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Surrender to the Situation, Part 1: Oren Ambarchi & Tyondai Braxton Images, Video & Text By Ivan Weiss

Author's Note: This is the first installment of “Surrender to the Situation,” which interweaves a train journey from North Carolina to New York with footage from Tyondai Braxton’s HIVE installation and a pair of shows by Australian musician Oren Ambarchi in June of 2015. This article was originally included in "Big, Bent Ears: a serial in documentary uncertainty," published in 2016 in The Paris Review Daily.

Check out Part 2: Ensemble Virtuosity and Part 3: In Motion.

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Aboard the 80 Carolinian.

AT THE BIG EARS FESTIVAL in March of 2014, I almost didn’t meet Oren Ambarchi. On the eve of his 30-plus-hour trip from Melbourne to Knoxville, his visa request was rejected. The North American premier of his sound trio Nazoranai (with Keiji Haino and Stephen O’Malley) almost didn’t take place. At the last moment, the visa came through. Rumor has it, it took an act of Congress, or an act of God.

I met Tyondai Braxton at Big Ears a year later, where his installation HIVE ran for three nights. Originally, it was to be housed in the Knoxville Museum of Art, but a week before the festival, Braxton saw the space: windows everywhere, it was too bright; HIVE requires a cavernous atmosphere. Braxton’s manager, Brian Hultgren, took a deep breath and called Big Ears director Ashley Capps. Although it would upend the festival’s lineup, Capps didn’t flinch—he relocated HIVE to another venue, an old factory now called the Standard, which overlooks the city’s central train tracks.

As the dust settled on Big Ears 2015, I learned that both Ambarchi and Braxton—who don’t seem to know one another—had shows in New York in June. Was it chance or fate? Inspired by the train tracks in Knoxville, I jumped on Amtrak—the 80 Carolinian—from Durham to Penn Station. The final three chapters of Big, Bent Ears comprise my experiences with Braxton, Ambarchi, their collaborators, and even the train itself.

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Ambarchi prepares for his set at Pioneer Works as members of Little Black Egg Big Band sound check in the background.

ON JUNE 28, ISSUE Project Room, a nonprofit that brings a wide variety of experimental music to New York, put on a concert at Pioneer Works, a factory-turned-artist-center in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The space is soaring, cathedral-like. It was a cool summer night, and people chatted in the garden outside. Around sunset, Ambarchi, the opening act, went onstage. He sat at a small table overwhelmed by wires and electronic gear and cradled a beat-up electric guitar. Despite the elaborate assemblage of equipment, he took up almost no space in the massive room.

The headlining act—a mix of musicians from indie-rock bands performing as Little Black Egg Big Band—came on an hour later. Their performance felt loose and casual, like an extended jam session in which anyone could participate. Ian Kaplan of Yo La Tengo played guitar sitting on the floor. The jazz-infused interplay contrasted with the austere, subtly shifting tones of the solo performance. I was filming from the second-floor balcony, where the difference in the audience’s reactions was striking. Throughout the opening set, the audience maintained a distance of about ten feet from the stage—drawn to the music but not daring to get too close. When Little Black Egg Big Band came on, that gap disappeared.

“I was opening for a popular rock band, and I knew the audience was primarily there for them,” Oren Ambarchi said the next day. “There’s always that thought at the beginning, where you hear the chatter and you think, Am I going to be pushing shit up hill? There may be only one person talking but it feels that the whole room’s talking. But the more I do this, the more I say to myself, Be patient. Be relaxed and try and get into the state where you can just do your thing, and hopefully people come to you.”

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Outside Wilson, N.C.

“WHEN I FIRST MOVED to New York, I was playing all these shows where I would sit on the floor,” Tyondai Braxton said. “A guy came up to me one day and said, ‘Man, every time I come to see you, I can’t see you. People stand in front of me, and it’s just sounds. Someone should build you a platform.’ I did another show maybe a month later, and the same guy showed up. His name was Uffe. I extended my hand to shake his, and he handed me schematics for a pod.”

Soon thereafter, Braxton got a grant to have Uffe construct a pod, and he proceeded to perform his solo shows on it. Years later he assembled a five-person ensemble for an ongoing installation he calls HIVE. It incorporates three live percussionists and two on electronics, including Braxton himself—all of whom sit perched atop Uffe’s pods. The project premiered at the Guggenheim Museum in 2013, and Braxton refined the music over the next two years. First and foremost a live experience, the project also resulted in an album, HIVE1, released on Nonesuch Records in March 2015.

Braxton with sound technician Richie Clarke, setting up for HIVE at the Kitchen.

For most of his life, Braxton has straddled the line between classical and rock. As a kid, he played clarinet. As a teenager, he picked up the electric guitar. In college, he studied classical composition. He played in the experimental rock band Battles for almost a decade. In 2008, he returned to solo work with an orchestral album, Central Market.

“In orchestral music, you have a level of nuance that’s important and very exciting, but the scale, the spectrum of dynamic power and intensity, is a lot more subdued. I do really love nuance. I want the music to go almost to nothing sometimes. I want negative space, but it doesn’t need to be relentless. One thing rock music gave me is a sense of having real power.

“Probably the best performance I’ve seen in the last four or five years was the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra do a piece by Edgard Varèse at Carnegie Hall. Varèse is my man, I just love this guy. They did ‘Amériques’—it’s for a 120-person orchestra—and they played it like they were at fucking CBGB’s. It was the last piece on the bill, and it made everything else sound so polite and dainty and refined.”

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ALTHOUGH HE IS BASED in Melbourne, Ambarchi spends most of his time bouncing around the world, performing composed or improvisational works alone or with an ever-changing roster of collaborators. “I’m traveling all the time,” he says. “I’m constantly going through security and customs, and carrying heavy stuff. It’s really exhausting, but it’s exhilarating, too. When I arrive in a new place and a different language, different cuisine, different people, I feel a new energy.

“And when I come home, I don’t know what to do with myself. On the one hand, I just want to become a hermit and be with my records and my family—be normal. But on the other hand, after a week or two, I feel like a fish out of water. I can’t sit still, I need to do something. So I end up recording all the time and making records. I want to keep creating and to keep that energy I have when I’m traveling. I get a lot of ideas on airplanes. From Australia to Europe, it’s thirty-five hours. So what are you going to do? I surrender to my situation.

“Once I was on a plane listening to Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’. I heard the string coda at the end. I was kind of falling asleep to it and thought, Why can’t I just hear this string coda for a long time? But then they’ll just fade the music away, at the moment you’re thinking, Why can’t that go on for half an hour? When I made the record Sagittarian Domain, the last section was totally inspired by that moment.”

Between stations.

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“I LOVE THE SOUNDS it makes,” Braxton said of the modular synth, the electronic instrument he plays in HIVE. “I love how watery and weird they are, and how hard it is to keep them stable. In the sixties, they called this thing an ‘electronic easel,’ and that’s an appropriate way to think about it. It’s a canvas, and you paint with sound.

“The detail I can get in orchestral music—I can’t get that in a machine like this. It’s temperamental, mercurial. There’s no way to corral your ideas unless you embrace the machine’s method. You have to surrender to it, which was really hard for me. How can you achieve the same level of detail with this that you do in a large orchestral work?

Audience members await HIVE. The Kitchen, in New York, June 6, 2015.

“I’ve been playing guitar since I was twelve, and after a while you play it and know it so well, and you only hear you playing it. You’re orbiting the same sounds every time. The mod synth is temperamental, mercurial. There’s no way to corral your ideas unless you embrace the machine’s method. You have to surrender to it. A question like ‘Should I go to an E chord now?’ doesn’t make any sense. You’re reconciling all these functions the machine is generating, and it makes this impossible, beautiful music. And then you pick up your guitar and go, Do do do—it’s like, Who gives a shit?”

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HIVE HAS BEEN PERFORMED thirteen times to date across eight venues, from the Guggenheim Museum in New York to the Mona Foma festival in Tasmania, the Sacrum Profanum Fest in Poland to Big Ears in Knoxville, and beyond. Every iteration has included Ben Vida sitting right beside Braxton.

Vida is an experimental musician who, according to Alexander Iadarola in The Quietus, “makes music that’s fun to imagine sending backwards in a time machine.” He’s built a reputation for his mod synth abilities, and recently played on tour in Will Oldham’s band. Vida first met Braxton when his band opened for Battles, but it was years until they connected on a personal and musical level. When Braxton took up the mod synth, he reached out to Vida. They discovered that they were asking a lot of similar questions, and, as Vida said, “We just enjoyed each other’s company.”

Braxton with the HIVE crew.

“There are parts of both of our practices that are conservative, and parts that are crazier, where our imaginations unfurl. I went through years where I would start out with an idea, an outcome that I was aiming for. Sometimes I would get closer and sometimes I would miss it, but I had a sense of what I wanted to achieve. I’m not interested in that process as much anymore. I’m much more interested in the experiment and seeing what comes from it. When there’s something outside your control, something is revealed. It’s a way of expanding.”

What’s it been like playing with Braxton in HIVE, I asked.

“It’s funny, when we do a string of shows, by the third night of performing I’ve dialed it in so well that I can really play the piece. But for Ty—and this is just my impression—he reaches for much more wild moments as we go along. And when he hits them, I’m like, Yeah, man, that’s a mess—I love it!”

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Delaware Station.

BOB BELLERUE HAS BEEN the sound engineer at a handful of Ambarchi’s performances over the years. He is the technical director at ISSUE Project Space, which co-sponsored the Red Hook show, and he runs “Ende Tymes: Festival of Noise and Abstract Liberation,” an annual event in Brooklyn. He is also a musician in his own right, performing under the name Half Normal. This is all to say, the man knows sound. So I wanted to know what stood out to him about Ambarchi.

“Oren’s the only one who ever asks us to provide him a leslie,” Bellerue said.

“What’s a leslie?” I inquired.

“When you’re looking at him, it’s the big box on his right corner. It’s a spinning speaker. You can put sound into them, and the speakers spin at different rates. It’s kind of an old-school piece of equipment that you don’t see a lot these days. It came of age when Jimi Hendrix was playing, and it’s got a great classic, acid-rock thing. Oren’s got a massive bass stack, and he can get these really heavy, low-end, powerful sounds of it. And then he’s got those swirling speakers that he’s getting some feedback through, and when he changes the speed and is processing the sound further, he gets some really cool effects.”

“When I play solo, there’s so much margin for everything going wrong,” Ambarchi said. “A lot of what I’m doing in a solo context—it’s all feedback. I’m trying to harness the feedback, to control something that’s inherently out of control, that can melt a PA or destroy an amp. So doing a gig is very stressy, but it’s invigorating as well. It’s a push-pull between pragmatism and structure and freedom.”

I asked Bellerue what it was like engineering live performances like Ambarchi’s.

“Most of the time in life you don’t have such intense awareness. I’m in a really heightened state to make sure everything is audible and sounds good. I’m sitting there looking at the speakers. I’m looking at his fingers. I see him touch the string or pedal. I’m listening very intensely. It reminds me of something Dereck Bailey once said about recordings—Imagine if you could only listen to a recording once. I think about performance the same way—you have to be fully present to experience it, and then it’s gone.”

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Oren Ambarchi at Pioneer Works.

“ME AND MARCO FUSINATO, who’s a great visual artist and noise guitar player and a very close friend—we both had kids in the same kindergarten,” Ambarchi said. “We were these two weirdo artists among the parents. I used to show up in a black metal hoodie, and people must have thought, Who the hell is this guy? The woman who ran it said to me, You’re an architect, right? And I said, No, I’m a musician. And she said, Oh, you should play a concert here for the kids. And I said, I don’t think that would be appropriate. And she said, What do you mean? I said, Look, what I do, and what my friend Marco does, is quite experimental. It’s outside. It’s not conventional. It might scare the kids. And she said, No, that’s perfect, because they don’t know anything. They’re young, and they’re open. And I thought, That’s a great answer.

“So we did this thing where we just had our setups, and we showed them what we were doing—If you twiddle this knob, this is what happens—and they were really into it. My son heard Merzbow and Keiji Haino and the Beatles and all kinds of stuff in my house. He didn’t really know the difference between them. I want to be that way, too. I don’t want to be tied down to listening exclusively to anything. I want to be open to everything that’s going on.

“I used to fall asleep to records. I used to fall asleep to John Coltrane records when I was thirteen or fourteen. In the morning, my dad would come in my room to get me up to go to school. He’d turn off the stereo, and then I’d wake up.”

Check out the other two sections of “Surrender to the Situation” – Part 2: Ensemble Virtuosity and Part 3: In Motion.

Ivan Weiss is a documentary filmmaker and multimedia producer based in North Carolina. He teaches at Wake Forest University.

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Images by Ivan Weiss © 2020