How Tyondai Braxton Subverts and Destroys His Own Music

The composer and musician, formerly in Battles, explains his immersion in electronic music and how it’s changed the way he thinks about sound.

No one can accuse Tyondai Braxton of taking the easy way out. The guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, and composer was previously in the band Battles, which is sometimes referred to (with possible pejorative connotations) as math-rock, and sometimes (with ambiguous connotations) as experimental rock. That thorny music has found popularity—“Atlas,” a challenging though electrifying 2007 single he co-composed, is stunningly ubiquitous, showing up in video games, car commercials, and even a mortgage ad during the Super Bowl. Braxton left the band in 2010 to pursue his own electronic-based music, which like Battles has earned critical acclaim.

Braxton performed at Moogfest 2016, with a solo act built around his 2015 record Hive1. Even as electronic music becomes ubiquitous, its more ambitious facets remain tough to understand and easy to dismiss as beeps and boops. I spoke with Braxton before his performance, drilling into how he approaches and builds his work, and what he’s doing during a live performance. Challenging music runs in Braxton’s family—his father is the MacArthur-winning jazz(-ish) saxophonist and composter Anthony Braxton. Although their work runs in parallel, the father and son don’t have much of a relationship, as Tyondai discusses here. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

David Graham: You’ve worked with a band, and you’ve worked as a solo artist with other musicians. What’s your one-man show like?

Tyondai Braxton: It’s kind of like solo electronic music, music from the last record I did and a bunch of other new stuff at this point. The Hive music is my starting point, my base, and then I’m blowing it out from there.

Graham: When you say blowing it out, does that mean playing new stuff, does that mean improvising over it, what does that mean?

Braxton: Both. Playing new stuff and improvising over it. The music lends itself to that kind of real-time agility. It’s very sharp and agile, so I find room to improvise, and at the same time there are a lot of fixed moments and playback and stuff like that. The goal is keeping the balls in the air when you’re improvising and there’s playback, how to make a cohesive set out of that stuff. Which is fun.

Graham: What is your compositional process like, and what do you come out with at the end—do you have a standard notated chart?

Braxton: This project represents to me a real psychological—not just compositional growth, maybe, but maybe a psychological shift or growth as well. Before this predominantly it’d be about coming up with a line, expanding the line, and being able to have predefined characters within the music, through-composed, through-notated. Whereas with modular synthesis and generative music, it makes you think of music in a completely different way. I tried to notate music for electronics at first, and it just sounded too square. The idea was to really learn the language of what it means to do generative music, and find myself in that. Then the idea is finding room to improvise with it as well.

Graham: So, if you play, say, “Gracka” two nights running, how similar is it?

Braxton: It’s similar. It’s certainly not deconstructed to the point where it’s not familiar. People who know the record will be able to hear the pieces back to back, and then I find ways to subvert them and destroy them. Some I destroy less than others.

Graham: Do you think of this music as existing in any sort of genre?

Braxton: It’s certainly relative to electronic music and dance music, it’s certainly relative to generative music and musique concrète. A lot of my heroes are composers like [Iannis] Xenakis and [Pierre] Schaeffer. The goal for me for this project was to also think like, What does it mean to do that music now? What does it mean to have generative music now? Which to be honest, it’s not a unique question. Generative music is all around us at this point. That is the zeitgeist in some way. It’s just exciting, especially as a person who has come from performing background, where you’re just—you’re playing everything, it’s such a crazy—it’s just such a refreshing way of thinking about music. It totally pulled me out of where my comfort zone was, and I kind of, like, didn’t know what I was doing and maybe still don’t, but I’m just enjoying the newness of it.

Graham: Do you see what you’re doing now as being part of a linear progression, or is it parallel to more performance-based stuff that you’ve done in the past?

Braxton: I think it is a linear progression. The thing that’s the most exciting about composition for me is getting a sense of the composer’s sense of craft and control. When you start using generative figures and generative methods in music, you’re relinquishing some of that control. That was a huge issue for me, you know? Both as far as me wanting to like control the situation but also me not trusting these methods enough to feel like I really could craft something great out of them. That was the first thing. But then as I got better at doing it, I realized that you actually can get better at generative music and you can make things that sound like yourself when you’re playing. It is an extension. The goal with all technology, especially in the arts, is to have it be extension of your idea, rather than just relying on the technology as a crutch. But the goal is to actually know it, be fluent in the language long enough where you can be expressive and know what you’re doing. You’re playing it, as opposed to it just playing you.

Graham: When you say you’re getting better at generative music, what does that sound like to you? How do you hear that progress?

Braxton: The most amazing thing about it is, for me at least, the way that I think about music now. I think about it in shape, in a way. I know that sounds kind of like funny, oh, some like savant kind of thing. That’s not what I mean. It’s more like, with LFOs, low frequency oscillators, you can alter the shape of a sound wave. You could have that wave run through the sequence at some awkward thing. So you could actually start thinking about forms like that, you know? That’s such a heavy thing, and then suddenly I go back and I listen to orchestral music. You could start thinking about how you could generate worlds of sound like that just through oscillators and generative means. Then suddenly you’re like, wow, you’re thinking in these longer plateaus. And then awkwardly I’ve started to play guitar again, because I haven’t played in a while. It’s just a really funny experience. Suddenly you’re playing guitar and you’re playing a riff or something and you’re like doo-doo-doo, and it feels so arbitrary. Suddenly you’re working with such a micro—or I guess that’s the way to describe it, you’re working at such a minimal scale, that after painting in these broad strokes and getting all these crazy details by thinking in generative means, to go back to playing riffs, it feels kind of archaic. But that’s just me, that’s not really a larger statement. That’s me trying to figure out how all these things kind of go together.

Graham: How long had you not played guitar?

Braxton: About a year.

Graham: Is that the longest you had gone since you picked it up?

Braxton: By far. By far. When I first started playing guitar, I would play for six hours a day as a kid. When I left Battles and started getting into the modular-synth stuff and really sitting and trying to learn it and practice it, then I kind of pushed the guitar away. At 20 years of playing I’m like, Okay, I can play that as well as I could play it. As a side point, once you pick up an instrument that you haven’t played for a year, no matter how many years you’d played before—I was like, Oh my god, I’m a child playing this.

Graham: Can you imagine going back to guitar-based rockish music?

Braxton: I don’t think I can ever go back to rock-based music, but I do know that I’ll always utilize guitar in some way, in my orchestral music. The rock-band model for me at this point—I hesitate to make a blanket statement, but it’s certainly not something that really interests me right now.

Graham: I saw your father at Big Ears last month premiering a piece with a new notation structure, dealing with some of the same challenges you have. Do you talk with him about things like notation, or composition techniques?

Braxton: I hate to say it, we actually haven’t spoken in, man, like 10 years. It’s—I know, like—

Graham: Sorry to ask an awkward question.

Braxton: No, it’s all good, and I know interviewers are like, “Oh yeah, your dad, of course …” I’m like, “Oh, actually …” I can say, you know, he’s such a heavy figure and I’ll always be in awe of his musical world and stuff like that. But yeah, unfortunately we don’t have the relationship at this point where we’re kind of like, on sharing ideas or showing him stuff. He’s certainly been a major influence on me.

Graham: While you’re working out these ideas in your own music, what are you listening to right now?

Braxton: These past maybe 10 years I’ve just got really so into orchestral music. Large scale—not chamber stuff, but large-scale, crazy, sound-world pieces. One of my favorites is Edgard Varèse. [Olivier] Messiaen. Xenakis. The goal has been to try to replicate that sound world and that way of having the instruments interact in electronic music, and it is easier said than done. If you have a computer you could open Ableton and make a thousand tracks and plug in a sine-wave loop and it will be a big mass of sound. But the way the timbres of the instrument interact, it’s a different proposition when it’s electronic vs. acoustic. As similar as what you would consider the musical goals of a lot of serious electronic music and serious composition, the means of getting there are actually very different.

Graham: Do you listen to these things with a score in front of you?

Braxton: Sometimes I do, especially when I’m pulling a piece apart and trying to figure out how it works. You kind of wish there’s something like that for electronic music. I listen to music very loud, both electronic and orchestral music, and I listen all the time. I’m constantly listening to music. If anything I should—when you’re creating sometimes it’s bad to listen because you’re trying to come up with something and then you hear something that’s amazing and you’re like, Oh fuck, that’s … You’ve gotta boycott listening and just do it.