Composer-rocker Tyondai Braxton breaks out kazoos, bends genres

BOUNDLESS: Tyondai Braxton, famous for mixing disparate sounds, performed at the Library of Congress on Thursday.
BOUNDLESS: Tyondai Braxton, famous for mixing disparate sounds, performed at the Library of Congress on Thursday. (Josh Sisk)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 12, 2011

Tyondai Braxton is a bit of an anomaly - a musician whose work sounds as good at world-class concert halls as it does at a punk-rock basement show. Thursday night at the Library of Congress, the New York City-based composer, joined by the Wordless Music Orchestra, performed a series of works drawn from his 2009 album, "Central Market."

The conductor, Caleb Burhans, wore black fingernail polish. There were adventurous hairdos and giant amplifiers. Kazoos buzzed, and a laptop belched sine waves. But for all of the wild gestures, it was the tiny, unintentionally audible, click-clack of guitar pedals that spoke most directly to Braxton's far-out vision of orchestral music.

Before he had a 30-piece backing band, Braxton relied heavily on guitar pedals - loop boxes, mainly - to generate an orchestra's worth of sound on his own. But rather than stacking static melodies, Braxton used the technology to generate off-kilter rhythms and topsy-turvy harmonies.

On "Central Market," the loop pedals, at least, are gone. But the herky-jerky style he stumbled onto is still present in compositions such as "Uffe's Woodshop" and "The Duck and the Butcher."

It's a singular style, one that Braxton has worked hard to cultivate. He studied music at the University of Hartford's Hartt School and, until last year, performed in the post-rock supergroup Battles. Part of it might just be in his DNA, though. He's the son of composer/improviser Anthony Braxton.

But Braxton's music has little in common with his father's. For all the weirdness, he's a pop guy at heart. And his real talent is for synthesis - he's highly adept at melding disparate genres. The evening's centerpiece, the 10-minute "Platinum Rows," took nods from Debussy along with contemporary underground noiseniks such as Black Dice.

The program - which also included a performance of John Adams's "Road Movies," Burhans's "In a Distant Place" and Louis Andriessen's "Workers Union" - was meant to convey the scope of Braxton's influences. The first two were relatively delicate. The third, bludgeoning and dissonant. Somewhere in between, you get "Central Market."

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