In an age when music from practically every generation in recorded history is at your fingertips, you’d think that bold cross-genre blending would be much more common among musicians than it is. David Dominique’s second album, Mask, is a rare instance of just such a multistylistic mashup. It seemingly combines everything from Middle Eastern folk and Steve Reich-ian minimalism to Charles Mingus’ holy-roller church meetings and metal guitar stabs, all performed by an octet led by Dominique on his quirky brass instrument of choice, the flugabone (a flugelhorn/trombone combo).
“My approach is to capture music that occurs to me spontaneously in moments when I’m not specifically composing or searching for music,” Dominique says from Richmond, Va., where he’s a music professor at the College of William & Mary. “Ideas usually come to me when going to sleep. It can be a contrapuntal situation with multiple melodies or something fully realized with rhythm and texture. It can be torture when I need to sleep. It almost never happens when I actually try to sit down at a piano or with my horn. I like complex timbres. I’m just trying to boil all those things into one thing.”
Dominique’s website notes that his compositional output includes contemporary chamber music, jazz, electroacoustic music, sound installations, rock, and theater. Nonetheless, Mask remains impossible to categorize. What does it sound like? How about a band of gypsies with ADD breaking into a musical instrument museum outfitted with a computer that lets them choose tunes from any century in seconds?
The album’s opening track, “The Wee of Us,” zigzags merrily through nervous swing rhythms, focused systems music, and gutbucket New Orleans episodes. “Grief” combines Afro-Cuban punctuations with wailing vocals. The surreal “Beetle” sounds like music producer Hal Willner by way of Spike Lee’s soundtrack composer/father, Bill Lee. Metal guitar and woeful clarinets race for 6/8 dominance in “To Dave Truet.” “Invisibles” could be the work of Raymond Scott, until the punk band kicks in.
But for all of Mask’s genre-splicing, it never becomes kitsch or fails to be heard on its own merit. And for all its exhilarating technical profundity, the mournful “Grief” carries special emotional weight. Dominique recently lost three close family members within a year of each other; his feelings of bereavement during that time were later evoked again by music from an unexpected source.
“When I interviewed at William and Mary in February of 2016,” he recalls, “the director of [the college’s] Middle Eastern Music Ensemble, Anne Rasmussen, invited me to sit in. Later, she gave me a CD of her music. It had all this modal chatterophony, where people are singing or performing one melody together but not precisely, so you get all of this looseness and different voices stick out like threads. It’s very moving. That sound got in my head. Months later it bubbled back up.”
Nine compositions full of intense meter changes, challenging arrangements, and carved-out soloing space must have proven immensely difficult to rehearse, much less record.
“Some of these tunes tested the patience and goodwill of my group,” Dominique confirms. “Now that the album exists, I use the recordings and get charts to guys way in advance. That’s the silver lining. But the first go-round and having enough time for everyone to learn the music with the stop-start sections or the many tempo changes and style changes—it’s pretty damn hard. You need seven or eight people to all hit it with total confidence and at the same exact moment, ’cause if one person messes up the change, it’s unusable.”
These unusual juxtapositions could have produced a manic maelstrom on par with the best of Looney Tunes. But Mask remains coherent—and riveting, a master feat in itself.
“Even though some of my music definitely comes off humorous, it has a sly wink, a sardonic edge, I believe,” Dominique states. “‘Invisibles’ has a crazy searing guitar solo that stops on a dime and we’re back to this other thing that was happening before. That’s supposed to be funny: ‘Whoa, what the hell just happened?’ But the jokes are structural. The material itself isn’t really carnivalesque. Maybe I don’t trust myself and it’s more interesting to do that, the sudden dramatic shifts. But the details of the melody, the harmony, the rhythm, the timbre—I try to make sure that everything from measure to measure is sincere and expressive and representative of me in some way. I never write a single note that I’m not committed to.”