Arrington de Dionyso: Evolution of a Shapeshifter

Author: Marian


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When I first piqued an interest in music, meditation, and other mysterious mentionings, I always thought that these topics were esoteric, sacred and impenetrable. In a eastern religion classes, there was usually a focus on the Buddha, with a small, generic story of his upbringing. But always cutting the middle part out and heading straight to his venerable state of enlightenment. And as for musicians, society’s focus was too heavily on the rock stars, making them legends of sorts. People are led to believe that idolized figures, may it be in myth or music, just seem to happen. But we must remember that music is a constant developing process.

Musician, throat-singer, and artist Arrington de Dionyso is a prime example of a shape-shifting musician. Having visited DC earlier this month to present some of his throat-singing movements at Art in Bloomingdale, Arrington reveals that musical forms like throat-singing came naturally to him, as does his own folklore and artistic ideas.

AON: Your recent set at Bloomingdale’s Yoga District was incredibly captivating. Thanks to Yoga District and Sasha Lord for arranging that event. Sasha had me at throat singing! How did you find yourself doing it to begin with? It’s an unusual style of singing, for starters, and apparently requires a huge amount of practice to execute properly. Could you tell us a brief history of your involvement with this form of singing?

Arrington: My throat-singing story is a bit unusual. I guess because I discovered how to make these and many other kinds of vocal sounds independently of any “musical” influence. As a very young child I was living intensely within a fantasy world of my own imagining, populated by creatures hybridized from Star Wars, Narnia, Hieronymous Bosch and the time spent at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. I made up a unique voice for each member of this menagerie and used a variety of strange sounding “monster” voices to act out each of these imaginary beings. The “throat-singing” voices began somewhere in between a Darth Vader and a Chewbacca-inspired imitation, and pretending to drive a star fighter through light speed. Of course, adults would freak when they heard me making that very deep, guttural throat-flapping sound as a five year old boy…so eventually I must have decided to stop doing it.

Years later I was in high school and starting to gain an insatiable appetite for any music that would be considered “unusual” by normal standards. So my tastes ran from experimental punk type stuff, and 1960′s era rock, to researching free jazz, early blues, and lots of world music, particularly the ethnographic recordings issued by Smithsonian Folkways- music from nearly every country, region, tribe imaginable.

What’s interesting about that is that up until about 1991 there were no commercially available recordings of Tuvan throat-singing in the US, it was then that “TUVA: Voices from the Center of Asia” was released by Smithsonian from the field recordings made in the former USSR by Ted Levin. I heard some samples of these recordings on public radio and was immediately captivated, not only by the depth and power of the singing itself but also because of the realization that this exotic singing technique from an ancient nomadic and shamanic culture was very, very similar to the techniques I used as a child to conjure my fantasy spirit monsters. It was also around the same time I was paying more attention to blues singers like Howlin’ Wolf and Blind Willie Johnson, who both used a very similar way of singing themselves.

Would you say that throat singing came to you naturally and quickly, or did it take lots of practice? Did you ever reach an “ah-hah” moment, where it just clicked?

The “ah hah” moment was immediate, when I realized it was something I had been able to do all along. The next year I moved out of my parents’ house and went to college, and I loved staying up all night going to the resonant four story stairwells in the empty library building. I would practice my throat-singing for hours and tune myself to the resonating frequencies of the echo itself. I never did any drugs in college because the effect of singing this way for any extended amount of time is purely hallucinogenic and I was able to
transport myself to seemingly infinite realms of cavernous fractal sound!

I find it fascinating that throat-singing allows listeners to directly hear different tones at once, that ever-constant drone, highlighted with overtones. Are there overtones in every musical note? If that’s the case, how does that make you feel, that there are multiple layers and tones of sound produced from one note?

Acoustically speaking, unless you are talking about an absolutely pure sine-wave (as much an impossibility as “pure black” or “pure white”) every single sound has overtones- overtones are what give shape and definition to any sound and allow it to be distinguished from any other sound. In throat-singing the singer is able through constriction of the larynx and very deliberate control of the air flow, to emphasize certain overtone frequencies to an extent that they become as loud as or louder than the fundamental tone itself. Because I am a painter as well, it’s easy for me to make connections between overtone singing and color theory- for example, you can go ahead and just open up a can of “pure” red paint and paint a room with it, but unless you mix in a tiny amount of complimentary green, for example, the color won’t resonate as well, even though it might be a bright color it will seem fairly “flat” when its painted onto the wall. Mixing in a tiny amount of a complimentary color gives the wall more “spectrum” to it, gives the color more room to breathe within the light-space of a room.

Does that make you think of fractals, things inside of each other? I remember upon meeting, you told me something along the lines that ‘fractals are the archetype of the transmodernity’. Could you elaborate on this idea?

While studying archetypal psychology (Jung and post-Jung theories relating to the psychology of the artistic process, or Alchemy) a professor introduced to me the idea of “spatial archetypes”. These are ways of defining space and time that emerge in each new age or civilization…from tribal societies that might use circles or pyramids to reflect their understanding of the structure of time and space, to the modern/post-modern development of the grid as a spatial structure. I think of the emergence of fractal structures within new arts and music and scientific/philosophical explorations as indicative of the development of a post-post-modernist shift, trans-modernism if you will. I think in our conversation I said something along the lines of “fractals are the spatial archetype of transmodernity.” Within transmodernity I believe we are able to appreciate the beauty and mystery of the inter-connectedness of all things, how each and every thing somehow holds a reflection or echo of each and every other thing, while still holding onto its own uniqueness as an individual thing. This is in contradistinction to some of the major presumptions of post-modernism which tend to devalue the legitimacy of concepts such as truth and beauty existing independently of one’s own prejudiced perception.

Besides your music, I highly enjoyed your artwork. I understand that Andre Brenton’s Immaculate Conception had something to do with your art. Having not read this before, could you explain your exhibit, from the inspiration and influence of those surrealists to your own process?

I’ve been on a drawing and painting binge the last few month, producing an exceptional amount of new work. The paintings on the north wall of the Yoga District had all been executed in the two days before the exhibit!

On my 36th birthday, January 4th of this year, I read Andre Breton and Paul Eluard’s collaborative poem, “The Immaculate Conception” for the very first time. It’s a kind of surrealist Kama Sutra, a love poem that describes the “32 Positions of Love” in a very free-associative type of poetic language. I decided immediately upon reading the poem that it would be great to sit down and make an illustration for each of the 32 sexual positions described, and to print them out and sew them together into a book form. The next day I accomplished this project in about six or seven hours of drawing and painting.

Surrealism has been a huge influence on my artistic development but I’m not sure if I qualify as a surrealist or not. I certainly owe a debt to the surrealist legacy but I think it might be a little counter-productive for an artist to have to be defined by any “ism” until after they’re dead. I just want to give life to my drawings and be able to take inspiration from anything I am able to imagine.

Do you feel like the folk-lore in your art transfers over into your music, and vice versa?

I just think they’re two different faces of the same coin. My visual interests and sonic interests overlap pretty consistently, and I always find myself having to use visual language to describe music, and musical language to talk about art.

You did some really unique things during your set. What inspired you to wrap up your saxophone in tin-foil? Was that a baritone sax?)

AHHH! BASS CLARINET!!! Wrapping the bass clarinet up in tin foil is an extension of the idea of “voice masking”. Throughout the world there are many different forms of voice masking- it’s used particularly in African tribal
cultures in rituals that make contact with the spiritual realm-rituals in which voice-like sounds emerge through masks or extended resonators, sometimes objects are attached that will give the voice a buzzing quality, or an echo quality of some kind. Throat-singing is related to this idea of voice-masking, also the use of distortion pedals in guitar based rock music is a direct descendant of the voice masking practices of spirit-conjuring societies of tribal Africa.

And also, how did you decide to create crazy inflections with a rubber band during your live set? How does the rubber band effect relate and differ from the effects and tone of the jew’s harp, for you personally?

Rubber bands- again, something discovered in childhood that I returned to after years of advanced exploration of voice, bass clarinet and jew’s harp sounds…I always thought of the use of these instruments as part of voice/sound continuum, a big part of the solo performance I give is exploring the interrelationships between all of these sound sources, all of them somehow fractal reflections of each other–the tone quality of the bass clarinet, throatsinging, and jew’s harp all being very similar yet produced very differently, all still being very “vocal” at the same time. The rubber band sounds are totally crazy, yeah? It sounds like a jet plane sometimes.

And what language were you chanting in at one point?

That was Indonesian. In my new-ish band, Malaikat dan Singa, all of the texts for songs are in Indonesian, but performed with more of a hiphop/dancehall/punk kind of intonation. The texts were written originally in Indonesian but are based on my free associations using source material from both William Blake and Kabbalistic texts such as the Zohar. I have started using some of the same texts in my solo performances as well just to give the opening raga section the added dimension of incantation…I think it’s really forceful to be able to introduce a worded text to a musical form that would normally be expected to be wordless, even if it’s not a language most audience members are going to understand, it’s clearly not a made up “scat singing”. “Space and Time are Demons, separating Man from God.”

Your original lathe cut recordings were very interesting. Could you explain how you made those? How do you have a record made out of a plastic plate? And what is that artwork supposed to represent, who are those figures?

I have a 1940′s era record lathe with which I make recordings by cutting directly from the signal in the machine’s microphone to a vibrating needle, which gouges out a groove on a plastic picnic plate. It’s a very primitive way of recording that to me feels thoroughly enchanted. It’s like making magic when I make these things, it’s pure trance.

I make original paintings for every single record that I make. Art object and sound object united as one. The figures are no more representative of any kind of “who” or “thing” than the music inside the record would “represent” anything else other than the music itself. The act of making the music or making the paintings on the covers is “about” the celebration of life itself, and the process of making the thing itself.

How’d you decide on making recordings of jams to Captain Beefhart songs?

We recorded a version of “Hot Head” two days after he’d just died because we were scheduled to perform at a concert that next weekend and thought we should do a tribute of some kind. I love Beefheart’s music but most of his songs are extremely difficult to play. “Hot Head” is great because the riff is close enough to one of our other songs that we are able to put it together into a medley combining both songs.

Any other kindred musicians besides the Captain that you feel drawn to?

I can think of a few individuals who establish themselves both as musicians and artists, and also give outstanding physically embodied performances. I don’t feel particularly “drawn” to them as a fan but I admire the work of people like Daniel Johnston or Jad Fair…also Daniel Higgs is a great friend and huge inspiration- a phenomenal musician and painter, and an incredibly strong poetic voice in contemporary music.

There’s a spiritual essence to your work. Have you done a lot of travel and spirit quests to help bring that to your music?

I’ve done a lot of traveling. Sometimes that traveling takes place in dreams or spirit-flights of introspection, but I’ve also spent a lot of time in airports, which always kind of feels like a weird dream.

Any advice for those who feel like following their own psycho-geography and imaginative folklore, stories, and music?

Arrington: A strange old man came up to me once after a concert and told me that my music had the power to conjure spirits. So he told me, that’s what I need to do. “Don’t perform. There should be as little performance as possible. Just conjure spirits. That’s what you need to do.”

4 Comments

  1. What a great interview. Excellent questions and such deep answers. Thank you for this. I’m Arrington’s mom.

  2. this guys rules… check out a few live sets he did on WFMU, free for download:

    http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Arrington_de_Dionyso/

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