Braxton was in Battles, but he was neither the "leader" nor the "frontman." They sound better now without him, and Hive just sounds pretentious.
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Tyondai Braxton has never lacked for ambition. The former Battles frontman, who in recent years has collaborated with such luminaries as Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet, has always had an eye for the big idea. However, his latest high-concept project, an installation/performance piece called HIVE that premieres at the Guggenheim on March 21, revolves around an idea he never saw coming.
When Braxton first moved to New York in the early 2000s, he could mostly be found playing smaller basement shows, where he would sit on the floor, working with guitar pedals and a whole variety of other instruments. "When people started coming to the shows, you couldn't see what I was doing" he says. "I was obscuring [the work]."
One older member of these early Brooklyn crowds thought the position that Braxton was forced into was particularly unjust. "He was sprawled out on the floor," says 66-year-old Danish carpenter and architect Uffe Surland Van Tams. "I just thought that he could use a little more dignity, and that he could be seen by more people. His music was experimental and artistic on top of being very good and I felt that he could stand having a visual artistic component as well."
At first, Braxton didn't think much of it. "I was like, 'yeah sure, that's great,' " he says. "And the very next show, he came and handed me an AutoCAD schematic that he proposed to build, and it was these pods."
The pods in question, of Van Tams's design, are the structure upon which HIVE is built. They are beautiful, intricate creations, with a latticed, honeycomb pattern adorning their walls and a flat surface atop which the musicians can sit comfortably. Their science-fiction appearance vibes well with Braxton's digital toolkit, with loopers and sequencers amassed all over the pod's gleaming surface.
Upon first glance, the pods appear metallic. They're not. "[Van Tams] takes these AutoCAD schematics and has a CNC router draft the wood, and it does not look like wood," says Braxton.
Braxton uses the surprising complexity of the pods as a metaphor for the HIVE performance. He says that, just as there's a lot going on with the pods that isn't visible to the naked eye, the collaboration between the five musicians present (Braxton will be playing with multi-instrumentalist Ben Vida, and the percussionists Yuri Yamashita, Jared Soldiviero, and John Ostrowski) will be more complicated than Guggenheim visitors might initially perceive it to be.
That complexity is characteristic of Braxton's work. As the leader of Battles, he was adored for creating dense, interwoven digital-age music that had the vital energy and organic feeling of old-school jam sessions. His solo work has been just as impressive. His most recent album, Central Market, is a grandiose romp through innumerable moods and tones, backed by the Wordless Music Orchestra, the house band of the Wordless Music organization, which puts on shows with acts like Jeff Mangum and the Dirty Projectors. HIVE is presented by the organization in conjunction with the Guggenheim's works and process department.
HIVE incorporates many of the musical elements that Braxton has always favored—collaboration, experimentation, density—and it presents some new elements to confound museumgoers, most of which have to do with the piece's dual function as installation and live act.
"I'm really excited," says Braxton.
Van Tams will be there to help enjoy the environment that he helped to create. The carpenter, a proud New Yorker for the majority of his life, plans to attend HIVE's premiere, making his way up to the city from his current home in Athens, Georgia, "bringing a mob" along with him.
His involvement with Braxton, which stemmed entirely from his concern for the talented musician stuck on the concrete floor, has been very rewarding. "It's one of the few times in my life that altruism has directly paid off . . . and that was very touching. It was wonderful."
Tyondai Braxton's HIVE premieres at the Guggenheim Rotunda Thursday, March 21, at 7 p.m.