Arrington de Dionyso
Gimme That Old Time Relijun
Arrington de Dionyso is not fucking around. In the immortal words of Lou Reed, his week is your year. Besides helming Pacific Northwest garage mutants Old Time Relijun, Arrington divides his time between jazz combo Naked Future Quartet, dance/music hybrid I See Beyond the Black Sun, and a solo career that leans toward ecstatic, improvised vocal trance music. Steering his vocals toward exotic offramps usually only traveled by the likes of Diamanda Galas, Yma Sumac, Yoko Ono and Michael Patton, no two of Dionyso’s vocal performances are the same. He constantly experiments with new techniques (Tuvan throat signing is a recent obsession), and new languages (he’s sung in Indonesian and Italian). The end result is a perfect mix of spontaneous modern primitivism and careful ethnomusicological study. He accompanies himself with an equally individualist choice of instruments — bass clarinet and mouth harp. If all of that isn’t enough, he paints and exhibits his works, writes books, and gives vocal workshops.
Dionyso is as flamboyant a performer as he is a theoretician, telling WIRE magazine that he wanted to “learn to sing in a way that reconfigures atoms and builds temples with vast hallways of sound.” Despite all this, and a discography that would make you expect a persona along the lines of a reincarnated Captain Beefheart (oh wait, he’s not dead), in conversation, Arrington is polite and eager to communicate his artistic mission in as understated a manner as possible. Ink 19 caught up with Dionyso on a rare day off, somewhere in Texas, to speak about his new album Malaikat Dan Singa, performance, and making music to conjure spirits.
Are you in the midst of a tour at the moment?
Yeah! I’ve been on tour since the end of August. And I’ll be getting home around November 1st. and I think I might be doing another tour after that. I might be getting added to another tour as a support act.
How are audiences responding to the new material?
Well, you know, the shows I’m doing right now… I’m not doing songs from the new album on this tour. I have another band I’ve put together to do those songs but it’s sort of separate from when I perform solo. Hopefully we’ll be able to do some shows with that band. But for the moment I’m on my own. The shows we did over the summer were very well received. It’s a very kind of striking performance, I think. It’s impossible to not be taken aback by the show that we give. People are loving it. The solo performances I’m doing are striking, and I’m getting a lot of good feedback on that as well.
When it’s just you is the music more similar to the Breath of Fire album?
Yeah, similar to that. The newer one, I See Beyond the Black Sun, those are longer pieces using throat singing and bass clarinet with a backing drone. It’s sort of a combination of those pieces and some newer pieces that use different kinds of modulating effects. For example, I wrap the bass clarinet up in aluminum foil and there’s a whole range of extra sounds that come out from the keys themselves of the bass clarinet vibrating the aluminum foil. It adds a whole extra dimension of sound that you wouldn’t get in regular playing. I’m also doing a lot of amplified mouth harp pieces. Those are kind of always an audience favorite. I throw those into the set to perk people back up. I start out with these longer trance-inducing longer pieces that use a lot of heavy drone and microtonal oscillations, so that kind of gets people into a hypnotic state and then I usually end the set with the amplified jaw harp stuff. That always gets a good response.
Do you tend to come up with a lot of new material on the road?
Yeah, I’m doing somewhat of the same show every night, and I like to experiment with throwing new things in and seeing where that leads. A lot of the time I’ll develop a whole new show based on things I’ve tried out in a concert. The next thing I hope to get to is — I’m actually going to end up buying a portable record lathe. It looks just like a small record player but it’s got a cut arm, it’s got a cutter on it, you can use any kind of plastic plate as a blank record, just a regular picnic plate and you can poke a hole in it and put it on the machine. So I’m going to do a piece where I’m going to cut a record live and then set it up with a skipped groove. So instead of using a loop pedal, which a lot of people have, it’s a common thing, I’m actually going to make a record and then play the record as a loop for the next piece I’m working on right now. Probably by the next time I tour it will be ready.
When you are performing, what sort of thoughts are going through your head, what are you feeling? In that moment…
There’s a lot of variability according to the venue or the situation or the people that are there. I make a really big effort to try to play in venues where people are really going to be there to listen, but it does sometimes happen that you’re booked in a club where people are there to drink and hang out with their friends and they’re not there to pay attention to the music unless it really, like, captures them somehow. In those kinds of places I sort of feel like I’m going into battle a little bit. Sometimes it’s a little bit uphill if it’s a dance club or that kind of thing where people aren’t really there to appreciate art, per se. But if you can present it in a really striking way they can’t help but notice it, and you can take advantage of a situation that might be a little bit more disadvantageous. In more gallery settings or art museums and things like that… more of a quiet audience, if they’re really there to listen, I can take them to a pretty faraway place or a deep place.
The kinds of things I’m thinking about are how I set up my space in the performance, how I’m working with the acoustics of the place, how I’m working with the sounds that I encounter during the performance and how I wield that energy. I want to go into a performance really thinking about how I use the sound as a force of energy, and what I want to communicate with that. I’ve been doing a lot of research for a long time as to how music can be used to induce or guide a trance or an ecstatic state. And that can mean myself as a performer, as a musician, but that can also involve the audience and bringing them along with me in this journey that I go on. The best way to say it is that I make music to conjure spirits, to communicate with the more invisible world. Not to say that every single time I perform I really achieve that state. But I think when it’s at its best, I think a musical experience can be really honed in on and directed in a way that you can actually start to see colors or shapes of light during a really focused performance.
When did you first realize that you were making music in a way that was conjuring spirits?
Well, it’s something that I’ve always been interested in. The roots of music, if we go back twenty-thousand years or so, music was really developed by humans in an effort to achieve these magical ecstatic states. It’s amazing to me how far away we’ve gotten from that original sense, but also how easy it is to go back to that. There’s nothing really esoteric about it. It’s really just understanding the mechanics of sound and the way sound works in the physical environment; how sound is composed of these waves of energy that move through the air and completely envelop us all the time. So when we set out with the intention to conduct these vibrations of sound, and direct them in particular directions, I think there’s a lot of really fascinating things we can do with that and if we measure the physical, psychological responses then… I don’t know, there’s just a lot to it, really.
You treat your vocals and your voice as a very serious discipline. You’ve studied under people and learned techniques beyond what you’d expect from just a vocalist in a rock band.
I’m mostly self-taught. When I was very young I made all kinds of animal sounds and monster noises. if I saw a cartoon on TV and there was an interesting robot or something, I’d try to imitate the sounds that I heard in the fantasy type things I was interested in as a child. I had a wide range of sound effects that I could make with my voice. One of those techniques, I later learned, was identical to what is used in Siberian throat singing. And so when I learned about throat singing I was probably about 16 or 17 and realized that it was much the same technique that I kind of found on my own when I was younger. So I’ve spent the last almost twenty years really kind of honing that in as much as I’m able to. I never really studied under anyone specifically but I have over the years traveled a lot and met some really interesting people who each had their own things that they’d do, but you could say I’ve gotten some guidance from some other vocal practitioners. I guess the most notable would be Tran Quan Hai, he’s a world famous musicologist living in Paris and he does a lot of workshops and lectures all around the world. And he’s considered the foremost expert on overtone singing and throat singing and mouth harps and this kind of niche of ethnomusicology. He’s done a lot of research into the farthest reaches of the human voice. I’ve met with him a couple times, and we’ve created some experiences and techniques that we’ve been working on. And other than that it’s more about listening to all kinds of sounds around me and finding ways to respond to it. That’s really been more of a consistent teacher, just listening and finding some kind of space in there.
What brought you to the bass clarinet as a primary instrument?
I’d been playing guitar for a few years. I guess I started playing guitar when I was 13, and I don’t remember when exactly I first heard a bass clarinet but I had a very visceral response to it. Really before I can remember, I knew I wanted to play the bass clarinet. I didn’t do band in high school, I wasn’t in any kind of orchestra. I never really went through the saxophone stage, I went straight for the bass clarinet. As soon as I was able to buy one, I bought one, without having any previous experience with woodwinds. I hadn’t been a clarinet player, I hadn’t been a saxophone player, I just bought myself a bass clarinet and taught myself everything I could do with it. And again, when someone says they’re self-taught, that means a lot of different things. I mean, really, I think the best way to learn music is by playing it. So I was able to put myself in situations with other musicians, playing with others, spending a lot of time developing a solo vocabulary and discovering my own ways of playing. In a way I’ve kind of invented my own language with the bass clarinet. It’s kind of funny, I’m actually going backwards, picking up more traditional jazz repertoire to kind of fill in gaps I skipped over originally. Literally, I played the instrument for more than ten years before I even knew that “this fingering is an E or a B or a B Flat” — I had no idea for a very long time. It’s just been more recently that I’ve been getting a little more rigorous in that area while still expanding that vocabulary of my own.
What was your first memory of music?
I grew up in church with my family, both my parents were ministers, so there were always pianos and organs… Sometimes there would be services that had drum sets or electric instruments, but mostly it was piano and organs that I was exposed to at the very earliest age and my memory was always being very eager to go up to those instruments and kinda plunk away at it. And of course a kid running up to a piano and plunking away at it in the middle of a church service, you’re not really going to be… So I kind of got steered away from that path that I initially started out on. It took me a few years to come back to that, eventually.
Was that what made you want to create and perform music — those initial childhood exposures?
Maybe. I also went through kind of a theater stage where I was involved in children’s theater and there was a really unique program that involved a lot of improvisational exercises. Theater vocal exercises and extending that to improvisational activity — these were workshops that were intended for theater. I feel that I draw upon a lot of the same kind of theatrical actors’ techniques when I do my music. That might set me apart a little bit from other run-of-the-mill rock and roll bands in that I do have a sense of a rock and roll performance as a total self-expression of course, but you draw upon a lot of acting techniques in that kind of a show as well.
I see that, but your performances don’t seem self-conscious, so you’ve got the best of both worlds in that respect.
Exactly. I feel like I approach it more as a discipline and a practice than anything else. A performance of music or sound is something that I want to really enter into with complete dedication and a lot of times that can involve loosening the connection that you have to temporal time and space and entering into a space that’s more eternal and expansive.
We should backtrack and talk about the Malaikat Dan Singa a bit. Can you tell me about the circumstances surrounding the composing and recording of the pieces?
I set about to do this project where I wanted to write a record’s worth of songs in Indonesian. I wanted to teach myself Indonesian to impress a girl. So I got involved in this project, I spent a couple months really researching the vocabulary that I wanted to draw upon, researching the grammatical structure that I would have to conform to somewhat and also being willing to bend the rules a little bit. Just to add my flavor to it. Once I had what I thought would be an album’s worth of songwriting material… these weren’t fully finished songs, these were a sketchbook of songwriting motifs in this brand new language. I’m not an Indonesian speaker, I don’t speak the language conversationally, I wouldn’t know how to say, “Where’s the bathroom” necessarily, but as far as talking about pulsating light from the eternal depths of the psyche or something, you know… The lyrical content is consistent with my poetic vision. Once I’d gathered up enough material to compose an album, I got my friend Karl Blau to dedicate four or five days that we set aside in the Dub Narcotic Studio in Olympia and we just set to work, getting some really growling, ecstatic trance jams, getting that stuff recorded, which would become the template for the songs. Once we started the actual recording process it went by really quickly. The whole record was done, it was about four days of recording. These were long, all-day sessions, but it definitely went pretty quickly. I had a strong sense of what I wanted it to sound like, and what direction I wanted to go in. And structurally speaking, the music is simple, deceptively simple in a way, there’s not a lot of… once the song starts, they don’t really change gears very much, there’s not a lot of arranging. I think where the interesting interplay on the album happens is in the phasing, where there are two instruments doing very similar parts on the left and the right with very slight differences and I think it’s that phasing that gives it a more compelling vibe. Some of the percussive parts, it’s like, there are two or three tracks of percussive parts that will weave in and out a main beat, but have this sort of kind of, the equivalent of those optical illusions where you have two lines next to each other and it’s like, which one is longer, they’re both the same length, but you really can’t tell. It’s sort of the phonic equivalent to that, if you try to listen to the parts really closely as individual parts, it can be kind of deceptive compared to when you hear it as a whole piece.
Did you and Karl play all the parts, or did you assemble other musicians?
It was mostly me and Karl and then I had some other people come in to do some extra parts. The last, longest piece on the record is with people we assembled in Olympia. That last piece was all live — drums, bass, electronics, viola, and bass clarinet — so I had some people come in to play those parts. It was mostly me and Karl for the bulk of the parts.
I take it you leave a lot of room for improvisation, happy accidents, in your recording sessions?
Yeah. I leave a lot of room for seeing what works, for seeing what is most effective. I like to record at a fast pace, so most of what you hear on the record is a first take. There might be a couple of the vocal lines where I did it and I was like, “Oh, I can do it better. Can I do it one more time?” And really I can’t think of any song on there that I sang more than twice, if the first take wasn’t the take, then it was the second take, it’s not so much the improvisation in itself, it’s that I want the recording to capture the live urgency of… I want each piece that’s recorded to capture that live fervor. To capture that sense of absolute divine inspiration where what you listen to on the record is the very moment where I even had the idea to make that sound. That’s what you actually hear on the record. And it’s just that I’ve been refining that technique over many years so that I feel like it’s a signature sound that I’m known for that. Not that anyone’s ever heard of my music, but people who know my music know that that’s what they can expect from my style of performing.
Do you prefer live work or studio work?
They’re totally different. I love playing concerts in front of people and being in that kind of arena but when you really get to work and record a record, there’s nothing like that. It’s a completely singular experience. I don’t have any way to really compare it. It depends a lot on the studio that you’re working in, and most of the work I’ve done has been in the Dub Narcotic Studio and I’m really familiar with it. There’s a whole lot of vintage equipment, there’s a lot of equipment that doesn’t always work properly, you kind of have to rewire it as you’re doing it. It’s like working in an alchemical laboratory where you’ve got all these test tubes that you play around with to build a Frankenstein’s monster. It’s totally different than a live performance. I couldn’t say whether I prefer one over the other. Now, these kind of like, completely digitized computer studios with all the protocols and all that, I’ve worked in those situations as well and I don’t enjoy those kind of places nearly as much. But even there, with digital music making, there’s a lot of unexplored material in that arena as well, so I’m not going to write that off completely.
The first exposure to your solo work I had was the Breath of Fire album. Would you talk about the recording of that album?
I had been in Italy doing some vocal workshops that I was teaching at a cultural festival on the very southern tip of Puglia, the boot heel of Italy. It’s not really an area of the country where they get a lot of touring bands, there’s not a lot of experimental music concerts in that area at all. So it was a very special event for me to be able to do this series of performances and workshops down there. And Fabio Magistrali, who is the producer, I’ve worked with him before on some other projects, and he was aware that I was going to be in the area and invited me to stay in his home with him and work in his home studio. We had two sets of panoramic microphones and some preamps and not much else. It was pretty barebones and just using the sounds of his front room of the house, but we also had the windows open so we were letting in sounds from… birds in the courtyards, there’s a couple of spots where you can hear trees rustling in the wind. It was just like this very open hall, and we were in total isolation, there were no stores or neighbors to speak of, this was really out in the country. It was near the sea but even the beach was about ten miles away from where we were staying, so it wasn’t really on the seashore itself. It’s just this remote, isolated place. All of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day working on these recordings.
You’re doing more of these workshops now, aren’t you?
I do a few a year. On this last tour I did a really great workshop in Montreal and then another workshop in Chattanooga, TN. It all depends on what I’m requested to do, sometimes it’s… If you’re doing a concert in a university or a cultural center, it’s kind of a nice thing to offer as a package, I’ll do a concert Friday night and then Saturday afternoon I’ll have fifteen people sign up for this workshop. It’s sort of a way to share the inspiration for the techniques that I use for my performance and then people can have an opportunity to learn about their own voices and get connected to another level of vocal expression that many people are really unfamiliar with. Every workshop that I’ve done, I’ve enjoyed immensely. It’s always a learning experience. My dad has kind of been pushing me to do that more often, be more of a teacher. I’m really open to doing that kind of thing, but it always has to be subservient to my role as a performer. The show has always got to be the first priority, and the workshops are an additional dessert, if you will. That’s what I’m saying now, but over the years, maybe that will shift a bit.
What’s a sample, I don’t know, topic?
It’s really about vocal expression, and that can mean a lot of different things. I did workshops for dancers who, in this group they tended to… be very aware as far as body knowledge goes, but these weren’t people who would sign up for public speaking, these weren’t people who would sing in front of other people, so it was a really great way to use movement and sound combined to help people use their voice with a little more power, you might say. I’ve also done workshops for instrumental musicians who don’t sing, but by going deeper into the voice, some of the people in the workshop were able to find things that helped them unlock areas where they might have been blocked musically. Maybe they were through this one level of musical expression and kind of just not going to the next level and actually working through their voices instead of through their instruments could help unlock those bad habits or inhibitions where they thought they were getting stuck at. So those are just two examples. And there’s a lot of technical stuff about using the overtones in the voice, projecting overtones, doing multi-phonic singing and some of the more adventurous people can get into the throat-singing techniques that I teach as well.
Would you talk a little about the I See Beyond the Black Sun collaboration with dancer Melinda Allen?
Oh yeah. Well, she’s a very close, very old friend. I had these pieces that were recorded for the album I See Beyond the Black Sun. She’d seen me perform both solo and also with a more ad hoc collaboration of dancers, kind of a one-off collaboration. We had some conversations about the idea of working together, the whole thing came about very organically. We’ve known each other since the fourth grade and we have a very solid rapport with each other and a very built-in trust in working with each other. So that’s just a big part of how the piece really emerged very organically out of that relationship. We spent a lot of time talking about the subtext of the piece and how we see it evolving over time. It’s really great… really great to work with a dancer who is in line philosophically with what I want to be about musically. It’s a really natural working relationship that went into making that piece.
You’ve done a number of books too — do you find yourself working on art or music every day?
I work on it at a very ferocious pace, with my musical projects and my art projects, I’m fairly prolific in what I try to accomplish but I’d probably go crazy if I didn’t take breaks. Usually at the end of tour where I’ve been performing every night for a couple of months, I may not pick up my instrument for a week or so after I get home, just to rest a little bit. But the nice thing about that is, when I’m not playing music, I can always work on drawing or painting and vice versa. If I’m not working on one, I’m working on the other. But it’s nice to just step back from both and go swimming once in a while.
How long have you been drawing and painting?
Since I was a little kid. It’s probably more recently that I’ve figured out ways to connect the two. It’s one thing to do album cover art that goes with music, but actually having… On the album I See Beyond the Black Sun, that album is conceived as a body of work in which the paintings on the front cover are actually an integral part of the piece itself. So I want to continue to do works where I might do an opening for an installation and have that go along with the same title as a current musical piece. And find ways to connect the musical piece and the installation in this very clear way. That’s a newer development that I want to continue working on.
Is there a performance that you can recall where you came closest to achieving the ecstatic and communal aspects that you mentioned earlier?
This recent show I did in Montreal. Most of the time I’m doing shows in clubs or galleries or sometimes bars, different kinds of concert spaces, but in Montreal a couple of weeks ago, I was able to perform in this yoga studio and it was really great that it wasn’t necessarily the kind of audience that always goes out to freeform music performances, it was more the regular crowd that they had at this yoga studio, so it was people who were interested in healing arts and sound energy and kind of a certain lifestyle more than the music per se and it was a really wonderful experience because people were… As the performance was unfolding, I could look up from time to time and there were people in the back of the studio who were stretching and going into these meditative poses or feeling moved by the music in some very deep ways. I had people up in the front and they all had their eyes closed. I felt like they were going along with me into these very deep theta wave states and that was definitely a very communal experience that I hope to be involved more in that kind of thing, I mean it was really encouraging.
What other projects are you working on right now?
Well, I mentioned the thing with the record lathe. A few months before the tour I was borrowing one and doing some experimentation with this WWII-era technology. These machines used to be mass produced so that soldiers and soldiers’ wives could actually mail one another records of their voices and instead of just sending a letter you could hear the voice of your husband fighting on the front. People would use them for home recording before there were magnetic tape players available. So I was having a lot of fun just making my own records and the way that we’re really used to how tape distorts when it’s given a really strong signal and that’s totally different to the way that the grooves of a record distort when you send a strong signal through a record, you’re not overloading a signal onto a magnetic tape, you’re actually cutting… You’re carving this strand of plastic out from this material and that’s an actual physical record of the soundwave. So I did this very limited edition set of live performances cut directly to a record and as soon as I get home I’m going to start working on more of those and then the whole thing with doing the live record, self-produced skipping records used as a loop is a whole other area of sound that I want to try and explore. And in addition to that I’m working on painting stuff all of the time. I’m just trying to figure out what’s what and do more work on that front. And I would say, expect to see more translation-related projects in the future, I don’t know exactly what that will be at this time but I’m always trying to connect the linguistic side of things with my music. I’ve written songs in Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Indonesian, Portuguese, and I kind of want to try something where I somehow develop a system of using multiple languages in one song, but using words that sound very similar in different languages that mean different things and to develop pieces that use that tension of double meanings and triple meanings and create juxtaposing texts that go along with that in a song structure. But that’s just sort of a concept, I’m not really sure how that’s going to unfold.
Arrington de Dionyso: www.myspace.com/arringtondedionyso