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LIVE REPORT: Tyondai Braxton
Josh Hall , October 29th, 2012 13:43

At Ether Festival, the former Battles frontman's performance alongside the London Sinfonietta of his cartoonish opus Central Market, writes Josh Hall, demonstrates the depth and variability of Braxton's work

Photo by Grace Villamil

I wouldn't be surprised if Tyondai Braxton is bored of Central Market. The record, now almost four years old, was released to much fanfare and an expertly crafted PR campaign – and then Braxton dipped below the parapet again, emerging only occasionally to remix Philip Glass or perform with The Wordless Orchestra.

Like a sharp-edged Looney Tunes soundtrack, unfolding by ever more deranged degrees, the excellent album helped to bridge the rapidly diminishing gap between contemporary classical and 'avant' rock. In a live setting, that gap contracts even further. The most striking element of this new, subtly different arrangement of Central Market, presented with the London Sinfionetta, is the interplay between acoustic and electric or electronic. The Sinfonietta's strings provide the nexus points around which an intricate ziggurat is constructed, synthesised layers sitting atop human voices, horsehair bows scraping around sequenced filigree.

Stage left, Braxton leads a small battalion of electric guitars from which are wrought tones quite unlike those we have come to expect from that blighted instrument. There is no noodling. Instead the sounds are weighty, physical; tangible, jagged blocks piston-pumped into the landscape – a landscape 'uncanny' in the strictest sense; unsettlingly close to that with which we are familiar, but with odd, eerie edges.

The guitars lend the proceedings something of a salvage punk aesthetic. There is a sense of the metallic throughout; a feeling similar to a wander through the endless breaker's yard of some mechanised future, in endless collapse. This is somatic music, designed not only to be felt but also to illustrate how it would feel, physically, to inhabit the bleakly cartoon-esque world Braxton has constructed.

But that is not to say that it is without humour. Much of Central Market's charm is in its acute self-awareness. The record is suffused with irony, from its comedy spring noises to its frequent melodic tumbles, onomatopoeic for an animated critter falling off a cliff. Here that humour is given fuller voice, an extra layer of in-joke contentment provided by the obvious pleasure given to the musicians by the strange interplay between synthesised and 'natural' instruments – a strangeness to which the rascally smiles of the string players attest.

But despite the dense, idea-rich arrangement, the evening's most impressive moments are lacks – absences that Braxton and the Sinfonietta could easily have filled, unnecessarily. This is not the work of a 'rock' musician trying to crowbar old content into a new form. Despite the overdriven guitars, and despite the occasional 4/4 snare crescendo, Central Market manages to avoid rockism almost entirely – a feat to which Bryce Dessner, National member and composer of an almost absurdly unimaginative piece played by the Sinfionetta earlier in the evening, would do well to pay attention.

Earlier this year Bang On A Can performed a new Braxton piece at the Barbican. 'Casino Trem' is very much a continuation of Central Market, cartoon aesthetic intact. At the time this seemed disappointing; why hadn't he moved on? Tonight, though, this new setting illustrated the depth of the composer's work, and its many potential variations – permutations of which Braxton could explore for many years yet.