Meditations of the Cosmos: 
 AV talks with Billy Denk


Billy Denk

Listen to Billy Denk

Bandcamp before Wayfarer

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Meditations of the Cosmos

Releasing 4/19/2024

AV:  Tell me about yourself and how you got started in music.

BD: I’m a guitarist, synthesist, and composer based in northern Illinois.

In the late 1970’s, my mother bought me my first guitar at age nine, a cheap Harmony acoustic guitar. I learned folk and rock songs, eventually starting a rock band in junior high school when I received my first electric guitar. I also played clarinet in the school band. While I was gigging in local clubs in my teens, I was primarily into rock music; however, I enjoyed jazz, bossa nova, and electronic and pop music that was current in the 1980’s.

I took a break from music to major in psychology in college, then returned to music in my late 20’s, drawing on my childhood interests in bossa nova and hard bop to make inroads on Chicago’s jazz scene.

In the 2000’s, I started a regular jam session in Woodstock, Illinois that evolved into the organization Jazz on the Square, which promoted jazz performance and education in the community. This included an annual jazz festival featuring predominantly Chicago-based jazz musicians, including Tim Fitzgerald, Chris Greene, Frank Russell, Outcast Jazz Band, and others. 

I also hosted the Northern Sky Jazz Show on Harvard Community Radio 101.3 FM, which featured music and interviews with musicians from Chicago and nationwide.

During this time, I performed with my own group Glazz Ensemble as well as the Paul Abella Trio and began composing and recording my own music starting with Circulicity (2010). Subsequent albums followed including Prairie Fire (2013) and Pieces of Light (2017).

In 2019, I made a radical creative shift in my recording career and began exploring my longtime passion for minimalist, ambient music. My first ambient recordings Positive Space and Starbound came out in 2019, of which “Solar Wind” from Starbound has been a top streamer on various ambient programs. 

I’ve followed up those albums with other well-received recordings – Soul Immersion (2019), Connection (2020), Introverse (2021), Blue Lotus Dream (2021), Night Songs (2022), and In Praise of Shadows (2023).  

AV: What was it about ambient or electronic music that drew you to that genre for expressing your musical creativity?  

BD:  In addition to the rock, jazz, and pop music that I was listening to in my younger years in the 1980’s, I would tune into the Hearts of Space and Musical Starstreams radio programs heard weekly on our public radio station. My favorites at that time were Kevin Braheny, Bill Douglas, Robert Rich, Steve Roach, and Raphael. I also was interested in Eno and Tangerine Dream’s continual evolution in sound design, as well as other experimental and minimalist creators and composers.

AV:  How do you feel about genre labels being attached to your music or music in general? I’ve always felt that ambient/new age/electronic music crossed over a lot of lines in terms of trying to classify it or put it in a box. What are your thoughts on trying to classify the music we listen to every day. If we don’t use at least guideline genres, how do we tell others what we are listening to and what they might enjoy?  

BD:  Classifying music is perhaps most challenging for those defining it. Each genre incorporates unique stylistic characteristics which creates the basis of a given type of music. Modern classical music is essentially an oxymoron, yet we understand to some degree what this means in context of what music to expect. New Age music connotes more than a musical genre, implying a spiritual movement originating in the 1970’s.

I have no issue with attempts to classify or define my instrumental music as electronic, ambient, New Age, etc., if that helps listeners to find my music. Despite my origins in jazz and rock music and subtle influence in my compositions, I obviously am not creating those styles. Defining what constitutes jazz music is an entire interview in it’s own right!


AV:  Do you use your guitar for composing? Or synths?

BD:  Yes, being primarily a guitarist, I use it often to generate ideas and to compose music. My approach to guitar as a composition tool consists of playing “traditional” ambient guitar to generate melodic ideas affected by delay, reverb, granular delay, and other modulation effects.

As an alternative, I will use the guitar to trigger midi patches of synths in Ableton Live to generate and record ideas which I can later refine. For midi guitar, I stopped using midi pickups on my guitar and now prefer using Jam Origin’s Midi Guitar plugin as it tracks well and allows me access to any soft synth that I have available.

As my fluency on keys has improved, I predominantly use synthesizers and keyboard controllers to inspire ideas. I also directly input ideas into Ableton Live where I employ several soft synths and tools to shape the sounds that I want.

AV:  Tell me about how your relationship with Wayfarer Records came about. 

BD:  I had often heard artists like Jason Blake, Ambiente Solstice (JJ Rey), and Wayfarer Records founder Dave Luxton on the Night Tides program hosted by Renée Blanche on KCUR in Kansas City and really liked the sounds they were creating. I contacted Dave expressing my admiration of what they were doing at Wayfarer and asked if they would be interested in my music. We had a positive series of discussions and decided that we were a good fit. The label is refreshing in that it is artist friendly with emphasis on collaboration and teamwork amongst the artists. I contributed electric guitar to two tracks from Ambiente Solstice’s upcoming recording, Short Stories, which was great fun. I was able to contribute essentially jazz guitar, but in an ambient setting. Several other talented musicians contributed to this recording. This is only one example of the many creative, inspiring musical collaborations on Wayfarer.

AV:  How long have you been releasing albums on this label, and how has it been going so far? 

BD:  My first album with Wayfarer Records will be released April 19, 2024. I signed with Wayfarer in late 2023 after which I eagerly began working on compositions for the album.

AV:  Tell me about your experiences in releasing your music prior to Wayfarer. How difficult is it for an artist to get noticed in a digital world when there is so much music sloshing around on the internet and on the streaming services? 

BD:  The ability to self-produce music today is easier than ever. One can go to Bandcamp or any platform and discover a near limitless number of artists creating incredible music. Because the ability to create and release music independently is much easier due to today’s technology, there is a wealth of content which can be overwhelming. Where does one begin? In that sense, it is difficult to stand out.

In discussion with my label mates and management, we believe that collaboration is one avenue to expand our listener base, as well as organizing live events. I founded a not-for-profit jazz education and performance organization in which we steadily grew a supportive following in my region of Illinois. Grass-roots momentum and forward-thinking approaches to sharing music is the best method for growing a following.

AV:  Meditations of the Cosmos is your new album and will be released in about three weeks. When did you start working on it?

BD:  I began compositions in September of 2023 with most being completed by November. I let the pieces rest and did some refinement in December. I immerse myself totally into the creation of music, then move on to new pieces. I like to return to a song after letting it resonate within where I fine-tune, rearrange, and add textures that make a piece more compelling. 

AV:  Do you have a process to channel your creativity when you are sufficiently inspired to start a new project? Could you walk me through your foundational steps when beginning new musical work?


BD:  My process employs different techniques to inspire creativity and develop song ideas. I often will read about a particular subject like I did for the “In Praise of Shadows” recording, which was inspired by the book by Japanese author Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. 

Othertimes, I will do exercises on guitar that subsequently evolve into a melodic concept where I build complementary sounds. Another technique is to play a chord on guitar (or keys), for example an Aminor11 or a Sus chord, write a fitting melodic shape over the chord, and build from there. 

Delving more into the electronic end of composition, I start with a sound design idea and apply sequencing and textures to assemble a sound collage which may invoke a particular feeling. 

Over the past several months, I have been listening to kankyo ongaku (or Japanese environmental music), minimalist, and ambient music from Hiroshi Yoshimura, Alvo Noto, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Taylor Deupree, William Basinski, and my Wayfarer colleagues as inspiration. When you hear the latest recording, it will be obvious that I have not recreated their music; however, their concepts of sound did subconsciously seep into my sonic sensibility.

AV:  Do artists like yourself need to go into a studio setting anymore to achieve the sounds you want to hear from your music? Was Meditations done in your own set up or was there a studio involved at all? 

BD:  I composed and recorded this album entirely in my humble home studio. I last used a formal recording studio for my last jazz album released in 2017. I had created my home studio ten years ago adding necessary components gradually. My studio consists of all the tools that I need to create what I envision including keyboards, midi controllers, guitars, monitors, computers, and recording software.

AV:  What kind of input did Wayfarer have on how Meditations sounds in its final form and how did you work with them as an artist to make sure your vision of Meditations was maintained? 

BD:  For this recording, I worked closely with Sean O’Bryan Smith, Director of Artist Relations & Development, who is also a fine musician and producer. He provided excellent feedback on the flow of the music and suggestions for refining the compositions. In addition, he guested on fretless bass on one of the tracks, Pageantry of the Cosmos, which added an important dimension to the final version.

AV:  With a title like Meditations of the Cosmos, you have a rather large palette of subject matter for this new album. What kind of journey are you taking the listener on with Meditations? 

BD:  My intention is always to create a collection of music that I enjoy. Exploring the continuum of outer and inner space and creating the sounds that complement this exploration is my passion. Subsequently, the listener can share this outer and inner journey in sound. Of course, there is room for the listener to visualize and impart their own experience on the journey. 

AV:  When creating an album like Meditations, do you ever think about how the listener will receive your music and how they might benefit from what you have created? 

BD:  Meditation is a largely personal exploration while the “cosmos” is this vast, outer expanse that is infinite. My hope is that this music allows the listener to connect the inner and outer space we share. I truly believe in shared consciousness and see music as a way of connecting everyone in a positive light. 

AV:  As a psychology major do you view the music that you create not only as entertainment, but which also has therapeutic properties for those who need to find ways of dealing with the stress of living in the 21st century?  

BD:  My undergraduate degree was in psychology (followed years later by a graduate degree in business). For several years after graduating from college I worked in social services and counseling. I believe this experience and my interest in the well-being of others certainly informs my awareness of the influence that ambient music has therapeutically.

Incidentally, Wayfarer Records founder, Dave Luxton, is trained as a clinical psychologist and has a keen interest in the impact that music has on psychological health. My label mate, Brannan Lane, just released a recording entitled the Sleep Album with the intention that it promote relaxation and reduce stress. I’m in good company with like-minded artists that are interested in exploring the potential healing benefits that this music offers.

AV:  I was watching the video you released for Winds of the Gods, a song from Meditations, and I enjoyed the music. Was this video something you created? If so, could you tell me what the video communicated and how it relates to the music you composed? 


BD:  The video was created by Dieter Spears, Director of Creative Media, at Wayfarer Records. His visuals explored the concepts that I mentioned concerning the journey beyond and the search within. For this type music, I want it to mimic that moment of dream state where one is self-aware yet immersed in a haze of surrealness. Dieter’s video really captured that feeling. The video also has sci-fi elements of which I’m a fan having grown up with Star Trek and Star Wars beginning my fascination with the outer and inner explorations that I mentioned.

AV:  Will Meditations continue along the same path as your past compositions, or is it breaking new ground for you in regard to expanding your creative skills?

BD:  In comparison to my past few recordings, the compositions continue my use of textured sounds, blips and bleeps, and layered, dynamic, washy synths; however, this is much more of a “space music” type album in the sense that I’ve minimized the obvious electro-acoustic sounds from previous recordings where I used treated piano, vibes, and guitar for a heavily pad-oriented exploration in sound. My compositions are always evolving, and I am pleased with this album.

AV:  How do you feel when you finish a project and turn it loose into the world?

BD:  Excited! So much terrific music is being created by my colleagues at Wayfarer Records that I am eager to share these songs with the world on behalf of the label. The ability to create music is a tremendous gift that is to be shared. I hope that you enjoy the recording (and journey) as much as I enjoyed creating and listening now!

AV:  I wish you much success with this new album Billy. It sounds great and it will be in a regular rotation around my house for quite some time. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me here at Ambient Visions and sharing about your upcoming album with Wayfarer Records which will be available on April 19, 2024.


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