Perfect Sound Forever

Kevin Kastning


Second Conversation, Part II
by Mark S. Tucker

PSF: Let me for a moment bring in the Eno brothers. Your work is not all that dissimilar, at least in effect, to Brian's quieter ambient constructions while quite reminiscent, in aspect and authority, to Roger's chamber work, though where the latter's is still-life-beautiful, yours is purgatorially vibrant and daunting, beauty of an entirely different order. This bleeds into the Impressionist/Romantic factor in neoclassical work. Brian finds classical music (wryly, it must be noted, especially in view of his attention to Faure on Discreet Music) as dead and obviously you do not, but isn't it true, to wax political for a moment, that much of the elder catalog reeks of class oppression and pandering while the new moves in Carter, Partch, Cage, and others seek to renew the highest strain of transcendent intelligence by taking the core of the hoary elder wont and re-refining it down into the Everyman's rising presence in the world, the unique and unconfined individual no matter where he or she arises? Oh, and to throw a bit more tinder on the fire: Is Brian right? Is classical music dead?

KK: It might seem by stating "re-refining it down into the Everyman's rising presence in the world" that you're referring to minimalism, which could indeed be viewed as a dumbing-down of classical or composed music. I wouldn't think of those terms as applying to Carter, Partch, or Cage! Art moves forward; it lives and breathes and evolves and develops and deepens and expands by forward momentum. Minimalism is not that. Minimalism in music arguably was a reaction to composers such as the Second Viennese School, and their offshoots; for example, Milton Babbitt, rest in peace. The minimalists, and in this group I am not speaking of Arvo Pärt or any members of that school, seemed to be saying, "Modern music is too hard; here's something simple and non-challenging. See how easy it is?" And the artistic-kiss-of-death term gets joyously applied to it and painted with a broad brush: accessible. It's accessible! So it must be good! We no longer have to think about what we're hearing. We're no longer challenged or rewarded or inspired because it's accessible. This would be akin to a group of painters saying that Rothko, DeKooning, Pollock, Francis Bacon, Max Ernst: all too hard. Their art is not accessible. Let's use the label from a soup can as the new art. Sure, it's vapid, but look how accessible! You don't have to think about it. P. T. Barnum once said "If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you. If you really make them think, they'll hate you." Enter minimalism. There are composers who currently walk the Earth that are indeed pushing music forward and expanding the art; I speak now of Elliott Carter. As for Carter, I certainly do not hear his work as being aimed at the Everyman. I hear Elliott remaining true to Elliott, and truth in art will never die. Elliott Carter may well be a genius and visionary, but I doubt that his true impact and value will be realized for a very long time.

I don't see the older catalog of reeking of class oppression or pandering, not at all. Let's apply this argument to any great work of art. Would you point to, let's say, a novel by Emile Zola or Thomas Hardy and say well clearly they were pandering and this work reeks of class oppression? Could one point to a Vermeer, a Fragonard, Freidrich, or Turner painting and say the same? I don't see pre-20th century music as pandering or reeking of class oppression any more than I would authors or painters whom were the peers of these composers. J. S. Bach was employed by the church for almost 30 years, but I don't hear his work as being the domain of the religious any more than I hear Telemann as being in the domain of the cultural elite. Clearly, Haydn was funded by the bourgeoisie, but when you distill what Haydn was saying, it was art. Art knows no class distinction. Art as a product or result of human emotion doesn't understand pandering... unless we're back to minimalism, which I do hear as a kind of pandering, but this is possible because I hear minimalism as completely bereft of any emotional content or seed; however, this is only the opinion of one person. I have full respect for Brian Eno's work and actually enjoy it, but I would have to part company with him on his statement that classical music is dead. It's very much a living organism, one with roots and ancestors time traveling in retrograde over a thousand years. And those same roots stretch beyond us into the future. It is a syzygical relationship: Stravinsky couldn't have been Stravinsky without Gesualdo. There could have been no Schoenberg without Brahms, who took so much from Beethoven, who looked to Haydn, and on and on. There is no delineation of life or death in art, it is all alive. The art of today has everything which preceded it coursing through its veins. That said, classical music could be dead to Brian, as he sees it in the context of his work, and I could see that. But even then, I'd have to ask him the question a second time. I think as long as an entire body of or singular work of art invokes feelings and an emotional response, that body or work of art is not dead but very much alive.

PSF (grinning): Actually, I wasn't thinking about minimalism, though I certainly wasn't about to stop your line of thought, and your answer brings up a wealth of questions re: art qua art, so let's pursue that for a moment or two. Firstly, the term 'minimalist' is pretty bad, almost as impertinent as 'anarchist', which is 100% gawdawful; as a mutant form of anarchist, I have to question the early wisdom of the movement just in that term alone. 'Serial minimal' is a bit better on the musical side, and, in that, the wellsprings are identifiable enough: Glass, Reich, Adams, Nyman, etc.. With them, after all, following on Tom Johnson's coining of the very term 'minimalist,' began a very apprehendable style. Glass, for me, is resplendent, truly magnificent, nonpareil. In fact, I have a serious problem in listening to his work, because, once I start, I want to hear the entire catalogue again - except perhaps the "non-minimalist" oeuvre, the Bowie adaptations, 1000 Airplanes, the more formalist structures, etc., all of which I find puzzling. I think it might be best to go graphic in order to circle this somewhat oblique chain of thought, though.

Let's start with Warhol, whom I blasphemously consider to have been an idiot (hence, Lou Reed's obsession with him), and waltz over to Oldenberg, Christo, etc. Warhol truly dumbed down art to the mental level of the banking establishment that now runs The Art World and pretty much always has. Oldenburg, Rauschenberg, and others trotted in the absurd (leviathan handsaws arching over rivers, etc.), an extension of Dada and its over-ballyhooed icon shattering. Christo just inserted gigantism and tremendously outsized brazenness, and very simplistic uses of them at that. Taking things further, if you combine Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House with his The Painted Word, two landmark critiques that damn the influx of the dollar and the businessman, the game is seen... and this is where I think Eno is indeed referring to class oppression and its deadly aftereffects, even if Brian doesn't realize it underneath his own rhetoric. The classical canon is choked out with patronage, blue bloodery, and the effete pseudo-refinements of the bourgeoisie, fey and palsied mirror-gazing to the Nth egoistic degree. I'll leave aside the indomitable genius of Bach and Beethoven, whom I aver are gods because of their mind-blowing transfusions away from the deathly estate of nobility and clergy and toward the fertile synergy of more protean non-class-restricted consciousness. I'll instead point to Machaut and Mozart, infantes terrible and decidedly held in disfavor by patrons for their much more groundling beingnesses inside and outside art, their presumption to question class as Thackery did. Genius saved them while endearing them to the peasants, but...

The tricky part is that the old nobility was well educated and fairly creative - dauntingly so in figures like Bacon, DeVere, etc. - which flowed down to the proletariat which aped it in the sort of, for instance, conversational street repartee almost impossible to find anywhere today, especially the United States. Where Salieri was a courtier, Mozart could care less about The Order Of Things except to achieve his ends, not the gentry's. Where Salieri addressed the oh-so-refined world of money, title, and privilege - which Thomas Hardy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others would later skewer, battling the monolith and, as you infer, clearly not pandering; I maintain they were plainly addressing class oppression - Mozart penciled in debauchery, mad titillation, and passion unrestrained by pedantic formalisms.

Minimalism and serialism explored what Beethoven pondered in "Moonlight Sonata" and what Satie laid out in his gnossienes and gymnopedies, the flip side of manual dexterity and high-side composing, instead heading for neglected avenues of change in more balladic forms. Cage threw in Zen, Partch ushered in the proles and lumpenproles, and now the lines of distinction were blurring because genius could reside anywhere, not solely in approved venues historically sacrosanct. I agree completely that art is caniballistic, must be so, but that devouring the old eventually becomes unsatisfactory if the elder virtues are not simultaneously questioned and then dethroned when necessary, maintained when fitting the needed expression.

And for examples of depth in minimalism, let me point to Gabor Szabo, Nick Drake, Fripp's reduction of classicalism in "Song of the Gulls," the Towner/Abercrombie duets, Japan's "The Tenant," Cage's solo prepared piano pieces of course, etc.. I think minimalism's true genesis is in tone poetry and the broadening of gesturalism rather than more clearly delineated forms.

KK: I am going to agree with you in regards to Warhol. His was visual minimalism made as commercial as possible. This is a tangible example of the dumbing-down of art. I can't see Warhol as an artist, but more of a graphic designer or illustrator at best. However, I am going to have to part ways with you on your view of Mozart. Mozart was no genius. I think people look at Mozart and see child prodigy + prolific output = genius. That's not the equation for genius. Mozart set the cause of music and the forward momentum in that art form back a few hundred years.

Let's examine this. Mozart was born six years after the death of Bach. Bach expanded music, took it to places previously unknown, removed boundaries, and created a complexity and depth that, except for perhaps Gesualdo, was heretofore unknown. Yet not only compositional depth existed within Bach's universe but also a lyrical depth. Here was an artist who could build music with the architectural complexity of a cathedral yet could craft a heart-touching melodic line of pure emotional lyricism. Bach moved music forward, expanded what was possible. He embraced chromaticism, pointed toward the future. Mozart was like the punk rock reaction to Bach's progressive rock, if you will. Mozart was Philip Glass playing the same triad for an hour to Bach's Second Viennese School. Mozart's music was not only simplistic but also incredibly repetitious. Not just in his overall output, but within any single piece of his. Entirely formulaic. Each piece contains in profusion, and is structured upon and around, the following three components: a leading-tone melody, running static eighth-note figures in the left hand or orchestral accompaniment, and a long long line of dominant cadences. Put those three ingredients together and: instant Mozart! To put a finer point on it, Mozart wrote one single piece of music 625 times. Piece no. 626 was more Franz Sussmeyer than Mozart, and is in fact the only piece of his which does not make me reach for the off button when it comes on the radio.

Let's examine this from another angle. Assume I'm a baker. I bake the same loaf of bread over 600 times. Maybe each one is a different size, but each loaf is from the same recipe. Each element of my baking output is a loaf of bread from one recipe. Does that make me a genius baker? Would anyone look at that and proclaim such a baker to be a genius? It makes me a prolific and extremely limited baker. Child prodigy, vast output, and early death is not the definition of genius. Being a media darling is not the definition of genius. We could arguably say that in fact Mozart was the first minimalist. He threw away most of what preceded him and embraced nursery-rhyme style sing-song melodies which depended on the leading-tone mechanism. He rejected chromaticism. He minimized harmony down to the I-IV-V progression, and in many cases, just the I-V progression. He stuck the same static running eighth-note figure in the accompaniment as though he just didn't know what to do for an accompaniment or blithely rejected it as unimportant. I'm not saying Mozart is to be avoided. I have quite a few Mozart CDs, and I've spent vast amounts of time listening, hoping to find something onto which I can latch, something new or unique. After all, it would be a tremendous resource with his vast output. The only element of his writing that I like is his orchestration, but there is where it ends for me. Here again, the label of the artistic kiss of death comes into play: accessibility. Maybe you choose not to follow a Bach fugue, so Mozart is great for background music; it neither challenges nor rewards. It's accessible, the definition of simplistic, non-threatening. Again: P.T. Barnum's quote.

As an aside, I think that ‘genius' is a word so overused as to be like a small stone in a creek bed that has been worn smooth from overuse. It has lost its original definition. When I think of a genius in music, I think of Bach. I also think of Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg invented an entirely new system of harmony. Schoenberg proposed radical evolutionary changes to the system of notation, as did Cowell; I'll get to him shortly. Schoenberg created his own theory of composition and followed it. Listen to the third or fourth string quartet. It's all in those pieces. Dodecaphonic or "serial" composition was such a vast palette for him, and the artists directly influenced by Schoenberg cannot be underestimated. I speak now of Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Listen to Webern's "Five Movements" for string quartet, the Berg "Lyric Suite" for string quartet, or even the opening of Act II of "Lulu," those first few chords that open Act II. Had I composed just that, again, I could die happy. Another person deserving of genius status is Henry Cowell. Read his book New Musical Resources, which was written in the 1930’s but even today sounds fresh and challenging. Cowell also had wondrous concepts for the evolution of musical notation; though different from Schoenberg's, they were no less brilliant. His invention of tone clusters was visionary, and that has certainly made a deep impact on me. Every day. How many composers did Bartok visit to ask if he might use their discovery in his own compositions? Ernst Krenek is another one in this mould. We could discuss him all day; sadly, he too has been overlooked.

Regarding minimalism, I think you cast a much wider minimalism net than do I. I consider people like Glass, Steven Reich, Nyman, Terry Riley, the New York school to be minimalists. I hear some of your examples more as austere or sparse, which I actually like a lot. I think of Arvo Part as austere, and I truly enjoy his work. I think of minimalism as two or three notes or a triad, perhaps an arpeggiated triad, repeated and being the entire structure of a piece. Cage's pieces for prepared piano may be in their own little category; I like those a lot. In fact, the recent set of cello works by Philip Glass I actually liked, too.

All that being said, I do suspect that Mozart and the New York minimalists could in fact have a very important role in the classical or composed musics. I think it's quite possible that their work may serve as a kind of Classical 101. Because it's "accessible," it provides an easy and welcome entry into the classical world for new listeners. As new listeners become more experienced and their tastes develop and horizons broaden, they move on to more interesting composers and discover the vast universe of composed music, avery good thing indeed.

PSF: I was intrigued that you play a fretless guitar on the side. I've been a big fan of Mark Egan's fretless bass work but the use of fretless six-string is rare. If I recall correctly, Matthew Montfort also uses one, but I can't conjure up another name beyond. In what I've heard of your and Sandor's work, I don't remember detecting the instrument. I'm curious why it's not included in the duet CD’s... or have I just not been attentive enough?

KK: I don't think I've used the fretless on any of the records with Sandor. I used it on "Scalar Fields" and the new album Gravity of Shadows, both with Siegfried. I'm also featured on the International Fretless Artists 2008 album and have been asked to contribute a track to their 2011 release. Fretless is at once liberating and limiting. It's a rare beast, and there are not many fretless practitioners out there right now. I hope to see that changing, though.

PSF: I and others can't help but compare your duo work to Towner and Abercrombie, Bill Connors, some Egberto Gismonti, and the whole general austere ECM musique noir, indeed quite akin as well to the electric-siders like Terje Rypdal. What's your take on those gentlemen's such recordings, and why do you suppose this quietly disturbing melancholicly effulgent mode is so uncommon?

KK: I like Ralph Towner and Egberto; I'm less familiar with Connors or Rypdal. The quietly disturbing melancholicly effulgent mode you nicely describe may be uncommon due to the rarity of the proper chemistry required to achieve that oeuvre. I don't think there are many instances wherein two musicians could sit down and, in real-time, compose and perform an album or concert. Within that microcosm, no doubt the subset of duo guitarists is almost non-existent. I hear most other guitarists as an amalgam of their guitaristic influences; in other words, I hear most guitarists as guitarists, not as musicians. If your goal is to be a good guitarist, then there's nothing wrong with that. If you seek to be a musician, you must choose a different path. So many of them sound like a rehash of other guitarists. I suspect if you put two of these kinds of guitarists together, it just wouldn't work, not really. It could result in a big guitar mush of indecipherable entanglements and collisions, and, to repurpose a phrase from James Joyce, all manner of guitarhappy values and macromasses of meltwhile guitar.

I think for real-time compositional duets to really work, both members have to be true musicians and composers. I define 'musicians' in the sense that their voice is not limited to their instrument and only informed by others playing their instrument. I'm using guitarists as an example here, but it's certainly not unique to them. I've known pianists who have never seriously listened to, for example, any cellists but only other pianists as a frame of reference. To me, that makes them a pianist, not a musician. And again, nothing at all wrong with that if your goal is to be a pianist.

To be a musician, regardless of instrument, requires tremendous work, not only on your own instrument but study, exposure to, and absorbing influences from all instruments and voices and then from other instrumental groupings: solo instrument literature, duets - for example, the Prokofiev violin duets, trios, quartets - and on and on right up to and including orchestral works. All those permutations: orchestra with choir, with organ (like the 3rd Saint-Saens symphony), concertos, the Martinu piece for string quartet and orchestra, it just goes on and on. A tremendous influence for me is early music, specifically works composed between 1000 and 1600 AD. The pieces from this period in which I am most interested are all a capella vocal, no instruments at all. There are lessons to be learned from each of these settings which are sui generis to them, with colors, textures, form, and lines to which you'll not be exposed in any other way, even from the homophony from that period. Then to distill all this into a duet setting, where all works are spontaneously composed or composed in real-time, seems to be a rarity not only with guitar but with any instruments in duet setting. For example, I've been listening to an album of late by David Darling and Ketil Bjornstad titled Epigraphs, just a stunning work, beautiful and moving. I don't hear a pianist and a cellist, I hear two artists. I hear not only duet pieces but pieces with orchestral scope. Artists on this level are beyond rare, and to couple them in a duet setting is rarer still. I am certainly not there yet.

PSF: I suspect a twosome is your ideal personal playing climate, though I see where you and Sandor played concerts with Dominic Miller. First, why are those trios not released? The proposition of another participant frankly makes the connoisseur slaver. Secondly, might you in the future consider a quartet or larger format, perhaps even writing for several guitars?

KK: I don't know that a duet is my ideal climate, I'm not sure I have an ideal climate. I love duos, and I feel that there is so much to be explored within that setting that I am certainly looking forward to the discovery of new planets within the duet universe, but I also like the solo environment, both in composing and in recording. I've had a few offers to do solo performances, and I haven't felt like I was ready for that, not just artistically but emotionally or physically. It is an area of concentration for me, and I'm about to accept one of those solo offers. The Contraguitar is the perfect vehicle for this. The upcoming duet album of myself and Mark Wingfield will be a new direction for both Mark and me; he only plays electric guitar. The meld of his unique and beautiful voice coupled with my acoustic and extended-range voices has made for something of a shocking beauty for which I suspect neither of us were prepared. And I'm working on a solo album at present. I've done trio settings which were fantastic, some have been recorded but nothing released as yet. Sandor and I have a record in the can that is us and a brilliant artist of a percussionist named Balazs Major, a Hungarian artist. That record will be released in 2012. In the past, I've recorded and performed in quartet and larger groupings, but I don't feel a pull to return to any of that, not at present anyway. I do love the duo setting, and I really think I'm only scratching the surface of what is possible in that galaxy.

The trios with Dominic Miller were performed in concerts on tour; to my knowledge nothing of those were recorded. It was an interesting trio: I usually stuck to 12-string extended baritone, Dominic was playing classical guitar, and Sandor was using various instruments. The disparate textures blended really well, and Dominic brought something lyrical which is outside any of what Sandor and I do, so it provided an unusual and beautiful grouping both sonically and compositionally. I hope we do it again one day.

Regarding composing for a guitar ensemble, I've not really thought about it, but if it were the right project, I'd consider it. I was contacted by a university a few years ago and asked if I'd do a guitar ensemble arrangement of one of my compositions, but I couldn't fit it into the schedule within their time frame. Nice of them to ask, though!


See Part 3 of the Kevin Kastning interview


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