At an age where most students of music were adopting a methodical paint-by-numbers approach to learning, singer/composer/audio engineer/multi-instrumentalist Amy Denio was already coloring outside of the lines. "I made this, I guess, quasi-philosophical decision not to take lessons," she says. "I decided when I was twelve that I already knew enough about music. And I already liked improvising and just making up my own stuff. I didn't like any repertoire that was presented to me. That's why I nearly failed flute in fourth grade."
Those familiar with Denio's body of work will no doubt agree that her early insubordination to the conventional rules of music theory has yielded happy returns. It has, among other things, resulted in nineteen solo and group recordings that range from lush rock tapestries with supernal voicings to multilingual ethnic raveups, to texturally clamorous meanderings, to free-thinking jazz compositions and everything in between. The largely self-taught Seattleite may not actually use the kitchen sink, but dishwashers and hubcaps often join the instrumental mix as easily as kid-friendly bass grooves. And Denio's voice tends to assume a different persona on each tune, changing from vulnerable, angelic muse to growling, jovial Louis Armstrong. Conceptually, Denio's methodology has also led to the development of "spoot," which serves as the name of her publishing company and tiny record label as well.
To spoot is "to encourage empathy and active listening in all walks of life," according to the liner notes for Denio's Greatest Hits, a recent CD on Seattle's Unit Circle Rekkids that includes selections from now-out-of-print recordings. "Everyone's going to hear something in a unique way," she elaborates. "Whether they like it or not, that's completely up to the individual. But people come into situations saying, 'Oh, this is going to be difficult music; I know I'm not going to like it.' I think it's really necessary to approach whatever you find out there -- outside of that little husk of yourself -- with an open mind."
It's this unorthodox yet open-minded approach to music that has informed the 38-year-old Denio -- and made her the epitome of a creative musician. It's also made her something of a seasoned traveler: During the process of producing her tidbits of radical aural culture, Denio has taken her alto sax, accordion, bass, guitar and four-octave vocal range around the world. Her projects have taken her to Italy, India, Hungary, Estonia, Japan, Yugoslavia and elsewhere. She's collaborated with and studied under revered teachers, including a master kora player and a North Indian thumri singer.
"I find the greatest musical growth and inspiration happens from playing with people from very different backgrounds," Denio says. "That's how I learn -- by collaborating, sharing ideas and getting pushed in ways that I wouldn't expect. For me, it's a more dynamic way of growth than this kind of static 'I am the teacher and you will follow my rules.' I really relish that."
If certain elements of classical-musical prodigiousness are sometimes attributed to the Mozart Effect, then one might credit Denio's tuneful intelligence to the Charles Mingus or Paul Chambers Effect. Certainly, as the daughter of two jazz bassists, the Detroit native had a prenatal familiarity with jazz and musical improvisation. "I've been singing my whole life," she says. "I'm sure I was hearing bass tones long before I was born, in my pre-formative years." Denio traces a later musical milestone to Colorado Springs in the early Eighties, when she enrolled at Colorado College to study under composer Stephen Scott, known for his alluring prepared-piano explorations. When Scott left the college on a leave of absence, Denio turned to the campus radio station, the electronic music lab and an all-girl rock band. Variously known as the Glad Bags, Friends of Sheep and Random Sheep, the group covered tunes by the likes of Snakefinger and the Clash.
More important, however, was Denio's meeting of dance-music composer Bob Tudor at about the time she took up the saxophone. "He's the one who introduced me to completely free, improvised music," she recalls. In fact, Tudor's nearby log cabin is the birthplace of spoot.
Throughout her musical career, Denio has had to encounter -- and counter -- the attitudes of those wary of music that is, admittedly, difficult to pinpoint. Yet the music itself is anything but difficult. Sure, "Bus Horn Concerto," with the Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet and three city buses, is unusual. (The piece was commissioned by the Seattle transit authority to encourage the use of public transportation.) And the odd instrumentation of "Funeral Music," which she recorded with Japanese cohorts FloMoJo, is irreverent instead of somber. But whereas difficult music tends to erect barriers, Denio's exuberance is enticing and inviting.
Tongues, a 1993 CD release on Indiana's Ponk label, is a case in point. "When it came out, I discovered that all these children just loved it," Denio says. "I have an infant friend -- he's now seven, but when it came out, he insisted on hearing that CD, and only that CD, for six months, seven or eight times a day. His poor mother! And then I heard that this room full of fourteen-year-olds in Chicago thought it was the coolest record they'd ever heard."
The youth appeal of Denio's music was incidental, but her intention to explore the playful side of sound, singing and performance was not. The result of her globetrotting and cross-pollinating is a music with the rare ability to obliterate distinctions between high art and folk art.
"For me, it's a damning thing," says Denio of more distant, abstruse approaches to art. "I've been thinking about this a lot with the discovery of spoot -- the whole performer-audience dichotomy that there are specialists and then there are the consumers. The specialists are the professionals, and they're up on this big stage. and then there's the audience, who are passive consumers. As best I can, I try to address this through my performances by having more involvement."
While conducting workshops with aspiring younger musicians and giving more than 1,000 concerts spanning four continents, Denio has had ample time to refine her inclusive approach. "What I really like most, even when I'm going to a concert, is to hear where the songs came from," Denio says. "So I like very much to describe what inspired my songs. There's a certain amount of...not storytelling, but something like that." Indeed, even Denio's avid fans would be eager to discover what's behind songs like the subtly twisted "Traffic Island Psycho," the politically charged "(When George Bush Was Head of the) C.I.A.," and the nonsensical "Salvatore."
Despite her frolicsome communications, Denio has the ability and predilection for improvisational techniques and far-reaching experiments. But she is no purist. "I'm just looking for beauty when I improvise," she explains, "to see what new things I can find that are pleasing to my ears and to my soul or whatever. It might mean a melody comes out, God forbid."
Combining the right degrees of accessibility and artistic merit is particularly important, considering the current state of live music. On both sides of the pond, Denio observes an unfortunate trend that has audiences staying at home more often than venturing forth to concert halls and art galleries. "It's sad, but it's really happening in Europe now, too," she notes, "unless you're a megastar with some kind of wonderful hook that can draw everyone in. Which is, of course, a great thing, if you can find a way. That's a goal of mine -- to communicate my music to as many people as possible."
Denio's undogmatic attitude served her well at Muzak in Seattle, the primary company responsible for all of those instrumental versions of popular music, where she worked after earning a music degree from Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Denio actually enjoyed working on original projects, known in Muzak lingo as "foreground" (not "elevator") music. "I had a great time. Working in programming, I was surrounded by very crazy, strange people. I won the 'Who Really Runs the Company' award one year," she confesses with a laugh.
Denio's prolificness became obvious in Seattle. By the time grunge was breaking big-time in the Emerald City, around 1991, Denio had already appeared on at least four CDs. She created urbane, catchy art pop with the Tone Dogs, whose second disc featured Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron. Birthing Chair Blues, a consistently captivating 1991 solo release from Knitting Factory Works, strengthened Denio's reputation on the basis of her vocal acrobatics, dub-soaked funkiness and knowing eccentricity. Later, with Swiss colleagues in the Pale Nudes, she released two more genre-bending CDs and a third with drummer Chris Cutler, as (EC) Nudes. Denio found yet another project in the Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet; the band, with whom Denio has now parted ways, was named after a beloved Washington State sax player who was revealed to be a woman after his death. On the four Tipton CDs on which Denio performed, the quartet explored structured improvisation with an air that earned them critical accolades.
Denio's unbeaten path is long and winding. She has recorded and performed with Curlew, the Shaking Ray Levis, KMFDM, Pauline Oliveros, Die Knödel, Guy Klucevsek's Four Accordionists of the Apocalypse, Faust and many others. She has composed award-winning music for prominent national dance companies as well as soundtracks for animated films. She's currently working on music for the Pat Graney Dance Company in Seattle, playing saxophone with a Latin music DJ in La Movida, doing "Balkan punk" with Kultur Shock and singing on a new CD with Chris Cutler, Fred Frith, Bob Drake and others as the Science Group. (The Recommended Records Web site calls the latter a "dense, composed, gallon in a pint kind of a record.")
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Never complacent or stagnant, Denio's forays into dance-music compositions exemplify her tendency to eschew the limitations of her medium. "Dancers are so visual, and they use such a different language, that it's really a great challenge for me as a completely non-visual person," she says. "I'm not one of those people who can paint beautiful murals or whatever. I can barely draw a box. So it just strecthes my mind in really interesting ways and teaches me to think visually, or to interpret visual concepts into music -- which I normally wouldn't bother doing."
Understandably, one of Denio's pet peeves arises when people impulsively struggle to categorize her music. "The fact that I'm not a specialist is very perplexing to a lot of people," she explains. "So what irks me is that people are always having this need to put anything into a niche to understand it better. I'm a musician. That's my niche.
"People are always saying, 'But, Amy, we never know what you're going to do next -- if it's going to be this wall of noise or this incredible lullaby on the accordion,'" Denio says with a good-natured chuckle. "That's my prerogative, and I'm going to keep it that way."