Name: DunkelpeK
Members: Nava Dunkelman, Jakob Pek
Occupation: Percussionist, improviser (Nava Dunkelman), Musician, improviser (Jakob Pek)
Nationality: American
Recent Release: DunkelpeK's Fire’s Hush is out via akp.

If you enjoyed this interview with DunkelpeK, visit the project on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and bandcamp. Or head over to the personal websites of the duo: Nava Dunkelman, Jakob Pek.

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?

Nava: I play percussion. For my improvisation setup I have drums, a cymbal / gong, as well as a table of percussion instruments with lots of bells, singing bowls, small gongs, wood blocks, and more.

I think this choice of instruments was deeply influenced by how I grew up as a musician. My mother is Indonesian and also a musician. I grew up performing with her and I spent some time playing Indonesian gamelan instruments. I feel that this sound naturally became part of me. It is a part of my nature. So you can hear and see a lot of that with my percussion setup.

Jakob: My primary instruments are the guitar and the piano. They are both dear friends and worthy adversaries.

I am always seeking to transmute, expand and evolve the potential sounds these instruments can create, hence I found myself in a deep exploration of prepared guitar and prepared piano, which is the practice of playing the instrument with an assortment of extraneous tools and instruments such as sticks, stones, alligator clips, cloth, yarn … really, everything and anything that peaks my curiosity and might make an intriguing sound.

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

Jakob: I always think of the Latin root words, im provisus, the unforeseen. Improvisation is a willful adventure into the unknown, and hence can be scary and disorienting for some. It is a play of making shape, sense and form out of formlessness and chaos in the present moment. It is discovery, meetings with freedom and bondage, touching your creative limits and artistic infinitudes. It is immediate interrelatedness with your environment and all those present in it.

As for composition, componere, “to put together” … well, in my life, it’s not much different from improvisation, there is simply a more expanded relationship with time that composition allows. Improvisation is immediate whereas composition allows me to freeze and play with metaframeworks of time.

Nava: For me improvisation and composition are two different things. Some people say that improvisation is a “real-time composition” and I can understand that, in a sense. Music is being made in real time, but for me, when I improvise, I don’t necessarily feel  that I am composing, because I’m not planning anything.

For me, composition is something you put work into planning, deciding on the shape of the music in advance, just like how artists who draw realistic pictures know what they are trying to portray. You know what the plan is, and how you want the sounds to be. But improvisation is not necessarily like that. You don’t plan, and you won’t necessarily know the shape the music is going to take.

When I improvise, my body moves naturally as I hear and feel the sound and respond to the musicians I’m playing with. I am who I am and I express myself sonically through my instruments. It is much like how we are in real life, you react to what is happening around you.

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?

We believe that the potential for sound to be experienced as music is infinite.

“Where there is listening, there is music.” - Pauline Oliveros
So, perhaps the materials we are most interested in are sounds themselves, and the transformation at play is to transform sound itself into a musical experience.

[Read our Pauline Oliveros interview]

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?

Jakob: I can dig these ideas, but there are always situations in which any axiom can be tossed.

It’s true, there’s nothing quite as disappointing as being in an ensemble in which the musicians are not actively listening to one another and are more concerned with projecting their own sound rather than creating anything cohesive. But I’m not totally opposed to a hurricane of sound emerging from a single player from time to time. Just be spot on with your timing.

And in regards to creating sound that regularly relates to what you’re hearing others create, well, yes, this is a good compass. But at the same time, there is a true skill in being able to sound as if you are making music in another room when compared to the others in the ensemble, a sort of radical, juxtapositional counterpoint.

In short, I can dig John Stevens’ ideas, but I can also imagine situations in which I would disregard these axioms. He might kick me out of his band.

Of course, group playing is much different than solo playing. Listening is always paramount however. There are simply more moving parts in an ensemble, whereas in a solo situation, all the responsibility lies with me.

Nava: I can understand his perspective in the sense of if you are improvising in a group, you can’t just play whatever you want and be selfish with the sounds.

I had an experience myself playing in a group in which one of the musicians was not aware of or listening to what was going on around him. He kept playing what he wanted without noticing that everyone else in the group had stopped playing. We were essentially waiting for him to stop. One of the group members even went up to him to try to cue him to stop, but he was not looking, and he was pretty much consumed in his own world, playing his own thing.

And that was just terrible. It makes me think of John Steven’s idea of, “why be in the group?”

This is also about how much you want to be listening and aware of what’s going on around you when you perform.

Solo is just you, so there is obviously much more freedom and yes, you can play however you like to. It’s all up to you. But for me, personally, listeners are still in my thoughts, and I care about their ears. So that is another form of awareness that I use which allows me to satisfy both myself and the listeners with my solo performances. I am improvising with the audience in a sense.

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 your improvisations and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

Open, empty, receptive, attentive, immediate presence. For us, it’s an open listening and keen vigilance that is the doorway to the ideal state for creative play. Less doing, less trying, more receptivity, and more awareness. Play then emerges spontaneously and freely.

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

Listen deeply and respond. Ideally, we are in a flow state of complete trust to one another and to the moment. The trust allows for risk taking, exploration, and discovery.

Everything is happening of its own accord, as if there isn’t even the temporal space to allow for decision making. Everything is too immediate. There’s no room for thought. We simply take action based on an embodied knowing.

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

This question reminds us of when we have played in a loud space rather than a quiet space that is catered to listening. For improvisation to really work, the music and the space must complement one another. This is vital for a successful improvised performance.
There were some shows in which we were asked to perform during a party, but this really didn’t work at all. Improvisation is something that is very delicate. We need to pay attention to all the sounds surrounding us, and sure, it is possible for us to play along with loud environmental sounds, people talking, etc. but I think as much as we pay close attention to sounds, the listeners also need to do the same for the music to really bloom, and it doesn't really work when the audience is not engaged in their own listening.

A simple strategy is to actually be attuned to the environment you are playing in, and to be sensitive to the experiential field of the listeners that are present. Quite simply, one needs to be aware of the space itself, the emptiness in which the environment is existing.

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

It definitely feels different to perform in front of an audience compared to being in the studio.

When we are with an audience, naturally there are more things to be aware of in the environment, and there are more things that are unknown. The audience is part of the environment that we are listening and responding to. We feel their ears and emotions and we naturally respect them.

In the studio, it is pretty much only us and the empty room that we are aware of. There are less unknowns. Recording improvisation in the studio can also become more compositional. You might discover a sound you want to develop or a mood you want to explore more deeply.

How are studio work and live performances connected? The music always comes back to deep listening and a keen vigilance to the moment. Regardless of whether we are performing or recording, these fundamental elements are present.

We prefer to perform live. There are more surprises and discoveries in that context. Of course, the studio is a special place, but this music is meant to be experienced live.

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?

Simply performing is a joy of ours. We’ve had some amazing shows in very different venues, from obscure hole in the wall places to museums and music festivals.

We are simply sharing what we love to do, something that deeply enriches our lives. And when listeners are moved by what we share, that’s really a beautiful thing that keeps us going as artists. Performing itself is very special to us.

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?

Yes, improvised music can get really deep. It is one of the oldest practices of humanity, yet, every time we improvise, something that has never existed before is being born.  

Music is pure vibratory meaning, meaning as it exists prior to abstraction, meaning as being, and improvised music has a unique capacity to exteriorize and portray some of the deeper aspects and patterns of the psyche and self.

It’s that profound meeting place of order and chaos and the discovery of deep patterns. Engaging with that, as an artist or as a listener, puts one in touch with some of the deeper aspects of being human, such as our inevitable confrontation with death, the impermanence of everything, and the preciousness of life in the midst of transience.

Musical improvisation allows for an honesty of communication and an intimacy that is impossible to realize with words. It transcends time periods, cultures, and languages. It really is a privilege to share in the space of meaning that improvised music can create.