When you watch the video for Battles’ mid-aughts math-rock opus “Atlas,” the first thing you notice is lead singer and guitarist Tyondai Braxton’s hyperactivity. He’s trapped inside a floating glass box with the rest of the band, but he looks like he’s itching to escape: He rocks back and forth, sings like a chipmunk into a microphone and flings his guitar over his back to play with the laptop and synths in front of him. He’s energetic. He’s frantic. He’s possibly unhinged.
Compare that to the calm, almost Zen-like figure playing the Guggenheim on Thursday night: Premiering his newest post-Battles composition, “HIVE,” a multimedia performance piece that combines modular synthesizers, laptops and percussion with architectural installations and flashing lights, Braxton sat in front of his equipment with his legs crossed, only using his voice to thank the audience and introduce the other performers at the end. Since leaving Battles in 2010, Braxton has made a name for himself not as a singer but as a composer, premiering his second album, Central Market, at Lincoln Center with the Wordless Music Orchestra and collaborating with esteemed figures like Philip Glass. In many ways, he’s abandoned the rock band path for a creative life that bears some similarities to that of his father, the iconic avant-garde composer Anthony Braxton.
That leap in ambition was apparent as soon as I walked into the gaping rotunda of the Guggenheim. At one end of the museum there were five pods designed by Danish architect and carpenter Uffe Surland Van Tams, each arranged with instruments. While the base of each pod resembled a sci-fi version of an IKEA table, the tops allowed space for the performers to position their instruments in circles, mimicking the round structure of the building itself. This is what they looked like from above:
Pretty futuristic. There was a tangible air of anticipation as Braxton, synth-noodle-er Ben Vida and percussionists Yuri Yamashita, Jared Soldiviero and John Ostrowski took their places atop each pod. What exactly would “HIVE” sound like? The piece began with Braxton summoning Skittle burps and rainbow spurts from his equipment, but soon the drummers began adding a rhythmic backbone to the piece, upping the energy level and quieting some of the chatter in the room. Far from the snarled intensity of Battles, the sounds and textures explored occasionally resembled fellow Guggenheim performers Animal Collective’s synth-speckled drum-circle hymnals, but Braxton’s mischievous sensibility gave the proceedings a more exploratory edge. Some of the darker synth work sounded like birds shrieking or a spaceship crashing into the moon, but there were lighter moments too: One section sounded like a squishy ball bouncing down some digital stairs.
Though certain sections of the composition were clearly driven by impulse, this was far from a jam session. I could see percussionists flipping the pages of (presumably) sheet music, and Braxton was sending subtle signals to the other performers throughout the set: head nods, shared glances, slight hand movements. At one point Braxton let a particularly loud drone fade away to near silence, and it was obvious the crowd wasn’t sure how to respond. Clap? Observe? Loudly yell “Whooo”? Braxton let the moment linger before diving back into a pulverizing zipper-like drone that was soon accompanied by some militaristic drumming. I spent much of the piece waiting for patterns to emerge, especially in the slightly meandering middle section, but Braxton seemed far more interested in digressions and disruptions. He may look calmer, but he’s still hyperactive at heart.
The piece ended with a quaking blast of noise, the percussionists pounding away, the LED lights flashing beneath each pod, as if the table-like structures might levitate and soar to the top of the Guggenheim. In that trance-like moment, it felt like all of Braxton’s interests—the pulse of electronic dance music, the immensity of post-rock, the freedom of the art world—combined into one powerful sound. It took a while to get there, but it was worth the journey, and it showed why Braxton continues to be one of the most exciting voices in contemporary music—even if he’s not singing anymore.
All photos by Emily Korn.