Putting his past behind him in the best way possible, Tyondai Braxton has become an intriguing figure in the world of modern orchestral music
It’s a real shame that every article about Tyondai Braxton seems to start off with a mention of his old band Battles. It really is. Aside from being journalistically unimaginative, it’s not fair on the guy either. But hey, what are we supposed to do about it. It’s just one of those sad inevitabilities. In fact, Tyondai’s current explorations in contemporary orchestral music is equally interesting, if not more so. But we’re not ones to rock the boat too much, so here’s the obligatory bit about Battles first.
At the end of 2009 we were lucky enough to catch one of the Tyondai’s last shows with the band as part of Warp Records’ 20th birthday party. It was a momentous show for a number of reasons; Flying Lotus before every musician, half-assed rapper and his/her dog was queuing up to work on his shit, Trish Keenan playing with Broadcast shortly before her tragic death in 2011, and Battles back in London having cemented their position as the most exciting band around.
It wasn’t a huge surprise that people were so excited about them. The band was essentially a supergroup. Tyondai came from an illustrious background as the son of avant-garde jazz composer Anthony Braxton, so for him to join forces with Ian Williams of Don Caballero, Dave Konopka of Lynx and John Stanier of Helmet, to any kind of rock music geek it was a wet dream. For those who didn’t understand the lineage, the music itself spoke alone.
It seemed nothing could stop them. Their first full-length album, Mirrored, had achieved instant critical acclaim, as had the live show. This particular display at London’s Coronet was no exception, and a follow-up album was apparently in the pipeline.
Yet shortly after, the band fell deadly silent. After cancelling their upcoming ATP performance, nothing more was said. Until a few months later the remaining band members, shortly followed by Tyondai, released statements.
It would seem a strange time to leave a band, riding a crest of breakthrough success yet with a great deal still seemingly in store. But reading Braxton’s statement and, in light of what he has been up to since, it’s clear that Braxton had a definite purpose beyond any bandmate beef. “I know for a fact that this is just a new beginning for Battles”, he wrote. “Our model has always had a controlled shapelessness to it and I know John, Ian and Dave are looking forward sculpting an even better way forward. I look forward to be able to continue my music and am very excited at the prospect of being able to dig deeper in my own work.”
While Battles’ efforts since have been undeniably impressive and certainly more successful commercially, Braxton’s has jumped into a completely new realm with his music, and has once more created something deeply original. His album Central Market saw him working with the Wordless Music Orchestra to compose an orchestral mind-fuck of a record which he has since been performing in some very prestigious venues. He very recently collaborated with Phillip Glass for a live show at New York’s latest ATP, and next week hits the Southbank Centre as part of the Ether festival to perform Central Market with the London Sinfonietta. We thought it as good a time as any to exchange some words with the man about what he’s been up to and what move he’s planning next.
We tried not to ask him about Battles, we really did. But we can’t fight the inevitable.
So tell us about the upcoming Ether festival concert.
My core group and I will be joining London Sinfonietta to perform music from my record Central Market. The Sinfonietta will also be doing music by Bryce Dessner, Ingram Marshall, Edgard Varese, Toru Takemitsu. I’m excited to come back to London and get a chance to work with such an amazing orchestra.
What exactly will you be doing onstage?
I’ll be in the guitar section of the orchestra.
Tell us a bit about the Wordless Music Orchestra. You’ve been working with them for a while. What draws you to back to them?
Wordless feel like my home base as far as orchestral music is concerned. They’re virtuosic players who care about the music and, I feel, understand where I’m coming from musically and aesthetically. It’s a joy working with them.
What are you working on at the moment? Do you plan to do more work with them or are you keen to make a break into something different?
I have a series of commissions that I’ve finished or am in the process of finishing. I’m working on an Alarm Will Sound (New York-based, 20-member chamber orchestra) piece that I’m excited about and I just wrapped up a two part work for Bang On A Can (the multifaceted performing arts organisation). I’m working on a non-orchestral project that I can’t talk about yet, but am excited about, and I’m planning a new orchestral work as well.
Does it bother you when you are pigeonholed as ‘the guy out of Battles’. Being such an active member in the band, did you have to make a conscious effort to move away from that?
It’s not really something I think about, so it’s not a matter of consciously moving on. In the end I left the band, amongst other reasons, because I had naturally already moved on. Once I do a couple more records then I’ll have new associations for people to define me by – it’s none of my business either way.
Performing with orchestras at places like Southbank Centre must be quite different from the kind of shows you used to play with Battles. Do you feel more comfortable in a classical music/avant garde environment?
Not necessarily. I enjoy playing different types of venues and spaces, because where you play frames the way people experience your music.
You grew up around a lot of incredible music that your father was making. Has was it growing up with a composer for a dad?
It was incredibly inspiring. It impacted me in a very intense way especially as I got older and had more of an awareness of what this music was. It’s funny … when I was a teenager, though I was intrigued by my father’s music and the music he listened to, I found it impenetrable and from a different era in a way I couldn’t relate to. The music I fell in love with were bands like Nirvana and the punk rock ethos of being able to just create even if you only know a couple of guitar chords – a philosophy that seemed a lot more liberating. As you get older though your tastes evolve and in my late teens / early 20s I found myself coming to realize that I love music composition.
Do you think Anthony’s work has an influence on what you do and if so in what way? What do you think he thinks of what you’re doing?
Musically it’s hard to quantify simply how he has influenced me because it’s very deep. The most profound lesson I learned from my father is to do what you love no matter what. Unfortunately, though, we’ve only interacted a handful of times over the course of something like 15 years and don’t really have a relationship.
Tell us about the work you’re doing soon with Philip Glass. How did it come about? What can people expect?
Philip and I performed at ATP last week and it was such an absolutely incredible show. We played three of his piano etudes: 1, 2 and 10, and I came up with parts for them. He let me apply my approach to his pieces and it was such an amazing experience getting a chance to work with him and talk to him. It felt like a rock show. It was a really intense set. It came about because Beck and Hector Castillo, Philip’s producer/recording engineer, asked me to be a part of their remix album they’re doing that’s coming out in October. I did a remix of his Glassworks piece Rubric and a couple of weeks later Philip’s team reached out to my manager and asked if I would play with him at ATP. Can’t say enough about it. It was an amazing experience.
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Tyondai Braxton, the Wordless Music Orchestra and the London Sinfonietta play at the Southbank Centre on Tuesday October 9th. For more information, click here.
Words: Jack Lucas Dolan
Photos: Grace Villamil