I decided when I was 12 that I already knew enough about music," recalled Seattle singer, composer, audio engineer and multi-instrumentalist Amy Denio. "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."
The largely self-taught Denio may have colored outside the lines more than her classmates, but she certainly works well with others. "I made this, I guess, quasi-philosophical decision not to take lessons," she said. However, the 38-year-old Denio is quick to add that she has indeed studied with amazing teachers, including a master kora player and a North Indian thumri singer, who helped expand her musical universe.
It's this unorthodox yet open-minded approach to music that has informed Denio -- and made her the epitome of a creative musician. "That's how I learn -- by collaborating, sharing ideas and getting pushed in ways that I wouldn't expect," she said. "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."
Listeners with hungry ears will relish Denio's recent Greatest Hits CD, released by Unit Circle Rekkids in Seattle. For fans, it conveniently offers a number of selections from now out-of-print recordings. For everyone else, it's a compelling survey of Denio's breathtaking stylistic sweep and artistic perspicacity.
Denio's 19 solo and group recordings range from lush rock tapestries with supernal voicings to multilingual ethnic rave-ups to texturally clamorous meanderings to free-thinking jazz compositions and everything in between. She may not actually use the kitchen sink, but dishwashers and hubcaps join the mix as easily as kid-friendly bass grooves.
"I find the greatest musical growth and inspiration happens from playing with people from very different backgrounds," observed Denio. In the process of producing her tidbits of radical aural culture, Denio has indeed carried her alto sax, accordion, bass, guitar and four-octave vocal range far and wide.
"I've been singing my whole life," said Denio, a Detroit native whose parents were both jazz bassists. "And I'm sure I was hearing bass tones long before I was born, in my pre-formative years." If not the Mozart effect, then one might credit Denio's tuneful intelligence to the Charles Mingus or Paul Chambers effect.
Denio traces a later musical milestone to Colorado Springs in the early '80s. She enrolled at Colorado College to study under composer Stephen Scott, known for his alluring prepared piano explorations. With Scott away on a leave of absence, Denio turned to the college 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 recalled. In fact, Tudor's nearby log cabin is the birthplace of Denio's concept of "spoot," which also serves as the name of her publishing company and tiny record label.
To spoot is "to encourage empathy and active listening in all walks of life," according to Denio's liner notes. "Everyone's going to hear something in a unique way," elaborated Denio. "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."
Denio's music is anything but difficult. Admittedly, "Bus Horn Concerto," a piece performed by the Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet with three city buses, is unusual. And the odd instrumentation of "Funeral Music," which Denio recorded with her Japanese cohorts FloMoJo, is irreverent instead of somber. 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 said. "I have an infant friend -- he's now 7 -- 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 14-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.
Although she has the ability and predilection for improvisation, Denio is no purist. "I'm just looking for beauty when I improvise," she explained, "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."
Denio's unbeaten path is long and winding. She has recorded and performed with Curlew, the Shaking Ray Levis, KMFDM, Pauline Oliveros, Die Kndel, 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. Her projects and collaborations have taken her to Italy, India, Hungary, Estonia, Japan, Yugoslavia and elsewhere.
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").
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 explained. "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 lullabye on the accordion,' " Denio said with a good-natured chuckle. "That's my prerogative, and I'm going to keep it that way."
Thomas Peake is a freelance music writer in Denver