Arrington de Dionyso: An Interview

Arrington de Dionyso is a musician from Olympia, Washington. 

With Old Time Relijun, Malaikat dan Singa, and This Saxophone Kills Fascists, Arrington has consistently created some of the most compelling music of the last 25 years. Full of physicality; distinctive ideas about sound and place; and a love of nature, travel, and community, it's the type of music that is always suggesting a new way of viewing the world. Check out Arrington's bandcamp for more in his overflowing and still growing catalogue. 

: When I think of the music you've made over the last two decades, words like rhythm, repetition, and breath come to mind. There is something very physical in all of your music whether with bands or in solo improvisation. I'm interested in how you think about the relationship between music and the functions of the body.

Arrington: Absolutely. I'm obsessed with the physicality of sound and how our sounds are made and that whole kind of biofeedback process that happens without us even knowing it half the time. How the release of sound around us is freeing, liberating, healing in ways we don't know. Every now and then I get asked to teach voice workshops, as there's an interest out there in "Freeing the Voice". But what I always start with is “embodying” the voice. You have to feel that your lungs are full of trees — a forest inside you vibrating in the gentle pulse of the wind. It sends and bends sounds through the resonant space all around you.

Through sound we delineate our sense of place in any given space. Because sound waves bounce forwards and back — though we don't perceive sonar like bats, it's the same idea — your voice isn't just this wispy air coming out of your mouth, it's your entire core of being surrounding you and bouncing back at you when you sing. If you sing with the natural world around you it's possible to realize that you are nothing separate from nature — whatever that even is.

Even if you aren't a singer, it applies to any instrument. If I'm playing with you — or am even in the audience watching you — I'm paying attention to the physicality of how you make your sounds. See, I don't hate electronic music at all — I use computers now too — but I need music to be embodied to really enjoy it. If you're standing perfectly still and it looks like you're checking your email, I probably won't be into it too deeply.

Weirding: Tell me about what led you to Tuva. And more broadly, I'm really interested in how your travels have made an impact on the way that you think about music.

Arrington: I have been very very fortunate in my weird "career" as a musician. I have performed in more than thirty different countries all over the world and I have never taken a trip anywhere as a tourist. It's always been at the invitation of someone living in a particular place who is interested in having me perform in their country. That’s what leads to me being able to travel there. So whether it's Indonesia, Italy, Morocco, Japan, Bangladesh, Peru... I'm usually going to work with specific musicians living in those places to develop collaborative relationships as artists and musicians.

So the case of going to Tuva is a particularly special one. I "discovered" throat singing when the very first recordings were released outside of the Soviet Union in 1990 or 1991. As soon as I heard it on public radio for the very first time, I could tell that the technique the singer was using was almost identical to this crazy noise I used to make when I was a kid. So, I used to make this wild "throat voice" like pretending to be a dragon or a robot — or pretending to rev a motorcycle engine. Considering the physiology of a five year old making that sound, it was as close as could be to being the exact same sound made by these sheep herding shaman people in the middle of Siberia. And since this was before anyone was really using the internet, getting any kind of information or accurate research about throat singing was incredibly difficult. Even big university libraries would have next to zero info about it. So I had to wait until Tuvan groups like Hunn Hurr Tu started organizing tours in the U.S.

And I’d just arrive early to the venue and ask as many questions as I could without being too obnoxious about it.

The first thing I realized when I first arrived in Tuva was to reaffirm what I had always believed but sometimes forgot. Sitting down in front of the Yenisei River, watching eagles and ravens circling above me, the water as wide as the Mississippi and the cliffs across on the other side… this is where throat singing comes from. It comes from a place where people never wanted to see themselves as anything separate from the contours of that very place.

Weirding: So how do you see throat singing as having helped to define the way you approach things musically?

Arrington: Tuvan music has informed my vocal technique on every single album I have ever released. But I have always been really resolute in not wanting to just imitate a "Tuvan style”.

I wanted to develop my own voice with a similar kind of timbral aesthetic awareness.

Many people would ask me over the years if I had traveled to Tuva or if I had plans to travel there. And I really didn't. I felt like I should probably be very happy to go there only once I had some kind of official invitation to go — and after so many years, that invitation finally arrived. In 2019, I was asked to be the headliner for International Night at the Khöömei in the Center of Asia Festival. I organized an ad hoc "Malaikat dan Singa" performance with local musicians as my backing band. And we performed on the stage of the National Theater in Kyzyl.

It was such a riot — a lot of people in this fancy official amphitheater were getting up to dance in the aisles. And I believe there was a more "stodgy" contingent that may have been pretty upset by the performance — I'm not really sure. My translator only translated the positive feedback — haha. But lots of people came up to me with huge smiles after the show.

Weirding: Talk to me about your process when it comes to improvisation either solo or with other players. Specifically, as an occasional improviser, I've always been interested in how things get started. Like there is a definite moment right before the improvisation starts. It is distinct from the improvisation and impossible to return to. The process of moving from that place to the act of the improvisation I often find jarring. I wonder how you think about it and what it makes you feel like to begin or to step into an improvisation.

Arrington: If you go to a lot of these types of free improv gigs you get attuned to certain patterns people get into with each other. There's the one where everyone starts off really cautiously and quiet, like you're trying to steal a cookie without your mom hearing you slide the chair up to the cabinet to reach them. There's the one where everyone kind of looks at each other and all at once everyone starts banging away. If you're thinking about improvisation in terms of intellectual strategies for spontaneous music composition, it's tempting to find ways to orchestrate people out of their patterns. I think it's good to keep searching, but there are other more ancient approaches as well.

Javanese music has developed a Rasa theory, expanding upon Sanskrit sources, in which entertainment is desirable but it’s not the primary goal. The primary goal is to transport us into another parallel and wonderful reality beyond this one. So with a lot of sacred music, there might be a beginning with a prayer or small ritual. But the beginnings and endings of music aren't really focused on as they are in most Western music. It's more like the music already exists in the world of spirits all around us and the musicians are more like the radio stations that have to somehow dial in the right frequencies to pick it up for everyone else to hear it.

Weirding: I don't know if you think of yourself as a multi-instrumentalist, but as you are someone who has a history of performing on a variety of instruments I'm interested in your relationship to the instruments.

Arrington: I picked up bass clarinet not knowing anything at all about how to play it correctly, but knowing intuitively that I should always treat it like a natural amplifier for the voice. It's in an almost identical register really. So while playing I figured out how to sing through it — and how to shout through it and how to make my own voice merge with the instrument itself. I didn't really start using saxophones very much until after I had played bass clarinet for many many years. The tone is a lot brighter. Of course you can do subtle things with a saxophone too, but it's overall less subtle as a whole and a different kind of wind voice.

I've collected many different kinds of flutes — bamboo, wood, clay — from all over Indonesia and from South America. Some different reed instruments and all that. They all have their unique voices and stories to tell as instruments, but they all share the breath in connecting the act of playing them to awareness of physicality and spirit — in almost every language the words for spirit and breath are etymologically related, whether “inspiration”, “ruach”, et cetera.

With strings, well, strings — and that includes pianos — are more about what your fingers are doing. You can get your fingers trained to do all kinds of little clever things, and that's fine. But I think most people get too carried away with that. I really don't like having to hear people playing more than one string at a time in most cases. I don't understand why anyone would want to use a chord when you can say it so much more effectively on just one string at a time.

My first stringed instrument was a rubber band clenched in my teeth. I'd pull it and twiddle it with my finger and it wouldn't be that loud if I was in the back seat while my parents were driving me in a car, but the vibrations filled up and bounced all around inside my skull. That same principle gets more sophisticated with the mouth harps in Siberia and a lot of the cool mouth bow instruments in Central Africa. There's a whole sacred culture around that in Bwiti music.

Oh, with the finger thing, before I forget, yeah obviously you're using your fingers in most wind instruments too. In that case the instrument itself and how it's tuned has to be constructed around the dimensions of how far your fingers can reach along its shape all at once. So I think most ancient scales are more about overblowing harmonics over how many holes you can cover at once like on a flute or a primitive reed instrument. That's why you never see ancient wind instruments in a bass register, except for the ones that are only played harmonically like a didgeridoo or those gigantic Tibetan trumpets.

Weirding: You recently posted a video of a performance in Indonesia from 2018. There is this part — and you probably already know where I'm going with this — but there is this part that occurs at 1 minute and 51 seconds where the gamelans and the saxophone come in together over this throbbing beat and if you close your eyes for a second you'd think it were a lost Detroit techno 45 from the late 80s. Again, I think it really speaks to this ever present rhythm that you allude to that we as musicians can occasionally tune into.

Arrington: The beautiful thing about those kinds of music-making experiences in Indonesian villages in particular is that it's a community event. There's a really different idea about how to present concerts over there — especially when you get outside of the big cities. It's just a big party for the whole community to express something together — to sustain life, to make life interesting for everyone. Most of the events will feature a group with all younger children playing. And then maybe later in the night the older guys play for a while. There are so many different situations, but even when the music is of a more "serious" religious nature there is a strong sense of the music providing benefits of good health and well being for everyone present.

For the village events to be successful collaborative experiences, I have to keep any kind of performer ego completely in check — because it's a very different approach. I'm not there to "put on a show" as much as I’ve been invited to participate in something that provides for the well-being of the entire community. There will be plenty of people there who have never spoken to an American before. Sometimes in the remote villages there are even people who have never met a foreigner of any kind. So when they learn that a foreigner has travelled such an incredible distance out of a deep love and interest in getting to know their local music — that many people often take for granted — there is a huge and excited reception. People are really curious to find out what happens.

There is a lot of debate as to whether or not music really is a universal language. Because there are really so many different ways of making music across the world and there is no way for them to all be compatible with each other. But I think that the ability to listen and to adapt can become a universal urge as long as you are able to enter the situation willing to learn — but also willing to share something.


Arrington de Dionyso

Old Time Relijun / Malaikat dan Singa / This Saxophone Kills Fascists

IG: @arringtondedionyso
Twitter: @arringtonDD

Recent and upcoming releases: New remixes of SENYAWA's international Alkisah album along with recordings made with Rully in Central Java in 2013, newly edited for the first time. Also finishing up the 10th LP by Old Time Relijun for release in November 2021.

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