Name: Trevor Dunn
Nationality: American
Occupation: musician
Current Release: SpermChurch’s merdeka atau mati on Riverworm Records

If you enjoyed this interview with Trevor Dunn, visit his website www.trevordunn.net for more information.

Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?  

In terms of improvising, I have two arsenals. With upright bass I use all the traditional approaches as well as extended technique — this means, using physical implements such as mallets, clothes pins or paper, as well as various non-traditional bowing techniques, left-handed pizzicato, percussive effects, etc.  When improvising on electric bass I tend to use various pedal set-ups, which depends on how far away from ‘bass’ I intend to get.  Mostly I use distortion, octaver and granular looping.  My relationship with my instrument is that it is essentially an extension of myself.  It’s another voice; a vehicle for expression.  So, the results I achieve are solely based on how well I can control the instrument, which is why I practice.

What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?

Improvisation is expression in the moment that gives way to random factors and chance.  It has been called ‘spontaneous composition’ which seems like a good description to me.  The goal is to tell a story, but you are subject to flights of fancy, outside influences and ultimately your own will and mood.  When you have the time to take these flights, or sudden moments of inspiration and rewrite them, toss out the nonsense and polish the good stuff, you have what you call composition. They are really the same thing, but one is spontaneous and the other has been re-worked.  It’s like the difference between conversation and prose.

Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?

Any and all material is transformable. Unless the artist decides for themselves that something is set in stone and not transformable, then the gates are open. A single note is a good place to start when improvising. Apply any qualification to it and it is transformed! It all depends on what you perceive, what part(s) of the sound are you hearing, what can be moved, etc.

Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn't regularly relate to what you're hearing others create, why be in the group. What's your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a  group compare to a solo situation?

Well, already the word “rules” and “spontaneous” are potentially oppositional. Of course, “rule based improvisation” is an effective way to maintain some kind of form and keep the music from becoming amorphous and slipping into the culturally conditioned genre of Free Improvisation.  I concur with rule #1 and feel that that is just common sense, or should be, and applies to all performance.  Rule #2 is more problematic for me. “Relate” is, by definition, relative.  So who is deciding that? “Regular” is also relative. One viable option with improvisation is to oppose what others are doing. When I played with Keiji Haino he wanted to rehearse the trio simultaneously NOT relating to each other, as in three isolated improvisations (which is harder to do than it sounds).  

While playing alone one has total control of when the sound stops or starts. That’s the first thing I noticed the first time I performed solo.  When I stopped playing there was no sound. Playing in a group, whether you are trying to or not, you are relating in some way. You are part of the fabric and have less control than you would alone.  Consider the ideas of talking out loud to yourself at home vs. being involved in a group conversation.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind for yiur improvisations and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

It can be compared to meditation to a degree. There is a level of commitment and awareness. I’m all for the ecstatic, cathartic letting go during certain kinds of improvisation. That can be a lot of fun as a performer, but not necessarily so for an audience member. In order to be creative you must tap into childish exploration while maintaining your skills and analysis of what is useful and what is garbage. It’s a life-long journey harnessing this balance. This balance can be practiced at home and taken to the stage later. It’s a matter of knowing oneself, knowing one’s limits and strengths; knowing when it’s time to quit forcing it and go get a cup of coffee.

Can you talk about how your decision process works in a live setting?

I listen and make decisions about whether I can add something or not; does the music need anything else, in my opinion, or should I just sit back and enjoy it without asserting any ego. One of the fun parts of improvising is not knowing if you’re making the “right” decision or not. You’re taking a lot of chances, but if you over-think it the moment will be gone or you’ll talk yourself out of intuition. Not trying to impose yourself and your preconceived desires and letting the music decide for you is the best process.

How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?

Again, all relative. I adjust my tone depending on the conditions of the space and how the acoustics are operating. I’ve had to play unfamiliar instruments that affected what I could physically do. The audience, their collective attention span and how they convey it, are influential.  Did you have lunch?  Are you hungover?  Is the bandleader insufferable? What is your mood? What else is going on in your life? The variables are endless and the best strategy is to show up open-minded. Leave your ego in your back pocket but close enough to be able to step up and take charge when needed. In group settings, it’s good to adapt and adjust, but above all, be yourself. Flexibility is probably the biggest strength you can bring.

How is playing live in front of an audience and in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally?

As a professional musician, an audience is always present. Whether live or in the recording studio, the music is (hopefully) going to be heard. We are not so humble to imagine no one listening. If I’m in the studio recording an improvisation my goal is the same— to make something interesting happen. Of course, one can edit and manipulate in post-production, and that brings the process closer to composition. Again, with live improv you are dealing with intuition, the gut, sudden bursts of emotion perhaps. It’s unhinged and that is part of the beauty. I wouldn’t say playing live or recording in the studio influence each other per se. What I achieve, whether it is a finished product or a performance, share one major thing — they are now out of my hands.

Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

The first two things that come to mind are my first two recordings as a bandleader:  trio-convulsant’s “Debutantes & Centipedes” and MadLove’s “White With Foam”. I’ve always sat on the line of composer/performer, making most of my living as a sideman and usually putting my own projects on the back burner. So, the breakthrough comes with being in charge, making all the final decisions, being direct and assertive enough to achieve what I’m after. The motivation, as with anything, is to express my artistic ideas.  I grew up being inspired by art and music and that spirit has been in my blood for decades. I also have absolutely no desire to work for someone else who doesn’t share my convictions at least on some artistic level.  I’d like to think I don’t work for “the man”.

In both cases the ideas were a collection of influences. Putting certain harmonies together with certain instrumentation. Combining my favorite parts of jazz or rock in a way that I don’t feel like I hear often enough.   

John Cage said, “I don’t actually hear music before I write it. I write it in order to hear it.” I can subscribe partially to this. As contemporary composers we aren’t like Bach who had a chamber orchestra at his disposal and could try things out with live humans as part of his job.  We are sort of left to our own devices with the weight of the 20th (and now a 5th of the 21st century) on our shoulders. So, we can have any crazy idea and do our best to implement it.  But, again, sometimes it’s the not-knowing that is the most fun.  Sometimes it’s the worst.

In a way, improvisations remind us of the transitory nature of life. What, do you feel, can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

If I could answer your question there would be no need to ask it, yes?  The only way I can explain it is by saying it musically, in sound, in wordless expression. Music, I believe, is a living thing. It is born and it dies. We may or may not have any hand in that at all. Perhaps we are vessels. Who’s to say, and who’s to listen to those who say? Perhaps the most appealing thing about music, as a creator and/or listener, is that it says what we cannot. It is a language, but you don’t have to know how to read music to feel what it is saying. One can talk about music as much as one wants: describe it, criticize it, analyze it, champion it for this reason or that reason. But that’s still using words to define the wordless. Try talking about it without words.