Monday, April 1, experimental musician Tyondai Braxton gave a live performance in Commonwealth Auditorium. Braxton is this year’s Class of 1939 Maurine Stuart Dulin Artist-in-Residence for the music department.
Braxton was a founding member of experimental rock group, Battles, which he left in 2010 after touring-plans conflicted with Braxton’s commitments as a solo artist. While Braxton was with Battles, the band gained critical acclaim for their 2007 album, “Mirrored.” Braxton is a graduate of the Hartt School of performing arts within the University of Hartford in Connecticut, where he studied composition.
Braxton visited the College last semester and held a synthesizer workshop for music students as part of the modular synthesis contemporary music theory course.
The artist-in-residence fund rotates among the departments of music, English, art and art history, theater, speech, and dance. This year the music department is splitting the fund between Braxton and Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, a prolific African-American composer and former member of acclaimed a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Braxton was invited to the College of William and Mary and to the artist-in-residency position by music professor and musician, David Dominique. Dominique was already familiar with Braxton’s work and thought that he would be the perfect guest for the College’s music students.
“I wanted to bring someone who is a master of modular synthesizers, because at the college we’ve acquired several recently,” Dominique said. “And I’m teaching modular synthesis in a few classes – one in the music department and another new Coll 100 I’m working on. And so as a part of that initiative, I wanted to bring someone who’s a really interesting composer but uses modular synthesis as a primary tool.”
After a short introduction by Dominique, Braxton wordlessly entered the stage to the lone table of gears and began.
A low hum filled the auditorium, growing louder and wavering until it morphed into warbling whistles and thumping bass. Soon, the music was accompanied by surreal, electronic visuals projected on the massive screen on stage, engulfing Braxton behind the synthesizer.
For the next 45 minutes, Braxton took the audience on a journey through a surreal, electronic soundscape.
Audience members attended the performance for a variety of reasons and came away with a multitude of conclusions.
“I appreciate that a lot of time and effort went into it, but I guess I don’t understand it, and my ears hurt a little,” Christopher Lee ’21 said.
“The best way I could put it is that the last music thing I listened to was the Mitski concert in here, and I feel like this was a bit of the complete opposite,” Cody Hammock ’20 said.
Both Hammock and Lee had been brought to the performance by their friend Finn Mayhew ’21.
“This is the first electronic concert I’ve been to,” Mayhew said. “Ty Braxton spoke at our composition class last semester, which is why I’m here, because I just thought that he was really cool, and I liked the music he shared in that class … I had a lot of fun. I normally don’t like very loud concerts, but I loved this, I don’t know why.”
Several music students in attendance commented on the importance of Braxton’s work not only for themselves but for the College community.
“I think that this kind of music definitely tends to broaden your horizons,” Allison Greenday ’19 said. “With the Western music canon we’re always kind of attuned to ‘this is music, and nothing else outside of that,’ whereas with a concert like this, you’re kind of forced to reconsider how you think of music and what you think of as musical because you hear something that sounds really cool, that you’re not used to thinking of as music.”
“It’s really great to have a place to showcase these more tech-oriented music-type things because we are the only school on the East Coast that’s not a music school that offers anything like this,” Shana Merker ’19 said. “As a musician myself who was kind of swamped by the classical, western structure of things and the classical western hierarchies, being able to let loose and really immerse yourself in the sound like Ty does is something you really can’t find very often.”
These sentiments were echoed by Dominique.
“We’re here in Williamsburg, and there aren’t necessarily a ton of opportunities to see avant garde music or adventurous music … so I think it’s really good for the students to get exposure to a world class artist that’s been living in Brooklyn for many years,” Dominique said.
Afterwards, several audience members stayed behind for a chance to speak to Braxton, who welcomed people to come on stage and get a close look at his synthesizer board.
Braxton explained that the visuals playing during the show were created in collaboration with his wife, Grace Villamil, a visual artist. He took a moment to express how the visuals interacted with his live performance of the music.
“It’s kind of rubbery, there’s no real set cue for where I am, it’s adrift,” Braxton said. “I’m paying attention every now and then to where it is, so I’m not syncing up hard to a hard down beat or a hard marker or something, but I kind of know in and around where things are, so what that gives you is the opportunity to have things seemingly be in sync, seemingly be symbiotic but also have the lack of relationship that’s kind of going back and forth so it seems organic.”
Braxton hoped that the audience enjoyed and found meaning in his performance.
“It’s the kind of show that’s just kind of an experience; it’s less about a particular song or something like that; its kind of an overall journey,” Braxton said. “There’s a lot of attention paid to the sound design as well as the composition, so there’s a lot of ear candy throughout, and just the joy of traversing through a landscape like that is fun.”