Kobe Van Cauwenberghe: Ghost Trance Septet Plays Anthony Braxton (CD review)

Anthony Braxton: Composition 255, Composition 358, Composition 193, Composition 264

Kobe Van Cauwenberghe, guitars, synths, voice; Frederik Sakham, bass, voice; Elisa Medinilla, piano; Niels Van Heertum, euphonium, trumpet; Steven Delannoye, tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Anna Jalving, violin; and Teun Verbruggen, drums, percussion.

El Negocito Records ENR105

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.

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