- By Nomo michael hoefner via Wikimedia Commons
As Tyondai Braxton stood onstage at PSU’s Lincoln Hall Sunday night, conjuring long strings of squeaks, blurbles, and rough-hewn beats out of a box of Eurorack synths, a nonstop stream of dry ice smoke billowed and drifted behind him. It was as if the 36-year-old composer and musician were perched on the edge of an angry volcano, using the electronic wizardry at his disposal to appease whatever gods were threatening to make it erupt.
It was a delicate operation. Braxton carefully nudged aside the yellow and red cables connecting his noisemakers to gently twist knobs, tap out a rhythm, or unleash a swell of bass-heavy volume on the 300 or so folks scattered around the auditorium-style seating. At times he would nod his head in time with the syncopation, but his arms and hands moved with a flowy deliberation. He seemed to know exactly what was coming next, even when the music sounded as formless and ungraspable as the clouds that slowly undulated toward the ceiling.
Though in the TBA description, the evening was said to feature pieces from Braxton’s most recent album HIVE1, the work he created Sunday night felt even less structured. On the LP, a track like “Amlochey” trundles forward, propelled by a twitching electro beat, and “Scout1” takes off from the drum ‘n’ bass ascendent work of Autechre. What rhythms he found during his live performance were let loose for a brief moment before he quickly made them fade into the distance. It felt more akin to early electronic music pioneers like Morton Subotnick and the duo of Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley, bringing alive the playful possibilities of their experiments in tape loops, modulation, and wave generation.
The effect was a feeling of restlessness among the audience. At least that’s how it seemed from where I was sitting. Both myself and the gent sitting to my right couldn’t seem to sit still. The music left him holding his head in his hands and trying to relax the tense muscles in his upper body. I felt it most in my lower extremities. I crossed and uncrossed my legs, stretched them over the empty seat in front of me, and curled my toes incessantly. Not my usual behavior at a live performance, but what else could I do? The hard panned squiggles and lightning strikes of pings and reports shot right to my central nervous system.
Braxton has said that his work with synths that culminated in HIVE1 was, in part, his commentary on how technology speaks to and interacts with other technology. And I think his intention is to speak to how these sounds are speaking to listeners as well. Like most modern electronic composition of this kind, it’s meant to stimulate other parts of the brain, possibly resulting in the audience twitching and tensing as I did. Most importantly, it keeps your attention directed at it, you can’t get lost in undulating waves of bills or steady beats. You are meant to reckon with the discordance and the beauty within each spark and pop coming out of the speakers. For this reporter, outside of my slight bodily distress, the feeling was one of strange bliss and a desire to nudge Braxton aside and see what kind of racket I could make.