In composer Frank Denyer’s dream, he is watching a small monkey that is inexplicably nestled in the flames inside a stove that closely resembles the one in Denyer’s kitchen. The scenario elicits many questions: How did the monkey manage to get in there in the first place, and then remain unnoticed? How is he even surviving? Denyer’s attempt to communicate with the monkey yields friendly bird-like cheeps—the animal signalling that it’s doing perfectly well, all things considered. A piano keyboard becomes an extension of the stove, and as the composer sits to play he wonders if he should try to rescue the monkey from the fire.
Denyer relates this dream in his book In the Margins of Composition (Vision Edition, 2019) to enhance his astute observations about the artistic process. This strange scene animates a fascinating discussion about the mysterious nature of creativity. This dream and its bevy of absurd juxtapositions not only appear to hold much significance for the English experimental-music composer, but also serve as a metaphor for his own compositional output.
Denyer’s works reside as much in the realm of the unconscious as they do in the tangible world, in terms of both their sonics and mystifying logic. They are noticeably charged with emotion, but one would be hard pressed to identify specific affects. He tends to favour sounds that hover along the horizon of perceptibility—as if they’re being imagined by the listener rather than heard—and moulds them into long, wafting contours that leave vivid impressions. His penchant for heterophony sees melodies unspooling into elaborate tangles rather than cutting assertive linear trajectories. His pieces are like brittle nests fashioned from disparate collected elements (eclectic and homespun instrumentation, cryptic vocalise, sharp dynamic contrasts, and multiple tuning systems), yet he always manages to eke out some form of surreal cohesion and familiarity within them.

Denyer, who was born in 1943, discovered at a young age the boundless musical curiosity that has since steered his entire artistic practice. Piano lessons melted into bedtime when he would routinely sing himself to sleep. By the time he was eight, his mother had secured a scholarship for him at Canterbury Cathedral Choir School, so he would receive a quality education within the family’s humble budget. In addition to their conventional schooling, Canterbury students were choristers and accompanied the daily services. It was a strict regimen, and they were expected to conduct themselves with an adult level of professionalism.
Amid the candlelit grandeur of the cathedral, Denyer discovered his calling. In Suhail Merchant’s 2020 documentary about Denyer, Some Sounds Are Gates, the composer recalls the school’s headmaster gathering pupils to offer career advice and cautioning, “I don’t want any of you to get the silly idea that any of you are going to become musicians!” As Denyer tells the story in the film, his face illuminates the screen with palpable childlike glee: this was the precise moment he knew he wanted to be a musician. Yet this desire wasn’t a conscious act of rebellion. When I inquire about the genial contrarianism that characterizes him and his work, he chalks it up to “just wanting something larger than what we’ve been given.”
The same inquisitive defiance led to his first encounter, at age seventeen, with the world of contemporary composition. At a London record shop, he demanded the most modern music they had, only to be confronted with Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Its jagged interplay left him bewildered at first, but persistent listening and exhaustive research chiseled away this surface of incomprehensibility and soon revealed new sonic frontiers.

Some of Denyer’s core aesthetic proclivities began emerging at Guildhall School, where he studied piano and composition from 1959 to 1967. During this time, he also developed a fondness for the music of American composer Morton Feldman, who later became a friend and collaborator. This affinity was likely an outgrowth of his desire to, in his own words, “cut things down to their basics, trying to find the essence of everything.

“I seem to start early on this idea that I was interested in melody and linear writing and that kind of separated me from most of my colleagues, who thought that was sort of synonymous with being conservative. I couldn’t understand why one parameter of music should be thought of as conservative, but not others.”
Whittling things down had its limits, though. Composing melodically in the absence of harmonic backing was an obstacle he couldn’t quite surmount. Although he came close in the flute-and-bell piece that begins A Book of Offerings (1968–70), the spartan bell accompaniment still presented a tenuous harmonic outline, which frustrated the young composer. Yet Gorō Yamaguchi’s evocative solo recording of Japanese shakuhachi music, A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky (1969), had shown him it could be done. “The only problem,” sighs Denyer, with a laugh, “was that it wasn’t done by me.”
Wisecracks aside, few other Western composers have generated a body of work so deeply indebted to non-Western traditions and yet so far removed from appropriation. Denyer is emphatic about his opposition to what he calls superficial exoticism, “where people leap into another culture because they can’t work in their own or they’ve got disillusioned by it, and think if they become something else it will solve all their problems.” Yet, his views on the topic are also nuanced.
Denyer has cultivated a profound, personal, and utterly unconventional lifelong relationship with ethnomusicology. Even his first musical excursion abroad, to India in 1973, sprang from the same wide-eyed, obsessive instinct that earlier had prompted him to research and listen his way to the bottom of Pierrot Lunaire, devouring Schoenberg’s biographies and writings. Opting for a long, rambling bus trip—rather than a flight—to India, he made stops throughout Western Asia, gathering a deeper sense of context.
He describes the traditional musicians he’s interacted with as teachers—sources of inspiration that have helped him to ask new questions of music’s potential. “When I started off as a composer, I was very annoyed that journalists would often ask, ‘How do you think of your music in the context of British music?’ I didn’t want my music ever to sound particularly British, or even African or Indian or Japanese or other things I’ve been interested in. I don’t think that way. If these things have gotten deeply into me, without my thinking about it, they’ll come out in some way, no doubt. I’m not conscious of it, and don’t want to be conscious of it, really. Some of these things are kind of contradictory—but that, I think, is the complexity of where we are.
“There are power structures that have been to people’s disadvantage, and some of them we belong to, and we must be conscious of that—of course we must be! But that doesn’t mean that we’ve got to separate ourselves into these little boxes.”
Denyer’s travels have also provided poignant glimpses into the universal dimensions of humanity. A brush with tragedy in Ahmedabad, during the India trip, is something he has been contemplating ever since. The city, ravaged by flooding, was littered with corpses and eerily quiet. Amidst all this, he came across a woman hunched in the doorway of a shop, oblivious to the outside world, rocking back and forth, and singing to herself under her breath. “The memory of this voice never left me,” he writes in his book; in different ways, many of his works emulate this fragility. He has even given a name to this phenomenon: the under-voice.
Suhail Merchant reflects: “We all understand there’s a reason music appears in moments like that—moments of trauma, of forgetting oneself, of transcendence, of great emotion, of reverie—just losing yourself in memory.” Music, he continues, “surrounds us in more ways than we may conventionally acknowledge. It’s absent-mindedly hummed under our breath. And it’s strange that something like this should exist, something that seems to have no kind of evolutionary function, or that can’t be explained in particularly logical terms, but it is pervasive, and it is universal. I think Frank’s music is a particular gateway to asking and exploring those questions about music.”

The seeds planted by Yamaguchi’s solo shakuhachi recording began to blossom in 1974, when Denyer left England for Wesleyan University in Connecticut to pursue a doctorate in ethnomusicology, focusing on Japanese music. Tactile learning had always been essential to Denyer’s process of unlocking the worlds encapsulated in various music; at Wesleyan he was able to integrate learning the koto into his program, providing him a means to internalize Japanese repertoire and gesture. By another stroke of luck, the shakuhachi virtuoso Yoshikazu Iwamoto, one of the school’s esteemed artists in residence, was Denyer’s neighbour, and many musical discussions ensued. “He was very anxious that the shakuhachi should be thought of as a contemporary instrument—that it might have roots in Japan but now it was spreading out into the globe,” recalls Denyer.
Iwamoto was intrigued by Denyer’s compositions and mounted a performance of his work Play (1972–73), for two shakuachis and violin. The thought of writing for the musician never occurred to Denyer, though. “His last day in America, I took him to the airport. And he said, ‘Oh, will you write some pieces for me? I don’t mind how difficult they are or if it takes twenty years to learn them. I will learn them.’ For a composer to hear this! Usually [we hear] the opposite: ‘Write me things that sound really difficult, but I haven’t got time to practise,’” he laughs.
Iwamoto’s offer seemed daunting to Denyer, given the instrument’s import to Japanese culture and Buddhism. However, the deft, nimble writing that eventually emerged betrays none of his initial trepidation, bearing no resemblance to traditional repertoire nor other Western implementations of the instrument. Denyer’s ornate microtonal gestures are fluid and otherworldly, like the songs of imaginary birds, as phrases swoop, quiver, and swerve between stark percussive punctuations.
Denyer and Iwamoto cemented their trust over a prolonged cassette-based correspondence during Denyer’s time in Kenya, which started in 1978. Denyer returned to England in 1981, and Iwamoto paid him a surprise visit to refine his interpretations of the new works Denyer had created: On, On, It Must Be So; Wheat; and Quite White.
To date, Denyer has composed nine pieces that feature shakuhachi either as a solo instrument or in ensemble scenarios—many of which were created for Iwamoto. This body of work encompasses the naked sparsity of the forty-seven-minute solo Untitled (1997) to the colourful After the Rain (1983), which flanks the instrument with violin, percussion, and three ocarina players.

Recently, Denyer has been focused on recording Melodies (1974–77), an intense, twenty-five-movement, ninety-minute study in pitch gradations and inflection that Dutch violist Elisabeth Smalt, a longtime collaborator of Denyer’s, calls a masterpiece. Smalt is among the cast of players crafting the document of this intricate, sprawling work. In addition to viola, she also plays an instrument that Denyer devised himself—a fiddle that he calls sneh. Its gourd-shaped body is covered in resonant lizard skin, vaguely resembling its smaller Iranian counterpart, the kamanche.
I started worrying about the relationship between a note and a frequency,” Denyer says, recalling the gestation of Melodies. “A note, it seems to me, can change frequency. For instance, leading note to a scale, a player might play slightly sharp but it’s still the leading note.” He started with two-note exercises but, overcome with possibilities, reduced his scope to single-note melodies and worked his way back up. Experimentation gave way to composition; over the next three years he developed what he describes as “a kind of self-contained melodic language based on this perception,” unfolding a sequential form that eventually reaches fourteen-note melodies.
Denyer’s notational approach is usually conventional—surprising, perhaps, given the distinct shape and coloration of his music. A rare aberration, Melodies, is represented on staves of varying numbers of lines, foregrounding microtonal pitch relationships over fixed Western pitch identities. It begins with a single-line staff supplemented by ledger lines to denote various deviations and inflections and grows proportionally to the number pitches. “The notation is completely self-invented,” explains Smalt, “so you can’t read it from the score as such. You have to first transcribe it for your instrument or your voice, as it’s based on intervals.”

After 1967, the piano does not appear in Denyer’s catalogue, despite it being his primary instrument. It’s a natural consequence of his fathomless thirst for new sonorities. (“I haven’t gone senile quite yet, but I’m writing another string quartet,” he quips.) Nonetheless, the piano has remained an indispensable exploration tool and a defining feature of his artistic identity. In Merchant’s documentary, Denyer is shown playing Chopin and Bach, which, the filmmaker tells me, is still part of the composer’s daily routine.
After the dissolution of his experimental-music ensemble Mouth of Hermes (1967–1974), Denyer stopped performing until 1982, when trombonist Jim Fulkerson—his colleague at Dartington College—cajoled him into playing some gigs. “I went on the stage, I sat down, and suddenly, I felt so happy,” Denyer recalls. “This is where I want to be. I’m home,” he enthuses. This partnership with Fulkerson laid the groundwork for their later collaboration in Barton Workshop (1989–2010), one of the foremost experimental music ensembles of its time. The group, which Denyer joined in 1992, produced authoritative recordings and concerts of music by Feldman, Wolff, Cage, Ustvolskaya, and Denyer himself. “I remember rehearsals more vividly than I remember concerts, on the whole,” admits Denyer, fondly recalling their rigorous Monday sessions, which were an extension of his ongoing tactile research. “All of us were interested in the problems that [performing experimental music] created,” he says, citing Feldman’s much-touted quiet dynamics. “There’s a level that you have to play to have control and know exactly what is happening, but if you do down below that, there’s an interesting area where you have less control, but very strange things and interesting things happen.”

The beginning of Denyer’s creative process is like a dream. “I know there’s this piece in the vaguest way—I can’t remember this dream, but I can feel the feeling of it,” he says. “[I] see the imagination as something that you follow, and something that you nourish, and you don’t lead. Every time, you ask the imagination. It nourishes itself and it gives you better answers as time goes on. Anytime you deny it, it curls up and dies.”

While his music comes from the depths of his intuition and assumes forms and soundworlds that evoke dreaming, his compositions are also meticulous and lucid in their construction. Yet Denyer also relies on personal relationships to establish the performance practice around his pieces. It’s essential insofar as conveying their quasi-ritualistic tenor.
“Unconventional solutions are always needed for Frank’s music,” Elisabeth Smalt explains. “Frank wants a sound, but he doesn’t say how to get the sound. That’s for the performer to figure out.” Woman, Viola, and Crow—a solo work Smalt has recorded twice—navigates the physical and mental exertion of ultra-quiet viola playing, while determining how to integrate a crow call and the rustling of shells, in terms both of sound and execution. “He is very demanding,” she comments, “And this focus is attractive to me, as an artist. It gives me an existential pleasure to strive so much towards a goal.”
One of Denyer’s most peculiar adjacencies occurs in the surreal Two Voices with Axe (2010), in which a smooth, softly seeping ensemble texture is pitted against the sheer force of someone chopping wood. The performance of the work engenders a natural theatricality. Devices such as the axe, or the acoustic baffling that covers musicians in Screens (his 2017–18 work for female voice, flute, violin, viola, two percussionists, and speaker) never appear for narrative or extra-musical import. They shape the context of the sonic discourse while contributing to it. “Maybe something outside, something beyond where we are, opens up another space—even a different mental space, so we’re not confined to this concert room,” he says.
Some of Denyer’s most compelling works are for larger groups. The Colours of Jellyfish was commissioned for the 2012 Tectonics festival (after much prodding, Denyer tells me) by Ilan Volkov, the fiercest advocate of experimental orchestral music. The work features a spatialized chorus and small orchestra, plus violin and soprano soloists. The Fish that Became the Sun (Songs of the Dispossessed) was composed from 1991 to 1994 but its ambitious scale prevented it from being performed until November 2019, when it received its premiere performance at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. It is one of Denyer’s most daringly original works as well as one of his best-loved. The panoply of unfamiliar sounds that unfold requires thirty-four performers and over one hundred unique instruments, some scattered throughout the performance venue. Among its cast are child vocalists, a sitar, fishing rods, and eight off-stage cornets—all in a situation that Denyer has likened to the decaying disarray of a rubbish dump.
Instruments designed by Denyer are also part of this piece’s unique instrumental menagerie, among them: repurposed organ-pipes that are played like overgrown recorders, lamella-dyads (enormous two-note thumb pianos), shell-trumpets, and eunuch flutes. Brusque cascades of percussion flail past the listener, weaving through thick, effluvious tone-clouds. Febrile bleating mingles with tender half-remembered folk songs, and delicate microtonal strumming. Its wild boisterousness is offset with moments of breathtaking beauty.
"Composition is a bit like dreaming,” Denyer says. “I say that not in any literal sense, but because one of the peculiarities about dreams is that you can’t decide you’re going to have this kind of dream because they’re interesting. The dreams are given to you; you just have to put up with them.
You don’t know what it is that you’ve done or what significance—or not—it might have for the author or anybody else. So, one is left puzzling about them, as one puzzles over a dream: What is this thing? It’s come into existence through me—I know that—but how and why? I’ve not the slightest clue.”

PHOTOS: Top and bottom photos courtesy of Suhail Merchant. Photo with Morton Feldman and Jo Kondo by Masako Kondo. Photo with Reiko Iwamoto and Yoshikazu Iwamoto courtesy of Frank Denyer. Photo of Denyer at the piano by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.
ON THE CD: Excerpts from Apocrypha 2, Quartet, Contained in a Strange Garden, Two Female Voices and Two Flutes, String Quartet.