Tyondai Braxton: Central Market

Tyondai Braxton: Central Market

in conversation with
Trevor Hunter
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
Molly Sheridan

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.

-Trevor Hunter

Trevor Hunter: Your new record Central Market is sort of a coming out party for you as a composer for orchestra after being on the scene for years as a solo act, and then with your band Battles. But you studied composition at the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut. Did you gain any experience writing for big ensembles there?

Tyondai Braxton: I did. My senior thesis was a piece for large ensemble: strings and two choirs, with three movie projectors running a cut-up version of Ghostbusters. I turned Ghostbusters into this edgy, weird film noir thing, and then we played this really futuristic Radiohead-meets-Ligeti kind of piece behind it. It was overly ambitious. It was an absolute success in the sense that I learned how to put these things together, and of course it was an absolute failure in the sense of it being my first time, and I didn’t really know what I was doing.

But I never wrote for a straight-up orchestra in school. At the time it just didn’t interest me; I really was diving into my electronic music, trying to flesh out my wingspan with my whole solo setup. But I loved rock music, I loved being in bands and simulating orchestral textures without the actual instruments. Because at the time, especially going through school and learning at a conservatory, I associated that music with a dead era. And it wasn’t until I was able to get out from that that I started to realize that it could be re-assimilated in a way that made sense for me.

TH: But it’s one thing to realize that you could write for orchestra and another thing entirely to have a serious desire to do so. It’s certainly not easy. Why are you so into it?

TB: Well, my music for my whole life has been simulating a larger sound; I work a lot with loops and effects to create this contrapuntal, multilayered simulation of what I could imagine a group doing. Central Market was an opportunity for me to realize it in a way that has a new dimension to it, a new color. I love orchestral music. Orchestral music isn’t just for the establishment—as composers, it’s up to us to reclaim some of that music for ourselves.

I feel like we’re living in a time right now where all music and the boundaries between these different genres and the politics between music doesn’t really make sense any more. I feel like that’s kind of been blown open—in the past 30 years, but especially now. You know, the change in the millennium, iTunes and downloads, bands giving their records away for free—I feel like it’s just a new era of sharing, and a new era of absorption that previous generations didn’t have access to because of the technology. But I feel like all of these things are reasons to investigate music that—maybe it did have a predefinition before of how it can be used and who can use it, but I don’t feel that that applies anymore. And that’s just the politics of it—sonically, who wouldn’t want to use the orchestra? You can do so much with that sound. I find it incredibly exciting.

TH: There’s definitely something about listening to a sound that rich, and that large, with so many different musicians.

TB: I remember it clicked for me when I played with Glenn Branca in Hallucination City for 100 guitars. John Cage once got up from one of Branca’s performances and said, “I have to leave, this guy’s a fascist.” But there’s a part of me that loves that fascist vibe in Branca. Hallucination City is 10 rows, there’s 100 guitar players, 10 guitarists to a section, and I remember we were out there playing, and you felt like it wasn’t you, it felt like you were in this community. Literally, in my row of 10 people, we were all in this together, and we were playing these chords in unison, and we happened to be at the center of this ensemble, and I remember there was a section where we had to tremolo on this low G chord, and suddenly the whole group started tremoloing on G, but in pockets—Wharton Tiers is behind us playing drums, and suddenly your whole section would erupt with a G, and then somewhere behind you, and somewhere in front of you that same G would be answered, two rows that way, and four rows that way. Dwoosh! Dununun…. DWOOSH…dununun. But it wasn’t a rhythm, it wasn’t like an obvious call and response. So you’re just playing, it’s like you’re running through the forest, and then you hear these pockets of explosions come up simultaneously. And right there, I was like, this is the fucking coolest thing about music. It’s the community sense. And that’s what I want to achieve as a composer. It’s not about me. I don’t want it to be about my “cool riffs” and my “hip effects”, you know? I want it to be this world that I can create where people can all work together to create a universe. And that is the shit.

TH: I’m totally with you there—I played in Rhys Chatham’s Crimson Grail last year, and again coming up this year. Of course it’s fun and rewarding to perform in general, but to play with 200 other people is a different experience, a whole other feeling entirely.

TB: And that’s what draws me to an orchestra. That’s what draws me to simulating these mass amounts of sound, is the communal aspect, and the teams of it. I love teams. So that to me is one of the most exciting parts of having a large group of people, and composing in general.

TH: That explains the desire to write for such a large ensemble, but when did you actually start writing the pieces on Central Market? Did you write them all at the same time?

TB: Well, no. “Platinum Rows”—that’s the central piece on the record, it’s the longest guy—I started writing him right as my band Battles’s last record, Mirrored, was being finished up. While we were writing that record I started to kind of find myself and realize, “Oh my god, I want to start writing really large scale orchestral pieces.” I started writing it then, but then I had to take a break because we ended up touring for like a year and a half; it was just non-stop craziness and focus on the band. I had to kind of put all the stuff away for a little bit. But it took me maybe about a year to write “Platinum Rows”, and then honestly I was like, “I want to have a record around this.” So I wrote the other pieces around it just to fill it out. Except for the last two tracks [“J. City” and “Dead Strings”], those are older.

TH: So it just felt like those two fit with the narrative and everything else.

TB: It felt like they fit. Those songs came directly out of my solo setup, but because of that they’re very limited, basic kind of songs. Which is cool, but I wanted to blend that world with my new orchestra universe and see how they fit. And also, symbolically, I didn’t want to abandon that whole way of working.

TH: Does that mean though that you’re transitioning away from your solo shows? Central Market is a solo album, but there are a couple dozen people on it. Your first solo album, History That Has No Effect, was—with a couple exceptions—just you and your guitar, creating these massive sound structures.

TB: The best thing about that was the constraint involved. Where you have no choice but to try and find options based in this world that you’re working in to simulate these sounds. There’s no other way around it. I didn’t want to use a computer, I wanted to have everything done live, so I appreciated those constraints and I learned a lot from them, but at a certain point those constraints kind of turned against me. I kind of bore all the fruit I could have got out of it, and then the question was how do I proceed?

I haven’t played solo in about a year and a half. Mostly because of the schedule with the band, but also because—I mean, I’ve been doing that for 14, 15 years? And I felt like I’d really gone as far as I could go. I didn’t want to stop, but at the same time, I was like, “I gotta move on from this. I gotta go to the next level.” I do love that format, and don’t totally intend to abandon it, but I couldn’t go on the way that I had been going on.

TH: But as you said, the elements of you and your guitar are still on the new record. It’s recognizably you. Did working with the orchestra change your approach to your own instrument at all?

TB: Well, when I was testing out examples of Central Market‘s music before the whole orchestra was there, I’d hear someone play an instrument and to me it sounded like the first time someone had ever played the instrument in my life. I’d hear it, and I’d say, “Oh my god, this is fucking beautiful! I’ve gotta write for it!” Suddenly I’m looking at their instrument, and I’m looking at my guitar, and I’m thinking, “Aw, man.” Because I’ve been relegated to my instrument for such a long time. But the great thing was, now after working with all of these instruments, I’d come back to the guitar kind of refreshed, wanting to incorporate some techniques that I heard other instruments do in a way, like, “Aw, man, that would be cool to hear on guitar.” So the guitar suddenly for me isn’t so sacred, it’s not this building block of everything now. Now it’s just another sound.

TH: But what’s interesting is that this transition for you has led to this interesting hybridization in your style. Obviously there’s the orchestra now, which might lead someone to call it “classical” or “new music”, but your background from the solo stuff is this—I don’t know, experimental rock?

TB: The great thing about definitions like “new music” or “experimental” or “rock” or anything is that it doesn’t—I mean, maybe “rock” is a little more predefined in pop culture, but what does “experimental” mean? It doesn’t really mean anything. And even more vague, “new music”. Sure, I’m “new music”, that’s fine with me. It doesn’t mean a thing, so that sounds good to me. Any artist that’s alive today and has multiple influences directing the way that they’re writing will tell you that you can’t sum them up so easily with one definition; and let me stay that course and say that too, in the sense that as a human being living now in 2009 with all that is able to be absorbed, I kind of happen to put it in this fashion right now. So I leave it to you guys to kind of define it, in a way. I think the easiest way is to say it’s a summation kind of music. It’s a new music based on the absorption of history, and of what I’m interested in now, and what’s budding on the horizon. Yeah. Summation music. That sounds pretty cool.

TH: This whole “categorization” question gets bandied about a lot, though. For whatever reason, it’s important to a lot of people.

TB: Well, as a composer, it’s the last thing you want to discuss; but as a listener, it’s important to me, too! If someone asks, “What kind of music is that record?”, I don’t give a three sentence explanation. I say, “Oh, it’s like this rock band that’s good.” It’s like two different hemispheres of the brain. But as a composer, I think categorization is dangerous in the sense that it marginalizes a lot of the attributes of a piece by summing it up into one thing, and the bad thing is that if people were aware of the depth of some of these musics, they would realize that there’s so much more to it, and it’s so much more exciting than what it’s presented as. But categorization is good in the sense that we have a means of communicating about these different types of music. Especially if someone is really interested in music and is just starting out and trying to find their way, a five page thesis might be kind of alienating.

TH: But going back to this issue of hybridization and making your own niche: Maybe because you’re coming at this from a different angle than most people who are trained to write for large ensembles, you’re not following a trodden path or community in terms of how to use the orchestra—especially concerning the blending with effects and guitar and voice. What was the process behind realizing that sound?

TB: Working with the orchestra, I knew it wouldn’t be a good idea to construct these sounds and record them myself and then just take the entire orchestra and plaster it on top, because it would be two different realities. I recorded the orchestra section by section—violin 1s, violin 2s, violas, double bass, woodwinds, and brass—and I approached it in a segmented way because that’s how I approached the recording of my sounds.

I don’t use MIDI to create my music because it’s too cold, you can’t get a feeling for it. I hate hearing MIDI horns or MIDI anything to create something, because you have no idea what the feeling is going to be. So I would simulate a trombone or a trumpet with a mute by having an auto-wah, and have the auto-wah very sensitive, and then with distortion I would fade up the sounds of the guitar, so it would be like Wah wah waaaah! So it would sound like a douchy kind of horn thing. And the sound of it, it’s a funny approximation of it, but it’s also imperfect. But it sounds real, you know? As stupid and dumb as it sounds, it actually sounds cool. So I’ll play, and I’ll make these sketches with my toys here. And then once I find something that resonates enough, I’ll record the sketch into Pro Tools or Logic and orchestrate it. And that’s kind of the way I work. So I had the record pretty much mapped out before approaching the orchestra, and then we went into the studio and just had them go in one section at a time, and go for it.

And seriously, anything but MIDI. And then the funny thing is, I’ll use some of these effects as placeholders for when I record it, and then I’ll say to myself, “Well, I’ll really use this instrument.” Then as time goes on, I’m like, “Well actually, wait, this sounds pretty cool.” Hence the kazoos. I was like, “Kazoos, all right, this will be trumpets, okay?” What respectable man would have a kazoo on his record? Not me. And then, well, skip a couple months ahead, and these kazoos sound fucking awesome, I want to keep this, and I’ll have horns doing different parts or doubling the kazoos sometimes.

TH: Aside from a transition toward a new way of working and the inclusion of the orchestra, there’s also some recognizably different elements in this record compared to History. For instance, there’s a much strong rhythmic element now. Is that from your experience working in Battles?

TB: Absolutely. That’s the thing—with my solo setup, I’m simulating large groups; I’m simulating this, I’m simulating that. In my imagination, I’m like, “Oh, this is what it really is.” But with Battles, it’s literal that now I’m actually playing with people. Now I get to once again reconnect with playing in bands, and know what it means to have this kind of counterpoint, and these kinds of decisions that have to be made with other people as musicians and as people. All these things kind of inform the way that you work with sounds, too—not just the sound itself. The personality of the person. What x person says, how they want to approach this thing. Suddenly that relationship is very important in composing. So with that new information, I’m kind of reapproaching the solo stuff that I was only synthetically creating. So now I get to actually try with these instruments what I’ve learned as far as interaction with the band.

TH: Then I would imagine everything you’ve done on your new solo record is going to come back around and affect what you do with Battles.

TB: Yeah, it is. I wish I could answer more in the sense that I wish we had more content that I could tell you about; it’s still very new right now, we’re just starting this new record. I feel great having done Central Market and having this behind me, and now using what I learned from that back now with the band. The funny thing is though, being that I’m one of four, we each are master songwriters in the band. So, in a way, I have to minimize my ideas, and have it fit into this framework. So there’s always some new challenge back and forth. It’s not so easy to just take everything and go, “Oh cool, all right guys, now we’re going to have an orchestra on the next piece. Now you do this, and you do this.” It’s not going to be that simple. But the intuition that I gained from doing this record I think will be very important in the way that I approach my way of working for the new record.

TH: Something that hasn’t changed much over time, as you’ve pointed out, is your love of loops. It’s a technique that seems to align you to these traditions—at first I thought of Steve Reich, but even more than that—and especially now that I’ve heard them orchestrated—I would say John Adams.

TB: I love John Adams. My girlfriend bought me tickets to Doctor Atomic for my birthday, and that fucking opera is amazing. It’s awesome. That guy gets a lot of flack, man, he’s like the Aaron Copland of our generation—not to disrespect him like he doesn’t have his own thing, because he does, but I’m just saying that’s the role that he plays. But I love his music, and his use of repetition is just another tool; he uses it when he wants to, and then throws it away when he doesn’t want to. And I appreciate the role that it plays in his music.

TH: Is your looping technique a product of the influence of composers like Adams, or more the technology you’re working with?

TB: Truthfully, I do believe it began more as a product of the technology I was working with. When I first started doing loops, it was like a party trick that I’d show my friends. I did not at all approach it as this serious thing. And then as time had gone on, I realized I found something interesting about it, doubled with the fact that I didn’t have to rely on anybody, I could just do this myself and I could build this world myself without having to wait for band practice,—that’s when I started to get excited. And now, as I’ve gotten older and I’ve gotten more serious about composition, it kind of works in tandem, where you start to look at other composers who have used loops and see what they’ve done and try to incorporate other people’s ideas and see if you can make them your own in your own world.

TH: A big influence that was mentioned in the press release for Central Market is Stravinsky, which I can definitely hear in several of the tracks.

TB: Yeah, I actually kind of regret that press release, because it actually puts a little bit too much emphasis on Stravinsky—but I love Stravinsky, and he really was instrumental, especially for “Platinum Rows”. I timed the opening of his piece Song of the Nightingale—I think it’s like 20 seconds long, and just the breadth of that opening is so sick, like, I gotta copy at least the timing of it. I never actually copied his music per se, but the feeling in his decisions insofar as how long something develops and how long something is released, that was very informative to me.

TH: That brings up something interesting about time; you’ve done some things that are relatively lengthy—A Sentence is Worth a Thousand Words from your first solo record, History That Has No Effect, is something like 18-minutes long in three movements—but still, compared to classical music, the timings are much more compressed.

TB: To be honest, the one thing I learned after doing this record is that I have absolute ADD. I jump from one thing to the next because I get bored, and I like that kind of collage feeling. I’ll critique myself and say that I do wish I had let some parts settle a little more, and even get boring a little more before they moved on. I do like the hyper-compressed vibe, and it’s energetic, but timing-wise, I definitely said to myself, “Okay, next time I know what I want to do.”

TH: One thing I’ll definitely say about Central Market though is that it very successfully avoids an easy pitfall; I hear a lot of orchestral pieces that try to add electric guitar, or Hammond organ, or whatever, and it always sounds like an accessory—

TB: Right, it sounds like two different dimensions at the same time, I know.

TH: But you managed to avoid that.

TB: Well, I was very conscious of what kind of subtlety is involved in combining these two worlds in a way that makes sense, especially with electronics and orchestra—especially using pre-programmed, very slick sounding synths against these very organic sounding instruments. I’ve never heard work that feels real to me in a way.

I think it also had to do a lot with the recording process; we treated the acoustic instruments in the same ways that we treated the electronics. For instance, we recorded the string section in a very dry room, and then instead of adding reverb, we actually took the summed content of a section of the orchestra and sent it through this really nice PA in this gallery at the studio. So we re-recorded the instruments in the orchestra through this huge PA, and then we’d use that same PA to throw electronics through too, so the environment is very homogenized. If you don’t record anything direct, and then have an acoustic instrument slathered on top, it’s two conflicting environments and any audience member can say, “Oh, that’s weird.” You know, you don’t have to be a master listener to be able to feel something off there.

TH: Speaking of audiences, I noticed that you’re engaging them in a bit of programmatic way, with a narrative. The press release makes reference to Central Market being a metaphor for the global economic collapse.

TB: Oh, yeah. I think that’s a funny statement. I’ll say this: my way of working sonically and aesthetically has a lot to do with polarity. I like polarity. I think that the only way for positive to move forward is for negative to move forward at the same time underneath it. That ying/yang just gives so much of a wider spectrum. And that’s why I like the title of the record, Central Market—I like alluding to two potential ways of defining it. On one hand, on Central Market, I was actively referencing the opening scene in Pétrouchka by Stravinsky, the Shrovetide Fair. Whimsical land in St. Petersburg, dancers coming in the scene, and puppets come to life and start dancing. Sounds great. And then on the other side, yeah, with what we’ve all been going through, when the word “market” comes up these days, I don’t think of a store. I think of a global economy. I just like the play from fantasy to reality. When we think of a market right now, we think of—almost on the Wagnerian scale—of catastrophe, in this case financial collapse throughout the world. And both of those subjects in tandem I think create an interesting kind of picture. And musically, I think it’s interesting—the very first piece, “Opening Bell”, could be the opening bell like when you open the door to the market and the bell rings and it’s like a little candy shop, or the opening bell of the stock market in the beginning. And then it just slowly turns from naïve and optimistic to cynical and dark through the record. And again, just a suggestion. You don’t have to think it’s that way.

TH: But in that way, the pieces add to each other. They’re related. It’s not, in other words, a singles record.

TB: Exactly. Warp asked if there was a track that I should give at first to everybody, and I chose to give the second track, “Uffe’s Woodshop”, because it’s kind of exciting and it’s very busy and torrid. But I have to admit the second I did that, I regretted it, because that’s not what the record is about. It isn’t about a piece, it’s about the entirety. I know in our iTunes generation people are just going to buy a track and say, “Oh yeah, this track’s cool” or whatever—at least I hope they do—but really, it should be listened to from front to back. That’s how I imagine it.

TH: You never know, people might download it—legally or not—along with the rest of album as well.

TB: It just sucks when your pieces are movement-based and it’s fragmented, where it gives the listener the opportunity to say, “Oh, what’s this new album about? Oh, this track?” And they’ll download “Unfurling”, which is just like this drone piece. Which I love, but I wouldn’t characterize that as the statement I’m trying to make necessarily. It’s the composite statement. So that’s the only trouble. I should have released the whole record as one track; then I wouldn’t have had that problem.

TH: So, considering all the nuances that went into the recording, the integration with effects, the quasi narrative of the composite piece, et cetera, can you actually play this stuff live?

TB: Yeah, I think you can play it live, but it would take a bunch of people. I want to play it live. I won’t be able to do it by the time the record comes out because right now Battles is writing a new record, we’re kind of knee-deep in it, but the hope is to do something close to the end of the year, or more realistically the beginning of next year sometime. I tried to map these ideas out beforehand, thinking to myself that I want to be able to do this live, so I can’t do something that’s so crazy that it’s outside of that ability. But I will admit that one fear that I have in mixing a lot of these different worlds is getting a balance between the instruments where you’re not losing the strength of the electronics. A lot of the electronics have to be louder, because it reacts to the space more when they’re louder, but then they would dwarf the orchestra. So it’s definitely something I’m thinking about as far as live performance. It can and it will be done.

TH: You have a new piece, Pulse March, for Bang on a Can’s Asphalt Orchestra, and you’ve already had a string quartet played by Kronos. What was that experience like?

TB: It was incredible. It was a great learning experience; I had never written a string quartet before. I arranged the second track of Central Market, “Uffe’s Woodshop,” for them to play as a string quartet. And it’s great because they played it as part of a larger set of theirs which totally blew my mind open on what I thought was possible for a string quartet to play these days. I mean, the Kronos Quartet is unreal. The first thing I said to David Harrington when were done was, “Do over. I demand a do over. You have to let me write you another piece. Just watching you guys do your thing, it’s like a masterclass.” And it was great watching them do my piece; it was such an honor. But at the same time it was like, okay, cool, next time I know what I’m going to do. I wouldn’t do it like that, I’d do it like *snaps*. I’m psyched to start doing that kind of stuff, just writing pieces for different groups.

TH: Would you be into doing a crazy, huge, ambitious project like Hallucination City?

TB: Sure! Yeah, sounds good to me. Just give me that grant money, I’ll work it out. But yeah, Battles right now is going full throttle, and once this new record is done, I’ll have some time again to do my thing. And, yeah, I want to do another big project. I want to build off what I’ve done, and do something bigger and more thorough and more interesting.

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