An Interview with Kyle Bobby Dunn

After chatting with Brooklynite and post-Classical/drone composer Kyle Bobby Dunn via the interwebs a couple of weeks ago, I have a completely fresh perspective on his style. Mr. Dunn doesn't see himself unique so much as he does honest, clear, intentional, and precise. It's refreshing to hear an artist so in tune with this genre's quirks but doesn't really bow to contemporaries or trends. Rather, the music of Kyle Bobby Dunn reflects his own personal desires, memories, ambitions and frustrations. The simple fact that his sound is so akin to the likes of William Basinski or Stars of the Lid gives me the sense that artists are coming up with similar ideas across an intensely wide range of physical geographies and methodologies. These sounds are coming from places other than the likes of classrooms or history books—they are truly springing forth from the artists themselves at a very personal level. As we talked, questions turned into comments on the function of ambient music, and why KBD's music isn't exactly ambient at all. I also asked him about his upcoming performance at a church in Brooklyn Heights, and wether or not more live performances from his ensemble can be expected. I found our conversation to be fascinating and a lot of fun—don't forget to check out his latest 2-hour behemoth, A Young Person's Guide to Kyle Bobby Dunn, soon to be reissued on triple-LP, and his brand new 3" CD-R offering on the Standard Form imprint, Rural Route no. 2.
Tome to the Weather Machine: I'm curious about your education and where you are from. Where did you grow up?
Kyle Bobby Dunn: I grew up for the most part of my high school years in Greensboro, NC. I kind of traipsed back to Canada a bit though.
And you started on piano?
I started piano when I was about 10 or 11. That was in Canada. Calgary.
Did you study composition in college?
I studied music history and art history. I'm not traditionally educated.
What do you mean "traditionally educated?"
Sorry, not a traditional composer.
Romantic composers seem to have an important impact on your style—is your music an extension of the Romantic era in music history? Or are you doing something in a new era altogether?
Not so much an extension as a reflection or echo of how I feel about things. Things in my own life. I work in what I know—I think this is a very lost era.
How do you think it is "lost?" Can you be more specific? Are you lost?
Yeah it's probably just me. Although I see a lot of confusion and lost identities in New York.
When did you first move to New York?
About three and half years ago. I'd gone on a kind of pilgrimage to Calgary in 2006 and then randomly moved to Brooklyn sort of.
Has it been a good place to foster your progression as a composer?
Yeah. I love who I've met and gotten the chance to work with. It's incredible in some ways. I just can't help but feel isolated at the end of the day.
Who are your contemporaries would you say? Are there others like you out in NY, or.. do you feel on your own out there?
It's really weird for me 'cause I just don't feel in line with anyone. There's a lot of people working in the digital and electo-acoustic fields that I like and respect but I'm not sure I share anything in common with them.
What makes your music different? I suppose that's up to critics like me, huh? Just kidding.
Yeah, you may better answer that one. I don't know—I know all music is personal and subjective and has its roots. I think it's the way I arrange it, though, that is the biggest difference. People probably know what they're doing a lot more than I do.
I'm curious if you notate your music?
In my own weird un-traditional way, yes.
Can you explain that? How do you notate it exactly? Is it like... Penderecki-style?
Its kind of like Feldman's graphic score years meets Hitler.
Awesome. I don't have any idea what that might look like... but awesome. So, is there a staff with notes for your musicians to read at least?
No, it's not written out. It's more dictated.
Spoken to your musicians aloud?
Exactly. I like sitting and getting an awkward sense of who I'm working with while recording a new work.
Do you work with a rotating cast, or have you found a set of musicians you are pretty comfortable with at this point?
A few. The love of my life, Erica Dicker, is a recurring actress in my new work and most recent performances. She plays violin with the Michigan Symphony Orchestra.
So tell me about your upcoming performance in New York - you're playing in a church?
Yeah this fantastic, gorgeous place really close to where I live in Brooklyn Heights. I've been wanting to solely play at churches for years.
Is that mostly to do with the acoustics of the space?
Yeah, and the aesthetics.
Is there something... spiritual about your music? I don't want to say "religious" exactly...
Again, maybe better answered by you. People have said there's a real inner-human quality to the sounds and its subtly emotional. I'm not a religious or even very spiritual person. My sounds come a lot from thoughts and memory.
What kind of set up do you have planned for the show?
It'll be like seeing an awkward ensemble or chamber performance with a real holy vibe.
Will you be performing works from any of your albums?
Yes and some new works.
The 3" CD-R, Rural Route No. 2—the two pieces are very different styles. The Young Person's Guide—there are light and dark moments, but this new release has you working with two completely different textural fields. Are those differences coming from new instruments you are using?
Well, I released an album in 2007 called Six Cognitive Works in Sweden that also had a lot of textural "holiest grail" moments. A Young Person's Guide is really soft in comparison. But I'm really using the same things minus some processors.
That's cool that the tools you use are so adaptable and maleable.
I love the versatility of guitar and piano. Those are the only things I "play" really. I rely on the strings and horn players to give me a more spacious element.
Do you perform live often—or is this upcoming show a rare thing in the world of Kyle Bobby Dunn?
I haven't played in a few months, but early in the year I was doing way too many shows.
Were the shows getting in the way of your composing habits?
Yeah, and I just don't feel good afterwards. The church space is something I am actually looking forward to.
How about touring - have you ever tried that out? If you were able to tour, what would you take with you for your shows ideally?
Never a string of back-to-back, city-to-city before. I am not sure I could stomach it. If I went with the right people and it was outside the U.S. it may be fun. I'd probably take Erica Dicker with me for a first tour. We'd drink wine the whole time.
You mentioned Europe a couple times earlier… do you think your music is more well-received there?
I'd just really like to be out there. I feel like there's better reception and environments for me there.
What would you say is the biggest source of inspiration for you?
It'll sound really self-absorbed, but probably myself. I can't imagine anyone getting enjoyment or truly liking my work for what it actually is. I mean that's why my albums and titles are all obnoxiously titled.
That's really interesting that you make this art, but you know that people are receiving it in a way that you maybe didn't intend.
I mean, the music can be looked at as human or universal in the sense that it deals with identity, neurosis, addiction, relationships and the search for meaning. But its coming from a guy who calls his music "Kyle Bobby Dunn."
I'm going to assume that my review of your record... was completely off. 
I mean, I make it. I release it and its packaged like everything else. It's nice if it can be received but I'm surprised it's gotten such positive reviews.
This might sound a little blanketing, but ambient music... it's so easily likable in my opinion. I think that it's because as personal as it may be for the artist, it can equally be so for the person listening to it. Brian Eno always pushed to keep things in flux... changing the way you position your stereo's speakers and everything to give yourself a unique experience each time. KBD's music definitely has that sort of fluidity to it, in my opinion—do you feel like your works are "finished?" Are these encapsulated pieces?
Yeah, I think it's ridiculous. If you have to make your speakers do tricks to have an experience you probably have a lot of issues. I almost wish I didn't hear Eno's ambient series as it has made me think too much about how music is made to be received and on and on. My work is not ambient. The pieces are what they are but that doesn't mean the same voices can't be found again.
Wow, that's really interesting. I guess sometimes I get wrapped up in concepts of reception, personally. it's probably because I'm listening to music all day... so much so, that I think it changes the ways I make music myself.
So am I, for the most part. I try so hard not to analyze what it is and let it just do the controlling. I guess that's why people listen to dance music.
So we were talking about the 3" CD-R that you recently put out. Did you say you were friends with the label that released it?
Standard Form. When I lived in Toronto in 2004 for a while, I met Damian Valles and Alex Durlak. Two great people who knew too much about music and were both playing in math rock bands and other things in Toronto. Alex owned a printing company and Damian has since married and moved out to the country. He wanted to start a series of 'rural' aimed music and I was next on his list.
Do they only make these 3" CD-R's?
I think they're doing their first vinyl release for Beasts (a Toronto band) this month or next.
Have you heard of Kimberly Dawn Recordings?
Heard that name recently. Not the recordings though. 
Yeah, they are a 3" CD-R-only label. I don't even have a player that can work a CD like that... but Foxy Digitalis sent me one to review. Just an interesting format... resurgent for some reason.
Yeah, the release that Standard Form did for me is a 3" CD-R that comes with a business card inside for download purposes. I honestly don't like the format but Damian and them are friends of mine.
Oohh. Pitchfork said something like "KBD was made for this format." So… you're stuck with it I guess.
I mean there's a hidden message behind the whole 3" CD-R release idea... like a tongue-in-cheek kind of message. Well, and they said the EP is a good format for me, but an EP could be a regular CD which I would have preferred I think.
What do you mean by "hidden message?"
Well more of a statement. A statement on where the music release world is heading...
So, last question: new album in the works? What's next?
I don't know. I am working on things but hopefully no more from me for a while. 
Hopefully? Is there something you'd rather be doing? Or are you just burned out?
Just exhausted of myself. Not even sure a vacation would do it.
September 8th, 2010