“Introspective Fermentation:” Nick Dunston’s La Operación at Roulette

Nick Dunston calls his latest work, La Operación, an “introspective fermentation.” As the piece takes extra-musical inspiration from an eponymous 1982 film by Ana Maria Garcia about the US-imposed social policy of female sterilization in Puerto Rico in the 1950s and ’60s, the descriptor “introspective” seems peculiar at first. However, after reading Dunston’s thoughtful program notes and hearing the work itself, it’s clear that Dunston has used the film as a means of getting closer to his multifaceted identity and understanding how this dark part of Puerto Rico’s history has been passed on to live inside of him. The musical fruition of this internal exploration, heard Tuesday, June 4, 2019 at Roulette, was indeed a fermentation ready for consumption, aptly and organically simmering, bubbling, rising, and cracking open in a number of large-scale waves.

Dunston was joined by a cast of six in a double-trio-plus-vocal format: David Leon and Noah Becker on saxophones, Lesley Mok and Stephen Boegehold on drum set and percussion, Ben Rolston on double bass, and the mercurial Stephanie Lamprea on vocals. Lamprea occasionally played the role of the narrator, spot-lit from the very beginning as she relayed what seemed to be snippets of film’s interviews: “She told us only a few things about a pill…the horrific truth…” None of the spoken narration held out for long before the emotive content of the text broke through and split the sentences into raw sounds–voice crack acrobatics abounded throughout. Switching between English and Spanish, Dunston ultimately treated the voice in La Operación as a musical instrument that passed sonic material around the group.

Stephanie Lamprea performs Nick Dunston's La Operación--Photo by Gaya Feldheim Schorr

Stephanie Lamprea performs Nick Dunston’s La Operación–Photo by Gaya Feldheim Schorr

Mirroring Lamprea’s heavings, the bassists bowed the ribs of their instruments in elliptical fashion, as though they were lethargically chasing each other’s tails. Slowly, the saxophones rose naturally out of this texture with a sinister and tumbling force. When the drums kicked in with an Afro-Latin beat, Lamprea added herself into the mix with a technique we would come to recognize as thematic: a “broken record” live looping effect. Emotionally, this repetition hit home a sense of claustrophobia, perhaps reflecting the imposition of the US control over the tiny island nation.

After about 15 minutes of the full ensemble navigating its way through a bumpy and tight sonic landscape, Dunston gave us cyclical return: the bowed bass ribs reappeared on their own for a while before Lamprea took up narration: “the menace of the ever-growing population…the breeding of the fit…the weeding of the unfit.” The basses picked up the vocal line, and the ensemble reached another full-group jam, this time with clearly outlined and highly dynamic pairings: drums and bass; saxophones and voice. The air was eventually let out of the rumbling and tumbling machine again, this time with a spotlight on the saxophones, whose wheezing mimicked the sound of a subway train that has arrived at the station. Similar to the elliptical bass interplay from before, Leon and Becker seamlessly traded places leading and tailing, while counterpointing the vocal.

After a while, it became clear that Dunston has a knack for tightly wrought big-picture form: the broken record effects, the cyclical return of the pair of “breathing” instruments, and even rhythmic development: whereas at the beginning, groups of five dominate, in the latter half of the piece, they come in groups of seven. Dunston also develops material by way of adding topography, decorating certain things we’ve heard before with more bumps and twists, more detail and restless energy–what started as a broken record effect gave way to something that sounded like a jazz band tumbling down a hill in a metal garbage can.

David Leon, Noah Becker, Stephen Boegehold, and Nick Dunston in La Operácion--Photo by Gaya Feldheim Schorr

David Leon, Noah Becker, Stephen Boegehold, and Nick Dunston in La Operación–Photo by Gaya Feldheim Schorr

About two-thirds of the way into La Operación came the “moment”–Lamprea let out shattering scream. Dunston picked up the pieces with a pizzicato solo, and for the first time, the composer was in the performance spotlight, unleashing a frenetic energy that nodded towards bebop. For the final crest and peak, the laser-focused and cucumber-cool Lesley Mok started the engine. Everybody else began to mimic the bowed rib theme in their own way, while Lamprea sang what seemed to be recycled text. Dunston hammered home his maximal permutation of minimal means confined inside of a looped form. The listener was left feeling trapped and yet spellbound.

For someone so young to have composed a work so dramatic and large that is both a response to socio-historical truth as well as a reflection on his own identity marks real musical maturity. I only wish La Operación had a translation of the Spanish text in the program so that non-native speakers could engage deeper with the socio-cultural layer of the work. It is easy to imagine Dunston carving his own unique territory in the musical jungle of New York City, and I look forward to seeing what materializes from his inner–and outer–explorations.