On African And Electronic Music Influences In Dawn Of Midi’s “Dysnomia”


Dysnomia is an album about time; it is an expression of the fractal unfolding of the present, demonstrated through rhythm.” – Aakaash Israni, bassist

There’s a part near the end of John Collins’ excellent documentary on West African rhythm, Listening To The Silence: African Cross-Rhythms, where Collins makes a striking observation. African music, he says, is like a perceptual time bomb that went off inside Western music in the twentieth century. Indirectly shaping jazz, rock, pop, hip hop and even classical music, the influence of African music is omnipresent in the importance of steady groove, syncopation, and polyrhythm. Most of us hardly ever think about it, but much of the music we hear around us is indebted to the aesthetics and vitality of African–especially West African–music making.

I thought about Collins’ documentary when I came across the music of Dawn of Midi, an acoustic piano, bass, and drums trio from Brooklyn. Dawn Of Midi’s most recent recording, Dysnomia, is a compelling 45-minute long, through composed musical object. Each of the album’s nine tracks–which connect to one another into a single seamless groove–is a study in making polyrhythm and rhythmic process front and center in the music. The tracks have little in the way of jazz chords, chord changes, or melodies. But what it lacks in that department it makes up for in rhythmic vitality executed with precision timing, focus, and verve.

You can hear this vitality on the track eight, “Algol.” Pianist Amino Belyamani plays African bell-like timeline patterns on muted strings rich with harmonics; bassist Aakaash Israni plays staccato two-note chords; and percussionist Qasim Naqvi finds the silences in between the bass and piano parts and inserts bass drum, hi hat, snare, and cross stick hits. Each musician’s part repeats but also steadily shifts, adding and subtracting notes to keep the musical texture evolving. A lot of skill and restraint is required to pull this off as well as Dawn of Midi does.

Perhaps most significantly, “Algol” has a twelve beat meter. Meters like 6/8 and 12/8 are common in West African drumming pieces, perhaps because they facilitate multiple musical time perspectives. For instance, 12/8 can be felt in groups of 2, 3, 4, or 6 beats. Skilled musicians can play patterns within the twelve counts of the meter that foreground these different metric subdivisions of 2, 3, 4, and 6 beat groupings. Musicians can also superimpose these different groupings–playing say, a three beat pattern in the left hand and a two beat pattern in the right to make a polyrhythm (or what Collins’ documentary calls a “cross-rhythm”). Dawn of Midi does a lot of this kind of foregrounding metrical foreground and background in their music by having each musician repeat specific patterns that interlock in ways that engage and surprise the listener. Each pattern holds steady for a while, then makes a subtle change. And with every subtle change, a new musical relationship is revealed. Between the patterns, the repetition, and the perceptual delights to which the subtle changes give rise, this music holds your attention like a kaleidoscope.


In an interview at theorganist.org podcast, Dawn of Midi frames what they’re doing as responses to African and electronic musics. Pianist Belyamani describes how the standard American jazz swing ride cymbal rhythm--ding-ding-de-ding-ding-de–has long been felt on the downbeat at the expense of feeling it on the upbeat. He says that Dawn of Midi embraces that upbeat feel which is more African in its perceptual demands on the listener. Belyamani makes an analogy to dance: “In other parts of the world you’re dancing against what the music is providing. So the [dancer’s beat] is not present in the music.” The dancers, he says, “are completing the circuit.” Similarly, Dawn of Midi aim to play their interlocking parts around the beat to accentuate the unsounded spaces and upbeats, letting the listener complete the musical circuit by filling in the implied pulse that no single musician is playing outright. Percussionist Naqvi then compares the group’s approach to electronic music making: “There’s a degree of precision in terms of having to play these parts over and over again–that I guess are almost like loops…And they have to be really perfect in order for the dialogues to be musical…In that sense, the repetition and perfecting that gives one a sense of electronic music.” Bassist Israni describes this approach in terms of learning from electronic music: “In Autechre…they’re doing things that computers are allowing them to do. But it also seems like we’re just getting to place now where we’re wanting to learn those things back from the computers…and doing it ourselves.”


There is so much that is interesting about Dysnomia. First, the African music connection is real: these musicians know how to construct polyrhythmic grooves that circle around a shared beat without articulating it outright, and this tension makes the music fly. Second, the music flies yet also doesn’t go anywhere harmonically or melodically–and this is a good thing, if only to remind us of the power of rhythm and timbre to hold our attention. Third, the electronic music connection is just as real as the African one. Structurally, the aesthetic guiding the pieces on Dysnomia resembles the constraints of a step sequencer that allows musical parts to only shift one note or “step” at a time. It’s perhaps a rigid musical protocol to adopt, but it nevertheless lends this acoustic music an electronic feel. Also, great restraint and control are required to play and develop parts as a machine like a step sequencer can. In this way, Disnomia has a disciplined and focused sound “with a pull all its own” (says Chris Barton, L.A. Times) that evokes an “organic quest for something spiritual and transformative” (says Jeremy D. Larson, pitchfork.com). Like a true African cross-rhythm, the music seems to never quite reveal itself, and so we wait to hear what will happen next.


On Musical Time And Running Speed


One night I was playing my part, listening to the part of another musician. All systems were running smoothly, and we were in sync. Then, suddenly, I had a sense that the other musician was pushing the time, just a hair.

My ears perk up: Oh, this is interesting.

I was sure of my sense that the problem was with him, not me. Why? Because I felt my sensation to be well, true. Then it occurred to me that maybe the problem is me. Why? Maybe my sensation could be misleading me.

So: Is he pushing the time or am I dragging it? The more I thought about this issue the more it became vexingly interesting.

It would be easy to tell you, with some confidence, that I can trust my sensations of musical time because I have experience playing this particular piece not a few, but thousands of times. I know how it’s “supposed” to feel and sound, and my perception of the piece’s tempo and flow is by now pretty acute. I could even back up my claim of knowing the time feel of the music with recourse to a sense of what my hands are doing on my instrument. “The feel in my hands doesn’t lie!” I might tell you. And there is something to that.

But all this just brings us deeper into the issue: How can we judge the musical time of others from the vantage point of our own imperfect sense of time? How can we have any objectivity at all–aren’t we essentially trapped within our own time perception? And how can we accurately make judgements about the time of others while all of us are inside the temporal flow of our making music together?

Having said this, it still feels like I was right–more on than off, not dragging but in the pocket. But who can know for sure?


I’ve had analogous experiences while running and wearing a GPS watch. I feel swift, yet the watch is telling me that I’m incrementally slowing down. I can’t perceive this slowing accurately because in my fatigued state my perception of pacing–the musical time that is one’s running tempo–has been altered. There are also days when I feel like I’m just hobbling along, yet my GPS–the runner’s metronome–tells me that I’m actually flying fast.

Whether playing music or running, in each case I mainly rely on my hands and my footwork to give me a sense of my time. But I also get feedback from that other musician whom I perceived to be dragging and the GPS watch that measures relentlessly (and tells me I’m dragging). This feedback comes up against my own sensibilities and awareness of what I’m doing as I’m doing it. In the end though, while musical time and running speed can certainly be measured, and while our own sense of our unfolding actions is certainly not perfect, sometimes we still just want to go by feel.

General Notes On Practice

Practice is the pudding’s proof.

Practice tests the theory.

Practice is physical, experiential, and embodied knowledge.

Practice can’t lie.

Practice is the best you can do at this moment.

Practice reveals how much you know (and didn’t even know you knew).

Practice is a level playing field.

Practice is tradition’s transportation.

Practice problematizes tradition, highlighting its gaps and weak points.

Practice is not theory in action, but rather its own distinct modality of thinking and affect.

Practice can trick us into believing that we “know our stuff”, even though in this case, the knowing and the stuff are one and the same.

Practice touches us more deeply than theory ever could, because we always respond to action.

Practice is a reflective surface, and can be learned by imitation.

Practice is contagious.

Practice is a high-beam light focused on a small area of doing.

Practice can rely on muscle memory, or in-the-moment thinking.

Practice can earn accolades, even though it’s a shared cultural commons rather than individual property.

Practice doesn’t wonder “what if?” but instead enacts “this is…”