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Quietly, if not quite silently, students file through the rows in the Ewell Recital Hall.
After passing one another, stepping over backpacks and returning to their seats, they ruminate as directed. David Dominique, assistant professor of music at William & Mary, asks them to write down their observations.
The exercise is based on one of composer Pauline Oliveros’ Sonic Meditations advocating deep listening, which says: “Take a walk at night. Walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears.”
Subtle distinctions between sounds are what drew Dominique to playing and composing music. They are all around, and before there is music, he insists, there is ambient sound of all kinds. The two things are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but rather completely related.
In his first year at William & Mary, Dominique is using his unconventional view of music, and what goes together or constitutes it, to challenge students in the music department. He teaches composition and has spoken several times in other campus venues this semester to encourage original composition as part of personal expression.
“My goal is to try to help [students] build the tools to pursue whatever interest it is that they come to that class with,” Dominique said. “So for me, teaching composition is not about training them to write in any particular style. It’s about deepening their relationship with the music that they already love and figuring out how to build critical, thoughtful techniques for realizing artistic projects.”
He uses his own playing and composing to show the range of possibilities. It has ranged from pop to chamber music and centers around the jazz on his 2013 album “Ritual” and on the latest album he is completing with his Los Angeles-based octet.
“I just love sounds,” Dominique said. “I love playing with sounds, and I love playing with sound in a way that’s not idiomatic. So if you take a pot and a pan and some wooden utensils, you have some potential there.
“And if you take it seriously, you have the potential to create your own practice that doesn’t have an idiomatic precedent.”
An early start
He got his start as a toddler having to pull out every possible pot and pan in the kitchen to bang on with wooden spoons. Fast forward to today when an entire room in his Richmond home is filled with electronic keyboards, which he can’t winnow down because each one is unique.
Dominique started off playing the trumpet in fourth grade, though he wanted to play the drums, and soon learned tuba, trombone and baritone horn and was involved in every band group high school had to offer. He was in a ska scene band on Long Island, New York, as a teenager when he started writing music with this bandmates, playing trombone and singing as the group incorporated ska, reggae, rap, punk and metal into rock.
Not agreeing on whether to sign record label offers and going off to college, the band members parted ways. Dominique decided to work by himself and bought recording equipment and learned computer software to start experimenting.
“I was just making experimental soundscapes with some voice and keyboards and some horns,” Dominique said. “For like seven or eight years, I recorded just hundreds of kind of small expressions of strangeness that mostly just embarrassed me, which I regret because I wish I had just been forward.”
Conceiving of the material not as something for performance but as recordings, Dominique said he should have gone out and performed it live.
“It wasn’t notated music,” he said. “It had nothing to do with notes on a page or classical music at all. It was just putting sounds and recordings together.”
He worked with a friend on similar music before eventually going back to playing in other people’s bands again at age 22 in Los Angeles. After working in film scoring, he decided that a career as a composer was an area he could work in much longer than trying to be a touring performer.
“I met a teacher who introduced me to non-tonal contemporary composition in a very formal way, like orchestra music and chamber music,” Dominique said. “And it spoke to me quite a lot because some of the stuff that I was hearing in that music was pretty similar to some of the stuff that I was hearing in experimental jazz from the 1960s.”
That led to his writing contemporary chamber music, completing his master’s in it and getting a doctorate in contemporary non-tonal chamber composition.
Spreading the word
Recently speaking to Associate Professor Max Katz’s class Music in the Liberal Arts, Dominique featured several different types of music by various composers. He led students in the silent walking exercise and talked about his own music.
In February Dominique discussed his 2010 short theatrical work “This Was Ordos” in a brown bag discussion organized by the Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance. The piece weaves the reading of quotes from Padgett Powell’s novel The Interrogative Mood, which consists entirely of questions, with the text of an architectural video that Dominique found at the Art Institute of Chicago, along with Dominique performing on a prepared piano, which is one that has screws and other metal pieces attached to the hammers to produce augmented tones.
This intersects with one of Dominique’s areas of music theory research, which is aesthetic syntheses in contemporary music and Austrian composer Beat Furrer.
Furrer’s music and “This Was Ordos” both draw from multiple styles of music, yet aim to recombine diverse techniques in ways unique and personal to the composer, Dominique said. Pushing the limits, or not seeing them at all, is what allows him to expand the possibilities for all of the various types of music he works on.
“I’m interested in composers who can find unlikely intersections among contrasting types of musics and combine them seamlessly without irony,” Dominique said. “Not to make a collage or as a joke or as a mashup or a pastiche, but to completely interweave styles and make it compelling and create new styles from that.”
W&M has healthy resources for supporting students to take risks and to collaborate with each other and with faculty on ambitious projects, whether creative or scholarly, he said.
“Our hope right now is to expand the possibilities for students to have department-sponsored performances of works that they’re creating both in composition courses and for their final projects,” Dominique said. “If a student decides to be a music major here or double major in music here, and that student commits herself or himself to engaging with ideas and the field and personal expression, there are going to be opportunities for that person to dream big and to create something special and personal and unique.
“And that’s a big part of my job here is to help the students locate those potentials and to see what they’re capable of. Or to think beyond maybe what they think they’re capable of and to see how far we can go to take those kind of risks.”