THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 071
Sure feels like a Friday.
Apologies for not getting this out yesterday. The week was beset with challenges and rescheduled interviews and hard deadlines and slight dips in my mental strength. To be able to get everything done while still meeting my determination to get a newsletter out every week, I had to push this one day.
Below you'll find my interview with the musicians behind one of my favorite records to be released so far this year, and reviews of two movies and two albums.
In case you missed it last week, I'm offering up a pair of tickets to see Old Time Relijun at Holocene. The show is on February 17 and it is, for now, the only U.S. date the group has planned to support their fantastic release Musicking. If you've never seen the group live, I feel that you must. They are dynamic performers, throwing every inch of their bodies and minds into their skronky rattletrap blues. If you're in Portland are are comfortable being at a show and want be in the running for those tickets, reply to this newsletter and let me know.
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One the most beguiling press photos included in the promotion of the first studio album by experimental duo DunkelpeK doesn't even feature the two musicians. It is, instead, an overhead view of what would be the pair's performance set up. At the top of the picture, a grand piano with a cushy bench. To the left, a Fender amplifier, tipped at an angle. And taking up the entire bottom part of the photo is a percussion rig that includes a vibraphone, cymbals, two drums, and a lot of mallets, sticks, and other bits and bobs to pick up and clash together. Looking at the picture, I wanted to either dive in and play around, or wait long enough for Nava Dunkelman and Jakob Pek to appear and start making some noise.
The music on DunkelpeK's debut recording Fire's Hush (out now via AKP Recordings) has a similar allure. The spacious realms the two musicians work in are inviting, even playful. You may feel the urge to join in and fill up some of the negative space they leave between each cymbal roll, pluck and rattle of the piano and guitar, and watery ping of some brass gewgaw. Or it may be enough to enter a meditative state and let the music roll through you like clouds of colorful smoke.
While I'm not suggesting interrupting one of their performances, either response feels appropriate to what they are doing with these improvised pieces and the routes that each musician took to find one another. Both the Japanese-born Dunkelman and Pek, a Californian, studied with artists who emphasized deep listening, fearless play, and connecting with your partner on an alchemical level. If you're on the same wavelength as DunkelpeK, you may well be compelled to try to join in or get lost in the fog and see where you end up — mentally, spiritually, physically — once it clears.
How have you two been faring during this strange time in our history?
Nava: Doing pretty well but was definitely a big life change for me. I moved to New York City during the pandemic last year and, thankfully, have been able to perform again and to make some new connections, so I am grateful for that. It is still slow and gets rocky as we know, but I am trying my best to stay positive and move forward.
Jakob: These past two years have been some of the most challenging of my life. Lots of lows and lots of highs. It’s been a tremendously transitional time and I am still finding my footing.
How did this project begin? How did you two meet up and start collaborating?
We met at Mills College in an improvisation class/ensemble led by Zeena Parkins. In fact, we think our first interaction was through music and sound, not through words. We were doing a duet exercise in class in which we were supposed to telepathically communicate with our duet partner. One player is to cue the other and both are to enter the space with sound immediately, at the exact same moment. The goal of the exercise is to connect and sync up on the same idea/energy/vibration as immediately as possible. We happened to be a pair that day and we did the exercise exceptionally well together. From there we thought it would be a good idea to collaborate so we scheduled some time to play together and the rest is history.
On paper, improvised music seems like the easiest thing for a musician to do but in practice it is a much different story. Did it take some work for you two to find the right dialogue as musicians?
We were fortunate in that it was always easy for us to improvise together. How difficult it is to improvise with another player depends on a lot of things, but for us it was very natural and effortless to play together. Listening and trust are the most important factors when improvising and we both listen to and trust one anothe
For this new recording, did you have a game plan in mind as far as what instruments you were going to use or moods/directions you wanted to explore?
We definitely planned on using our biggest set up for the recording, such as adding vibraphone and glockenspiel to Nava’s extensive percussion setup and adding prepared piano to Jakob’s usual prepared guitar setup. In regards to moods/directions, we had an idea of how we wanted to start the album, with the piece Unknown Memory, but other than that we didn’t have any plans set in stone. We explored lots of different sound worlds in the studio and chose to develop those that felt most alive and pressing. We did aim to have a variety of moods on the album, to showcase all the soundworlds that DunkelpeK explores, but at the end of the day we were simply following the muse of improvisation.
How much did outside factors - your state of mind / the feel of the room you were recording in / the news of the day / etc. - impact what you created on this album? And is that something that you're aware of when you listen back to what you recorded together?
When improvising, the immediate environment always has a significant impact on the music. All sounds become a part of the music, whether it’s the subtle hum of electronics, the drone of the heater or the sound of traffic in the distance. We recorded this during a particularly difficult time of the pandemic and we are sure that this had an impact on the sounds we played that day, but at the same time, we feel like the deep listening we share in supersedes the circumstances of any given moment. Yes, the reality of the particular day, time and environment are welcomed into the improvisation and have their say, but the music still comes from something deeper than the surface of life’s present situation.
Were the pieces on Fire's Hush created as we're hearing them or did you engage in some editing to pare down longer pieces?
Most of the pieces are presented as is. Live. One take. But there were one or two that were pared down from longer improvisations.
What can you tell me about the title you chose for this album?
One of the most vital aspects of our music is the extreme range of dynamics and mood. It’s like fire. Fire can roar. Fire can also be a quiet key to contemplation, as in a candle flame. Our music is much the same. It can be ferocious, it can be gentle. And, regardless of the form our music takes, it tends to hush a space.
Nava - what led you to focus on percussion as your instrumentation of choice?
My mother is a musician and music has been a part of my life since the very beginning. I was already performing with my mother at 5 years old, and joined small parts of her concerts, playing simple percussion instruments. I always enjoyed that as a child. Then when I was 12, she asked me if I’d like to perform more regularly with her and I said yes because it had been so much fun, so it was that simple. That’s when I started taking drum lessons seriously, and I just kept going and kept falling in love with my instruments.
You both have studied with some amazing artists during your life - what do you think are the most impactful lessons from those studies that you return to or keep in the forefront of your mind as you perform or write?
We are both deeply grateful for our teachers, individually and collectively. Some of the teachers that had the biggest impact on us were William Winant, Fred Frith, Zeena Parkins, Roscoe Mitchell, Pauline Oliveros, and W.A. Mathieu. They’ve taught us so much. One of the most important things we’ve learned is to listen deeply. This is first and foremost. This is the key that opens the door to improvisational freedom.
Nava: When I was a student, Fred Frith was a big influence on how I improvise. Especially for me, because I have so many percussion instruments laying in front of me, it is easy to think that “I should play everything!” but Fred told me that I don’t need to. A pretty simple thing, but to me it was liberating to hear that, and I learned the importance of trusting my listening and intuition when deciding what I wanted to play in the moment.
Jakob: “Silence is perfect.” Roscoe Mitchell would say this in ensemble classes. This idea forces you to deeply consider the sounds you offer into the space. It also forces you to be aware of the silence in any given moment. And, bringing it back to listening, one teacher that really had an impact on me was Pauline Oliveros. She would ask us to be aware of all sounds in any given environment at all times. “Deep Listening is listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what you are doing. Such intense listening includes the sounds of daily life, of nature, or one's own thoughts as well as musical sounds. Deep Listening represents a heightened state of awareness and connects to all that there is.” This teaching of truly opening one’s ears to the totality of the sonic reality of life deeply shaped us as artists and individuals.
What comes next for you both collectively and individually? I'm especially curious to hear about the residency that you are doing later in 2022, Jakob. What can you tell us about that?
Nava: I have two other projects, one is IMA, an electro-percussion duo with Amma Ateria, and NOMON, a percussion duo with my sister Shayna Dunkelman. As IMA, we were invited to perform for the Mills Festival at Mills College in April, and are currently in the process of working on a new album. As NOMON, we just released an EP last year, are currently working on a music video to be released this year, and have some performances coming up in New York as well as the Bay Area. I also have recently recorded an album with gabby fluke-mogul, who I have been working with as a duo for years, and we are planning to release it this year with Relative Pitch Records.
Jakob: A lot of time and energy is being dedicated toward study of the guitar. Lots of practice essentially. In regards to the residency, I’m scheduled to take part in an artist’s residency at Château Orquevaux in rural France. The timing is a bit uncertain however because of the pandemic. All I know is it was supposed to happen in 2020 and I’m in discussion with them about rescheduling in the upcoming year to two. I’ll essentially have two weeks of quiet in rural France to work. I have also been putting energy into exploring large, multimedia pieces; contemporary, operatic absurdities that blend medium and genre. I’m considering these more like “social sculptures” rather than concerts or plays; art happenings that blur the line between audience and artist, concert goer and musician, stage and auditorium. Lastly, a lot of work has been going into a series of books that I’m writing, Fundamental Harmonic Motion. This series of books is dedicated to the study of harmony on the guitar. I’ve just finished book one of what will be a four part series. These books seek to elucidate the fundamental harmonies of a given scale, all the ways one could play these harmonies on distinct string sets, and all the ways to move through these various harmonies while following ideal voice leading techniques.
What have you been reading / watching / listening to lately?
Nava: I have been into watching some documentaries and have been listening to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s music a lot lately. He has always been inspiring to me. In terms of something outside of music, I started knitting, and this has become a meditation for me. It’s been a very good practice for me, especially during this difficult time.
Jakob: Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Alice Coltrane. I’ve also been reading the work of Stanislav Grof, a psychiatrist who opened a lot of doors for experiential psychotherapy and the study of consciousness.
[FILM] The Worst Person In The World (2021, dir. Joachim Trier) / I'm Not In Love (2021, dir. Col Spector)
The cinematic universe isn't hurting for movies about cishet white people trying to work out their personal issues and romantic entanglements. It's an uphill battle for any director and screenwriter to find something dynamic or at least novel to help their film stand out from the rabble. Norwegian director Joachim Trier and his co-writer Eskil Vogt have the fate of the world, existentialism, and the evolution of our collective perspectives on gender roles and art on their minds in their latest collaboration The Worst Person In The World. The movie plays at being a commentary on the romantic comedy. Julie, a woman heading into her 30s with clashing ideas about what to do with her life, spends the prologue of the film flitting from man to man before settling down with Aksel, a cartoonist about a decade her senior. But even as they embrace domestic life, her restlessness churns. She writes a fiery essay on oral sex that causes a minor online sensation, and after crashing a wedding, spends the evening flirting with Eivind, a barista closer to her age. Watching the two dance around the idea of cheating but not giving in is all the more sexy for them not giving into temptation. It makes Julie's decision to leave Aksel for Eivind feel that much more inevitable. But for all the romcom tropes that Vogt and Trier deconstruct throughout, what hangs over everything is a cloud of questions about why we choose to pair up and make other humans when life is so fleeting and finite — with the end only feeling nearer as a result of our destruction of the planet. That's a lot to put on the shoulders of Julie as she trundles through the streets of Oslo and on a film that occasionally meanders but it carries the weight well. Even though it shares some of the same concerns as Worst Person, Col Spector and co-screenwriter Radha Chakraborty's latest I'm Not In Love does cast quite so wide a net. Their chief concern is the fate of Rob, a not-very-nice thirtysomething nutritionist who finds his interest in his longtime girlfriend fading and decides to gently play the field. While his few dates become somewhat of an Eyes Wide Shut comedy of errors, in particular a tequila-soaked hang with a much younger woman that nearly turns into an orgy, the rest of the film finds Rob being awful to his partner, his mother, and wingeing to his bros about his ambivalence at marriage and family. I don't think it's spoiling anything to say that the refreshing aspect of all this is how little the character changes over the course of the film. Even when he tries to do the right thing, his self-sabotaging brain ruins the moment. He suffers for his sins and deservedly so. (The Worst Person In The World opens in limited theaters today; I'm Not In Love is available on demand)
[MUSIC] Black Country, New Road: Ants From Up There (Ninja Tune)
The second album from the genre-free London ensemble Black Country, New Road arrives with asterisk. Days before the album was set to drop, news broke the group's frontman and de facto leader Isaac Wood decided to quit the band as a way to protect his mental health amid the torrents of hype and expectation being put on his shoulders after the explosive success of BCNR's debut For the first time. It's a brave move even though it effectively casts a shadow over the entire album with folks like me picking through the lyrics for clues of his inner torment. What struggles Wood reveals on this majestic album are romantic and mournful. He strikes a longing and occasionally desperate tone that befits music that reaches out into the vast history of recorded music, grabbing at anything and everything, be it jazz, prog, indie, or folk rock, that they can find to fit into their dense compositions. "The Place Where He Inserted The Blade" applies the swinging weirdness and snapping bass tones of Harry Nilsson's early ’70s peak with a heaving melody that recalls an Irish drinking song in service of Wood's tender expression of dealing with both love and trauma ("I get lost / I freak out / You come home and hold me tight / As if it never happened at all"). Shattering closer "Basketball Shoes" builds and recedes steadily with each sax bleat and staggered rhythm before reaching a crashing conclusion of distortion and Wood's wailing. The collected weight of these songs is mighty, and one that the full lineup of the band sound capable of bearing together. Whether they will be able to adjust to its mass without Wood is going to be the true test of their musical mettle. [Bandcamp]
[MUSIC] Los Bitchos: Let The Festivities Begin (City Slang)
The hype and heat surrounding the release of the new album by multicultural London quartet Los Bitchos is perfectly sensible. Listeners have been primed for a group like this through the work of Vampire Weekend and Khruangbin as well as many multiple reissue labels and playlists mining the same territory of African highlife pop, cumbia, and reggae that these women are. And the appeal isn't tough to elucidate. Let The Festivities Begin is entirely friction free, and entirely removed from any of the politics that fueled the aforementioned genres. Right about now those empty calories might be just what you need to get through the day with some manner of spring in your step. But for all its colorful intent, everything about Festivities feels beige and neutral. There's nothing offensive or virtuosic or tense about anything of this LP which may feel like a feature to most, but comes off as buggy as hell to these ears. There's a calculated quality to the album that I couldn't help shake either. For all the loving intent of Festivities and the chemistry the four women have in their creative partnership, I wouldn't be surprised to learn they plotted out the quickest path to getting regular airplay on BBC Radio 6, KEXP, and NPR Music. Give the white liberals what they need to fancy themselves cosmopolitan. [Bandcamp]
Thanks for reading all the way to the end. Always appreciated. If you're not entirely sick of me, and want to keep up with what I'm writing outside of this newsletter, bookmark this site. There's a bunch of new stuff of mine that went up this week.
Back on Monday for the premium subscribers and next week for all y'all. Until then: Do no harm. Take no shit.
RIP Joe Diorio, Philip Paul, Jon Zazula, Jimmy Johnson, Jon Appleton, and Dr. Johnny Fever.
Artwork for this edition of the newsletter is by George Thiewes whose recent paintings are on display at Bentley Gallery in Phoenix, AZ through Feb 12.