Just five or six years ago, a Tyondai Braxton concert might have been simply the performer sitting alone onstage, surrounded by instruments and various looping and delay technologies, fashioning solitary symphonies.
On March 4 at Walker Art Center, Braxton will have considerably more company -- as many as 30 musicians -- assisting him for the world premiere of "Central Market," his dizzyingly ambitious studio album inspired by the ballets of Igor Stravinsky, the film scores of Bernard Herrmann and a raft of other influences.
"It is so great to look back at the composers I admire, at this whole contoured history of classical music, and mix it and mold into this subtle balancing -- I just find it very exciting," Braxton said with a mix of genuine excitement and guileless humility that makes it easy to root for his success. "Anything that is real and organic and that takes the past and redefines it into something new is what interests me -- I am a satellite that way."
As we spoke by phone, Braxton was at his Brooklyn home, engulfed in the process of transforming "Central Market" from the studio to the stage. After the Walker performance, he and his huge ensemble, many of them members of the NYC-based classical group the Wordless Music Orchestra, will reprise the work at Lincoln Center in New York and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Braxton recorded much of the album by himself, so "this will be totally different," he said. "I've had about eight rehearsals with the different core members of the ensemble -- sometimes up to 14 people. I really love working like this; it is really exciting and a real shock. But for music of this scope, I've never done anything as big as this."
A 'party trick' grown up
It is a long way from the days when Braxton, now 32, would sit in his room, playing with electronic equipment.
"I remember finding out if I pushed the feedback on the delay pedal to the max it wouldn't fade out, so I could do things that were contrapuntal," he said. "At first it was like a party trick while hanging out in my room, but then I saw the potential to be able to replicate and emulate larger ensembles."
A series of solo performances and recordings followed. Later, Braxton co-founded the alternative prog-rock quartet Battles, with the drummer from Helmet and two other genre luminaries. Their 2007 record, "Mirrored," made many critics' top 10 lists and still provides Braxton with his highest musical profile. He recently left the group to pursue more orchestral projects along the lines of "Central Market."
Yet the most abiding among Braxton's many musical influences is his father, renowned avant-garde jazz composer and musician Anthony Braxton, who once wrote and recorded a piece for 160 musicians.
"Yeah, watching my father being enthralled by this world he was building -- because it was beyond music; it was his philosophy and his lifestyle -- was so intoxicating that of course I was taken by it," he said. "Naturally, I spent my 20s going my own way. I got into rock and pop music because I loved that music. But when I realized I had to be serious about finding myself, his influence was incalculable.
"It is like any family business model in a way, because I took a look back and suddenly realized I was in love with a lot of the things I grew up with. It was like, 'Wow, I really do love large-scale orchestra pieces.' But I think my thing is to take all that I love and find ways to bridge the gaps."