Bassist, composer, improviser, radio player, conductor, space maker, and question asker Nick Dunston's music defies categorization and genre as swiftly as he toggles between roles onstage. His new record "Spider Season" (Out Of Your Head Records), featuring Kalia Vandever on trombone/fx and DoYeon Kim on gayageum, is coming out next Friday July 14 and is one to bookmark! In addition to this big release, Dunston's work "Reverse Broadcast" for Wet Ink Ensemble's new Mosaic Orchestra had its world premiere on June 22 in NYC, which I had the pleasure of seeing. Experiencing these two different works, the live premiere of "Reverse Broadcast" and upcoming trio album "Spider Season", gave rise to a series of questions for me about these projects in particular and how they relate to Dunston's musical practice as a whole.
Anna Heflin: Can you talk about the collaborative process of creating the works on “Spider Season” with trombonist Kalia Vandever and gayageum player DoYeon Kim?
Nick Dunston: Most of the tracks on the album are small sketches that I felt would provide an environment where we could collectively engage with one another while also using some type of framework to focus and refine our ideas. This could take the form of pieces that are overall pretty mapped out where we sort of “fill in the blanks”, or ideas to jump off of, or ideas to eventually arrive at. It’s not too different from my other work for composing for improvisers, though I will say that the tracks on “Spider Season” are probably the most bare form of notation that I’ve extensively gone into and documented. Some of the tracks don’t have any written notation, but are basically improvisations in which I gave super basic verbal prompts right before we played them. Ultimately I just wanted to have a trio where I could start off with 100% trust in the musicians, but also one that had possibilities and pathways that I wasn’t able to see at the time, or even now, for that matter.
AH: Each track on “Spider Season” feels to me like an exploration of a shared sonic space that could be extended into its own long-form work, and the tracks come together as a series of portraits. Do you think of the tracks as various potentials or possibilities? If so, what attracts you to presenting multiple potentials?
ND: That’s an interesting way of listening to it and I welcome that interpretation. Some pieces on the record are free improvisations or have some very minimal prompts from me. I have been continuously composing completely new works for the trio, but also writing pieces based on those improvisations; another way to look at it would be that I am basically “codifying” improvisations. Some improvisational tracks ended up having really strong ideas, and so by notating them after the recording, I created pieces out of them that allowed us to use those previously improvised ideas now as compositional anchors to then build from. We performed some of these at the Bang On A Can Long Play Festival last May in Brooklyn. So in this way, the pieces on the record are essentially retroactive portraits of more developed works. Free improvisation will always be an important practice to this trio, but I’ll continue to build compositions out of them because to me that is a very holistic, and dare I say, efficient way of creating a situation where our group chemistry and my compositional sensibilities become one and the same. This comes from this idea that I actually got from some early jazz musicians who were particularly resistant to the idea of improvised music being recorded. This idea that once an improvisation is recorded, it inherently therefore ceases to be an “improvisation” and becomes a “composition”. I can understand that point of view, both in that context and even in the context of musicians today who prefer to not be recorded. I guess for me, it’s a matter of really leaning into and embracing the medium of recorded music, and also thinking about how that medium can influence the overall development of a project or practice in creative or unconventional ways.
AH: How is your role as bandleader/composer/improviser impacted by the scale and size of the ensemble? As I just saw the world premiere of your new work, “Reverse Broadcast” for Wet Ink Ensemble’s Mosaic Orchestra, I’m specifically wondering which aspects of your practice feel consistent or malleable depending on the context.
ND: Almost all of my work involves improvisation at least on some level, I would say that that is the one consistent aspect of my practice across ensemble size and context. A lot of it is simply limited by practicality, and availability of time and resources-which is something that a lot of musicians struggle with, as we often don’t learn many organizational and interpersonal skills outside of just music making! I’ve been leading bands and composing for a large percentage of my time as a musician, and at this point I am not self-conscious about working within logistical constraints. So in the case of “Spider Season”, because it’s a trio that doesn’t use overly-cumbersome instruments like drums or piano, we can really just set aside some time and just develop work as a unit. It can be pretty open-ended from the start if we want it to, there’s just less extra-musical stuff to manage. “Reverse Broadcast” included the entire Wet Ink Ensemble’s core members, plus some special guests, so with me included it was a 14-piece ensemble. I didn’t really handle any of the logistical stuff for scheduling the rehearsals, outside of just telling them early on that the piece would be about 40 minutes and would require a couple of rehearsals. So the piece was all pretty mapped out, and even though I was trying to utilize the creative and improvisational talents of all of the wonderful musicians involved, I had to be very specific with my time management with the rehearsals. This means things like being mindful of taking breaks, having super clear notation and communication about the music, setting internal goals with myself and having the ability to adjust on the fly, depending on the number of variables that can create unexpected changes with an ensemble of that size. And I mean it was ultimately super easy, they are all complete professionals, so it was really a best case scenario-but I’ve gone through less-than-pro scenarios to build my chops!
AH: One core concept in your large ensemble piece “Reverse Broadcast” appeared to be looping, an idea that was explicitly expressed through your manipulation of the on-stage radio and reinforced in the musical material in the ensemble. Listening to the album “Spider Season”, I noticed similarly evolving loops, specifically in the tracks “Pre-Nasal Tension”, “Dystopian Christmas”, and “Pollinator”. What draws you to the radio and the idea of looping musically and conceptually?
ND: I think it started as this idea that was introduced to me early on in my practice as an improviser, and also with my introduction to process music. The notion that you could just pick an idea and repeat it over and over again until it *has* to eventually become something else was, and still is, pretty huge for me. I wouldn’t say that it goes as far for me as an aesthetic thing, the way it might for more minimalist or vamp-based musicians and composers. But it definitely is an important value for me at least as a philosophical approach. There are many ways to embody commitment to an idea, and looping is just a really strong way of doing it. In improvising, a sound or utterance holds so much weight, and it needs to be accounted for, and dealt with. It drives me crazy when I do that, or when I hear others do it-it just feels irresponsible, like you’re not really holding yourself accountable for your actions, you know? Own up to it, I really feel that that has a 100% success rate. In any case, for “Spider Season”, I have been a close friend and collaborator with Kalia for many years and in recent years have seen her solo trombone with pedals practice develop-and in that, she has created a very fluent and interesting way of working with loop pedals, so I wanted to find ways of incorporating that into a trio context. It creates a ton of compositional possibilities when you have something like that, because you’re able to have an anchor that isn’t necessarily as heavy or driving as, say, a rhythm section for example.
AH: You took on multiple roles in “Reverse Broadcast” including bassist, composer, conductor, improviser, radio player, and space maker (holding space for others in silence while they played). How do you think about toggling between these roles and how does this mindset impact your musical choices?
ND: I guess at a certain point, the more you question Eurocentricism in music, the less obstructions you see along the way when it comes to one’s role in music. I love playing bass and my foundation as a jazz bassist is very informative to my overall artistic practice, but you kinda said it best-making space for others and for myself is my goal because ultimately that allows me to make, but perhaps more importantly, just *let* music be. If I’m able to look at it and operate from multiple angles and work with others, if I’m able to toggle between a multitude of roles, whether it be in a given performance/project or across my practice overall, then I can just get out of my own way, which ultimately is what I feel it means to find yourself and connect with others through a social artistic practice.
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