In the town where I went to college, there’s a music store owned by an old acid casualty named Buzzo. At one point, Buzzo was in a jazz group, where he played a weird amplified trumpet (he once showed me his mouthpiece pickup), and like many people his age, he vastly preferred that “real,” human sound to electronic music and its various offshoots. In fact, he sold stickers emblazoned with “Drum Machines Have No Soul,” which found their way onto the guitar cases of every folk band in town.
His attitude isn’t exactly uncommon among many music fans. There are strawman terms for people like that, “rockist” being the dumbest, but they nevertheless persist, and are arguably especially prevalent among fans of “highbrow” music like jazz. Thankfully, not everyone rejects new musical forms out of hand, even if they’re executed using old tools, as demonstrated on the newest record by Dawn of Midi, Dysnomia (buy it from Amazon).
Citing influences like Aphex Twin, the group—Aakaash Israni on the bass, Qasim Naqvi playing drums and percussion, and pianist Amino Belyamani—have moved far past the improvisation of their previous work into something mechanical and composed; at times, you can hear the gears moving. They achieve this in several key ways. First, Belyamani has derived a way of muting the strings on a piano as he plays them, creating short, synth-like stabs akin to a producer’s keyboards. Second, each part of the whole is highly repetitive, normally composed of a couple notes or beats. They evolve slowly, one at a time, so that what begins in time becomes perceptibly syncopated soon enough. Combined with a production that drains a lot of color from the rhythm instruments, distorting the snare and often reducing the bass to a pulse, it strikes me as what composers of the 1940s envisioned future musicians to be: mechanical instruments enslaved to time and punchcard.
Dysnomia’s 50-odd minutes form a rigidly composed whole, flowing together of a piece. Roughly divisible into three sections, each three tracks long, it begins as a sort of distorted swing, enters a muted, dark middle, and finally emerges as a perverted dance tune for its final stretch. Comparisons to the earliest work of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin can be made, or, though he is perhaps over-cited, Philip Glass: Rarely do two parts change at the same time, so that the movement between sections is gradual, flowing, though audible. There is little jarring about each hypnotic part, only about the piece as a whole.
Still, for all their palpable electronic ambitions, the members of Dawn of Midi perhaps provide a suitable case for utilizing collaborating musicians as opposed to singular producers. The instruments communicate in a way that only expert and attuned craftsmen can make them do, with little touches, like two eighth-notes on the piano echoed on a hi-hat, winning the day. In addition, for all their motorik exactness, Israni in particular makes these tracks swing, providing the slight sense of off-ness, of a personal tendency towards idiosyncrasy, that a laptop can’t. It’s mesmerizing and thrilling stuff.