“Getting” Anthony Braxton: The Ghost Trance Septet

cover 2

BRAXTON: Compositions Nos. 255, 358, 193 & 264 / Ghost Trance Septet: Niels Van Heertum, tpt/euphonium; Steven Delannoye, t-sax/bs-cl; Anna Jalving, vln; Kobe Van Cauwenherghe, el-gtr/gtr/bs-gtr/synths/voc; Elisa Medinilla, pno; Frederik Sakham, bs/el-bs/voc; Teun Verbruggen, dm/perc / el NEGOCITO Records eNR105 (available online at https://www.elnegocitorecords.com/releases/eNR105++.html)

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.”

coverSo, 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.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s