AMN Reviews: Kobe Van Cauwenberghe – Ghost Trance Septet plays Anthony Braxton (2022; el NEGOCITO Records)

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 several years. In 2021, 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.