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  • Jonathan Widran

BILLY DENK, Meditation of the Cosmos

Having written passionately about Billy Denk’s magnificent, deeply immersive 2023 album In Praise of Shadows – the Chicago based composer’s previous excursion into minimalist ambient music – I was thrilled by the opportunity to explore his equally fascinating follow-up Meditations of the Cosmos. It’s a sonically expansive yet richly intricate collection inspired by further introspection and awareness of our place in this world as we connect with both our inner selves and the larger universe.

The 9-track album marks Denk’s debut recording for Wayfarer Records, which was founded by Dave Luxton, America’s premier creator of Space Ambient Music; Luxton also mastered the album for Denk.

In a universe of infinite possibilities, transcendent synchronicities are bound to happen, and so it’s perhaps no coincidence that the same week Meditations of the Cosmos came out, I had the opportunity to interview Marc Scott Zicree, writer of the legendary volume The Twilight Zone Companion and a prominent TV sci-fi writer and show creator.

Listening to the beautiful, hypnotic ambiences Zenk creates, from the trippy soul searching of “Shadow Work” – where the overall calm is often interrupted by disturbing offbeat chimes of chaos – through the infectious shards of our lives that pop back up as reminders in the soothing excursion “Sounds of Memory,” I was reminded of a key quote from Zicree: “Remember, the one place humans have never fought a war or killed each other is out in space. When we go there, either in fantasy or reality, we’re simply the human race – and when we look down on the earth, we realize we’re all part of one planet. Exploring space is all about humanity looking up and seeing greater possibilities.”

Beyond simply exploring how we connect with each other and the universe, the music and ambient sounds on Meditations of the Cosmos draws from Denk’s love of Japanese kankyō ongaku (or “environmental music”) from the 80s – a reaction to the rapid urbanization and economic development of the time and influenced by Erik Satie and Brian Eno. The composer’s interest in Japanese culture was previously reflected on In Praise of Shadows, which was inspired by and named after an essay on Japanese aesthetics by author and novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki.

To gain a deeper understanding of the vast artistry of Denk, who was previously one of Chicagoland’s most renowned and versatile jazz guitarists, it’s important to understand the source of this fascination. “My wife's grandfather, a colonel in the U.S. Army, was assigned to Japan following World War II,” he says. “His photographs of life in Japan adorn our home. Her mother was a young artist who also captured life there through her paintings. These images have long intrigued me. In addition, I have long admired music from Yellow Magic Orchestra and Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Japanese environmental artists. This admiration stems from my interest in exploring sounds and tonalities that resonate with my soul. I find a completeness, logic, and beauty in Japanese arts that compel me to absorb as much as I can to apply space, light, and color to my own music that presents a pleasing balance.”

Denk believes that our inner being connects with our experiences beyond our physical being. In creating the nine pieces of Meditations on the Cosmos, listeners can gain a perspective on how he hears his world while allowing the music to achieve its purpose as a vehicle for deep listening to simply relax to or, if so inclined to contemplate their being. “Japanese environmental music, for me, creates atmospheres of sound that are accessible and paint a picture that is soothing,” the artist says. “My previous recording had a different feel in texture and inspiration: the essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’ depicting Japanese aesthetics from one hundred years ago, in addition, to the loss of my father-in-law. The new recording is much warmer in sound and content and awash in airy, embracing synths, whereas the previous recording had more experimental textures to depict light and shade and a subtle melancholy. This recording has an underlying optimism promoting togetherness and connectedness.”

The meditations Denk presents collectively represent his attempt to express our connectedness in the vast expanse of the universe. Though they certainly can be listened to and appreciated as a seamless, pacifying whole running just over 50 minutes, he conceptualizes them as a contrast between introspective, contemplative views of his (and by extension, our) inner world and a push to look outward at our surroundings and beyond. The ones designed to inspire inner reflection are the aforementioned opening track “Shadow Work” and “Sounds of Memory,” in addition to the pure, soothingly atmospheric “To Be Alive,” the mind and soul expanding “In Peace, Mindfulness, which includes hypnotic, high toned repetitive synth motifs that feel like the musical equivaelnt of climbing stairs.

The compositions prompting listeners to think beyond themselves and consider their connection to higher realms are the dreamy, mystical “Winds of the Gods,” the mysterious, high pitch droning centered “Furthest Limits” (featuring another hypno-motif) and the wonder-filled “Pageantry of the Cosmos,” featuring Denk’s labelmate Sean O’Bryan Smith, providing a dark, moody undercurrent on fretless bass. The pieces that seamlessly tie inner and outer heart and soul searching together thematically, connecting our inner beings with all that we integrate as humanity are the awestruck celebration “To Be Alive” and the dazzling and hopeful “We Are The Constellations,” which taps into the scientific reality that says we are “star stuff” – meaning that much of the matter that’s inside our sun and planet, among other entities, was made within the stars long ago.  

“My wish is that Meditation of the Cosmos will serve as a gift to all listeners as a tool or guide for peaceful contemplation and insight,” Denk says. “I continue to explore sounds that introduce personal textures and my ‘DNA’ that makes this music a personal experience for the listener. Space music can be warm and inviting - that is my hope. 

“The process of making this album flowed easily because I decided to create a warmer, heavily washy synth-driven recording,” he adds. “In creating a song, I have a number of methods for generating song ideas. Sometimes, I work with a chord that has a certain emotional quality, or I'll play a melodic sequence that is interesting, and build from there. I'll also work on adding additional textures and applying techniques that create a sense of space, nostalgia, or wonder. My biggest joy creating this album was taking all my experiences creating previous recordings to provide the most accurate, expressive representation of music that I love listening to - music that can connect with others. I do hope that this joy translates and that others feel the same experience.”

Wayfarer Records Artistic Director Dieter Spears created the video for “Winds of the Gods.”


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