Tyondai Braxton with the Wordless Music Orchestra
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center
Monday, March 7
Better Than: Watching Fantasia alone in the dark on a Monday night
Tyondai Braxton’s 2009 solo record Central Market rightfully calls for an “orchestral” tag, but compared to last night’s highly cinematic 31-piece execution with the Wordless Music Orchestra, the disc version sounds flatter, like computers or toy instruments. If that sounds like a convoluted compliment, hear me out: The work of the ex-Battles frontman could have been fully realized nowhere but a place like the Upper West Side’s Alice Tully Hallk, where, last night, the 32-year-old made his Lincoln Center debut at the Tully Scope Festival, fleshing out the record’s eccentricities with nuanced flute, horn and trumpet bits, soaring strings, piano, synthesizers and more, adding an unimaginable dimension to an album that already sounds massive and weird through headphones.
Braxton immediately stuck out onstage with his fro-hair, blue windbreaker, and white sneakers; he played electric guitar alongside five others, including Parts and Labor’s Dan Friel and ex-Zs guitarist Charlie Looker. (That made the guitar section bigger than the violin section.) Conductor Caleb Burhans, sporting a small faux-hawk, moved the ensemble through expansions of Central Market, minus its sixth track, the rock-oriented “J. City.” The record’s epic 10-minute centerpiece, “Platinum Rows,” was saved for last. “Opening Bell” and the noisy “Uffe’s Woodshop” were theatrical and frenetic openers — as WNYC’s John Schaefer pointed out in an after-show forum, the dual kazoo parts, whistles, and percussive vox (like on “The Duck and the Butcher”) added a smart Zappa-like playfulness, which seemed even bolder at Lincoln Center. Hard to say whether the performance was more Warp or Walt Disney.
When the dark electronic dirges of “Unfurling” and “Dead Strings” filled the room, the horror-film eeriness was a reminder of what an off-kilter fit Braxton’s music was for the space. Juxtaposed by the laser-y electronics, abrasive industrial noise, and droning synths, the woodwinds and strings added an organic starkness to the songs’ next-dimension atmospherics. Those suspenseful tracks — putting slippery violins over piercing screeches and heavy riffs, building to the set’s most cinematic point — close out Central Market, but were here followed by the massive crescendo of “Platinum Rows,” which ended the performance on a springy, optimistic note, undoubtedly the most Fantasia-esque moment of all.
Braxton’s compositions were prefaced by equally intense opening performances from members of the Wordless Music Orchestra: Violinist Yuki Numata performed Adams’ Road Movies first, accompanied by pianist James Johnson, with a frenetic intensity that almost insured she’d pop a bow string or two. (Later on, she did.) At one point, the dude next to me — with thin, round glasses and a bun of grey hair directly on top of his head — shut his eyes for a long while, cutting off one sense to heighten the others.
With the set’s symphonic weirdness, it was easy to forgo thoughts of the arty, older Lincoln Center audience and their $13 glasses of pre-show Babich Pinot Noir. I could count on one hand the hoodied twentysomethings who looked like they could just as easily be at a Battles show, myself included. Instead, Braxton and co. performed for a theater packed with a fair amount of well-dressed blank/entranced stares and chin-scratchers, older dudes in turtlenecks and suit jackets with actually nerdy glasses, fashionable scarves, and smart-looking pencils-behind-the-ear. There were a healthy amount of young people donning cargo pants and cabdriver hats, perhaps Julliard geeks from around the corner — all directed to their seats by bros with suits and bow ties reminding everyone not to take photos or cough during the show.
The post-show discussion with Braxton, Schaefer, conductor Caleb Burhans, and Wordless Music founder Ronen Givony mostly touched on 21st-century orchestras, the upcoming Battles record (which Braxton hasn’t heard), and the state of music in New York. “‘Post-rock’ and ‘experimental music,’ what does that even mean anymore?” Braxton asked Schaefer, who responded, “It means you get to play Lincoln Center.”
Critical Bias: I’m a Warp devotee and play releases from the label on my radio show every week. I played a track from Central Market the week it came out in 2009, in between tracks by Smith Westerns and Ducktails. Also, Starr Theater felt like a space ship to me.
Overheard: “Of course it’s not my first Tully show!” said the short man in a black turtleneck and suit jacket with Woody Allen specs and last week’s New Yorker in hand.
Random Notebook Dump: I am the only person here wearing combat boots. OMG Björk IRL; OMG David Byrne IRL. Alice Tully Hall is the new zone. “If you look in our iPods, I think they’re not very genre-specific,” Tyondai said. “I don’t think that exists any more.”
The Duck and the Butcher