NAME: Tyondai Braxton
Q&A: Former Battles frontman discusses HIVE — his upcoming performance/installation at the Guggenheim — and a new solo album on the horizon …
Most people know of Tyondai Braxton as one of the founding members of Battles, which was arguably one of the most influential bands to come out of NYC in the 2000’s. Since exiting the band in 2010, Braxton has continued to make a name for himself as both a composer and a much-desired collaborator. He’s worked with everyone from Kronos Quartet to Philip Glass (with whom Braxton performed at NYC’s ATP Festival last year). This week Braxton once again partners with New York’s Worldless Music Orchestra for the world premiere of HIVE at the Guggenheim Museum, which is described as a “Part installation/part band” multimedia experience. The performance features Braxton — along with musician Ben Vida and percussionists Yuri Yamashita, Jared Soldiviero, and John Ostrowski — perched atop huge “HIVE” sculpture pods which were designed by Danish architect Uffe Surland Van Tams. The performance embodies everything that seems to excite Braxton in his post-Battles career—a blend of performance, advanced technology, and complicated compositional ideas executed in a wholly nontraditional manner. I called him up to talk about HIVE and when we might expect a follow-up to his 2009 solo album, Central Market.
Stereogum: The HIVE performance is just a few days away. I assume you must be crazy at the moment getting everything ready?
Braxton: Oh yes. I’m still writing the music. I’ll be fine-tuning things right up until the show starts, so it’s a bit crazy.
Stereogum: Wow. So, how’s it going?
Braxton: It’s going great. It’s been a really interesting process. Incredibly rich and rewarding, but also incredibly frustrating. I’m very much outside of my comfort zone in the way that I’m writing this music, but despite the frustration it’s been really good for me. So … I’ve been a little bit out of my mind, but over the past couple of days I’ve started to realize that I really have something here. That’s a good feeling.
Stereogum: Reading about the performance, I couldn’t tell how much of the music was going to be written and rehearsed and how much would be improvised.
Braxton: Here’s the thing — we’re using modular synthesizers, laptops, and percussion. The thing that I didn’t want to do was the write a piece that was made up of computery sounds that all kind of locked to one BPM with percussion on top of it. The great thing about modular synths in relation to performance is that there are always gonna be variables that can change and those changes affect the rest of the piece and the way it gets played. So, I can score something using notation software, convert it into midi and then send it out through my laptop into my modular synth … and then interpret it in a million different ways. The question becomes about how to narrow down the options. The great thing about working this way is that you get a sound that obviously doesn’t just come from a computer. There won’t be any doubt in anyone’s mind that these sounds are coming from an analog machine — a real machine. It’s been really hard to write for it. I’ve been trying to find my own voice and a way of working with this setup that feels organic and human and real … but is also controllable enough that I can actually sculpt something out of it. There is definitely an improvisatory element to it, but it’s also about letting these machines interpret the thing that you’ve written. It’s a hard question to answer — is it improvised? Is it composed? Technically it’s a composed piece of music, but with this very improvisational element to it.
Stereogum: The logistics of this project are pretty complicated. Do you actually get to assemble everything off-site and practice with it before it all gets set up inside the Guggenheim?
Braxton: Nope. The first time we’ll actually get to sit on top of the pods will be at the Guggenheim. The pods are in Georgia right now and are being driven up to NYC. They are in transit at the moment. That’s part of what makes this project so hard to talk about — there are so many different elements that need to come together. The stage is being built, the pods are being shipped, the lighting design is a separate thing, the rehearsals happen elsewhere, and meanwhile I’m still figuring out how to write notation for a modular synth. All of these things come together all at once and you just have to run with it and make it work. That’s the nature of a project like this … but I also love that. It’s exciting.
Stereogum: You’ve worked with Uffe Surland Van Tams before, right? He built another one of these pods that you used in previous performances?
Braxton: Yeah, he built a pod for me a couple of years ago. I got a grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and he built this pod — which was like a little platform thing that I’d sit on — which I used when I was doing more solo-type work. The pods he created for the Guggenheim performance are basically the next step up — they are basically the same design, just enhanced somewhat.
Stereogum: Assuming the performance goes well, is this something you’d like to do again with these same people? Or is this really a one-shot kind of thing?
Braxton: No, I’d definitely like to do this more. I’d like to fine-tune it and continue to do it in other places. This is basically the first incarnation. I’m also thinking this might be the basis for the next record that I make. I figure that once the dust settles, I’ll go back in and see how it sounds and examine what we’ve made and play around with it a little more. I’d certainly like to see this project keep progressing.
Stereogum: You mention making another record. It’s been a few years now since Central Market came out. Are you eager to make another solo record?
Braxton: You know, I did Central Market and then I was writing a bunch of music for the last Battles record before I left the band. In the past couple of years I’ve been trying to sort of re-examine how to use my voice and play with the kind of music I want to make. I could have written another record similar to Central Market, but then I did all these commissioned pieces in the meantime and that has kept me very busy. It was also good to do these commissioned pieces because it helped me figure out how to use my voice and also get rid of the elements regarding my voice that I didn’t really like. As a guy who is surviving by making music, you have to think about things like making records in a timely fashion so that you can play shows and make a living, but I really wanted to wait and do something great, something that I felt strongly about. I want it to be an excuse to learn something new. I’m trying to balance that ambition with my real life concerns of needing to put out a record and tour. So, in other words, it’s coming.
Stereogum: The last time I saw you perform was when you played with Philip Glass at ATP. That must have been insane for you.
Braxton: Oh man … it was seriously one of the fulfilling musical experiences of my life. Aside from getting to work with this luminary figure — a person who’s work has been very special to me and has influenced so much of the music that helped shape me as a musician — on top of all that, he’s just really fun. It was really fun to play with that guy. He’s also just really fun to hang out with. We rehearsed at his house and I just loved talking to him. I almost wish he wasn’t so famous so I could just go over to his house and hang out more. He’s such a nice guy. So, it was really an incredible experience. I’m very very proud to have done that.
Stereogum: Having done so many different kinds of projects over the past couple of years — getting to play around with all these varying styles of music and opposing aesthetics of music-making — do you find yourself overwhelmed with options when it comes to thinking about making a solo record?
Braxton: It’s very true. I’ve had my heart set on making more electronic-based music so I have the sense that I know where I want to go … but still, you can’t help but think about ALL these various styles and techniques and how you can use them. It’s less about choosing a style to work in and — for me, anyway — more about deciding what kind of statement you want to make. The style just becomes a composite of all these different things that, one way or another, eventually come together. That’s how I’m approaching it. I don’t really feel like I need to hopscotch between styles — or maybe that’s bullshit, maybe I do feel that need — but those sorts of issues generally sort themselves out once you get into making the record.
Stereogum: Having spent many years working within the confines of a traditional band, do you feel a certain amount of relief to no longer be operating within that world?
Braxton: I’m so glad that I did that. I wanted to start a band when I came to New York and that was the first step in this larger vision I had for myself. So, I did that … and I did it hard for about ten years. I’m really grateful for that experience, even though it ended poorly. It’s OK. At this point in my life I don’t really think about that way of working anymore. I’m glad that my creative life kind of matches my lifestyle now and the way I like to work.
Stereogum: Beyond this Guggenheim performance, do you have other big commission pieces happening in the near future?
Braxton: Yes, as a matter of fact. I have two new pieces premiering here in New York with Bang On A Can, an ensemble that I often work with. Two weeks after the Guggenheim I have a piece premiering at Carnegie Hall and then a couple of weeks after that I’m doing Central Market with the LA Philharmonic. It’s kind of weird how all this stuff kind of bottlenecked together, so it’s kind of crazy. I have some other stuff lined up in May and THEN I’ll start working on whatever is gonna be my next record. I wish I could say that I’m gonna go lie on a beach somewhere after this Guggenheim performance and ponder my next move, but it’s never like that. I finish one thing and then it’s immediately on to the next. I’m very lucky … and very excited that I keep to keep doing new stuff.
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