Arrington de Dionyso: Interview
“Here you have extremely up-to-date, contemporary, avant-garde, modernist expressions of a very ancient sonic culture, yet it’s the most non-traditional expression of that culture you can imagine.”
In the West, some people are getting bored with the music that’s right in front of them and are asking, what else is going on around the world? A lot of hip-hop producers are sampling Egyptian pop music from the 50s and 60s and making it into music now, or that Britney Spears song “Toxic.” Every year, there’s something — whether it’s Ethiopian music like you hear, or cumbia, in Portland right now. A lot of hipster white kids are bored with stuff and want to listen to something new. But what I’m interested in is collaboration with somebody whose upbringing and culture and lifestyle is so completely different from your own.
Right. Not just a musical collaboration, but everything about the person and the experience.
Everything about them. Having an event take place in the first place, and to have people show up and be there, is a huge step. You know, I wasn’t going as a tourist, I didn’t do any tourist things, or take any field trips out to beaches and shit like that. I was there to hang out with the people and see what happened. And I had plenty of preconceived notions of what I might encounter, what I might expect, what I should look out for… Some of those were accurate, and some were surprises. But really, well, to put it the other way, I was reading somewhere, when you talk about science and the scientific method, there’s no American science versus Japanese science that does it differently, and German science does it this way, and Mexican science does it like that. Science is science. There’s this very established scientific method for how to prove a theory.
And so when we get these sort of talks about Western music versus non-Western music, I think that today, those kinds of distinctions are already very passé. We have human music. Humans make music, all humans make music. Because of where we are technologically, anyone in any part of the world can listen to other music from anywhere else in the world. That’s not just about this sort of colonialist Western domination telling everyone what to listen to. In Indonesia, everybody’s playing mp3s and filesharing. You can’t even get a CD at a music store — you just get these mp3 CDs that have like seven hours of music on them…
There are some lyrics that could be taken as somewhat offensive in a certain context. Some of the songs say things that might be controversial to a more conservatively minded person. Now, when we played at, say, the Noisefest in Jakarta, I wasn’t really worried about that being a problem. That audience is into very extreme music. But we played one concert in a more remote village and, you know, the song “Mani Malaikat,” that means “Angel Semen.”
People all over the world who are not in Western culture are embracing technology faster than people in America, oftentimes. With the technology and whatnot, my curiosity is just as much about what is out there, but to be able to listen to that with some kind of imagination and think, well, what kind of music could there be? What would this and this sound like if it had come from this place? You know, with all these compilations being reissued of rock & roll songs from Thailand in the 60s —
Yeah, I have a lot of those.
Yeah, it’s amazing because you listen to that stuff and you can tell that the guy playing on that record heard a Jimmy Hendrix song at one point, but they’re not trying to play like Hendrix — he just heard this sound and thought, whoa, that can be a way to play guitar that I can add to my way to play guitar. It doesn’t sound like these Thai musicians imitated American music, they’re just doing their own thing, but it’s inspired by something they’d never heard before.
Which is, I think that should happen every which way.
You mentioned briefly… There’s a lot of criticism against some bands, especially when they’re from the U.S. or Europe, when they superficially — whatever that means — embrace sounds that some people say “aren’t theirs.” Do you think that accusation of appropriation is even valid? Obviously with your stuff, you go too deep into Indonesian music for people to accuse you of that. But for other musicians?
Well, I think everybody has personal tastes, right? I think there are many, many examples of certain types of appropriation that personally, I would find not to my taste. Or maybe I would find it in bad taste, or kinda tacky, or whatnot. But really what it comes down to is not the appropriation itself, but that anybody setting out to do this cheap kind of imitation of something else is going to come across as being really insincere and hokey. I would bring the same tools of critique to, you know, when you see really crappy improvisation. When I see crappy improvisation — musicians get onstage and it’s half-assed, they’re being too polite, not listening to the other musicians… You can tell when it sucks, but there’s no objective way for me to give you all the criteria, it’s just something you know.
And you’re saying it’s not necessarily a moral or values-based objection, but just an aesthetic one?
Uh, I think it should be an aesthetic one. I don’t think morality plays a part of it. Exceptions might be, say, there might be a fine line as to what constitutes outright stealing. If you’re talking about sounds or a certain rhythm, or using a different tuning system or… If you’re doing a cover song, people do cover songs all the time, but you don’t get up onstage and say, “I wrote this song.” Maybe morality plays into that example, but my sense is that that’s rare. I don’t know, what do you think?
I’m all for people appropriating things. I think, first, it makes for interesting music and it lets you hear something new whether they succeed in making something that sounds authentic, like the original on the original’s terms, or whether they don’t and instead you hear the mingling of different strains and traditions. And also it’s a good practice because all too often people think of music in terms of purity, as if genres were pure. I think that’s a problem sometimes. I think maybe the objection comes from being aware of the West’s history of interaction with other cultures, but I don’t know if that makes it a valid objection.
I think it’s really important to be aware of the political implications of the music or art you make. To understand where you’re coming from, and to have a sense of where you place yourself in the continuum of human cultural inquiry. I think that’s important. But these notions of purity of a musical genre are really exaggerated in this abstract way. Like, as an example, “Yeah, I’m really into that Ethiopian music from the 60s, but you know, anything after that, they start using synthesizers and it sucks.” Well, why shouldn’t a musician in Ethiopia have access to the latest technology? Why shouldn’t they have access to the technological tools that are the property of humanity? If you think it ruins their music, let them decide what their music should sound like. Some arguments for music purity are kind of these subtly veiled kinds of racism… “Oh no, the native people have their own tape recorders now, so we can’t document them the way we first found them.” That kind of thing.
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I listen to a lot of stuff that they would put in the “world” or “ethnic” music section —
Which is such a fucking silly name.
Yeah, it’s ridiculous. But, in that section, there’s a lot more of an emphasis on older reissues than contemporary music. I’m sure part of that is because some contemporary stuff just gets lumped in with “rock” or “electronic,” but it also seems like there’s less of an interest — not like there’s a huge interest in “world music” to begin with — but it seems like there’s even less of one in contemporary music from other places.
Yeah, I think it’s a huge deal. And it’s really all about this kinda cultural economy thing. Let’s say a band from Japan is really popular in America. They won’t be in the “Japan” section — they’ll be in the rock section. Or, you know, “world music” is based on this stupid assumption — have you ever heard any music that’s not from the world? Have you ever heard music that’s not from some ethnicity?
My Indonesian is not fluent by any means, but I do go to very great lengths to make sure my lyrics sound meaningful and convincing to an Indonesian listener. To be able to deliver these poems to a very attentive audience who for the first time could understand every word, that was a very powerful, chilling thing for me.
That would be pretty cool to hear.
It would be pretty interesting. But you know, even if it’s made by computers, somebody built the computer and the program.
In terms of the trance music and that sort of thing that I’m exploring — not just in Indonesia — for myself I’m trying to really objectively understand: Is there something inherent within certain ways of arranging of rhythms and sounds that brings an extended ecstatic state, or what part of that is what you bring of yourself to that? You know, people who are in more academic-leaning positions have mulled over that kind of question, but I want that kind of research to be part of my creative work. I’m making art based on my own personal explorations of those kinds of questions. You know, I’m not an initiate of any kind of Santeria or any kind of traditional indigenous shamanistic perspective, but when I play music with certain kinds of rhythmic patterns or being played at certain volumes or certain speeds, I feel that embodiment of an extended trance, you know, in my experience. And so, the inquiry that I’d like to continue with and go further around the world is are there cultures that have that as a traditional, ritual music, or even, have earlier forms of trance music been embedded in the pop form? I want to see, “How universal is that?”
Oh, and I wanted to mention something about what I was talking about earlier. Being able to witness this concert by Senyawa, I was struck. If there’s anything that I bring back with me when I return to American, or Europe, or “the West,” it’s like, I gotta let people know that music like this even exists in the first place. Because here you have extremely up-to-date, contemporary, avant-garde, modernist expressions of a very ancient sonic culture, yet it’s the most non-traditional expression of that culture you can imagine. Senyawa is Javanese avant-garde, and so, I think about how would I go about, are there institutions that would bring them over? There are institutions that would bring traditional Indonesian musicians over, to teach at the university or do workshops or whatever, but this is very contemporary, confrontational music. This isn’t a band that should be playing at world-music festivals or folkdancing festivals and that sort of thing. That’s the kind of question I have to ask myself and try to find a way to bring them in.
Is that something you actively want to do? Expose some of these groups that you met to a U.S. audience?
I mean, I have a lot of projects, goals, and things I’m trying to do. The amount of time and personal energy that I’d be personally able to put forth… I’d need institutional support. But, BUT, Senyawa is the kind of group that should be opening for Deerhoof or something. If somebody who’s famous enough where they could put some money into helping them get a visa, and have like proper booking, handling it professionally, like a band like Deerhoof or Dirty Projectors, somebody who’s big enough to get a big crowd, these guys would be the ideal opening act. Sonic Youth should be having Senyawa play at All Tomorrow’s Parties; they’re of the caliber where that’s the kind of show they should be playing.
Instead of whoever’s headlining Coachella?
Yeah, it’s such bullshit, like a hologram of Tupac Shakur who’s been dead for 15 years is headlining Coachella. How vacant and vapid is that? It’s like, that’s really the headliner of the festival? A hologram? I dunno.
It probably cost as much as it would to bring a band out, too.
It seems like people who know about your music that you’re doing now might know about Malaikat but not some of the solo or collaborative stuff that you have on bandcamp. Could you talk about some of that?
I don’t know exactly how to define this observation, but I realized that one of the things I find so fascinating about delving into the so-called traditional art of non-Western cultures, civilizations, people, what have you, is how — it’s not that traditional art forms are effortless or free-flowing by any means. It takes effort, you learn styles from your grandfather or father or whatever, and you’re interested in carrying on that same style. But the thing that I find really fascinating, like take Rajasthani folk paintings, the miniature painted scenes with a really interesting visual style —
A lot of people will see Kickstarter things via their friends on Facebook or wherever and it’s like, ‘OK, I’ll give them 20 bucks and hope enough of my friends give them 20 bucks that they can put something out.’ But in Indonesia, for them to press vinyl; they can’t do it in the country… We give 20 or 30 bucks to our friends all the time, but in Indonesia, that’s what you live on for a week or two weeks.
Yeah, I love those.
One of the things that I find really important about things like that is that compared to the way lot of Western artists’ work, it’s that there’s none of the same sense of preciousness about an individual work. Like, I know artists who work and they’ll labor for hours and hours on some painting, and then when the painting’s finished, it’s this precious, fragile thing that they’ve got to tend to and keep safe, don’t shine too much light on it, don’t let it hang in a room where there’s going to be moisture. And what I observe in these other cultures, is that they don’t see that kind of preciousness about the production. Producing the art is part of the larger cycle of your life, and a lot of those Rajasthani folk painters are, maybe they’re making dozens of paintings in a week and they’re sitting in a booth at a market and, who knows, they’re selling them for 25 cents or a dollar, and then they make another one. And I’ve tried to, in whatever way I can, in my own way, I do what I can to occupy that kind of approach to process, where I become prolific simply due to my, the kind of research or inquiry I’m currently doing, and the inspiration gives me a drive to keep working at it. And a lot of times, the way that the music business works, maybe one album a year will be something like, ‘OK, this is an album that could reach somewhat of a broader audience, even though my higher selling albums probably wouldn’t be more than like 5,000 copies.’ But still, it’s something that you get the promotional machine going for, and you have people advertising it and selling it to record stores. But that doesn’t capture the volume of what I’m capable of doing as an artist so a lot of times I’ll do a recording session almost more like a research project, or like, I wonder, ‘What will happen when I do this?’ And if the recordings are worthwhile and captivating to me personally, I’ll put it up on Bandcamp. And just in the past year, I’ve posted like 10 full-length albums there. A lot of those are recorded with the lathe cutter, the record cutter that I work with a lot. And that’s a very specific thing — most people aren’t going to want to sit around and listen to something that sounds like a scratched up record, but I feel like the music experiments that are happening with that medium, the lathe cutter becomes an instrument in itself, so the sound that I’m getting from the machine, and the music I’m making for the machine, I think are really unique. It may not be the same as what they’re playing on NPR, but I think there are people who would appreciate it, and I do make music to be listened to by people.
So is it more important for you that music, and art in general, be something you do instead of some fetishized object that’s the end result?
Eh, that’s part of it. It’s also, I want to deemphasize the preciousness because I think it’s a little too exaggerated in contemporary art. It needs to be de-fetishized. Yeah. That’s a good word. It’s one part of the process that’s happening, and in the process, I want to just give myself up to the spirits that are inspiring me and setting my brain on fire. I want to fill the void with music and color and it’s about that, rather than this little object that I’ve done. I’m not against there being objects like CDs or records, I think that’s important, too. It’s just as much about that feeling of ecstasy and transcendence that I experience when I’m fully taken over and engaged with the process of creation itself.
Right. You talked about them as being experiments, and that comes through. Like, this is a record about you interacting with a record cutter. Or this one is about other constraints you’re interested in the moment.
That’s really how I work in painting, too. Whether it’s a visual motif or image, I work on that image in a lot of different ways over and over, or if it’s a technique, then it’s like, this week or this month, I’m doing to do a hundred drawings on this kind of paper where I use red wine mixed with ink instead of water to see what happens —
And what did happen?
Well, when the ink hits the wine, the alcohol breaks the ink apart in a very different way than when it hits water. You get these really crazy fractal constellation patterns if you just apply it with one brush stroke and don’t mess with it too much and let it dry. But that’s just an example. Like, I’m having an art opening soon where for one week I draw as many tigers as I can. I’m only drawing tigers and I’m going to fill up an entire storefront.
You’re gonna be good at drawing tigers by then.
Yeah they’re kind of crooked, still.
Are you as interested in art as music? Do you explore the same ideas?
It goes back and forth. I think more in the last few years, I’ve been more determined to explore ways of integrating the process. I’m focusing more on how the process itself operates rather than the end result as much, whereas like two years ago I had a really hard time working on an art project and a music project at the same time. The last couple of years, I’ve gotten able to do that.
Well, you did that book of art at the same time as you were in Indonesia, so you definitely are doing both at the same time now.
Yeah, I love that book. I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback on it.
What are you hoping to do this time in Indonesia? What’s the purpose of this second, Kickstarter-funded trip?
I am going specifically to collaborate with musicians with whom I met and performed during my first tour of Indonesia in 2011. So, Wukir Suryadi, who I mentioned before. I’m not going to “study” him or his music in any way at all; I’m going as an artist and he’s my collaborator and my equal on the global turf of experimental and improvised music.
I also performed with a number of “Jathilan” groups in East Java on my last trip, and found those experiences to be some of the most exhilarating musical pathways I have ever touched upon. Jathilan is almost like a kind of counter-tradition that has developed partially in resistance to the more well known Court Gamelan of Central Java, which carries with it such associations as austere, refined, “high” culture. Jathilan in contrast is wild, dirty, face paced and always contains elements of danger. A true Jathilan ceremony involves both musicians and dancers coming in and out of various levels of trance states, becoming possessed by spirits that might provoke a dancer to eat lightbulbs or walk on hot coals, for example. I won’t be going to study this, I’ll be going to participate in this myself. I’ll be playing my bass clarinet alongside the double reed tarompet, collaborating with these musicians front and center. By now, I am very familiar with the workings behind “going into trance” while playing music, and as such it becomes less and less “exotic” every time. It’s just really fucking fun to play with these guys!