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Dawn Of Midi

Dawn Of Midi

Interviewed by
Danielle Street
Tuesday 3rd June, 2014 12:35PM

Last year New York ensemble Dawn of Midi emerged with their sophomore album Dysnomia and simultaneously pushed perceptions of what jazz music can be. The offering saw the trio shift away from free-form jazz and move towards using stringent rhythms that repeat and loop in a way which has evoked endless comparisons to electronica music, as well as earning the three-piece places on the "Best Albums of 2013" lists by The New Yorker and NPR. The unconventional group are now billed to bring their piano, drums and double bass to the capital as part of the Wellington Jazz Festival this weekend to play Dysnomia live in its 46-minute entirety. We caught up with bassist Aakaash Israni from his home Brooklyn to learn more about the evolution of their sound and the visa pitfalls that can come with extensive touring...

UTR: So Aakaash, when I first heard your name I thought you would sound like this midi-driven electronic music, but you are an acoustic trio... so where did the name come from?

AAKAASH: Well, when we first started we were making sort of avant-garde improvised music, which sounded nothing like electronica, and we were hanging out and Qasim our drummer was referring to some music that come out in the early 80s and he said it sounded like the dawn of midi. The phrase sort of jumped out and we thought, "oh let’s call this project that". It was a non sequitur, because the music that we were making sounded nothing like electronic music and now, six or seven years later, we’ve made Dysnomia and it’s full of really tight rhythms and looping parts and it’s being compared to electronica and charted in the electronic charts and people think it was deliberate but it was completely an accident. We didn’t anticipate making an album like this years later.

Ha, that’s an interesting loop. When did you make the conscious decision to shift from the jazz style of your first release?

Probably in 2011 or 2012 when we knew we were going to start working on a new record. We had been spending a lot of time listening to, and playing, a lot of African music which involved a lot of these sophisticated rhythmic concepts and we really wanted to make music inspired by this African music. So we started working in that direction, and I didn’t want us to repeat what we knew we could already do, which was play freely improvised music, so we decided to do something quite different and make very composed sounds. There is no improvisation on this record, it’s completely performed as written. I would say the rhythmic content is mostly coming from different African musics and the part that maybe relates to electronica relates to how the sounds have been chosen. We also play our instruments in slightly unconventional ways and that sonic palate might be kind of electronica sounding.

But you are all classically trained musicians...

Yeah, we met as school, at the school called California Institute of the Arts, or CalArts for short. And we met there in 2006 I think it was.

What are the challenges in creating the really tight rhythms that feature on Dysnomia?

Well, I mean a lot of the music it is inspired from is folk music from Africa, what’s challenging is that music is performed by people who have spent their whole life playing together. To sound like a folk ensemble that has been doing that their whole lives, you have to rehearse a lot and we definitely practice a lot to get that feeling into the music. None of it’s written down because that music is sort of an aural tradition and we wanted to everybody internalised it, so there is no reading or anything.

Dysnomia has received huge acclaim from notable publications, does that put pressure on you for future releases?

I don’t know, maybe a little bit. But we were pretty unknown before and I don’t think that it will be as difficult to find an audience for the next record, which is a privilege. I think we will take our time to make sure we feel as strongly about the next record as we did about Dysnomia when it was ready.

Because it took quite awhile, right? I understand you had two versions of it, an earlier demo and you scrapped that for the version you ended up releasing...

Yeah, when we were making the transition from improvisation to this, we made a version that had some of the ideas that were included in Dysnomia, but there was also a lot of loose things happening. We went and recorded that and I was in Sydney, Australia mixing and during the third day I had a negative epiphany of sorts, thinking this wasn't ready thinking that it could be taken a lot further so we started from scratch and we scripted the whole thing.

And is it a combined effort from the three of you to write the music?

No, it was written by Amino, the pianist, and myself. Amino is also from Africa and he bought a lot of ideas from his culture as well as from other cultures that he is very immersed in. He is a pianist but he is also an amazing drummer, so he wrote most of the piano and drums and I wrote most of the bass.

I was reading he plays the piano with one hand, while muting the strings with the other hand which sounds like a unique approach to the piano...

It’s a very percussive way of performing and it makes a very different sound when you beat the strings. He is basically playing the harmonics of the piano and I’m basically playing the harmonics of the bass, so the two instruments can kind of fuse into some kind of meta-instrument. He plays the whole piece one handed basically because his left hand is inside the piano.

That must be pretty physically demanding to stay in that position for 45-minutes while you play the album through. And you have been touring quite a bit lately...

Yeah, we just finished 12 concerts in 11 nights and then we came back here for a day, and then we went to Chicago and then we are back for a few days, and we leave for Australia on Monday.

I read you had a bit of trouble getting into the UK visa-wise what happened there?

Well, Amino our pianist is a Moroccan citizen and that makes the kind of world touring we are doing very challenging, because it is made very difficult for people with passports from Arab countries to travel. And when you are touring as much as we are that can be complicated because we go from one territory to another back-to-back. We thought at the very last minute we were going to have to cancel the UK shows and we wrote to the British Ambassador for the US, Patrick Davies, on Twitter and he managed to push it through at the last second, I think Amino managed to get his visa two hours before the flight.

Woah, that amazing the Ambassador is hanging out on Twitter helping people...

Yeah, it’s amazing in the sense that you can send a message directly to someone in this way that was never possibly before. And that sort of saved the UK leg of the tour.

Well, hopefully you don’t have any visa issues getting into New Zealand, and hopefully you have a great time down in Wellington...

Yeah, hopefully. Touring is pretty intense that their is rarely any time to see anything, but hopefully we will have a minute.

Dawn of Midi are playing on 8th June at The Opera House, Wellington. See below for gig details.


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