By Brian Chase for Tom Tom Magazine | Photos: Chloe Aftel
Full Name: Shayna Esther Dunkelman
Hometown: Tokyo, Japan
Lives In: Brooklyn, NY
Past Bands: Slow Children, Mute Socialite, William Winant Percussion Group
Current Bands: Peptalk, Xiu Xiu, Balún, Glasser
Kit Setup: Multi-percussion set ups acoustic / electronic
With a background in contemporary classical music and a love for pop styles, Shayna Dunkelman transcends boundaries and infuses music with an awesome spark. In speaking about her many projects, Shayna says,“They cover so much range, just like my percussion! I use a very large palette of sounds. Over the years it’s been narrowing down to this specific kind of aesthetic, but even within that I feel there is a lot of range. There are a lot of different projects that I’ve played with while still staying true to my palette.” These projects include indie artists Xiu Xiu and Glasser, experimental improvised music revolving around the community of John Zorn’s club the Stone, and her painterly electro-pop-exotica band Pep Talk. Now living in New York, she moved from the Bay Area where she spent many years playing professionally as well as earning degrees in music and math at Mills College.
“I grew up in Japan and it was my first time leaving when I was 18. I specifically went to Mills because I wanted to study with William Winant, and when I realized he was teaching there I was like *snap* this is the school for me. Willie was a great teacher technically and he always focused on what I wanted to do. We played a number of pieces by Steve Reich, John Cage, James Tenney, but he also took this advisor role which was really great. It’s not like my vision was clear at that young age but I sort of had an idea of what I wanted to study and what kind of direction I wanted to take with my career. He pushed me to think of what I wanted to be as a percussionist because he’d just say, ‘well what do you want to do?’ It forced me to really think about it rather than just do assignment after assignment.” Shayna also describes Winant as a ‘field teacher.’ “He’d be like, ‘I can’t do this gig, go do it.'”
After Mills, Shayna stayed in Oakland playing on the scene there, which precipitated the eventual move to New York: “I got called from John Zorn one day to be on his album, Femina – a collection of music dedicated to female artists of all sorts of media. That was how I started playing with a lot of New York musicians.” I first met Shayna in this context, playing at one of the Stone’s monthly improv nights. And, in June of 2012, she had the honor of holding a curatorship at the Stone. Reflecting on the move to New York she adds,”being in the ‘network’ kind of made me more aware of who I am and what the scene is about. It helped me collaborate with people I wouldn’t have otherwise. Then I started playing with Xiu Xiu, which has been for almost two years now. Glasser is a more recent thing.” Shayna has been touring regularly with both groups. This does require extra effort when it comes to traveling with important gear: “My xylo-synth travels in a rifle case. I get the whisper, ‘is that a gun?’ No, it’s not a gun, it’s a keyboard.”
For her own music, Shayna has Pep Talk, her project with Preshish Moments and Angelica Negron. As she describes it, “Pep Talk is influenced by mid-century Exotica which in turn is influenced by Polynesian or Latin music. I wouldn’t say I’m writing Exotica but that’s kinda the palette, going back to the wide spectrum of sound. I draw inspiration from that, and from different types of electronica and Japanese pop from the 60s and 70s.” A remarkable aspect of this music is the interaction between Shayna’s percussion and the electronic processing it undergoes by Preshish and his computer.
When it comes to performance, what is key for Shayna is listening: “I listen a lot, I try to listen as much as possible. This is something I learned from free improv which is that you have to do a lot of active listening and not just play your part. Every show, every musician you’re playing with, every setting, every venue and sound is so different. I always have to change a little bit to adjust to whatever the music needs at that moment.” Shayna also emphasizes the importance of courage in the music world. She urges,”you just have to take risks. Go bigger than what you think you’re capable of. Dream big. And play, play, play. If you want to take the drums don’t be afraid. I used to play the clarinet but I switched to drums because I wanted to rock out and it was the best choice of my life.”