Bri Dominque swaps her viola for synthesizers | Pittsburgh City Paper

Bri Dominique swaps her viola for synthesizers

click to enlarge Bri Dominique swaps her viola for synthesizers
Photo: Lizzy Ammo
Bri Dominique

Bri Dominique likes to name the instruments she works with. She’s affectionately dubbed the viola that she’s played for the last seven years Rosie, which she sings about on her debut EP, music for the kind hearted, released earlier this year. The EP blends Baroque pop and instrumental electronic soundscapes with a singer-songwriter touch that keeps it all personal.

“The album is about a slow detour into my mind, in the night into the morning,” Dominique says. “It wasn’t an homage to my friends, but I wrote the songs with them in mind.”

Dominique moved to Pittsburgh from New York four years ago to attend Duquesne University for a degree in music therapy. She began performing music a year ago and, since then, has made the rounds at small basement shows in the DIY scene. She held an EP release show at Thunderbird Music Hall last August.

Her new synth-heavy single “IDK” announces her move in a different direction — away from her viola and into bedroom pop. She promises future songs that incorporate ukulele and harpsichord.

“I’ve got a punk rock song coming out soon with ukulele. I threw it into a bunch of guitar pedals so to not make it obvious that it’s a ukulele,” Dominique says. “I can’t shred on guitar, but on baritone ukulele, they’re four strings, and it’s easier for me to play.”

Fans of Dominique’s music can thank Soy Sos for the change in direction. Soy Sos, aka Herman Pearl, owns Tuff Sound Recording and co-founded of PearlArts Studios, where he soundtracks contemporary dance shows with electronic soundscapes. Dominique and Pearl connected after he saw her opening set at the Spring Alternative Festival in the South Side last April, where she showcased some of her work with two modules from Pittsburgh Modular, a seller and manufacturer of electronic instruments. It was an unlikely show to meet at, Dominique says.

“Terrible show — the sound system was a mess, it was all-over a mess,” Dominique says. “But he liked what I did.”

Since then, the two have been meeting regularly to work on music, with Pearl teaching Dominique about modular music, an electronic subgenre in which modules with different musical functions can be connected to create a “patch.” After Dominique was gifted two modules for Christmas last year, she started experimenting with the genre’s possibilities within her classical music roots.

Dominique and Pearl performed this summer at the Andy Warhol Museum and in October at Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s Alloy Studios. Other than mapping out the set’s vibes — the October show was dub and techno — they compose the music on the spot.

“It’s like improv, something that I’m not used to and that others don’t expect me to do,” Dominique says. “When I come out with a whole table of stuff, no one expects it. I don’t even know what I’m going to do before going out on stage.”

click to enlarge Bri Dominique swaps her viola for synthesizers
Photo: Dedicated Photos
Bri Dominique

Dominique’s background in classical music gives her an upper hand when it comes to electronic music. She has played the viola since age 17 and the violin since age six, and has developed an ear for melodies. When learning music theory, she turned to artists like Brian Wilson and his work on Surf’s Up, which led to a discussion on the overlooked virtue of that 1971 album (we agreed that it’s our favorite Beach Boys album).

“It’s what I learned theory on first, you know, the chord progression and modulations and tones and textures,” Dominique says. “I’m left-handed so I always write in a similar way where there’s intricate bass lines instead of ‘block, block, block.’”

Dominique’s latest single confirms her new direction. “IDK” has a jaunty bounce to it — a snappy hi-hat reminiscent of a trap beat underlines a nimble back-and-forth melody on a Minilogue synth. Overtop the groove, Dominique sings the lonely blues.

She says she recorded the song on a four-track cassette in one day, during a time last year when she was recovering from COVID-19 at her mother’s house in New York. “IDK” manages to pull something lively from that situation. “I’m so bored / I'm sorting through my papers/ I don’t see an interesting thing in sight” Dominique sings. No one wants to be lonely in the winter, but she still finds a way to have fun with it.

“I was on my bedroom floor without a desk because I had just moved,” Dominique says. “It was one of the ones that I didn’t really plan out. Once you have an idea you want to hear it back.”

Looking back on music for the kind hearted, Dominique says that it’s striking to see the amount of progress she’s made. The confidence that she’s grown over the past year of performing is what makes her comfortable exploring other styles.

“I remember going to record at the studio and being so scared to sing,” Dominique says. “A lot of them were like ‘speak up, you have a nice voice.’ I was not confident as I am now.”

Bri Dominique.

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