"Frenzy, intensity, passion – those are manifestations of where I want to go," declares Arrington de Dionyso, a painter and musician who seeks the primal nature of sound and image.

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Arrington de Dionyso


"Frenzy, intensity, passion – those are manifestations of where I want to go," declares Arrington de Dionyso, a painter and musician who seeks the primal nature of sound and image.


Performing live – solo or with collaborators including his long-standing outfit Old Time Relijun – de Dionyso radiates a feral, focused intensity. From conjuring harmonics on the bass clarinet and the jaw harp to singing multiphonics inspired by throat-singing traditions, de Dionyso's performances are sonically and visually incantatory. He channels this intensity in conversation, eager to unfurl the core of his music. "I want to reveal an archaeology of tone, to reach a place where the core elements of sound emerge and dissolve."

In this performance, recorded last year at the Kobo Shop in Udine, Italy, de Dionyso kneels in front an effects pedal and amp, like a rock guitarist. A bass clarinet rests in its case off to one side. He keeps kneeling, ramming the microphone and its cable into his mouth. Through this reversed umbilical cord, he emits a stretched-out vowel coated in what could be guitar feedback, but there are no strings to strum, no band in sight.

It's all-enveloping.



The small crowd, packed into a gallery garlanded with de Dionyso's drawings, is entranced. He turns more knobs and the microphone leaves his mouth. Yanking a dial with a flourish, bel canto and throat-singing converge into a plaintive howl. With his free hand de Dionyso slowly outlines the trajectory of his undulating voice, tracing an echoing afterimage of the painted nudes parading on the walls. 

Placing himself in the ecstatic tradition, de Dionyso happily admits he's often orbiting what he calls "the outer limits of sonic territory." He lives there too.


De Dionyso is based in Olympia, Washington, an otherwise nondescript town where students from The Evergreen State College birthed Sub Pop Records, K Records, and the recently revived trio Sleater-Kinney. Kurt Cobain spent some time there too, just before the riot grrrl movement emerged in a town where rent was cheap and venues plentiful. While Olympia's close-knit community still fosters musical exploration - de Dionyso has helped run the long-running Olympia Experimental Music Festival since the 1990s - the proximity to the wilderness offers the solitude necessary to explore and take risks.

Standing next to the Deschutes River just outside of Olympia, de Dionyso, clad in a tweed jacket, unleashes a rasping riff which scrapes and reverberates into the legion of damp trees. "I'm a self-taught bass clarinet player," he says, though that might be hard to reconcile with the darting fragments of scales and dexterous shifts from serpentine runs to bluesy, guttural moans. He sought the sound first and technique later: "I took the opposite route and went straight to multi-phonics before working on scales and fingerings."


It starts with a tube

De Dionyso also invents new and hybrid instruments, notably the bromiophone, a kind of contrabass clarinet made with PVC pipes whose length can be reconfigured in live performance. "It starts with a tube," he explains. "In all the different tonalities I explore - in voice, bass clarinet, and jaw harp - they're all similar and have similar overtone patterns. Then I modify the sound and pathway in that tube."

Lacking the key system of the clarinet, the bromiophone reveals the connection between his voice, his horn, and how he gets inside a sound by manipulating the component overtones of a sound. "I use a lot of embouchure stuff, shaping inside my mouth while playing the reed. It's very similar to - and completely informed by - my throat singing experiments. I play as if the instrument is the extension of the voice. It's instrumental and vocal at the same time." He hopes to continue experimenting with the instrument and muses that "I would love to experiment with 3-D printing of mouthpieces."


Recording onto plastic picnic plates

Another short video finds de Dionyso in the fabled studio of K Records experimenting with a primitive record lathe, one of many consumer-level recording phonographs made in the 1930s and 40s. Here, he transforms this antique technology into a musical instrument, creating primitive overdubs by performing live along with an already recorded disk-plate. The hiss, the scratches, and occasional skips make obsolescence musical: "I don't have loop station, or pedal, or a computer or an interface," he explains in the video, "it's just the sound that's being directly recorded to this plastic picnic plate."

Towards the end of our interview, de Dionyso emphasizes his embrace of all kinds of sound. "I want to integrate every sound that I hear," he states. "If someone says I sound like a modular synth, well for me that's not bad! I want that sound in there too."



De Dionyso's music exerts a profound influence on his painting. "When ink or paint touches a surface, I think of every stroke of the brush in musical terms." His subjects - nudes solo and in groups sometimes in tandem with mythical creatures - seem homogenous at first, much like the raw tones he makes in performance. Yet a closer look and listen reveals a surprisingly polyphonic emotional latticework, at once erotic, playful, visceral, and brooding. The artist is pleased that the luxe fashion house Saint Laurent mapped his painting “Dragons and Angels in Deep Conversation” onto a backpack for their Spring/Summer 2015 Men's Collection. He recalled, "they heard my music and saw my painting on a poster, and we went from there." Earlier this year he told The New York Times that "My body of work is very cumulative and builds upon the mythical creatures I drew growing up. Only now, they’re also on Saint Laurent bags." Despite the acclaim, de Dionyso prefers to look ahead.

Remain unschooled

He's eager to return to Indonesia - this is his third trip - where he has collaborated with gamelan orchestras and other trance music ensembles. "I enjoy being welcomed into these experiences." But de Dionyso is no mere musical tourist. "I don't have a fascination with Indonesia over any other place, but I've just found a receptivity there." What results is a true fusion with neither traditional nor experimental musician compromising to fit expectations. 

"Being unschooled gives me a lot more freedom with people of non-Western music backgrounds." says de Dionyso, humbly. "They appreciate that and tell me 'you don't play like an American at all.'" He feels a profound sense of belonging and affirms that "it feels right. I've been painting dragons long before I went there."



Born: Olympia, Washington
Current location: Somewhere in Indonesia
Occupation: Artist, musician and wanderer


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