Audeze interviews bassist and composer Nick Dunston

Nick Dunston is an acoustic and electroacoustic composer, improviser, and instrumentalist. Normally performing on the double bass, he also engages with other instruments and objects to create his work. As a performer he works with artists such as Marc Ribot, Mary Halvorson, Tyshawn Sorey, Vijay Iyer, and Ches Smith, in addition to leading his own bands. As a composer, he often works with contemporary ensembles such as Bang on a Can and Wet Ink Ensemble.

Nick Dunston playing bass with his Audeze LCD-X headphones 

"...my Audeze headphones have allowed me to shed off so much of that baggage that used to weigh me down and ultimately take away from the music..." - Nick Dunston
Here's our talk with Nick:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of?

Some new work has recently come out with my NYC-based trio, “Spider Season”, which is myself on bass and compositions, Kalia Vandever on trombone and fx, and DoYeon Kim on gayageum and voice. Another thing is, even though it was released a few years ago, my debut album as a leader, “Atlantic Extraction”. I think it still really holds up, and I’m quite proud of it, plus its sequel, an iPhone recording of a live concert that the band played at Three’s Brewing at the very beginning of the pandemic. Then there are also some pieces that I was commissioned to compose that I’m quite happy with: Invisible Windmills for solo classical guitar (performed by Dragos Ilie), Fainting is Down, Whooshing is Up for solo double bass (performed by Robert Black), and a piece I just finished, called Psychobabble, for chamber orchestra + an improvising band fronted by Denardo Coleman, for a concert that is honoring Ornette Coleman’s “The Shape of Jazz to Come". Finally, I am very encouraged by the progress of my work with “banjer”, which is my project in which I combine experimental techniques of operating and processing the sound of my tenor banjo. But perhaps as always, I’m most excited about my newer projects, which will all have more concrete news to be announced very soon.

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

I usually work alone as a composer/conceptualist, and then also have extensive practice as an improviser and performer. I perform in much of my work, usually playing bass, but sometimes prepared banjo, sometimes electronics. But I don’t perform in all of it, as is the case in my practice as a composer who is commissioned by soloists and ensembles. Improvisation can be found everywhere in my work, both when I am performing, but also when I am composing for other people-I often include space for improvisation in this work, and that space is used for the very structure of the pieces. In this way, I am sharing some artistic autonomy with more people.

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

I actually wasn’t super into music when I first started playing, which was when I was about 5-6, playing cello in school orchestras. It took me switching to bass guitar and playing in rock bands that I started to really get into it. I was really into a pretty wide range of subgenres of rock at that time-indie, grunge, punk, classic, glam…I was fortunate to end up at a really great arts high school in NYC, and that’s where my practice as a musician more or less got set on a certain path, and where listening to music began to take a more active role in my life.

Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

I’ve had just the best people around me. In high school I was studying bass with Linda May Han Oh, and then in college I took some really amazing lessons with people such as Tyshawn Sorey, Kris Davis, Matt Mitchell, Joe Morris, Missy Mazzoli, and Andrew Cyrille. During school and beyond, I also have had ample opportunities to professional work with and therefore learn a lot from some of my favorite musicians, such as Mary Halvorson, Ches Smith, Vijay Iyer, and Marc Ribot. Then there are peers from whom I perhaps learn from the most, just by sheer time spent together, people like Kalia Vandever, Weston Olencki, Lester St. Louis, Wendy Eisenberg… like all of these categories (which I realize are starting to blur into one another anyway, all of these people are my heroes)… there are simply too many to list. Finally, of course in more recent years my partner Cansu Tanrikulu has been an inspiring force, giving me so much bravery and encouragement, she has really helped me completely blow my palette and practice wide open.

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

For me my biggest frustrations usually have to do with the physically straining and technically demanding aspects of music making-which can be found most often, of course, in my double bass practice. Practice makes perfect and that’s really the only answer, but I’ve found it more difficult to make time as I engage in more composition away from the instrument. I’m trying to find ways to bridge the two together again, but not in a way that makes my music sound so “bass-centric”, but more to establish a deeper, perhaps more nuanced connection between my compositional sensibilities and my improvisational sensibilities. This is something that I’ve also dealt with at times via aggressively paying attention to my health, taking vegetarian/veganism breaks, doing yoga, running, working out, and that includes mental health absolutely, so things like monitoring and setting boundaries for myself with social media, therapy, and meditation. I guess it’s true with all instruments to different degrees, but I do feel that playing the bass, not even necessarily at a profound level, but just at a level where you don’t seriously hurt yourself, requires a more holistic and comprehensive approach than people might think.

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

I generally work with my bass, my tenor banjo, and some electronics. I use a couple of different synths made by the company Landscape, as well as a few pedals, mostly from Red Panda Lab or Boss. Occasionally I will use the Samplr app on my iPad, it’s just so intuitive and sophisticated. There are also more slightly DIY things, like soldering transducers using little amplifiers. I am currently working on a piece as part of my artist residency with Wet Ink Ensemble, in which I’ll be creating a piece that involves me playing radios as instruments, including processing them through various electronics.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

It hasn’t been the easiest path for me, because I know I definitely neglected mental health at several points along the way leading up to where I am now. I would just say that you really need to put yourself first, and one might think that when I say “yourself” includes your career, i.e., “this could be really good for my career”, but it’s actually much more fundamental than that. I don’t think you need to always be in problem-solving mode, trying to obsess over how to deal with your mentality; I obsess all the time over whether I’m “feeling good” and that can be destructive. But I do think it is important to have some awareness, not to the point where you’re feeling everything so intensely at once all the time, but just to be generally mindful, and to listen to your body. I get that there are a lot of peer pressure and career pressures out there that are so ubiquitous that they feel like they are basically a part of you, but I promise they are not. We need to take care of ourselves better, and what sticks with me to remember is that phrase, something like “if you don’t take a break then your body will take a break for you.”

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

I work a lot with headphones, and always have as long as I’ve been making music-whether it be experimenting/workshopping with synths and making electronic compositions, or working in various DAWs (generally I use Ableton Live). They’re basically my default tool to work with, especially living in a city and being on tour relatively often. They’re as important as my computer, or any instrument. But it’s funny, I never (until now!) had a really great pair of headphones, and when I’m working on my own music, I feel like a part of me is just assuming “this sounds pretty good as is, so it must sound better on nice headphones!” Now…we’ll see if that’s the case!

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work?

In general I actually prefer to work without headphones-before I started regularly using my Audeze headphones, I felt that I always needed to compromise between hearing everything I needed to, my physical comfort while working, and of course the everyday logistical environments that make using headphones necessary! So for me, a perfect set of headphones are one that are simply as "out of the way" as possible, that allow me to hear everything honestly, don't feel like they are damaging my ear health, and simply don't "get in the way". When I'm working on my own music in a DAW or when I'm in the recording studio booth, my Audeze headphones have allowed me to shed off so much of that baggage that used to weigh me down and ultimately take away from the music (or at least from my enjoyment of the music-making process!).

Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently?

Currently I am working on quite a few compositions, using DAWs and my Audeze headphones through them. I have one premiere in a few weeks with Wet Ink Ensemble, which is a piece for a large-ish instrumentation plus myself on some electronics, and notably I am playing with processed radios. The headphones have allowed me to experiment and develop the music itself while also allowing me to quietly switch back and forth between that and notation, in a very agile and fluid way. The same goes for other electroacoustic works I am developing, such as an upcoming premiere for the Amsterdam-based trio TROMPO or my Berlin-based quartet Skultura. I also have a couple of recording sessions coming up, for which I can finally be excited about without dreading the usual discomfort I have with booths and sub-par headphones!