Ghost Sightings in Ghent

Double CD set Ghost Trance Septet Plays Anthony Braxton (EL NEGOCITO RECORDS eNR105)…led by Kobe Van Cauwenberghe, we have six musicians who met up in Belgium in 2021 and recorded these four long pieces.

Anthony Braxton is not only a major player in free jazz and improvisation, but since the 1970s he has been engaged in creating and realising these extraordinary compositions of his which elude categorisation, and follow his own highly imaginative and ruggedly American ideas, yet are also worthy of being considered exemplary pieces of avant-garde modernism on a par with the works of Stockhausen, Cage, or Cardew. For one thing, Braxton evolved his own approach to graphical scores, using visual symbols arranged in diagrams – even the titles of the works would sometimes be more akin to a mathematical formula than a conventional classical title. I see from the inside notes to this release that Braxton himself considered his use of visual codes to be part of a tradition of world culture, and cites many convincing examples from ancient history (Aztecs, Egyptian hieroglyphics, but also rock paintings, Navajo sand paintings, and more). He goes on to stress that a code for him is not “static data”, but something to be used as part of a very dynamic performance, where intuition and cognitive skills play a very large part.

The Ghost Trance Music series of works began around 1995 – by 2006 he had completed 138 compositions in this way. According to Timo Hoyer’s well-informed booklet notes, the central idea is a tremendous inclusivity – Braxton aims to sweep up a wide range of musical traditions into a single compositional space, so it’s not just jazz and improvisation, but also classical Minimalism, African music, Native American rituals, and street parades. Hoyer, who has published a book on Braxton in 2021, is clearly very knowledgeable about the history and achievements of this great man, and passes on a good understanding of the details of Braxton’s systems, the intricacy of his layered scores, and his musical intentions. It’s pointless to try and summarise the depth and breadth of this Ghost Trance Music, but there are some headline points which impressed me; Braxton’s ambition is to create a “living music entity”, so I suppose the system or framework has to be porous enough to allow this very powerful dynamic to continue to breath as it passes through the hands of the players. There are a few “keywords”, if we can use so bland a term, that characterise the desired results, and Braxton clutches at words like “explorative”, “intuitive” and “poetic”, along with the rather unexpected note about symbolism, a method which includes the possibility of “gestural positioning”, something which sounds rather wonderful.

Added to this are very encouraging exhortations to the group from the maestro, which he issues like an enthused football coach cheering from the sidelines – have fun, there are no mistakes, keep a sense of humour, bring something unique to the performance. I especially like the idea that if you try and follow the guidance too closely, you’re probably doing it wrong. Well, full marks to Braxton (needless to say) for developing this highly unique and very productive method of group performance, and for managing to find ways to escape some of the deadening traps that modern composition can lead to. I’ll give five out of ten to the well-meaning Belgian players, whose work is very able for sure, but never once in these two hours of music did they truly catch fire or lift off into an inspired dream-ritual trance. Having been given the elements of freedom by Braxton’s system, they seem nonplussed and uncertain what to do with that freedom. They seem stolid, afraid to offend the audience (or each other) with a single wrong move. I like the combination of electric and acoustic instruments, and the group do manage to realise some interesting dynamics on occasion, but it’s mostly rather dry and flat. Maybe we should give a listen to Kobe Van Cauwenberghe’s earlier 2020 album, Ghost Trance Solos, where he realises three compositions playing solo guitar. From 15 June 2022.

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