Tyondai Braxton isn’t just a dude from New York with good hair, shoes and duck-filled press shots. No, he’s actually the son of experimental jazz icon Anthony Braxton, a member of avant-rock supergroup Battles, and a quality recording artist on his own terms.
This month, he released his latest solo album, Central Market, for Warp. A departure from the “orchestrated loops” style of his previous work, which was designed to artificially simulate a musical ensemble, it’s his most vivid, memorable work to date, and should find equal admirers with fans of Jim O’Rourke and Brian Eno as those of Ducktails and TV on the Radio.
We asked Tyondai to pick out five treasured records from his collection, and we corresponded with him about them, and how they’ve influenced his work: from Central Market, to the “orchestrated loops”, to his collaborations with Prefuse 73, Battles and Glenn Branca
01: LEONARD BERNSTEIN & NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC
COPLAND: APPALACHIAN SPRING, RODEO, BILLY THE KID, FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN
(COLUMBIA MASTERS, 1970)
Pretty highbrow choice – nice one. Do you listen to a lot of classical day to day?
TB: “I guess you can say its highbrow but it’s such a vibrant set of pieces! This record is one of my favorites. Yes, I listen to a lot of classical. I think orchestral music is still some of the most exciting music out there. I love the sense of community you get in an orchestra. It’s almost like a small town coming together and forging through sound.”
Do you have an original copy of this, or is it one of the Bernstein Century re-issues?
“I have the reissue. Copland found an amazing interpreter in Bernstein. They shared a similar aesthetic and what I would perceive to be similar goals musically speaking. The recording is incredible.”
What is it about Bernstein that you like? Is it his work with the Philharmonic in particular, or his film soundtracks, or what?
“He’s a fantastic conductor, one of our country’s finest musicians and in my opinion he hasn’t had his due as far as being viewed as a composer. He and Copland were treading similar terrain, both interested in fusing jazz and classical. Apparently he struggled with making money, being a star conductor or to continue composing his own music. His music is exciting.”
How does classical music inform what you do? Do you view your work as classical, or a modern appropriation perhaps…?
“I’d say it’s a modern appropriation. I’ll use “classical methods” in so far as it pertains to what I need it to do and get across but not the opposite. I don’t feel the need to be a slave to old forms and such – though I find the music interesting. I’m more excited about reframing some of these established ideas.”
02: ENNIO MORRICONE
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST
Some of Morricone’s lesser-known work – particularly the stuff recorded for Italian “giallo” movies, some of which was collected on the Crime & Dissonance compilation, is even more avant-garde, touching on drone, free jazz, etc. In a way, Once Upon A Time In The West is one of his “prettier” works – what’s its particular appeal to you?
“Look at the range of that soundtrack though! It’s too much of a reduction to call it pretty: Crime and Dissonance isn’t anywhere near as varied as Once Upon a Time, it’s so much more specialized – I love that record too though, don’t get me wrong. Once Upon A Time has the classic romantic lush orchestrations (title track), the now-classic overdriven guitar paired with strings and horns (‘As A Judgment’), it has a piece that’s virtually a percussion solo piece (‘The Transgression’), a simple eerily comic banjo against a mock foley effect of horses walking… These are the first four tracks!
“Morricone’s fusion of instruments and penchant for creating music that was both effects-based and musically compelling if a huge inspiration. His sense of narrative and depth in his own music is enough where it’s almost not necessary to see some of the films he’s scored – but this movie in particular is fantastic!”
Do you feel the era of experimental, adventurous music soundtracking movies is over? Is there anything in the world of contemporary movie scores or sound design that you admire?
“Sound design in movies is incredibly exciting. Whether it be new ways of using electronics/computers or a masterful foley sound creation – people doing that work are involved in the most visible avant-garde sound art in the world. At this moment I’m not totally killed by the majority of soundtrack composers. Some of it is interesting. I’ll confess that maybe I’m seeing the wrong movies!”
I guess soundtracking film often calls for repetition – what did you take inspiration from with your earlier loop-based work? And were the sort of moods or effects you tried to achieve similar to what’s found in these records?
“Once I started taking a serious look at working with loops I was listening to a lot of dance music. Believe it or not, even in Connecticut where I grew up we had a pretty serious rave scene, with NY and NJ so close. I really love dance music and still do. I wanted to emulate DJs but creating the material live, in real time. I would beatjuggle off kilter beatbox loops and such. The mood was darker earlier on. I didn’t really think it was that dark at the time but once I did my first solo record, I knew I wanted to somehow find a way to incorporate more of a ‘spectrum of emotion’ and even a sense of humor without coming across lame.”
When composing, recording, do you think visually? Do you think there’s a “cinematic” aspect to Battles’ work, and/or to your solo work?
“Yes, but the visuals are usually born out of hearing a sound first. If I like the visual reference it gives me, I try to shape it closer to that identity and establish a character. Yes I do think there are cinematic aspects to both projects.”
Central Market is apparently a departure from your previous work. How so?
“My previous solo efforts have been centered around a series of guitar effects pedals that I would use to color and change the sound of my voice, guitar and found objects to simulate other instruments – or just be able to achieve alien sounds. I would then make loops out of phrases, develop a response or counterpoint with another sound and build up a simulation of a lot of sounds working together, like a microcosm of an orchestra. I call this music ‘orchestrated loops’. The thing is after ‘simulating’ for so long you can’t help but want to actually have a larger pallete to work with. I didn’t want to abandon this way of working, though; I just wanted to add on to it. I still used my solo method to create sounds and write the music but this time I was able to orchestrate parts and see how acoustic instruments could work in tandem with my electronic set up.”
03: BOURNEMOUTH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA & MARIN ALSOP
TAKEMITSU: A FLOCK DESCENDS INTO THE PENTAGONAL GARDEN
Takemitsu seems totally up your alley. Why did you pick this one in particular?
“This is my favorite piece of Takemitsu’s, in a sea of favourite pieces from him. This piece has it all. First of all it’s unbelievably beautiful. Just absolutely terrifying and beautiful. Second of all, his sense of time and development throughout the piece is a revelation for me. I started working on Central Market when I was surrounding myself with more animated and less harmonically conflicted music, but I know I want to try my hand at incorporating what I’ve learned from Takemitsu in future compositions.”
He’s got a lot more links to avant-garde music – and avant-jazz to boot – than Bernstein. Tell us about your background in jazz…
“Well growing up I was exposed to a lot of jazz but I wouldn’t say I’m very well versed in jazz – I would like to be but I wasn’t really interested in it as a kid. That’s an area in my knowledge that I’d like to get stronger in. I had hang-ups about jazz as I always associated it as my father’s music and his generation’s musical identity. Once I gravitated towards rock, hip-hop and pop it was exciting.”
So you weren’t into jazz from an early age?
“Not…at…all. Jazz wasn’t my music. It was my father’s music. It’s not that I didn’t like it, but I didn’t understand it. I’m not that kid that was bringing Love Supreme in for show and tell; quite the contrary. I liked pop music, hip-hop, rock just like any other kid in the 80’s/90’s. I had to take clarinet lessons from a young age – I’m glad I did because it certainly helped me later on – but I wasn’t obsessed with it. It was OK.”
What sort of stuff did your father, who obviously was a jazz musician, raise you on?
“There was a lot of music in the house. Jazz, classical, doo wop, reggae – you name it. I’d hear a lot of Coltrane, Monk and Mingus and my father’s music too.”
04: BLACK DICE
BEACHES AND CANYONS
Why Beaches & Canyons? What would you distinguishes it from other Black Dice records?
“They use their electronics very organically on all of their records – and I love and own all of them – but with Beaches and Canyons, Hisham Bhaarocha on drums was a great uniting element as far as electronic and acoustic go. It’s a very raw recording. The music is captured very raw and that’s one of the great successes of that record. On one hand you can’t believe the sounds they’re able to achieve with the record so seemingly primitive and raw – on the other hand it’s absolutely because of the way the music was captured that it has such a special feeling. It has a special place in my heart also as far as the time of it. My first solo record came out in August of 2002 and theirs in September 2002. I felt an affinity towards them and was excited by what they brought to the table.”
Would you say Black Dice are an influence on Battles and your solo work?
“I’m a big fan and I’d say people in Battles are too. We were all doing our thing around the same time and it was great scratching your head, taking in how someone else in your small scene does what they do. They’re clearly not done yet either. Their latest record Repo is, yet again, fucking awesome.”
One of Black Dice’s biggest – and most obvious – achievements is their suspension of traditional song structure. They’re music has more in common with electronic and neo-classical music in this sense, though they still might conduct themselves like a rock band. What role would you say structure and repetition play in the composition and execution of Central Market?
“Repetition plays more of a role in some pieces than others – structurally as well. On one hand, repetition is a tool. It’s an effect that can be used or not used. The listener will recognize a repeating phrase. Just as going from major to minor is an effect. On the other hand repetition can be used as a foundation or frame to build on top of, like scaffolding on a building. Then you can take the repeating phrase out and you have what built on top. Some of the loops in these ways are ‘load-bearing’ loops. Loops that weren’t meant to even be heard, just built upon.”
Are you into the rest of those experimental Brooklyn guys: Gang Gang Dance, Animal Collective, Excepter etc?
“Yes. I really love all of those bands. I think Animal Collective is brilliant. They are one of those bands that were always incredible even when I first started seeing them perform in 2001 as just Avey Tare and Panda Bear – they didn’t just get good over time. They always were strong. Gang Gang Dance is an amazing band. Like Animal Collective they blend a totally alien flavor with bizarre familiarity that is totally compelling. Same goes for Excepter. Don’t know what they put in the water over here in Brooklyn.”
05: GLENN BRANCA
THE WORLD UPSIDE DOWN
(LES DISQUES DE CREPUSCULE, 1992)
You took part in Branca’s Hallucination City 100-guitar symphony, right? How was that?
“One of the most significant defining musical experiences in my life. The piece is a monster and it’s really beautiful. I’m lucky I got a chance to play this piece.”
Have you ever done anything on that scale before or since?
“That was a massive scale. I’ve never attempted anything quite that large. That and Central Market are the largest pieces I’ve attempted thus far.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is a very New York record. So, come to think of it, are several others in your selection. How – if at all – would you say the city has impacted on you? Both in general terms, and in terms of the city’s avant-garde/experimental tradition…
“I think my experiences in NY figure heavily into the music I make. It’s the kind of city that doesn’t let you take a break even for a minute. It’s incredible. It’s a city with real depth. A depth that keeps its people in a perpetual state of inspiration and has the power to tear you limb from limb.
“The music history here has had an impact. NY has a tradition of a very raw, very immediate avant-garde music and it really perfectly mirrors the energy the city naturally gives off. The scene is infectious and compelling.”
Branca was highly influenced by musical theory/writing, particularly Rudhyar and Partch. Have you been at all influenced by theory in your life as a listener and musician?
“When I was young I tried to read my father’s TriAxiom Writings, which outline the belief system and philosophy of his music. It was too over my head back then but as I understand him and his music more his writings come alive. To call the TriAxiom Writings a huge world in itself is an understatement. They’re amazing.
“It’s not a theory book but I just recently finished Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise which was an incredible read. I like John Cage’s Silence in the same way that I like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies and consult both.”