When rockers go symphonic, it’s usually to thicken a ballad with soupy strings or to reach for some misbegotten notion of classical cred. Not Tyondai Braxton, who was the guitarist and singer of the Brooklyn avant-rock group Battles until he split with his bandmates last summer. Left to his own devices — his own gizmos, really — he treats the orchestra as a sort of super-pedal, a live extension of his electric guitar. Braxton composed the orchestral piece Central Market in intimate dialogue with his laptop, playing, singing, recording, looping, processing, and harnessing the capabilities of enough gear to produce a broad and thundering panorama of electronic sounds. He even overdubbed his own mouth harp and kazoo. After which he called in the ensemble, though you might think he doesn’t really need actual people playing pre-digital instruments. But Braxton, a lanky 32-year-old with explosive hair, has Mahler envy. “At the core of my being is someone who wants to write pieces for 150 people to perform,” he says.
Central Market is a modest work by the standard of those ambitions: a relentlessly exciting, elaborately layered 45-minute score that pounds through a sequence of musical landscapes with the manic intensity of a movie foot chase. Insistent syncopations, deliberate sonic overloads, whistled melodies of exquisite silliness, music-box tinklings, jaunty motifs that repeat and trip over themselves, interruptions of interruptions, voices electronically tweaked to make them sound as if a helium balloon had been involved — Braxton dishes out all these elaborately combined ingredients with the exuberance of a sorcerer on speed.
He crafted the piece for a recording that came out on Warp Records in 2009, and for its live debut at Lincoln Center on March 7 as part of the Tully Scope Festival, he’s had to rescore it for orchestra, plus a menagerie of extras: amplified and effects-enriched kazoos, similarly modified voices, piano, a pair of synthesizers, and six guitars (one manned by the composer).
“If I had started thinking about the live aspect, that record would never have happened,” he says. As he’s accustomed to performing either on his own or with the three other members of Battles, adapting the piece for such abundant forces has proved almost as tricky as writing it in the first place. “Out of 100 tracks I have on my computer, if I have a mouth harp on track 30, I look to see who I can get to play this. Usually I can find someone who’s not doing something else at that moment.”
Braxton is the son of the poly-instrumental jazzman Anthony Braxton, and he’s inherited his father’s taste for music that is cerebral, virtuosic, and slightly unhinged. With Battles, he erected structures of driving rhythms and constantly morphing loops, and Central Market holds chaos at bay with rigorous workmanship. Ask him how he goes about composing and you get no odes to inspiration, but a narrative of procedure: “I have ten guitar pedals, and a microphone that I can put right in front of the amp to get feedback loops. So I’d start playing and getting my amps buzzing at 60 Hertz. I’d do these 30-second loops, and I’d send it to ProTools and stretch it out for 30 bars, and I’d keep adding to it; then when I got it sufficiently sounding cool, I’d stop adding to it and then start stringing the different loops together and find transitions between them.”
He’s less interested in talking about his particular influences or choosing what niche to occupy in the musical ecosystem. “I’m the sum of my interests, and it doesn’t make sense any more to say, ‘I’m a rocker’ or ‘I’m a classical-music guy.’ Gone are the days when you can sum yourself up by your party affiliation. I can’t even remember what I was listening to when I was 15 or 20 or 25. But all those things are what got me here.”