Hear the Unheard: Trance Music Seeker Arrington De Dionyso
Arrington de Dionyso is interested in blurring the lines between sacred ritual and popular entertainment. A former Old Time Relijun freak-folker, his recent solo work incorporates overtone-singing, shruti-box, jaw harp, and Kadri Gopalnath-inspired bass clarinet, and many of his latest releases feature recordings from his travels and collaborations. Whether it’s a 13th century chapel in Italy, a volcanic cave in Java, or his homebase at K Records’ Dub Narcotic Studio in Olympia, WA, his music is influenced by (and influences) his surroundings.
His work also strives to form human connections, both with his fans and musical collaborators. Back in 2011, de Dionyso traveled and recorded music throughout Java, Bali, and Lombok Islands with support from a successful Kickstarter campaign. With help from another Kickstarter push, he went back in November 2013, and is planning another trip for the end of 2014. Many of the concerts and improvised recording sessions are available for pay-what-you-wish on Bandcamp and the Free Music Archive, including his latest in the Unheard Indonesia series.
Many of your releases directly relate to where you were when you recorded them. What’s the role of traveling in your music?
Although I have lived in Olympia, Washington for over 20 years, and I have a wonderful label and studio to work with here. (K Records’ Dub Narcotic Studio, just ten blocks from my house!) I am traveling on tour doing art shows and concerts almost half the year. This puts me in contact with an incredible variety of different people playing all kinds of instruments with different approaches to the music they make. But even when I am working on a solo recording, I think the place in which you choose to make a recording has a huge effect on the kind of result you’re going to get, whether it’s the specific acoustic properties of a 13th century chapel in Italy, a volcanic cave in Java, or a fancy studio in Berlin—the way I play my music is going to change according to how I respond to being in these places. The music changes even more when other people are involved!
Tell me about UNHEARD INDONESIA VOL. I: The Trance Music of East Java. What did you learn about trance music from your travels in East Java, and from collaborating with other musicians there?
That’s a recording of the very first opportunity I had to perform with Jaranan groups in Java, back in 2011. Jaranan, or “Jathilan” is an incredible living tradition that takes many different forms, sometimes including forms of spiritual possession. People have a lot of different ideas as to what really constitutes “trance” but I approach these experiences as a participant and collaborator with many years of experience with my own versions of “trance music” via the rock and roll tradition (a tradition derived almost completely directly from African trance musics, by the way, this is very well documented).
When I perform with these groups I am joining a shared experience and sharing my own unique contribution to that experience. I guess I am particularly drawn to Jaranan because in this tradition there isn’t a clear line between what is “sacred ritual” versus “popular entertainment.” It’s all mixed up there, as I feel it really should be. Why shouldn’t something entertaining also be “sacred”? and what do we mean by “sacred” anyways? In much of Indonesia, musicians are performing to entertain the world of spirits just as much as the world of humans. It happens at the same time, and nobody sees any contradiction there, so why should I?
What did they make of your music?
Response to my bringing a bass clarinet and my weird vocal styles has been enormously enthusiastic! I’ve studied and listened to reed instruments from all over the world, and because of the materials they are usually made from, and the size of a human’s hands playing them, you don’t usually find very many folk instruments playing in such a low register as a bass clarinet. That doesn’t mean people don’t enjoy hearing these sounds! So if I can do my best to approximate some of the scales used by the reed instruments in Java and transpose it to my instrument, it’s really new and surprising for Indonesian audiences. I get a lot of great feedback when I play there.
The next phase of your journey can be heard in UNHEARD INDONESIA VOL. 2: Lombok Island Improvisation. What are the unique instruments folks should be listening for in this collection?
The main section of the Lombok Improvisations album is a duo recording with a man named Gombloh. He plays a very ancient reed instrument called a preret. It’s similar to a shenai or slompet but a bit larger and of course it’s very loud. Gombloh is a master of traditional repertoire of Hindu temple music but he had never participated in a free improvisation project before, so this was a particularly fun and refreshing encounter for both of us. There’s some video from that recording session here.
What did you learn from collaborating with local musicians working with traditional instruments?
It doesn’t matter what specific tradition someone comes from, what country, what culture. All music is human music. We all respond to sound in ways that might be the result of some conditioning specific to time and place, but there are also ways that we can all appreciate a musical experience that are universal. I think it’s really natural to feel a little intimidated when entering into some of the more ancient traditions of Indonesian music but I always remind myself I am playing music in order to help create connections between human beings. Being aware and mindful of culturally specific differences is important, but not as important as just jumping in and making that human connection. I have found that many of the musicians working in “traditional” music actually feel plenty of frustration with the limits within those traditions and are just as eager as I am to find new ways of combining old and new sounds together to help us express our contemporary trans-modern realities. I met many enthusiastic collaborators and made many new friends that I hope to keep working with down the road for a long time.
You also had the chance to work with some incredible musicians such as Wukir and Rully of Senyawa (on the FMA) — what should folks know about the music scene in Indonesia?
YES! Senyawa are one of the finest jewels of the Indonesian Avant-Garde. There really isn’t anyone else like them, and at the same time they are instrumental in inspiring something entirely new within the music scene there. Senyawa’s music is crucial…there are no clear divisions in their work between what is punk, or free improvisation, or “Western” influenced, or “traditional”, or Javanese, or avant garde, or sound poetry, or theater. All is one! There are many different music scenes in Indonesia, when you consider that it’s a nation of almost 300 million people you are bound to find a little bit of everything, from classical gamelan to Hawaiian ukelele to African-inspired drum circles. With that said, it’s really kind of shocking to take account of the level of excitement and participation in the more extreme kinds of “noise” and shock performance scenes. Death Metal, or “Doom” music is also extremely popular and takes on a meaning that seems to run much deeper in the hearts of countless young people, a kind of resistance to oppression within modernity. Another great group to look for is “Karinding Attack”, some of the guys in that band are in a very very famous death metal band, but in this group the sense of doom and ecstasy is conveyed entirely with traditional acoustic instruments used in a new context.
How should we listen to improvised work?
My first response would be to question why would we listen to improvised music any differently than any other kind of music, and yet I know in my heart most music listeners consider improvised music to be on a very different plane than the rest of what’s out there. Some people would perhaps put it on a pedestal, and of course many would prefer not to hear it at all. Improvisation is just way that we human beings respond to life. Improvised music means we make sound with spontaneity, in the moment, participating in the creation of something that lives in its own unique moment. Some might feel that “Free Improvisation” somehow derives from a Western perspective, that “avant-gardism” is generally speaking a Western construct, and I hope my work with musicians around the world can turn that prejudice around somehow. Humans everywhere are curious and excited about sounds, playing with sounds, playing with expressing oneself and one’s community through sounds. Improvisation therefore isn’t necessarily anything “special” or “unique”, at least no more so than a human face or a finger print! Ha!Arrington de Dionyso with Jaran Kepang Timbul Aji Jubah - "Mojokoerto" (10:49)Arrington de Dionyso and Gombloh - "Arrington and Gombloh Take 2" (07:00)Arrington de Dionyso and SENYAWA - "Improvisation 2" (06:49)