After listening closely to Dysnomia, the new album by Dawn of Midi, it becomes clear why the title was not directly inspired by the Ancient Greek meaning of the word: “lawlessness.” The music is precisely ordered; it is ecstatic, but not anarchic. It is also unlike the condition of dysnomia–the inability to recall words or names–because Dawn of Midi know exactly what they want to say; the band says it loudly, eloquently, confidently.
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Dawn of Midi play (le) poisson rouge Tuesday, 9/3.
The Brooklyn-based trio–bassist Aakaash Israni, pianist Amino Belyamani, and percussionist Qasim Naqvi–borrowed the album title from the moon of Eris, the dwarf planet. And all the songs are named after moons: “Ymir,” of Saturn; “Sinope,” of Jupiter; “Moon,” of Earth; and so on. “The nine movements,” says Israni, “are named after different moons because the music is the music of orbiting bodies: every part is circling around the other parts. The three instruments circle around each other in this prismatic way. Everyone is playing one small thing. By itself, it doesn’t seem like much; together, you can see a bigger picture.”
Dysnomia is an adventurous departure from the heady, improvised jazz of the band’s first two recordings, First (2010) and Live (2011). The new album, out now on Thirsty Ear Recordings, seeks a bridge between Ancient and contemporary dance musics, and the journey is thrilling and demanding, cerebral and visceral. Imagine Traxman and Jon Hopkins and North African trance music played on Western acoustic instruments. It is a ravishing mind-fuck with a hardcore groove. Speaking on the telephone from his apartment in Dumbo, here is what Israni had to say about it.
I have heard that, in the past, Dawn Of Midi practiced in the dark, in a room with no lights.
We did that when we were making improvised records. When we first met, we practiced in pitch back rooms, so we could just hear the music, and not observe anything else. We did that for a while, and we even did a few concerts like that. But, for this piece, we didn’t play in the dark. It was a completely different process. It wasn’t just about playing what you were hearing, but this piece was more worked out and composed. But when we started as an ensemble, we found our original chemistry in the dark. In the dark, all we had to deal with was sound, so we could access the music much more directly.
Dysnomia was recorded twice. What happened with the first version, and, assuming you were unsatisfied with it, why were you unsatisfied with it?
We had been working on this idea for a long time. We recorded a version of this music that was much earlier, and that was the embryonic form of this music. When we did it, I didn’t like it. I didn’t think it was good enough; we didn’t take it far enough. But we scrapped it and composed an entire new, more sophisticated version. Then, a year later, we recorded a new version of it. So we didn’t record the same piece twice, but we scrapped an intermediary compositional part, and composed it and recorded it over again.
What was it that changed between the first version–with the band, the composition–and the one that ultimately became Dysnomia?
We had to go through that embryonic step, I think. The earlier version was partly composed and partly improvised, which is a common format for composition with improvisers. But it didn’t yield to a satisfying result for us. Going through that made us more willing to do something that was fully written. It allowed us to say, “Okay, we have all these concepts and ideas, so why don’t we have the entire thing be composed?” So much music is completely composed, so it’s weird that we considered that a strange thing. Nirvana is composed; so is Bach. So there is no improvisation: Everything is played the same way every time.
There is something very exact and ordered about the music that makes it brutal. I don’t use that word in a negative way. Every note seems perfectly placed.
If you think about it as three people on instruments, it can seem brutal. But if you think about it as music, it’s no more brutally exact than any sort of band album. If you don’t know who or what is making the sounds, it sounds no different than any other dance record.
For us, this is a dance record. A lot of the compositional information comes from Ancient folkloric musics used in ritualistic and trance type settings, where, during spiritual settings, they are meant to induce trance and be danced to. We definitely were inspired by those musics when we composed this. This is very much dance music in the way it’s being produced on these Western music instruments. This is definitely music to dance to.
What is it about these Ancient folkloric musics that you found so compelling such that you wanted to bring them into the context of this trio?
The sound might be abstract, but almost everyone will start moving when they hear it, and feel a visceral connection to it. That’s a lot different from our earlier, improvised music, I think. Only a more specialized listener would be able to appreciate that music. But, with this, anybody who hears it, their head and feet will start moving.
What’s foreign sounding and also visceral about this music is that the way it uses rhythm is a bit uncommon in Western music. In Western music, the beat of the music is usually played. The drummer might be playing it, or something to that effect. In this music, we’re playing everything but that, and that allows for the beat to be – in these other cultures, the beat is playing that way, so the beat is less to the body of the listener.
There is almost like a positive and negative space thing, so if you’ve seen those black and white images of a vase that also looks like a face when you look at it differently, it’s sort of like that. We’re leaving that beat out of the music so it can be perceived in the spaces between the notes rather than playing them the way you hear them in Western music. So this allows for the circuit, if you will, to be completed by the body of the listener to dance.
How does this music relate to contemporary dance music traditions?
All three of us are fans of electronic music. I think there was a lot of inspiration coming from that, as well: Autechre, Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada. We all listen to lots of different things. In a way, this album was a way to express ourselves musically in a way that showed how inspired we are by music that sounds like this music, but that is not necessarily made on the instruments that we are playing.
Are you interested in the juke and footwork stuff coming out of Chicago over the past several years? There seem to be some sonic similarities with Dysnomia.
We mixed this album with Rusty Santos, who’s probably most well-known for having worked on some songs by Animal Collective. He, in later years, has worked some with DJ Rashad and other footwork guys in Chicago. He exposed us to all of that music, and that’s why we wanted to work with him. And because he knows how to work with instruments and tape – this album was recorded to tape. He also understood how dance music needs to hit the speakers to be felt. He was the perfect candidate for mixing this album, I think.
How do the older dance music traditions explored on the album link with these newer ones, if at all?
I don’t know if they necessary do, but it was in our interest to, simply by making this record, bring that link to the present. I think they are linked in other cultures, but not so much in America at the moment. If you’re in Africa, this record might not sound so foreign, but most people are hearing it in America.
From the listener’s perspective, the music is meant to be trance and dance-inducing. How do you feel when you’re performing it?
It’s similar to the listener’s experience, which is why it doesn’t get old to play even though it’s the same composition each time. You get to be a part of that prismatic hypnotism that the music is causing. You get to be inside of it, playing one of the three parts. It is terribly enjoyable.