Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
In March of last year Tyondai Braxton debuted his composition HIVE in the rotunda of the Guggenheim. It was a considered and ambitious first go at a piece that was still finding its form. That Tyondai was willing to present a new composition that was, for all intents and purposes, a work in progress in such a prestigious setting speaks to the recent turn toward experimentation and open-ended-ness in his work.
For Tyondai, a musician who has cultivated a strong presence in the world of modern composition and is widely known for his past contributions to the band Battles, this step into generative-systems music and sound synthesis represents yet another development in an already explorative career. By embracing a practice that has pushed far past the logic of “rock-band group composition” and the readymade ensemble of New Music commissions, Tyondai has begun to develop a mode of production where there is room to re-problematize the materials, methods of delivery, and discourse of contemporary composition.
Scored for three percussionists, and fixed and live electronics, the compositional methodologies utilized in HIVE oscillate somewhere between Xenakis and Autechre, coupling hyper-detailed rhythmic notation with advanced synthesized sound design, and linking the two through an inventive series of performance strategies. Tyondai is a composer steeped in tradition but one who is neither sentimental nor dogmatic about process. Through the deployment of hybridized generative systems, in this new work he has found a platform that allows for both the refinement of an already established compositional voice as well as a space for discovering new sonic manifestations.
Tyondai’s performace approach to experimental composition has allowed HIVE to continue growing up in public in such places as the Sydney Opera House, and as part of the Sacrum Profanum festival in Krakow and the Mona Foma festival in Tasmania. A recent performance in London as part of Nonesuch Record’s fiftieth-anniversary celebration saw yet another refinement of a composition that continues to resist cooling into a single static form.
Ben Vida Tell me about how you are developing your new piece, HIVE.
Tyondai Braxton How I look at the way HIVE started, where it is now, and where I hope for it to go—I mean, this project is still a work in progress. And I think of the first performance and the initial idea as a wide net that’s being cast as far as what I wanted to accomplish. A lot of dots weren’t necessarily connected, I just knew where I wanted this thing to be in and around of. Over time, the net has started to come in a little more from gathering. That’s how I believe a piece should naturally come together: by casting that wide net and letting the superficialities and all the bad parts of the experiment slip away as the net comes in closer, so you’ll have remnants of the freedom of earlier things, of the search of doing these parts that are improvisations. And hopefully, you’ll be able to retain the freshness of some of those gestures. I’m trying to incorporate a bunch of things I haven’t necessarily seen go together, or at least not in the way they could go together. You have to cast a wide net because initially those things are going to fight, and the only way to get them to work is to corral them and slowly bring them in so they resolve themselves and naturally find ways to coexist.
BV For the live presentation of HIVE you function both as composer and as one of the performers. I see this as harkening back to a kind of late-twentieth- century tradition where composers (such as Glass and Reich) would not only put together their own ensembles to interpret what were idiosyncratic compositions, but would also take part in performing these new works.
TB I think it goes back to what you consider performance and what you consider administration. This is a deep thing, because, in my opinion, if you say that I perform in HIVE, I’ll say yes, and if you say that I curate sound in HIVE live, I’d say yes also. So I’m a performer in HIVE in so much as I’m contributing something to the performance, but does it mean performance in the traditional sense? Maybe, I don’t know. (laughter) I don’t want to get too meta about it, because you’re performing in it too.
BV It’s an interesting role for me because I’m hired as an instrumentalist, but really I’m interpreting the materials in a much more administrative role than the percussionists, who are truly live performers.
TB It is set up in a way where there are five people on stage seated on these pods actively doing something. So from the audience’s perspective, you’re performing. I can tell you this, after being in bands for as long as I can remember and then doing this project, there was an initial discomfort with being okay with just sitting there and not doing anything. Now it’s actually become a thrill—there’s something powerful about being passive as far as performing this kind of music in this way, especially when you’re offset by these three other performers who are killing themselves doing this stuff that’s really intricate and hard. And to sit there passively and calmly, showing that kind of opposition to what they’re doing, is performance from the audience’s perspective. Now what I’m actually doing as an artist, or musician, or interpreter—I’m very consciously limiting my involvement. With you, I feel like you play a similar role because, maybe in the first instance, as the composer, I’m more active about which pieces go where, but live, you and I are both curating the material that’s already there as kind of switchboard operators. So we both kind of play the same role.
BV In terms of live performance strategies, you’ve developed quite a contemporary way of working. Though I think of you as being a pretty traditional composer in a lot of ways, or at least you consider yourself that. (laughter) In spite of all that, you can’t help but create from this moment, from this very contemporary place. Because of that, you’re using all these tools that are hybridizing various compositional methodologies. For HIVE you are working across a bunch of different systems, both software and hardware. I wonder what your relationships to these technologies are?
TB I’m very conscious, especially with software stuff. If you’re writing for software and you’re using a sample library based not on an acoustic instrument but on a software instrument, it’s going to be antiquated down the road—sonically antiquated. The question is: What angle are you writing the piece from? Are you writing it from a notated or a more classic model—fixed notation, harmony, rhythm? Or are you writing for the equipment? Is it music for ensemble or music for modular synthesizer? I think that’s just the cross to bear when writing with instruments that are in a constant state of update and flux. Maybe it’s less about the actual equipment and more about the idea behind the piece. The idea lives on, the technology might not, so who cares? It doesn’t matter.
BV I agree, you can write a contemporary piece of music on any system. You were saying that maybe the synthesized sounds become antiquated over time, but when you think about working from this point where everything is available, it’s really our ears and our history of listening from living in this era, no matter what the materials, that makes this composition contemporary. Whether you’re choosing to write for software or for a string quartet, they’re equally contemporary.
TB The concept of timelessness in art will always be here, no matter what you’re writing for. Whether we’re talking about Stravinsky, Philip Glass, or John Coltrane, they all had to deal with the tools available to them, but why is it, when you listen to that music, it feels as new and vital today as it felt then?
BV Do you think that’s because they were working at the sonic or formal forward edge of their times?
TB Yeah, but does that have to do with the instruments that they used or with their ears?
BV With their ear. That’s what it boils down to.
TB No doubt about it.
BV One question that has been coming up for me more often is: What does it mean to be a contemporary composer, and what kinds of works do I choose to manifest, especially when considering the traditional role of an artist/ composer, which—I don’t know if you’ll agree with this—has been to expand an audience’s ability to receive and decode complex information.
TB I feel like the artist’s role is to be in dialogue with their time, whatever that means, and to translate complicated ideas simply. I love complexity; if something excites me most, it is the moving parts in some architectonic musical structure where the concept or the ideas are clear. There is complexity but also clarity. For me, the artist’s role is to create clarity out of something that isn’t clear, or that has disparate elements.
BV This idea of disparate elements is interesting because sonically and visually right now everything is up for grabs. There’s no grouping of things that can’t be summed into a single stream of content or information. And this is a methodology that is less and less often problematized. It hasn’t always been this way—I think it’s something a bit more specific to our generation.
TB That is the new invention—re-contextualization. It started with musique concrète and then sampling. When sampling and hip-hop came in, suddenly you had these really drastic, messy combinations of things, especially in pop culture. That really set the tone. Before, it was twelve-tone or a pitch row that was alien.
BV Well, it was harmonic.
TB Yeah, but now it’s a very postmodern approach because you can have the harmonic element, like The Rite of Spring, sampled together with EPMD’s hip-hop. Stravinsky was talking about poly-harmonic composition, like an F sharp running against a D major chord—that dual harmonic thing was his invention. And now, you can take that and pair it with an EPMD track, and it’s all these layers and layers.
BV Do you think a contemporary audience is able to hear the more complex meshing because we’ve come up through a time of sample-based music? What might have seemed like incongruous sonic combinations in the past are now packaged as pop. I mean, we’re living in Pierre Schaeffer’s world—he won, you know what I mean? Like, Schoenberg didn’t win.
TB It’s true, and there’s nothing more popular right now than sample-based re-contextualization in pop—I mean, that is pop music. That’s the era that we’re living in. So for me, that’s what I consider the role of the composer and artist.
BV I think an aspect of what we’re talking about has to do with methods of working that are informed by technological advances. With HIVE, I’ve watched you move through working on “paper,” working with sound-synthesizing systems, both analog and digital, finally arriving at generative programming to create a lot of the rhythmic and melodic information. This has been interesting because, in a way, you’ve been moving through the history of the twentieth century—
TB —to make one piece! (laughter) And it’s not done yet either, so I’m still totally figuring it out. I could say that HIVE, at first, was me asking, What is it about Varèse’s and Xenakis’s pieces for percussion ensembles that is so exciting? What does it mean to use that model? What does that mean now? Can you write an interesting piece with percussion and sample some electronics and do something transcendent? What I found was that it’s pretty difficult. (laughter) But I also found that with a dogmatic approach to writing music like that, you will get dogmatic or strict results.
The first incarnation of HIVE was all percussion; it was writing from the perspective of a percussionist, because writing from the perspective of modular synth was too difficult; it didn’t give me enough of a foundation to write on top of. Especially since I’d have to write percussion parts afterward. So to get into the percussion right off the bat gave me a place that could be detailed and where I would have a sense of a through-composed piece. So essentially I wrote forty minutes of percussion and then I put the electronics on top, and that’s exactly how it sounded.
BV That was the compositional logic of the first iteration we performed at the Guggenheim.
TB Right, so I did that, and that was great. There are things from it, even now, that I’m still excited by, but it was also lacking in a lot of other areas. So I said, “How can I fill in this gap that I feel is there, especially harmonically and tonally?” It’s been a real journey because there are a lot of reference points that I’m not interested in touching. And let me take that a step further—there are a lot of reference points that I’m actively avoiding. Writing a melody with electronic sound carries a lot of baggage. Now another composer might find value in that and adapt in a way where I might be like, “Oh man, that’s brilliant; I wish I could do that.” But I can’t. There are certain things I won’t do. So I’ve had to find my own way of writing melodic material for electronic instruments that sounds visceral, organic, not too heavy-handed in the technological department, but also authentically mine and neutral, something that isn’t nostalgic. It’s very hard to write this material, in a melodic sense, without the baggage. It’s been a weird journey within myself to circumvent my own inability to avoid those things and to find something that is within the cracks of the things that I am interested in combining.
BV There was a really significant change in the material when you started to produce rhythmic and melodic patterning through generative means, more in the mode of Xenakis and less in the mode of Varèse. To be able to create the music you were hearing meant needing to expand the methods you were utilizing to produce content—to embrace new systems. It meant putting down the pen and paper and starting by setting the parameters and letting the machine make some of the decisions.
TB Yes, that addition to my process was a huge thing. I would take these generative parts that would seem kind of random and then I would go back and notate them. But then, when I’d put them in a piece, I’d notationally finagle them, so that generative element was still there. It was more about how much of it would be there, how much control I would relinquish to the generative process. Not one hundred percent, which is a weird thing, too, because why couldn’t it be one hundred percent? I mean, it could be, but the reason it wasn’t, was that intuition is still thrilling to me. That is, to control enough of the piece to feel that there iscontrol. You clearly hear a shift where there’s a human involved in a conscious movement. So again, there’s that hybridization. But even allowing that amount of generative material with my own improvisation— my seemingly fresh and random idea was to take that generative material and then notate it. So it gives you a fixed feeling.
BV What we’re talking about, in a way, is aestheticized systems music. You allow a system to run, you learn from it, and maybe you take elements of those materials, but it’s brought back into the very subjective process of composing.
BV You’re not working from a Cageian place, where the parameters are set up and the results are presented. It’s different, and I think that is really interesting because it allows you to change composing modalities … moving from a place of receiving and learning and then inverting that method back onto the page.
TB Yes, and it gets into a really existential place for me, as funny as that sounds. Because I am a traditional composer in the sense that I feel that the strongest composition—or at least the stuff that I gravitate toward the most—conveys control and craftsmanship. So for me, the question of giving up even a certain amount of control was a massive thing, but once I did it, it was amazing. Once I let myself do it, it was a revelation.
BV There’s something that working with electronics has changed in my own process too, and that’s learning how to invite an “other” into my process or practice. And that could mean setting up systems that help dictate form, or setting up systems where an outside performer’s interpretation of a composition would then spark the next set of decisions in the composition.
TB I feel like my favorite electronic music now is reduced to the strength of an idea, of a character. The clearer that idea is, the more you get a sense of the mission of the piece and the perspective of the artist. Awesome. On the other side of the coin, as a fan of orchestral, large ensemble music, my taste gravitates toward the opposite, toward something way more architectonic, with a lot of moving parts. There can still be clarity of the idea, but I’m much more attracted to density and these city-like-scapes inside of this large orchestra piece. What’s the reconciliation, or how does it work in that music but not in this music?
BV I think that it’s scratching the same itch. Within the electronic realm, you’re listening to the intricacy of the synthesis, so no matter how opaque, within a synthesized sound, there’s a lot of intricacy and interplay. I’m not saying that the single voice of a violin isn’t complex— it is, but that’s understood already. You see a violin, you hear it being played, the answer is already there—it’s not a question. But with the symphonic, the density is with a single, overall sound of the orchestra. All the moving parts and all of those voices are synthesized into a single symphonic voice.
TB We’ve talked about this a lot, and that is, honestly, the best way to describe it. The things that are interesting are the sounds and the threads that create each sound; that is the orchestration, not the harmonic or necessarily rhythmic elements.
BV When I combine a lot of synthesized voices together, I find that I need to reduce the complexity of each existing voice for each new voice that I add, so there’s clarity in how they function together.
TB You’re laying the golden egg right now! To do something dense and electronic, that borrows from a more traditional, orchestral way of writing, perhaps means using sounds that are simpler, even stupidly simple, against sounds that are maybe more complicated. That’s the answer.
BV But that’s already totally at play in HIVE. There’s so much complexity in the synthesized and sampled material you created that one can hear a single voice come back again and again, and enjoy it each time. And you want to hear it come back because the listener is excavating a little more detail each time. This might have something to do with the tempo that the information is delivered at. Clarity is achieved partially in the willingness to slow the tempo of information. I really appreciate any kind of artistic engagement that prompts me to consider the tempo of receiving, decoding, and outputting.
TB It’s so funny, it all ties back into the era that we’re living in. Think about Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, it was such a seminal piece because it was so dense and busy, so layered and massive. It almost seemed like that was the thing that pushed people into the next era, but it also accelerated the velocity a bit. And now we’re in an era where we’re saying, “Whoa, slow down a little.” I think that, on a mainstream-conscious level of art, this might have started with minimalism, with Reich or Glass. Suddenly the avant-garde went retrograde and started spinning backward and saying, “Okay, well we went up that slope, let’s go the other way.” It’s weird that now, there is no stigma whatsoever, and everything is completely accepted. You could have a death-metal band opening for a folksinger, and people would be like, “Oh well, it’s the era we live in.” So we’ve assimilated all of those things.
There was an article that someone wrote about the “New” New York New School a couple years ago. And they lumped me into this group of composers and they said, “This New School is interesting, but they have nothing to react against like they did in earlier times.” It’s a little heavy-handed, but I think there are areas of it that are true.
BV It’s saying that the battle for arhythmic composition has been won, the battle for dissonance has been won, the battle for noise has been won.
TB The battle has been won—there’s no dogma or school of thought right now that will challenge someone. If there’s something unheard of, it might be fought against, but it won’t cause a big ripple, because in the end we will accept it. We are the generation of acceptance; no matter what it is, we will eventually agree to it. We’re overstimulated, we’re cynical, and we’re down for whatever. So what do you do inside of that? We are in this wide-open practice space right now—it’s taken me so long to do stuff, because I have too many options. There’re so many things that I can do, and it’s all good.
BV So much of what we do is inputting content and curating that material. It is about making choices about content as much as it is about producing content.
TB Which is great, so how do you define your parameters, where you’re reflecting the world you live in and also adding something to it that isn’t superfluous?
BV And can you make this the conceptual or theoretical undergirding for a composition?
TB Absolutely, but maybe once you’re further down this road you stop asking yourself those questions and you just do what you do. I don’t know.
BV It’s the opposite, at least for me, because as I’ve changed my modes of production a number of times over the past fifteen years, what I’ve realized is that, no matter what kind of ensemble, or instrumentation, or methods, or systems I’m composing for, I would always arrive at very similar end results, formally. And, because of that, the trajectory of the learning curve and the end of the experiment was always the same, where I’d feel, Now I need to move on to another set of instruments or type of ensemble. What I found with electronic music is that I was applying a lot of the same decision-making to it, and I realized that I had to complicate those decisions by bringing in more conceptual ideas to the foundation of a piece.
TB What do you mean when you say you “had to” do that?
BV I didn’t want to use these new tools to simply make the same formal decisions I had made in the past, in terms of the trajectory and shape of a piece. Finding new ways of setting formal parameters means asking new questions; this becomes the challenge. I trust my aesthetic decisions; what I don’t always trust are my formal decisions.
TB This is the same thing I’m struggling with right now. I’ll have eureka moments when relinquishing control to generative systems and algorithmic compositional methods, and then suddenly I’ll start to get the fear, like if this is where you can go, why not have the fucking computer write the whole thing. You’re not too far away from that. But then the guiding light, the thing that makes me happy at the end of the day is this: I love the human expression. You can’t get that with the machine. There was an article in the Huffington Post about people who are inputting Bach fugues into a computer. The computer is able to regenerate Bach fugues, but it can’t fuck up. I mean, you can always program a fuck-up, but there’s a special kind of fuck-up that only a human can make. These generative computer programs are all great tools for me to use, but at the end of the day, I’m still relying on the human decision-making. I’m glad to still be excited about things being imperfect.
BV And it’s the fuck-up that forms the crack, and it’s in those cracks that we start to discover that we are able to wiggle through and move forward in our own personal practices. If you’re going in to start a new composition, and you already know all the answers, why are you making that composition? I think this is true for you, me, and a lot of people we know—the unknown is inspiring. I mean, that’s a cliché, but—
TB —no, it’s totally true. It is something worth saying because we live in a world of a very formulaic method of making music, even some of that generative stuff is formulaic.
BV And it’s decades old.
TB It’s decades old and it’s completely demystified, in some ways. It’s mysterious at first when you haven’t done it. But then I could have a generative piece for you right now in three minutes, you want one? (laughter) So that’s a very demystified process. And I agree, at the end of the day, I think we’re doing this because we still have that boyish excitement of “What’s behind the curtain?” In that artistic exploration you’re also exploring yourself, it’s the human experience. That’s what I still search for inside of these machines.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.