Kyle Bobby Dunn - "Canyon Meadows" (Ways of Meaning)
Brooklyn drone composer Kyle Bobby Dunn makes it easy to spot his references. You may or may not already have a soft spot for the slow burn of Stars of the Lid or William Basinski; Dunn just makes sure you know the template he’s working from. Which is a boon for lovers of this kind of long-form ambient music. About those references: his 2010 anthology was called A Young Person’s Guide To…, a play on the Phill Niblock anthology, itself a play on the name of the Britten piece. His seventh LP, Ways of Meaning, modifies John Berger’s superb book and BBC program Ways of Seeing. How much the term “classical” applies to the music Dunn makes — slowly evolving pieces based around processed sounds — is debatable, but he has a talent for enmeshing himself in that tradition and the scholarship around it.
In this sense, Dunn — like many people in their mid-20s — is an artist whose sensibility has been deeply shaped by the internet. Originality is beside the point: Dunn has done his homework. This album handily connects the dots between Morton Feldman and The Tired Sounds Of…, not to claim to be the first to do so, but to codify a genre that never quite existed before. At the same time, you can hear old-fashioned artistic growth. There’s more of Dunn’s personality in Ways of Meaning than AYPGTKBD — on a track like “Statuit,” Dunn already knows the harmonies he wants to explore versus finding them on the way. It lets you relax and enjoy the ride more. This is so satisfyingly the case on “Canyon Meadows,” which I’ll call the centerpiece of the album because it’s the most memorable passage. KBD’s compositions usually have an unresolved feel to them, but on “Canyon Meadows,” off-kilter harmonies are the center of attention. It sounds like a denser version of Feldman’s refined discord, the sounds of an orchestra tuning up made to slide and slosh around each other.
On the other hand, there isn’t much room for failure in Ways of Meaning. For its fans, this is neither a good nor bad thing — it’s the cultural logic of the moment, applied to the rarefied classical category. And still, Dunn’s music is very handy: it is equally invested in art for art’s sake and art for the everyday. Dunn positions himself as a third-wave Downtown music artist, and there is something Fluxus about the way I end up using Ways of Meaning: playing it on my phone as a segue into or out of sleep, as crossword-puzzle accompaniment or car music inevitably drowned out by highway sounds and yet vestigially there. It works well as a transparent overlay or reminder to slow your roll. There can never be too much of this kind of music — so there’s a built-in safety in Ways of Meaning for Dunn as an artist and for its listeners. It’s automatically successful if you take it up on its own terms, but I get the feeling Dunn is inching his way toward something that elicits a more nuanced response.