with my materials, I say, ‘Why!?’ NO mistake — NO work!’ If a given structure concept has been understood (on whatever level) then connect it to something else. Try something different — be creative (that’s all I’m writing).
[…] and be sure to keep your sense of humor.”
So, with all that in mind, I decided to review this CD, even though the music occupies a no-man’s-land between classical and jazz. This two-CD set includes four later, very complex pieces by Braxton, played by Belgian guitarist Kobe Van Cauwenherghe and his Ghost Trance Septet.
One thing you will notice about Braxton’s music is that it is, for the most part, very quiet. His pieces do not encourage loud, violent performances; nor are his own performances of his music loud or disruptive. Within his complex musical cells, he uses a great deal of polyphony as well as dissonance; even if a group had decided to play his works in a tight, linear fashion—which clearly wouldn’t work very well—it would be extremely difficult to do so, and if you think that what you hear in this recording sounds sloppy and disorganized, such as the opening sections of Composition 358, I can assure you that there isn’t a classical group in the world who could even play it. It’s simply beyond their realm of musical education or experience.
Thus giving a technical description of what one hears is not only difficult but irrelevant. Suffice it to say that, even with humor and a lot of imagination, his music sounds chaotic because it is meant to sound chaotic. It is a Zen koan, meant to disrupt one’s normal way of thinking about music to produce something entirely different.
Once past the opening statements in each piece (the one in the opening work, Composition 255, lasts the longest, about three minutes), the Ghost Trance Quintet meanders—purposely—to create musical patterns that are slower and less complex than the original, but still related to it. What impressed and intrigued me most about this recording was the fact that the Septet managed to maintain some sort of forward momentum even while playing the must complex pieces, and at the same time never devolved into chaotic note-splattering. I’ve said many times that free jazz musicians who just splatter notes up against the wall to see what sticks are not complete musicians, because all music, no matter how complex and far-out, has to have some sort of form. The Ghost Trance Septet manages to give a certain amount of coherence to what they’re playing, and I respect that. Even in those moments that sound like free-for-alls, i.e. at the 11-minute mark on Composition 358, the rhythmically and harmonically apposite figures they are all playing somehow, mysteriously, come together.
But clearly this is not music for the masses; in fact, I’m sure that only one out of a thousand listeners (at best) will “get” these pieces. Aside from the fact that this music is intended as a basis for improvisation, they cannot be called “jazz” at all. They are closer related to the music of Harry Partch than to anyone in the jazz field, and that even includes Ivo Perelman, Simon Nabatov or Henry Threadgill, whose music is equally complex but contains more basic jazz feeling. The only other jazz group whose work comes close to what Braxton has done is the Art Ensemble of Chicago, another highly misunderstood group of musicians. In a way, Braxton’s works also have overtones in them related to the artwork of Wassily Kandinsky, the synethesiast who “saw” music as colors and shapes and tried to capture that feeling in paintings…yet the music itself, in my opinion, is closer in form to the paintings of Paul Klee. This is particularly evident in Composition 193, which uses (for Braxton) an unusually rhythmic figure to propel the surprisingly simple cells used as a theme, but this is not a jazz rhythm. It is much closer to the kind of rhythms used by Stravinsky in Le Sacre du Printemps.
Once past the repetitive (sometimes overly-repetitive) opening sections of each work, one hears little elements of improvised “comments,” you might call them, being introduced either against the grain of the theme statement or as an adjunct to it, an overlay on it, and this, in turn, leads to the loosening of the initial rhythm/tempo as well as a complete deconstruction of the theme until nothing is left but—and this seems particularly apt considering the group’s name—“ghostly” traces of the original music. Composition 193 has the greatest contrast, as the septet completely dissolves not only the strong ostinato beat of the opening theme but also its high-pressured tempo. The improvised section, dominated by Anna Jalving’s violin and Niels Van Heertum on the euphonium, is almost an entirely different work.
I also give a lot of credit to Van Cauwenherghe for resisting the temptation to use his electric guitar in a rock-music fashion. This is a bad lapse in taste that too many jazz guitarists fall into, probably because they all grew up with rock music and thus think it fits into everything…but as I’ve said many times, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. If your “rock” guitar style is closely related to R&B, that’s fine, because R&B was one of the outgrowths of swing in the 1940s, but if it sounds like heavy metal guitar, you’re on the wrong track for jazz. Van Cauwenherghe comes a bit close to the latter style in one brief solo here, but for the most part he stays away from it, which was the right decision. Even more surprisingly, towards the end of this track the septet actually swings!
The opening theme of Composition 264 is the most complex rhythmically of the four presented here, with both meter and tempo that keeps shifting underneath the musicians’ feet, but the Ghost Trance Septet has the full measure of this complicated music. Van Cauwenherghe’s playing on this track is some of his most rhythmic, and for the most part the group swings more consistently than on the others.
In addition to the selections on this double-CD issue, I should also like to mention that the Ghost Trance Septet has a video on YouTube of Braxton’s Composition 348 (Accelerator), with Braxton himself playing the reed instruments, that lasts over an hour. This is clearly a talented and very adventurous group, and their interpretations of Braxton’s material are something special.