Interview by Efrén del Valle
Perfect Sound Forever: Mike Patton's Ipecac recently reissued 2003's Virginal Co Ordinates. I truly think it's your most elaborate work to date.
Eyvind Kang: Virginal is quite different from my other recorded works, in the sense that it was mostly done as a live recording with all the musicians from the playground ensemble. I don't know if the compositions are any better or worse than my other ones, but I noticed that there's a different feeling with everybody harmonizing with each other live, as opposed to being recorded using overdubs. Also, the place where Virginal was recorded and performed was a huge abandoned old theater with a very unique sound-quality – it was an old building in the center of Bologna – so I think the musicians really played to the resonance of the building itself, which was a very beautiful resonance.
PSF: How did the project come up? It was a commission, wasn't it?
EK: Yes, this piece was initiated as a kind of double commission from Angelica [for the Festival Internazionale di Musica] and the Playground ensemble. A guy named Massimo Simonini contacted me and brought up the idea. I thought it was a cool idea, but I didn't know what to expect over there. I wanted to work with some other people who I knew well, so I suggested bringing Michael White, Patton, Tim Young, Evan Schiller and Tucker Martine into the scene. It turned into a nice combination of people, and some friendships were born over there.
PSF: What were the inspirations for Virginal? There's a certain spiritual quality to it.
EK: Working with Michael White gave a lot of focus to that spiritual side. He was my teacher at one time, and he taught that music is essentially a healing force, so in this work I honored that teaching. That's another reason for the uplifting feeling: there was some musical concept of prayers involved. Most of the composing was freestyle, but the main musical preoccupations I was into at that time were the concept of harmonic purities, manifestation of other tones from combinations of notes, basically scientific concepts about sound that are often neglected in the art of playing acoustic instruments. I found a lot of this was explained in certain texts about alchemy and astronomy etc, which there is a tradition for those things in Bologna, like Johannes Kepler and his book Harmonia Mundi.
At the University of Bologna at the time, there was an exhibition of alchemical art in the chemistry building, which was very nice to go to. They had photographs of certain architectures in towns like Prague, Bologna, Santiago de Compostela, which are known as "the devil's triangle" due to their former patronage for these arts. So by working with the acoustics of such an old building at the center of Bologna, trying to create difference and summation tones within the building's own resonances, I felt like I got to do some work within the alchemical tradition, to some extent. For better or worse, the live performances were sort of magical, and definitely had results in our lives. It's possible that the compositions were mediocre, or they didn't have much substance in and of themselves. However, I think they were a vehicle for this other stuff, the feeling that you noticed, an uplifting feeling which comes through.
Also, I was into a kind of social experiment, where we worked together as an ensemble without an authority figure, without a conductor, or any kind of controlling attitude. Compositionally, there was a lot of latitude for the players to make decisions regarding the form of the pieces. This was quite a challenge because there was also a language barrier there, and the Italian language is quite long and expressive, and it takes a lot of time to talk about things.
So there was a lot of chaos, talking and playing at the same time, explaining and questioning my concepts. And also there were a couple German guys, excellent musicians both, but in need of authority perhaps due to their own cultural experiences, and in the end they flipped out and walked (they came back after some time).
In alchemy, one of the main steps is to descend into the chaos, called "nigredo," and then to let a kind of order manifest itself from that chaos. So I followed that idea, not the idea of an authority person imposing the order from above; in other words, a kind of anarchy.
The next day after performing this music, there was a huge street riot, a "manifestation," in Bologna, protesting a meeting of the far-right political party, i.e. the Nazis, and it seemed to me related in some way with our musical work, not only in the physical proximity and temporal sequence, but also conceptually.
At the riot I met some people who had been in the audience of our concert the night previous, and I just asked them, why not just let the Nazis meet, why do you have to come with baseball bats to try to stop them? Why not let them expose themselves, see if their ideas are shit, or if they have some good ideas in some way. Those people responded that my thinking was too American for them, that they were sort of honor bound to try to shut these people down. But when I mentioned that I was from Seattle, they were happy because we had a riot there not long ago and stopped an important meeting of the World Trade Organization for a day or two. And they were comparing their riot to ours at that moment and sort of taking some inspiration from it; it was very beautiful.
PSF: Why did it take so long for the project to be released?
EK: Many reasons, including working on many other pieces at the same time, but also poverty and a fundamental lack of support, and changes in my personal life, such as relationships and death of close friends. After some time, I finally finished the work. It still took Angelica a while to release it, so this is a work with a long incubation period.
PSF: I can hear echoes from the so-called minimalists from the '60s (Reich, Riley, early Glass) – have they been influential to you? The Story of Iceland also made me think of them, at least in the sense of developing a piece using the minimum amount of elements and, of course, the repeating patterns.
EK: My music has more in common with Icelandic music groups like Múm than the American so-called minimalists. Perhaps I'm not into movements in general, but I think it is a bit wrong to name a kind of repetitious music “minimalism" when there are so many far more minimal musics. Like virtually all dance music in the world in fact, from all eras. I would be more interested in doing folk music, people music, something that people can feel and relate to, and live and think within. I know that there's plenty to talk about on this subject, but that's the short answer. To me right now, I had to hold out long notes and repeat patterns in my composing, just to be able to see and work with it in detail in the sense of the harmonic proportions. The repetition is just a side effect, really. If I could be a kind of music master like Z.M. Dagar it might be a different story, but now I am also learning sound, and exploring sound, and I am opening it to other listeners for them to join. We have lost so much in music, so much compared to what they know in Indian music theory, or in an ancient text like Plato's Timaeus, or even in a composer like Hildegard. Those are some of the roots. In my opinion we have to look into these matters.
PSF: I hadn't thought about Virginal as related to alchemy, but the concept did come to mind when listening to Theater of Mineral NADEs, mainly because of the obvious connections to Middle Ages folk music.
EK: All 3 of the albums you mentioned are related with Al-Kemia (Arabic for chemistry); the cover art for example on theater of mineral is from a Dutch alchemical painting in the Amsterdam museum; The Story of Iceland has a woodblock from "prophecies of Paracelsus," and Virginal has some emblems from an engraving in a book called Viridarium Chymicum. I saw it in a book called the "alchemical mandalas" by Adam McLean, who is a great scholar. It seems to me that the science of matter, and the science of sound vibrations are quite related, perhaps they are different dimensions. That comes across a great dualistic divide between matter and energy, or body and mind, or whatever you want to call it, but I just like the alchemical symbols and art; maybe if they represented it in paintings, why not do the same in a piece of music?
PSF: While I thought Virginal Co Ordinates and The Story of Iceland were inspired by the Middle Ages classical tradition, it seems that Theater was more oriented to folklore, that is, the music “of the people."
EK: Yes, Theater of Mineral NADEs is mostly dance music. It sounds like popular music in some way, but Iceland and even 7 NADEs is also for people – all of my music is for them. The Middle Ages classical tradition, there really isn't one tradition. There's the sort of journey of certain music theories and philosophy, along with astronomy and math that came from India and Persia and central Asia and Egypt and Greece, through the Arab world and to Spain and Italy during Andalusian times and the Renaissance, with so many texts being translated into Latin for the first time. So many musical instruments like lute and violin were made and designed codified for the first time, and a theory of tuning adapted from the Pythagorean circle of fifths, tempered for the apparent purpose of harmonic modulations (which was an impossible task).
There are different composers like Hildegard, like Leonin and Perotin, and so on, but mostly the composers were sort of anonymous, so what kind of tradition is that? If there was a general movement, I wouldn't think of it as tradition. You know how weeds move in the water? They all sway together with a wave, and I think that's like how music gets created by people. There is always the music of the people; they create their own music, and pass it to different generations. Where did it come from according to history? It's an impossible question. Since there are more melodies than people to sing them, the people can never know the history of their own music, so I think that an individual's intuition is basically enough for this kind of music. But it takes a lot of devotion and sacrifice, like a Sardinian guy who is trying to learn the "launedas" hiding out at a party, in a closet, to hear the secret music.
PSF: There are lots of musical references on Theater, from reggae to bossa nova to Indian music. Was it intended as a musical journey across the world, or at least, across a wide range of your musical interests?
EK: The actual compositions are mostly improvised. Actually, at that time I was beginning to travel a lot, through Europe and to India and North Africa, and I used to get a lot of tapes and CDs, and sort them together in compilation tapes mostly for gifts to my friends. Then I tried to make the album flow like the tapes, from one mood to another.
PSF: What was the inspiration for The Story of Iceland?
EK: I made the composition in India, while standing in about a foot of water in the Indian Ocean, just looking at the moon. It is a simple pattern of modulations on a mantra-like melody from a bhajan by Saint Mirabai. I feel the warmth of India at night when I think about this. I don't know why it became The Story of Iceland; I guess it was "Hour of Fair Karma," due to its circular form – "Sweetness of Candy" is just like a flower which blooms and quickly fades – but "Hour of Fair Karma," being that there are short, percussive sounds similar to a clock...“10:10" is a surrealist poem, a sort of idiotic refrain I could not give up. “Ayanamsha" is a measure of the difference in the positions of the stars according to Indian and Western astrology.
PSF: You mentioned chaos in relation to Virginal, and it made me think about your improvisational side. Is it still an important part of your work as a musician? Is it comparable in any ways to composition or do you criss-cross both aspects in your approach?
EK: Yes, the whole thing has improvisation. When I went looking for a teacher, whether it was Michael White or Dr. N Rajam in Bombay, I was looking for a way that I could trust, to find more structures to follow within an improvisation. In a way, free improvisation is my roots. Conversely, all music is improvised, it is just a concept. Like a church organ player who is playing some Bach to fit in a mass, the music has different meanings sort of, depending on what gets said before and after in the ceremony. Even if the notes are written down, the resonance of meanings are still associated by the musician and listener in an improvisational way.
PSF: Your violin playing always makes me think of Indian music. Perhaps it goes back to your learning days, I don't know. Was it part of your musical education? Did you have a classical education?
EK: Well, I went to India to study with a great violinist Dr. N. Rajam, who is an impossibly perfect violinist. Her style is called Gayaki Ang. Although I barely touched the surface of this, I wanted to keep the emotion (called "rasa") of her style, which is mostly a longing feeling. Musical learning, I'm still trying to learn, it doesn't end. I used to study with Michael White, and he has a lot of experience in music and in life to say the least. He was telling me "I'm here to learn!" Kala Ramnath, Bill Frisell, Amir Koushkani, the musicians who I really respect, are all trying to learn.
PSF: "Live Low to the Earth in the Iron Age" is performed theoretically by Eyvind Kang and the Neti-Neti Band, but you haven't revealed who the Neti-Neti Band are. Does this have anything to do with the "Neti-Neti" concept related to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali? Is the Neti-Neti Band would be Eyvind Kang alone, but an Eyvind Kang who has parted with all the elements that were "part of him" but were not his actual "he", including ego, wishes, ambitions...just Eyvind Kang at its purest?
EK: I don't know too much about the Neti-Neti method of meditation as described by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj; I just like it, and I named my band that because it is “not this and not that." However, listening back to "Iron Age" I found that it sounds like something, rather than nothing. I keep working on the negative side, to sound like not this and not that; it's just me playing, it's not even a band. Like Virginal Co Ordinates, and now two collaborative pieces I am working on, they've been recorded without a concept or any particular plan in mind, including any musical ideas. That's why I consider it "not this and not that," but ideas came forward anyway, like in a meditation, to just let them be there, and let them go by. Those were the musical blessings, I guess, the kind of musical entities that just exist and go through music, but I feel that I would like to go to the negative side, to make really, nothing.
As far as the thing about repetitions, I think it has to do with a function of how time behaves; it doesn't actually matter, does it, how many repetitions there are in a piece? Or if there are any – the moments go by depending on what you consider a moment. George Berkeley said something good about this, in terms of fetishizing the repetitive. Sound frequency is conditioned on repetition of air pressure; maybe all experience, like waking up, eating, etc. is minimalist (or maximalist, depending on your point of view). The past couple years, I'm working more on moments that are not really repetitive at all, but more minimal. Then again, I like the feeling that you get, that you're sort of ascending; it's probably a real kind of brain wave like theta.
PSF: Do you feel equally comfortable playing written/partly-written material and 100% improvised music? I assume each one has its own joys.
EK: Total improvisation is more painful to me, that is why I didn't like it at all. But nowadays, I feel like trying it again; a big commitment. This is kind of the opposite of Neti-Neti music, to pronounce, through actions, I am creating music Now.
PSF: I'm focusing on your Tzadik and Avant albums and Virginal Co Ordinates for practical reasons: your other works are hard-to-find.
EK: I know. Conlon Nancarrow, I was thinking of the availability of his works, and how underappreciated they are, about how it's left to high art society people to preserve his pieces, when actually the works are also based in popular music. But then it seems he had other things on his mind: he came to Spain to fight against Franco with the Lincoln Brigade, and thereafter he basically had to leave the USA and live in Mexico, because he was considered a communist or something. Anyways, it seems he was a great person, a spirit, who did things that he believed in.
PSF: When you look at the "music business," how can you believe in it?
EK: These days pop music is the typical sound environment of a city, besides the noise of cars etc. So to create music with that kind of sound is quite natural, I would think, for a composer. But there is a distinction to be made, between the intent and the function of different pieces. Basically, if it profits, it's pop, if it relies on subsidies from various government institutions and private foundations in order to exist, it is art. The content of the work is irrelevant.
I believe that the way music is marketed to the people of various countries is rooted in a racist (or at least race-based) concept of cultures (even the word "genre" has an implication of the genetic). Mostly, record stores just divide up the CDs by race, or at least by the nation-state of the musicians. They don't think of other ways, like the elevation or humidity, like mountain peoples' section, desert peoples' section, etc, though that might make sense, musically. In America, where the patent for recording was first issued, the original divide between recordings and "race records" i.e. black music is still very obvious. There's a good book by Amiri Baraka called Blues People which starts with the tradition of Vaudeville theater. White actors painted their faces black and acted like (parodies of) black people, but were soon replaced after the "emancipation" of the black "slaves" by black actors who imitated the white actors, who had been imitating black people as they saw them. According to Baraka, that was the birth of the black music tradition called blues, and in a way "blues" is the start of American popular music in a commercial sense.
So it emerges as a sort of spiral twisting in on itself, between the polarities of the signifier and signified, the representation and the represented. There are many other cultures to be represented; the whole music business these days is like Vaudeville upon Vaudeville. Instead of just colonizing other cultures, they represent them back to themselves in a Vaudeville form. This subject is just too extensive and subversive to go into here...like you'd need to analyze the whole capitalist philosophy and that's out of my league at the moment.
PSF: The U.S. reality is obviously different from here in Europe, but less and less over time. We started borrowing from American culture decades ago and the whole thing is becoming annoying: McDonalds, Hard Rock Café, megastores, groups singing in English, Starbucks...it's ridiculous.
EK: There's some different things there. Globalization, corporation-ism, colonialism, economic terrorism, concepts that exist in spite of nations, but they have a mask on it as being American. I go to McDonalds in New York City – any McDonalds, it's incredible. I think in there one is likely to find people, culture. It's deep. But in prisons across the country; it's famous, there's real cultures there. Whole cultural movements have come from American prisons. Think about a band like Las Grecas, who I really love, or the whole concept of "rock gitano" (there's a Spanish band I'm thinking of but I forgot their name right now...they have an LP with their name stamped in a brick of hash!) that is also "borrowed" from American culture. On a larger picture, there's the side of flamenco repertoire called "cantos de ida y vuelta" which are like tangos and rhumbas and beats that came back from the occupied colonies with a different feeling. I just read this book by Jean Baudrillard that is quite helpful about these matters, it is called Simulations and Simulacra. I recommend it!
PSF: The people here have grown quite skeptical about what's happening in the world due to the American administration's foreign (and domestic) policy.
EK: I consider what is happening as a part of the colonial mentality of Europe (or as Lou Harrison would say, "Northwest Asia") taken to another level. Americans celebrate Christopher Columbus day every year: when the great navigator was governor of Hispaniola (now Haiti) he was responsible for the deaths of 8 million Taino people. American schoolchildren learn about him as a sort of saint. Since the newly-formed revolutionary government of USA made about 800 treaties with those indigenous nations that were already here on this continent, and broke every single one of those, why should other nations in the world be surprised that they broke recent treaties like Kyoto, etc.? Isn't it obvious that the USA has always been cynical?
PSF: How does that affect an artist like you, you know 9/11, etc?
EK: September 11th happened when I was in Brooklyn hanging out with some friends. That day, I got a great education into drum 'n' bass, jungle, breakbeats, and so-called "intelligent dance music" which I think is a retarded name for music. Anyway, a great DJ named Soulslinger came by and really broke down what each DJ was doing and what constituted what sound like "jump-up" or "tech-step" or even just "electronic music." During that time we kept going up to the roof to watch the buildings falling down and people looking like bhutto dancers covered in white powder walking around. I went outside, talked to a lot of people including some secretaries from the WTC who walked all the way to Brooklyn; they said their feet hurt from the high heel shoes. A lot of people were crying, but I never cried any tears until the next day.
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