Friday, September 18, 2009

In Full: Tyondai Braxton

[Photo: Gracia Villamil]

On August 21, I sat down with Tyondai Braxton at an East Village dive bar to talk about his awesome new orchestral album, Central Market, out now on Warp. (A sample track is above.) The conversation yielded a Time Out New York profile - I suggest giving that a read first if you're not familiar with his work - but since there were many cool bits that didn't make it into the piece, I thought it might be fun to publish the full transcript.

As usual, it's a long one, so please let me know if you notice any typos or anything amiss.


HS: How did this orchestral music evolve out of your old, loop-based solo stuff?

TB: All the pieces from the new record are actually build out of that. I still use my solo format with loops and looping and effects pedals to build the foundation for a lot of these pieces and I would then orchestrate it. The way I always describe my solo stuff when I was just just doing it by myself, I called it orchestrated loops, kind of like through DJ emulation but it's material created in real time. But I also really like the texture you get or the color you get with a lot of people playing, especially in an orchestral vein. And I've always been leaning toward that. So this record was an opportunity for me to more thoroughly realize that, where I've always been going but without abandoning where I'm from and how I had been been making music. So it's like the next logical step.

HS: Do you think that if you had had the means, you would have used an orchestral ensemble all along?

TB: Sure, I mean the solo thing is a mobile, very economic reduction of what my imagination was really pointing toward. And even now it's not feasible to round up an orchestra and go on tour, or if you have an idea, just go, [Mock-haughtily] "Oh, I'm just gonna go try it with my orchestra." So it's still a vehicle that I'm able to write material and just get excited about new ideas and I could try it in my own little world and see if it translates when I expand it outwards.

HS: I imagine you probably weren't actually writing your music down on paper when you were doing the looping thing.

TB: Well, I mean I went to school for music composition, and I'd always been writing a little bit, and even when I had elaborate ideas with myself just to remember it and be able to play it I would write it out. But yeah, by no means was I scoring out really large pieces for the past couple years. And in a way, you kind of don't necessarily need to because it's mostly from memory and it's just me doing it, so I didn't need to cue anybody else. So, it's true: This was definitely a new way of working, and it was so exciting. It was something I hadn't been doing—it was out of my comfort zone a little bit and it made me feel good to take that next step.

HS: Being someone who appears alone onstage and I assume works a lot at home alone, what was it like the first time you stepped in and worked with the whole group?

TB: Yeah, my buffer zone between going from bedroom straight to orchestra was I had a practice space and I had my own rehearsal office and I brought in the percussionist first and I just tried having him play things against things that I recorded just to hear how it sounded. So he was like my first guy. Once I kind of saw that these things could be translated. He was like my first realization that it could translate pretty easily. And in that practice space, I tried to be as thorough as I could so when I did get in front of these guys, I wouldn't be like not knowing what I was doing, pulling my hair out. Plus, on top of that, working with the band I'm in, Battles, for the past eight years, I have a pretty good sense of working with people again. And that was something that I really lost just playing by myself. I was working so insularly and socially I wasn't as adept at being able to communicate ideas because I was so used to working by myself so that definitely helped.

HS: So the solo thing predated Battles.

TB: I started doing the solo idea of orchestrated loops in 1996, in college. And then I moved to New York and I tried to flesh it out and kind of get into the action that was going around. Battles started with me and Ian [Williams]—we started in 2002.

HS: Were there any unexpected challenges that came about in translating the solo material to the large orchestra?

TB: You know, there's challenges no matter what you do, but I have to admit it was pretty efficient. We broke it down in a pretty efficient way in the sense that we didn't have the whole orchestra all at once. We did it section by section, like all strings, or violin ones and twos, and violas and double basses and cellos and then we did the woodwind sections and brass. So we had it segmented enough in a way that we could control it in the way that we were working. It was me and the recording engineer, Keith Souza, and Seth Manchester, who I have to say were integral in this whole process—without them, it would not have come out the way it did. Keith had a very good understanding of how I wanted to record it, and we broke it down in such a step-by-step kind of way that we didn't really leave a lot of room for error, which was cool. Or we didn't leave a lot of room for, if something went wrong we didn't know how to handle it. Like we kind of had our bases covered, so yeah, luckily, it went down pretty well without a hitch. You know, in the studio, I would like reorchestrate stuff; I'd hear something and say, "Oh, you know what, that's not right," and I'd rescore it and give it to the players. And the players were sick and they could just kill it, and that was that. So there was like those kinds of obstacles. Like at one point the double bass section didn't finish in time, and the cellos had to come another day. That was like the extent of the craziness. But besides that it was a pretty well-oiled machine.

HS: So the whole thing was recorded piecemeal?

TB: Yeah. Well, the foundation of a lot of the songs, like I said, is through that solo model. So the guitars and the vocals and my electronic effects and stuff were all recorded first. So that was kind of like the foundation of all the pieces. So they would have to listen to it on headphones and play to it. So it was fragmented. But it's good, 'cause I like leaving a lot of room to change things around and I reserve the right to turn it into a completely different animal if that's what works. I feel like it's a good way to go, because you're spending money recording this thing and as a composer, you don't care how it gets together. You just want to be able to play it and hear it in the best way that it can be realized. So I liked working in that fragmented, modular kind of way.

HS: What was it like the first time you heard a completed piece played back in its full glory?

TB: Yeah, man. It was more than exciting. It was years' worth of work starting to come to fruition. It was one of the happiest days of my life, to be honest. It really was. I worked really hard on this stuff. I have always been leaning towards this area, and this is my first record like this, but I learned so much from it. And to hear the first realization—The main piece centering the record is the fourth track, "Platinum Rows" [streaming above], the really long one, and when I was able to play that one all the way through and really know that it was done, it was a really heavy moment. It was amazing.

HS: I wanted to talk to you about the mood of the album. It strikes me as really avant-garde, but it also has this charm and accessibility and lightheartedness to it. And it reminds me of Battles because it's sort of unprecedented but also you can dance to it and move to it and it makes you smile and feel in the way that good pop music does to. Do you think about that, being a "serious composer" versus wanting people to actually listen to it?

TB: I will say this: No matter what you do in whatever medium you do as an artist, even if you want people to like it, chances are the results are surprising every time. So it would be silly for me to bank on the idea of, "Okay, I know this one's harsh, but to counter that, I'm gonna do something really lighthearted for people to like." Because, as it turns out, people are gonna end up hating the lighthearted thing, you know what I mean? So for me it was really about the polarity of the moods within the music and less about the accesibility factor. I'll put it to you like this: I want to be able to push play and say, "Ahh, this is fuckin' awesome. This is great. This is exciting." And a lot of that for me has to do with polarity and multiple things happening all at the same time, not just having the music sway all in one direction harmonically or texturally or moodwise. I like having a mixture of things, where when you feel that tension rubbing against each other, it just turns it into this thing that's alive. Because it has all the conflicts and the contradictions that something that alive would have. So those are the parts I really like, but on the other hand, moodwise, it is fun. It's fun to tease with things that are familiar to people. Some of those moods are familiar, so as avant-garde and as whatever as it is, all of these identities kind of work together in a way that—I don't know, you have a familiarity with it, but it's also distorting your perception of what that thing is supposed to be, what it's supposed to do.

HS: Yeah, there's a sound that almost sounds like a kazoo.

TB: It is a kazoo.

HS: And there's also the whistling, which is sometimes used in Battles. Was there any influence from video-game music or cartoon music?

TB: Sure, I appreciate that kind of stuff. I appreciate that kind of stuff more for the texture of it. Because the association that you have instantly is, Oh, "happy" or "fantasy," but when you actually are blending—I mean that's like six kazoos playing at once, this unified line, this really military way of performing, like it's very exact—in combination with the whistles, it's almost so exact that it's a parody of what those instruments are supposed to be, because it's just like so serious in the way that it's executed. Sorry, I totally lost track—what was the question?

HS: I was just wondering if you had any particular model for that whimsical side of the music.

TB: You know, as far as those sounds are concerned, you look at someone like Carl Stalling, who did the Looney Tunes music, and then you could also look at someone like Edgard Varèse, who did the "Colossus of Sound," insane kind of thing with the same instruments. And one's perceived as lighthearted, one's perceived as serious, but the textures in them are very similar in some ways. So I really appreciate, again, that kind of polarity between the two composers as it's perceived to be. Because the perception is, "Oh, Carl Stalling, he wrote Looney Tunes so he's not that serious, but Edgard Varèse, he's avant-garde, so he's serious." What does that really mean, in either respect? So from a purely musical standpoint, I think the combination of those sounds are interesting, that's all.

HS: Some of the pieces, like "Uffe's Woodshop," struck me as very narrative, as though they were the soundtrack to an adventure story. Do any of these pieces have a narrative association?

TB: There is a narrative, but it's purely encoded within the music. There's no actual story that goes along with it. If you look at the cover art of the record, there's like three characters on the record, so I fed into that perception of that narrative, but it's also meaningless—it's just a suggestion. There's like these suggested directions of where the pieces go, but it doesn't it mean that it's actually related to anything tangible that you can associate with it. It's kind of like Choose Your Own Adventure.

HS: Do the titles have specific associations? What does "Uffe's Woodshop" refer to?

TB: My friend Uffe is a Danish architect, and for my solo thing, he built this crazy stage for me to sit on. He's just this amazing guy, and I just wanted to do something in homage to him, but it also works in the framework of the whole Central Market world. It kind of alludes to something that I did want to allude to, so it did happen to work. So he's this guy that lives on 58th Street with his wife and he's this amazing, virtuosic Danish architect, and he's great. So I figured, Oh, I'll write a song about Uffe.

HS: You mentioned the title of the record. I read in the bio that there's a Stravinsky thing on one hand and then the market crisis on the other. Can you describe how that came together in your head?

TB: It's kind of just like a funny thing to think about. I came up with it as the music was starting to come together, more as the music was already kind of formed, and I was like, Okay, how can I frame this? What's the best way to frame this? And yeah, on one hand I wanted to allude to the "Shrovetide Fair" part of Petrushka from Stravinsky, which I thought was apropos for the nature of the music, but when you think of the word market right now, it's kind of ingrained in our brains that we're in this global economic collapse and everything. So it's just kind of, again, the polarity: This, like, whimsical stage in wintertime St. Petersburg. These puppets come to life in Petrushka and they start dancing in the square and it's so, like, happy and magical. And then on the other hand, there's like this catastrophic global economic meltdown. So it's just funny—It's like a suggested thing to associate with the music that could or could not go with that. I'm very elusive with my definitions. Things could be or they could not be.

HS: I think it's interesting that you're bringing up the market collapse, because what you're doing, being a "composer," is this notion that seems impractical or even outdated, and it's interesting to allude to that on this album.

TB: It's funny, though, because the association of a composer is such a loaded thing. People think of a composer and they think of something that is outdated and that isn't necessarily valid in these times as far as what other kind of music is happening, although all these people like—Jay-Z's a composer. All these people compose, but the association is with classical music, and classical music has a stigma of being inacessible and elitist, but it's only in the way that people let it be perceived because that music is so open and is so available, even if the people who were writing it didn't intend for it to be.

You look at someone like Wagner, who was like a totally anti-Semitic, racist guy. And I like some of Wagner's stuff—I'm a half-black Jew, and in a way it's like this new generation has to embrace the music and reassess its mission statement and take it back to being ours again. Because a lot of the ideas of hundreds of years of this music are still valid; it's just framed in such an off-putting way. So I listen to that music the same way I listen to—I listen to that music with such a passion right now. It's so exciting to me. Some of these things you come across, it's like it's brand new. I was talking about Varèse earlier—I'm like swimming in Varèse right now, like it just came out yesterday. I'm like, Holy shit, how is this guy not being put on a pedestal and not acknowledged, at least in a way that would equate the amount of ingenuity and talent that he had? And not just on an intellectual level: Viscerally the guy—I'm just listening to it and I'm like, This shit is so fucking exciting!

So I really do believe that it's the way that it's framed and the way that that kind of music is perceived. Some of it is hard to get into and you really have to practice at listening to understand it. And the rewards are there for that, but the rewards are also there for even the surface-level, more accessible kind of composition that I feel like people have just kind of written off as classical and this and that. But a lot of that music is just so thrilling, and I think it's just as valid now. And I hope that people, when they hear [Central Market], whether they think it's inaccessible or accessible, they know that the record was not intended to hurt you. It's not some one-upsmanship; it's a very inclusive kind of record, no matter how difficult certain parts are. They're not difficult despite the audience. So like we were talking about earlier: "Do you think about accessibility and inaccessibility?" I think about things that I really love and composers that I really admire and love, and I want to go my own route and find that, and do it with a true passion and love for it and hope that people will like it but not do it for people to like it—hope that people will like it and to not have that kind of restrictive barrier to not be able to experiment with things. So that's a long-winded answer for you. Good luck transcribing that one.

HS: All this brings up the notion of, What is a composer now? And when I heard this, I thought about groups like Dirty Projectors and Extra Life—I saw that you had written about them on your blog—

TB: Yeah, they're great.

HS: And I think there's a lot of music right now that's extraordinarily complex but also has a rock or a pop element and is reaching a lot of people. Dirty Projectors is, like, the indie-rock sensation of the year, but it's as avant-garde as anything you could name, and to me, Central Market doesn't sound like those artists, but it fits into the same current: classically trained people who could draw on whatever tradition they want to draw on, but you could play the music at a party or something and it would make sense.

TB: Right, that's funny.

HS: Do you think of yourself as aligned with anyone in that vein?

TB: Well, all I can say is I respect those guys. I'm a big fan of Dirty Projectors. I actually met up with Dave [Longstreth] the other day just to talk and give him a copy of this record, and talk for a little bit about the current state of music, and I really can relate to him. I could really appreciate his contribution right now with what he's bringin' to the table. He's awesome. A lot of guys are doing great things. Bryce Dessner from the National—he also composes pieces, and I like his band and I like his composition too. So yeah, man, I respect these guys and I like their music, so I leave it to people to put me in whatever—am I part of that or am I not a part of it—I'll let everyone else decide.

HS: When I think of the important composers of the day, I think of those people before I think of people who are coming out of an explicitly classical realm, but I think it's interesting that you worked with the Wordless people, because that organization is all about breaking down those boundaries.

TB: Absolutely. That's why it really felt good—it felt right to work with those guys. Aside from being extremely talented players who can play the classical game if they want to—any one of the members in Wordless can be in any huge contemporary orchestra and kill it and then they could also have their own noise groups on the side. And I appreciate that sensibility and it was easy to translate ideas, and we seemed to have an understanding, for me to be able to define certain ideas and certain parts. They got onboard really quick. They're fantastic.

HS: Just so I have a clear idea—I don't have credits for the album—we're talking about a full orchestra?

TB: Yeah.

HS: Okay, because I thought it might have been more of a chamber group.

TB: Well, it was probably a hybrid because we actually ended up doubling parts too, because being that it was section by section, there ended up being 26 people, something like that. It was still a large group of people but it might not be a full orchestra by full-orchestra standards. Yeah, like 26.

HS: Are there plans to do this live?

TB: I want to be able to do this live by next year. Right now, even right before coming here, I was at Battles practice, so I'm like full-on rehearsing for that right now. But I will do this live, for sure.

HS: And Battles has a show in a couple weeks.

TB: Yeah.

HS: And this is all new material?

TB: Not all new material. [Laughs] Not by any stretch. We're gonna premiere a couple new songs.

HS: There were moments on the album that sounded to me like an orchestral Battles or something. The last song that has the fragmented funk beat seems to have a similar thing going on. And certain textures like the whistling. Do the projects inform one another?

TB: Sure. Again the theme of polarity comes in, where it's great to be able to work with people and it's great to be able to work by yourself, because one informs the other. Because you work by yourself, you have a strong sense of yourself, you can bring it to a group of people, and your defined sense is able to solidify itself so that you can communicate with other people where you know what role you play. And then from there, just learning about how groups work, learning about counterpoint, whether it be musical or socially, how a whole band works like that with that kind of intensity, it informs the way your solo stuff works. And I've learned a lot from playing in this band for sure. You can't simulate—I'm in my solo thing simulating what it means to have a lot of people playing, and it's a lot more intricate than just layering sound one on top of the other. That's just the icing on the cake, as far as simulating what it would mean to have a lot of people play. So it's great to have the experience of having the challenge of working with people and being able to utilize it in my own way, and I think it's manifested itself in this record for sure.

HS: It's interesting because when I talked to you guys about Battles, you spoke about how it was really important to build up all the loops live, and then the record is more about building it up over a period of days or weeks. But it seems like it's the same process.

TB: It's similar. This is definitely less loop-based. There's a lot of repetition of parts but there aren't really any loops. And to be honest, that was one thing I really wanted to get away from. There are some pieces that are based on loops, so I didn't want to abandon that. But for the most part the mission statement was to use loops just as a technique, not as underlying foundation beneath the whole thing. Because in some ways, loops are interesting but they can also be a crutch if it turns into this thing that is a predisposed given for a composition. It can be limiting.

HS: It seems like when you were doing it live solo, you probably didn't have that much choice.

TB: Yeah, and that's cool, like the effect you get from looping is this very particular kind of effect and it's great, and after doing it for years, I have a good understanding of it and what effects it can bring to the table. So I think it's healthier to look at it more as a technique that can create certain effects as opposed to overtly relying on it as a foundational element that can be restrictive in a way that's not productive.

HS: Moving into this realm of composition, do you think you're moving more into a realm that touches on your father's music?

TB: Hmmm. I was always alluding to it, but I had the tools that I was able to say that it was my own, and it was. You know, growing up, I had to ask myself the question, Do you love music? And for me, it really came to me and I was like, "I love it, and I need it to be mine." He was a profound influence on me, but more than that I had to say to myself, if it's gonna be mine, it has to be mine; it has to be something that I want to do. So in finding out what that is, I had to kind of get away from his kind of performing and composing, and I had to find my own way. But like a lot of people, as they get older, you start to kind of look back and you realize that you love this music, and you've always been around it and it's something that's really a part of you, and in a way, in my own diverted way, I was headed into similar terrain. It's no mistake that he ended up choosing this lifestyle, because it's fucking exciting, man. It's such an exciting craft to hone in on. So I'll always strive to go my own way; I'm not gonna revert to using his techniques to further my own thing. I'm not interested in that. But there's definitely a commonality in that he likes to write for acoustic orchestral instruments that are in the classical realm and I appreciate that. So yeah, I hope to keep building on these ideas and keep going in my own direction.

HS: Do you have any sort of give and take with him, in terms of, "Hey Dad, here's what I just did"?

TB: I've gotta admit, I wish I did, but we haven't actually talked in a while, unfortunately.

HS: I think I remember seeing him in the audience at one of the Battles shows.

TB: Yeah, he was there for a bit. I see him on and off every now and then. He's busy; he's doin' his thing. He's workin' hard composing for the end of his opera cycle. And yeah, I admire his stuff. I hope to be able to learn from him more in the future, but at this point it doesn't really seem possible.

HS: I've listened to a lot of your father's music, and there's very little I would compare at all to what you're doing. I guess that Creative Orchestra Music project a little bit. But if I were hearing your music blind, Anthony Braxton would not be the person I'd compare it to.

TB: Right. You know, I admire him; I learned from him; he's been a tremendous influence. But you know, if you're serious about what you're doing, if you're really in this thing, you got to find your own way of doin' things, and that's always been very important to me. So I hope that comes across.

HS: I wanted to ask you about a couple more of the particular tracks. "J. City," the second to last piece, with the catchy vocals, is kind of buried on the record. Was it a conscious decision to put the poppier thing near the end?

TB: Yeah, the record is not defined by that piece, so that's why I wanted to—The record felt like it was begging for some kind of song, kind of a resolve, like especially after "Platinum Rows," this really massive piece, I felt like there had to be some kind of a breather. I admit though that piece, I was struggling with a lot because it is very different from the other pieces, and I didn't know how well it would work in the sequence. All I knew was that if it was too early on in the record, it would define it in a way that I wasn't trying to define it in, and I wanted to just show it as another direction, and another possible idea. And then the last track reverts back to the more instrumental thing. So yeah, I like that track, and I'm still trying to figure out—No I won't say it like that. I appreciate the role that it plays, and it was very purposeful to have it where it is on the record.

HS: Yeah, it is a really catchy song. I was almost reminded of Tears for Fears, or just some very moody kind of pop music. Were there any of those kinds of influences coming into play?

TB: [Laughs] I wrote that—It's an older song, that's another reason, so I'm trying to remember the context. I'll have to get back to you; I'll have to e-mail you. I don't know. 'Cause I can't remember. I wrote that a couple years ago, and I was just like, Oh shit, what kind of song could I use here? And I just kind of grabbed that, like, Oh, that could be good. I'd have to get back to you about the context [Laughs].

HS: I could be totally mistaken but when I heard the last piece, I could've sworn I heard you do that live years ago.

TB: Yeah, it's an old piece, so you did.

HS: Is a lot of this stuff gathered up over a period of years?

TB: The last two tracks are; the rest of the stuff is new. That's another thing too: I wanted to kind of respect some of the things that I had done in the past and try to integrate it into the newer stuff. So they are more loop-based. They're a little simpler in their composition. But I kind of wanted to have those in place, because, yeah, that last one I've been doing for a while and for some reason, I've always still really liked that. So I'm like, Okay, I'll just throw that on. Even if it's not on the page that I'm on now, it's still relative to where I'm going.

HS: Just to get back to Battles, is it an exciting thing to be going back and having this really visceral thing, being back in a room playing with people and getting onstage? It seems like it would be a nice counterpoint to the solo work.

TB: It is. It's nice. It's a total headfuck switching like this, though. Because each thing isn't some loose investment; it's not like, Oh, okay, that's done—Great, now I'll just go back to Battles. I've just purged myself of years of work, and I'm really excited about this kind of music and I'm like, Okay, now I've got to go back and I've got to get to loop-rock-song world again. And it's awesome, 'cause, yeah, I get to play live, I get to interact with people again, but I have to kind of like snap back into focus, 'cause it's a different way of music making. As similar and as relative as it is, it's actually very different. So it took me a second to be able to refocus. But it is good, it's exciting. I get to be able to get back in the swing of things and play live again.

HS: But ultimately, you'd like to have the two outlets and switch back and forth?

TB: Yeah, no doubt about it. 

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