For thirty years and counting, guitarist and composer Nick Didkovsky has been a fixture of New York’s downtown experimental music milieu. He’s most recognized for the mind-bending metal/jazz compositions of the octet Doctor Nerve, which he founded in 1983. But his body of work spans contemporary chamber music (DITHER Guitar Quartet; Bang on a Can), grindcore (Vomit Fist), and free-form improv — to say nothing of co-authoring a computer language (JMSL) and mentoring college students. His ambitious residency at the Stone, which takes place November 3–8, offers twelve unique performances with a bill of over three dozen musicians.
At the behest of venue curator John Zorn, Didkovsky has incorporated four premieres into the week. “[Zorn] was subtly encouraging me not to just make it a retrospective, but to produce new work,” says Didkovsky, “so I think I took that to heart and made it a very challenging week for me.” He laughs at the understatement. “It’s been a tremendous amount of work, but I hope very rewarding in the final analysis of it.”
The connective thread through the week’s diverse assortment of musical styles seems to be that all of the pieces demand as much from the musicians as the composer does of himself. This is typical, as most music by Didkovsky is very, very difficult to play. Such has been the experience of Kathleen Supové, a Juilliard-trained pianist and longtime collaborator of Didkovsky’s, who is premiering his piece A Musical Sacrifice with guitarist James Moore at the Stone. “For a composer,” she says, “there’s probably always a quandary like, ‘How do you get people to do your music?’ Do you make it really easy so that it’s very doable by people? Or do you make it as hard as you want it to be, and then it becomes a point of pride for the performers? I’ve seen that happen with the music of Elliott Carter, for example, or György Ligeti…. They have a devoted group of people who will do anything to be able to play it, and I think [Didkovsky] is in that school.”
Musicians (and listeners) who approach Didkovsky’s work find that part of the challenge derives from his mastery of unpredictability. Bassist and guitarist Samuel Smith (of Artificial Brain) has joined Didkovsky on the metal project Hässliche Luftmasken and for the abstract, semi-improvisational Petromyzontiformes, both of which have sets at the Stone. “Whatever your expectations are for the structure of a song or even where a riff is going to end up, he has an awareness of the expectation and interrupts that or takes it somewhere completely different,” Smith says of Didkovsky. “It’s never what you expect.” Smith’s participation in this residency will mark the first time he’s ever played with a horn section: He, Didkovsky, and Kevin Hufnagel (Dysrhythmia) will partner with the Guidonian Hand Trombone Quartet on November 4.
The most unpredictable of the residency’s performances is sure to be the $100 Guitar Project on November 6. Eleven guitarists will have a few minutes each to improvise with the inexpensive ax, which inspired a two-disc album in 2013, having been passed from player to notable player — some 65 in all — who devised and recorded short pieces with it. “A lot of these people have never performed solo,” says Didkovsky, “and a few have confessed to me that they’re kind of nervous about it, which is really cool. I don’t associate nervousness with these people.” One slightly apprehensive participant is Colin Marston (of Krallice, Gorguts, and Behold…the Arctopus). “I’m trying to feel comfortable about it,” Marston admits. “I’ve never done a solo improvised show before, unless you count being a teenager and going to the train station and playing guitar.” Marston studied composition under Didkovsky as an undergrad at New York University and says of his former professor, “He was really cool, because that was my only experience doing any kind of creative education…that was actually fostering creativity rather than teaching me a technical skill.”
By all accounts, Didkovsky has a knack for shepherding talent. “He’s really good at finding the qualities in people and musicians that he likes and wants to emphasize,” says Smith. A prime example of his respect for young artists is Vomit Fist, the corpse-paint-sporting trio (playing November 7) that features his teenage son, Leo, on drums and Leo’s friend Malcolm Hoyt as vocalist. Far from taking credit for his son’s precocious skill, the elder Didkovsky says he has Leo to thank for pushing him in new directions as a composer when creating the band’s hyper-aggressive bursts of song.
A highlight of the residency for Didkovsky is the only set with cover tunes: a live play-through of the first Alice Cooper record, Pretties for You, on November 8. He and five brave Alice superfans are attempting to replicate, note for note, the polarizing 1969 debut. To accomplish this, he’s sought input from two of the original Alice Cooper band members, Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith. “I probably have the most vetted version of Pretties for You lyrics anywhere on the planet right now,” Didkovsky says.
The record issues its own set of demands. “The album was so avant-garde,” recalls Dunaway, “and back in the Sixties in Los Angeles, this was too far out there for even Hollyweird.” Inscrutable lyrics and intricate tempo changes that the group “felt” rather than counted augment the eccentricity. “I can’t even imagine someone else coming in and trying to learn them,” says drummer Smith. “They’re pretty crazy.” He and Dunaway both say they feel flattered by Didkovsky’s dedication to the project and are likely to attend the show. “It’s such an honor to think that all of these years later, all of these musicians would put that much work, time, and effort into performing this,” Dunaway says.
The admiration flows both ways. “It’s just a masterpiece of surrealism,” Didkovsky says of Pretties for You. For him, the chance to perform the record in front of the musicians who made it is a dream come true — and the same could be said of the audience members eager to hear this obscure music live. One fan is even flying in from Sweden. “That’s the power of being on the total freakin’ fringe of the bell curve, as far as popularity is concerned,” Didkovsky says. “To have one guy come from Sweden because his mind is so blown that we’re doing this, that means the world to me. If he were the only guy in the audience, that would be good enough.”
Nick Didkovsky’s residency at the Stone kicks off on November 3. For ticket information, a full schedule and more, click here.
Correction: The piece performed by Kathleen Supové will be “She Is Carried By Light,” not “A Musical Sacrifice.”