Daniel Stephen Johnson was born in the desert and learned to play the violin. After studying viola and English at the University of Southern California, he wrote fiction at Columbia University. Then he moved to Connecticut, where he worked at a record shop and wrote about music, literature and comedy for the New Haven Advocate and the Believer. Now he lives in Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and works as a sheet music salesman in Queens. Follow Daniel on Twitter at @linernotesdanny.
Tyondai Braxton: Carnavalesque and Rapturous Abandon
The Former Battles Guitarist-Composer Introduces His Music
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
While it is true that Tyondai Braxton's father is the revered composer and improviser Anthony Braxton, their music might as well come from two different planets (neither of which is Earth). Light-years away from his father's liberated, happily baffling ensemble experiments, Braxton fils sounds more like a long-lost son of Zappa, his compositions as gaily colored, as rigidly constructed, and as outrageously, extravagantly pop as a life-size sculpture in Lego blocks.
While he'd been putting out loop-based solo material for years, for most listeners, the first window onto Braxton's musical sensibility was the early discs of Battles, the ongoing New York–based project for which Braxton co-composed, played guitar and keyboard, and sang occasional vocals. Braxton-era Battles discs discs EP C, B EP and Mirrored, composed collectively, weave together strands of what sound like punk rock, African pop and circus marches, overlaid in complex patterns.
The EPs are a rawer listen, more rhythmically and sonically jagged, and more formally challenging. It was Mirrored's fusion of the Battles’ trademark complexity with yet a poppier aural sheen that made them the stars of an indie-rock moment prizing musical-intellectual ambition. Within the rock world, the acclaim from online and in print was overwhelming and nearly unanimous: for the band's astonishingly tight playing, for their bright, chirping melodies and bouncing rhythms, and for the thick, interlocking layers of the musical texture.
It's not clear at what point Braxton made the leap from "indie rocker" to "composer." His aesthetic has remained essentially the same, and he studied classical composition at Hartford's Hartt School before his Battles success made him a Brooklyn sweetheart. It might be more accurate to say that the world of classical music leapt on him, with rock-loving new-music ensembles like the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the Kronos Quartet and the Wordless Music Orchestra eagerly claiming him as their own.
His album with Wordless, Central Market, sounds in some respects like a rock frontman's solo project, breaking out of the rock-band format into the orchestra's seemingly limitless possibilities. But where another artist might fall into the trap of self-indulgent excess after losing the narrow focus demanded by a more limited palette, Braxton's discipline unites the movements of this long, eclectic piece into one coherent whole.