Tyondai Braxton on crossing genres, and the ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ festival at BAM

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Tyondai Braxton. ()
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Earlier this spring, I spotted the musician and composer Tyondai Braxton in the crowd at the “American Mavericks” festival at Carnegie Hall.

That night, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony gave the local premiere of a new piece by John Adams, in addition to Edgard Varese’s “Ameriques,” as well as selections from John Cage’s “Song Books,” with the help of vocalists Jessye Norman, Meredith Monk, and Joan La Barbara. (Braxton didn't perform in the festival but he did contribute a playlist to WQXR's sideline celebration of "Mavericks.")

“That was great,” Braxton told me afterward. “I really love the new Adams piece—and of course one of my favorite pieces of all time is ‘Ameriques.’”

(While Braxton didn't perform in "Mavericks," he did contribute a playlist to WQXR's radio accompaniment to the festival.)

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But something about the chance elements of the Cage songs seemed to speak directly to his current preparations for “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” a new three-day music festival named after the poem by Walt Whitman.

When Whitman first wrote it in 1856, cultural distinctions between an outer-borough identity and the “Manhattanese” referenced in his poem were probably starker than they are at present.

Starting today and running through Saturday, the indie-rock group The National will curate a series of performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—and in doing so, draw together a program that would do just fine on either side of the water. Different nights will see headliners like St. Vincent (who has a ripping new single out that sounds as though it was influenced by her widely praised Big Black covers in 2011), Beirut and The Walkmen.

Even the “new music” classical ensembles that have been chosen to give the festival some cross-genre heft—the JACK Quartet, yMusic, and Sō Percussion—are ones that any long-haired Manhattanite would recognize from Zankel Hall, Merkin Hall, Miller Theater or Le Poisson Rouge. And while it’s useful for consumers and musicians alike to have a citywide infrastructure that can support both a composer like Missy Mazzoli as well as a band like Buke and Gase (who also have a new single out), it can also, at times, feel rather exquisitely figured out before you get to the show. Or, put another way, precisely un-Whitman-like in its sense of being a matter of minds already settled, rather than engaged with in an active process of collective self-discovery.

Braxton, though, isn’t in a totally figured-out place—nor does he report any pressure or hurry to get there. When he up and quit from the well-loved and successful “math-rock” band Battles in 2010, there was an ambient sense in the musical community he was being pretty brave, leaving a successful concern in order to focus on his compositions. And he’s taken his time following up his impressive 2009 solo effort for Warp Records, “Central Market.”

“I’m working on some new stuff right now,” Braxton said in a phone interview with Capital late last week as he prepared his set for Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. “I’m hoping it’ll be finished by the fall and it’ll either be released by the end of this year or early next year. … It takes a lot of time, unfortunately.”

Part of the reason it takes so much time is that Braxton is thinking his way through an unusually large number of musical practices. Whereas many genre-blending artists pick a spot between practices and keep hitting it, Braxton keeps hopping from one in-between location to another (rather like the speaker in Whitman’s poem).

Last weekend at Lincoln Center, the Bang On A Can All-Stars played a new notated piece of Braxton’s titled “Casino Trem,” which features field recordings the composer captured at a new casino in Queens. The major-key arpeggios of the slot machines on the pre-recorded track sounded like some of the programmed material in “Central Market,” but the writing for the human performers was something beyond what you’d hear anywhere else in Braxton’s available discography. While still driven by wild oscillations, the instrumental parts were less thumping and aggressive than are common in Braxton's other solo and group projects. (“Casino Trem” is actually one half of a two-movement work that the All-Stars will present down the road.)

And Braxton’s Friday night set at “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” will be totally different from that notated work—or even from his “Central Market” material. “It’ll definitely be new stuff,” he said of the (at the time) still in-process setlist. “The last thing I did [when playing solo] in New York was ‘Central Market.’ That’s really my composed, fleshed-out stuff. The next thing to do is going to be a little more fragmented, and have its roots a little more in improvisation. To be honest, I’m still kind of piecing together what it is.”

“My [composing] process has kind of changed in a couple ways,” he said. “Whether it be improvising with my guitar pedals or scoring straight to page, there’s a bunch of different methods that spark a surprise in you, if you let them. … And you can’t speak about incorporating improvisation without speaking about Cage. He was the master … and it’s liberating in a lot of ways to work like that. I wouldn’t want to just do improvisation, but I also want to be able to be free enough to not be beholden to something structurally solid every time.”

Precisely because we can’t hear the outputs of Braxton’s evolution just yet on any program for an “American Mavericks” festival at Carnegie Hall, his inclusion at BAM this weekend provides a couple of services. His performance will be a welcome treat for fans, naturally. And at the deeper, conceptual level, his music—and the specific manner in which he’s working toward defining it—should also provide some real justification for the "crossing" in the festival's name.