DunkelpeK’s “Fire’s Hush” is a “Joyous Vehicle” for Experimental Improvisation

With nearly a decade of experience playing together under their belts, Japanese-born percussionist Nava Dunkelman and Canadian American guitarist Jakob Pek truly shine in their ensemble work. Although their percussion-guitar duo DunkelpeK specializes in experimental improvised music, they have developed a shared language that enables them to venture into stylistically diverse musical terrains while telling their stories in tandem.

Each of the eight tracks on their first studio album, Fire’s Hush, are lean and dynamic, with none of the bloat that can tend to creep into freeform music. Available February 4, 2022 on AKP Recordings, this music offers a decadent array of soundscapes and textures with a sense of cohesion that is uncommon in the genre. Not only does each track have a clear sonic identity but a unified sense of pulse and tempo. These artists are concerned not just with creating sound worlds, but with how they usher listeners through them. What stands out most of all is DunkelpeK’s attention to phrasing. Dunkelman and Pek face the challenges that come with a grappling a huge palette of sounds, interwoven rhythms, and hocketed melodies with cool confidence and flair. The resulting effect is dazzling.

DunkelpeK--Photo by Damien Maloney

DunkelpeK–Photo by Damien Maloney

In “Unknown Memory,” DunkelpeK creates atmospheric and somber harmonies. What sounds like bowed crotales and vibraphone bars are coupled with muted piano strings and otherworldly timbres. Whimsical and enchanting piano material emerges from the soft wash of suspended sounds, not unlike specks of dust revealed by a sunbeam. This track serves as a nice prelude to the album. It generates a good deal of intrigue with its minimal material and leaves the players with plenty of tricks still up their sleeves that are yet to be revealed.

From the outset of the second track “無,” it becomes clear that DunkelpeK also ventures into far more sinister terrain. A dizzying churning of scraping sounds is punctuated by softer gurgles, buzzes, and pitter patters from both guitar and percussion. At moments, the music swells into a wild onslaught of drum set fills, and at others, a quirky, distorted groove carries the track. Another contrast comes with “Ode to the Dream,” in which layers of vibraphone and piano mesh together in a dovetailed counterpoint. Improvisational elements such as imitation and amplification are integrated into a single joyous exultation.

DunkelpeK uses a diverse stylistic palette of material for Fire’s Hush. These tracks may share a common language, but each has its own unique identity. There are some heavy and dark expanses in this music, but they are sprinkled with moments of pure surprise and delight. “Lila” at first appears to be a clear departure from previous tracks. Pek plucks a folksy melody on the guitar as Dunkelman provides a light rhythmic accompaniment, which blooms into an unwieldy pitch-bent, polyrhythmic contraption before returning to a simplified variation again at the end. Coupled with its virtuosic performance and tight-knit rhythms, this track had me smiling and hitting the replay button over and over again.

Fire’s Hush is an immersive and emotional journey that transports listeners to dynamic sound worlds. These cohesive worlds are sublime and surprising, without ever losing a sense of play and motion. Soon after I finished listening to the album, moments from pieces pricked at my mind like memories from some interstellar road trip. Fire’s Hush is a provocative reminder that in the right hands, experimental improvised music is a fantastic and joyous vehicle in which to travel. Perhaps there is something here that transcends what is possible with notated music; the immediacy and sense of urgency behind the music on Fire’s Hush is not to be glossed over.


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