in conversation with
at the Battles rehearsal space, Brooklyn, NY
August 4, 2009—3 p.m.
Transcribed by Trevor Hunter
Videotaped by John M. McGill
Video presentation by
Curiosity is probably the most important virtue in any modern creative field, and from all appearances Tyondai Braxton has it in spades. Although NewMusicBox was ostensibly at his band’s rehearsal space to interview him, Braxton started grilling us as soon as we walked in the door. Everything was interesting: Elliott Carter’s music, Pierre Boulez’s pugnacity, early Buchla synthesizers, what Roger Reynolds is really like in person—all sorts of cabalistic minutiae that many in the field take for granted as being overly specialist or dull. “It’s all fascinating to me because I feel very disconnected from the ‘composer world,’” Braxton explained.
Which is itself a bit curious, considering the circles he’s coming from. The son of Anthony Braxton, Tyondai emerged from the Hartt School of Music with a degree in composition, which usually qualifies someone for automatic induction into the “composer world.” But rather than dive headfirst into grant applications, Braxton instead shaped himself as a solo performer. He held audiences captive with just his voice, a guitar, and a henge of effects pedals, throwing a blanket of sound over listeners while he sat cross-legged on the ground (and later, on a raised platform built by architect Uffe Surland van Tams). His abilities were first chronicled on his 2002 debut album, History That Has No Effect, followed by a split LP with Parts & Labor called Rise, Rise, Rise. And then, when he was pretty much already a critical darling, he found even greater recognition as vocalist, guitarist, and keyboardist (often concurrently) for Battles, an unambiguous rock band that takes the prog route in accessibilizing nerdy, complex music.
In this way, Braxton, along with artists such as Andrew Bird and Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth, might be the best indicator of a trend of university-trained composers who are more likely to find their best successes at rock festivals than gilded concert halls. The rich layerings Braxton can unleash are studied perhaps, but definitely basking in the visceral energy of rock music. But if he feels disconnected from the composer world now, it’s not going to last. Still interested in shaping complex sounds while growing past the solo setup that he used for so many years, his new album Central Market utilizes a novel setup to fill out his timbral palette—the Wordless Music Orchestra. It’s a bold move, since orchestral music isn’t exactly the hip new thing (yet), and those instruments can certainly lay bare one’s technical gaps; but Braxton pulls it off. His compositional style might place him within the context of several “isms,” but what’s actually remarkable is how atypical the results are. He’s not aping existing compositional trends, especially with regard to the blending of instruments and electronics, so much as creating a bizarrely logical extension of what he was already doing.
What’s interesting is that despite being more popular already than just about any composer can hope for, Braxton doesn’t speak of having arrived; moreso one gets the sense that he’s always in development, never one to rest on his laurels. It’s the product of a curious mind, and it’s above all exciting to think about what new areas he might explore.