Perfect Sound Forever

Kevin Kastning


KK live with Sabor
photo by Andras Petruska.JPG

A Second Conversation, Part III
by Mark S. Tucker

PSF: Ever since watching the old video footage of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, with its multi-guitar section, I've wondered how many guitars one could compose for before everything becomes white noise. I'm thinking along the lines of Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, though the style would not have to be so serial-minimal, and I suspect the result would be stunning. As you harbor an affinity for polyrhythmically dense work, what might be your thoughts in that direction?

KK: Could be interesting. I'd approach each guitar voice part as a single-line, more linear than vertical, conceptually, instead of a classical polyphonic part. I'd probably avoid anything denser than double-stops on each part. It would require very precise execution, both technically and musically. As for how many parts... I don't know! I guess I'd have to try various ensemble sizes and then compose from there. I could see dividing the overall ensemble into sections, much like in an orchestra, and use divisi writing within the sections when required. I could certainly explore some very interesting polyrhythmic landscapes in that environment. I do not think a de facto minimalist limitation would need to be applied. I suspect if the composing was done very carefully with regard to register and ranges, just about anything could be attempted. I do like the polyrhythmically dense as well as the harmonically dense and even the melodically dense, which can take on elements of the other two as well.

PSF: In your interviews and written words, I see little reference to the more serious rock and roll efforts - that is, progressive rock. I wonder if you have heard, for instance, Gentle Giant's Gentle Giant or Acquiring the Taste, King Crimson's Lizard, Focus' Moving Waves, PFM's The World Became the World, Yes' Tales from the Topographic Oceans, and such? Do you have affinities for any aspect of the rock idiom or has the unsettlingly large proportion of inane works within it deterred you from exploring the style? Probably what I'm asking is: what's your artistic regard of the rock musics?

KK: I'm smiling here. The only work on your list with which I'm unfamiliar is PFM. In my high school and early college years, I literally wore out a couple of copies of Tales from Topographic Oceans. There are a few others which should be on that list: Jethro Tull's A Passion Play, the first UK album, Yes' Close to the Edge and Relayer (just staying abreast of the shifting odd meters in "The Gates of Delirium" is wondrous), Genesis' Foxtrot and Selling England by the Pound, and no doubt I'm omitting some other key works here. There's an Italian band currently active called The Watch, and they are right in that mould. I love all that; very emotional, in my opinion, and, in most cases, technically difficult works: A Passion Play is a single 45-minute composition, Topographic Oceans is over an hour and a half and in four movements. This is music which has been clearly impacted by, if not outright modeled upon, orchestral works, really beautiful pieces. I don't count those among my influences, but I do enjoy them.

PSF: Proust is named as an influence, but I see/hear Joyce, Dante, Poe, Gene Wolfe (particularly his haunting ĎEarth of the New Suní quadrilogy and the fascinating short-story cycle leading into it), and others as well. What do you bring over from your literary consumption when you compose or play? Where many composers, Morton Subotnick being just one, tributize literature, you re-plant some of its seeds. How do you regard the interaction of literature and music?

KK: So much of the creative process for me is internal: events, concepts, feelings, emotions, processes, textures, dynamics, structure, the line, form, and elements on and on and on which are not verbal or tangible constructs, not for me anyway. When I read someone like Eliot or Joyce, specifically Ulysses and Kerouac, for example Visions of Cody, and Proust, who can make the ethereal concrete and tangible, that is miraculous and completely outside my realm. Then there is the question of Joyce's Finnegans Wake, which is almost a sound piece. To take something like the inner dialogues in Ulysses or some of Eliot's imagery or Rilke's verbal textures, these are works of art which jolt me into another location. By that I mean that they take me somewhere which would be otherwise inaccessible. There are a tremendous number of works of music which do this as well, but the locations where I end up are vastly different. Same with certain paintings. Pollock. There's a contemporary Irish artist named Ken Browne who seems not to use paint on canvas but emotion on canvas. His work just knocks me over.

But to return to literature, I don't know if I see a direct interaction as you say, but I do see a similar thread in the creative and expressive process, at least as regards the authors I've mentioned here... yet, as I said, an arrival at a different location. They take me outside myself, and, once that's achieved, I began to automatically think of the analogy or equivalent in music. For example, how could the inner dialogue of Ulysses be expressed in notes and chords? What kind of harmonic structure could be invented to draw a parallel with some of the word sounds in Finnegans Wake? What about the intensely deep, revealing, and honest first-person narrative of Proust?, the visual imagery invoked by Eliot?, what would this sound like? I've not composed or recorded anything which is directly based on a literary work, not yet, though if I did, I wouldn't reveal that it was in fact based on literature. I'd be the only person that knew it was based on Finnegan. But the exposure to and impact from this kind of art makes an indelible mark on me, and, like the impact of certain paintings, as one absorbs and finds growth and fuel in these kinds of works, the nutrients from that soil give life to the entire plant.

PSF: Yeah, Finnegans Wake. Man o man, what a headache that would be! Still, I envision a surreal melodic progression often digressing while atonality and oblique contrasts incidentalize shifts in narrative as the "story" progresses. I always think back to what Subotnick did with just a few scraps of ancient poetry when he realized Wild Bull. By the way, when I interviewed him, I was rather surprised that he expressed a definite interest in laptopping and turntabling... but then, that was the sort of scope he and compeers were exercising back in the day.

KK: "Surreal melodic progression often digressing while atonality and oblique contrasts incidentalize shifts in narrative as the story progresses." Consider that stolen! Actually, I don't know what I would do for a Finnegans Wake piece. It may happen, though. I have at times wondered why there's not a film version of the book. My familiarity with Subotnick is somewhat limited, though I am quite familiar with a piece he did in the late '80ís entited "And the Butterflies Begin to Sing." I like it a lot, in fact.

PSF: The work you pen and spontaneously create would certainly be described as 'heady' and complex, so I doubt we'll be seeing Kastning or Szabo/Kastning ditties any time soon heralding the latest Toyota four-by. Yet, much of your fare is so endemically moody that I can easily see it running in the more abstractly pensive films finding favor in art-house audiences (more than one Peter Greenaway film would, for instance, have been ideal). Have you been approached to work with movie directors, and would you take such labor on? If not, why not?

KK: In the past, it wasn't something I'd pursued or was something in which I was interested. Such seemed too limiting to me, too boxed-in...to compose based on what's onscreen and what the director wants. I am well acquainted with someone who was a vice-president at Sony Pictures, however, and he once asked if I'd be interested in doing any soundtrack composing. I don't know if it was a rhetorical question or if he had something specific in mind. At the time, I said I wasn't interested, but now I think if the opportunity presented itself and I felt that I could make a contribution to the film, then yes, I'd consider it. There are a couple of films of Werner Herzog's for which I felt the kind of affinity that I would have certainly been interested in trying something. You mentioned Greenaway, and I could also see that working.

PSF: With Herzog, are you referring to Popul Vuh and their soundtrack for Nosferatu? Perhaps Aquirre or Fitzcarraldo as well?

KK: Well no, actually I think I was watching Encounters at the End of the World, and I just started internally hearing things, new pieces which would have fit very well, or so I thought. I've always liked the way in which Herzog crafts a narrative.

PSF: Keith Jarrett, the modern god of the piano, is a reference you cite, and he's certainly more than legendary for his improv solo work. What connection do you see between spontaneity and spirit? One is hardly going to find such subtlety in, oh, Lynyrd Skynyrd's or Hawkwind's jamming, much as one may like both and for good reason, so what does improvisation measure or manifest, and where does it depart from "mere" variations on basic thematics and enter extemporaneous originality?

KK: I guess spontaneity without spirit could render something rather vapid. I think the, as you say, mere variation on basic thematics might be a definition of jazz. I've nothing against jazz; in fact, I am a lifelong fan of Bill Evans. However, it's a fairly narrow and very pre-defined type of improvisation. And by that I mean it's really employing only one element of improvisation: that of melody. The form, rhythm, tempo, meter, and complete harmonic framework is pre-determined, as are the roles of each instrument. I don't include the work of Ornette Coleman in that statement, as I feel he pushed beyond the harmonic structure of jazz. I think where it enters, again to use your phrase, extemporaneous originality is within the realm of real-time composition; in other words, with nothing pre-defined. So we're comparing a single element to an art form with all elements included. Think of it like this: imagine a violin concerto where the orchestral part was completed but only half the solo violin part was written. The soloist's charge is to complete it during the performance; in other words, to improvise the missing parts. Now envision the blank manuscript paper which eventually went on to contain the orchestral parts and the completed solo violin part. There was a time when that composition was still in the realm of improvisation, before it was all written down. Let's say that jazz is analogous to the first example, wherein the orchestral parts are all completed: not much improvisation required, possible, or allowed. Think of writing the entire work as real-time composition, where the performer is also the composer, thus having total control over each element at all times. Quite a difference.

PSF: I'm always struck dumb and dismayed to find such work as yours typified as "difficult." Sophisticated, yes; rich while spare, certainly; in a class damn near of its own, of course; but difficult??? Your songs are relaxing while engaging. One can fall asleep to them or sit and be fascinated by the inventions and multiple conversations. In fact, I find a paradox: the feel and texture are terrene, yet the mind soars while listening. What does it say of a society - and I'm thinking particularly of America - that it still clings to the artistically simplistic, blase, moribund, and all-too-familiar? What is the artist's duty or challenge in such a culture? How does he/she successfully carry that out?

KK: Interesting. When you say "... clings to the artistically simplistic, blase, moribund, and all-too-familiar," again there's a cogent description of minimalism and Mozart. To return to your observation: those are some interesting takes on my work. I suspect it may get stamped as difficult vis a vis being difficult to categorize, or it may seem so new as to be alien or alienating to some less adventurous listeners. As an aside, my work gets regular air time on an Australian radio show called "Difficult Listening." I like that. The new is not always readily embraced...or perhaps my work isn't seen as "accessible," thank God. In our present day, it's tragic that what sells becomes equated with what's good. If a record sells a million copies, it has to be great, right? Not necessarily.

Before I respond to the next question, let's define our terms. I'm speaking of "artist" as someone concerted with art and expression foremost, and not commerce. I think the artist's duty is the same in the present culture as it has always been: truth, to remain true to their artistic vision. Again, truth in art. How they successfully carry this out may only be known to them, or even. Only they know their artistic vision, yes? Hence, only they will know if they've achieved it.

PSF: Though they are not mentioned in your site references, I'm sure more than a few well-versed listeners are going to locate elements of Penderecki, Crumb, Kurtag, Galasso, even Takemitsu and similar unorthodox creatives in your releases. Myself, as someone breathtaken with Xenakis, I was elated to read of your affinity for his opuses. Though your and his methods are different, they nonetheless erect a good deal of the same imagery. What exactly do you take away from listening to Xenakis? And, speaking of which, have you ever heard Jasun Martz's The Pillory?

KK: Yes, all those except Galasso and Martz, I need to look into those guys. Good ears on hearing any Kurtag in there! And my first composition professor was a student-slash-protege of Penderecki. I've studied Penderecki scores with input from him, which was truly amazing. You can add Ives to that list; his 4th symphony is something about which I think with great frequency. What a monolithic milestone! And his 2nd string quartet. Yeah, Xenakis. I hear his work as being so abstract that it won't fit on manuscript paper. One example is the string quartet "tetras" from 1983. I hear that as if the score systems weren't straight, but on a continuous S-curve, almost a pure abstraction. I love his work, very unique voice and concept. Each time I hear "tetra," is like the first time. I suppose what I take away from Xenakis is a kind of abstraction and architecture to which I'd otherwise never be exposed. They causes me to think and hear differently - again, to return to "tetras," imagining things that almost won't fit on paper. How would that kind of abstraction work on guitar, or any of the KK series of instruments, and in considerations of unorthodox instrumental usage and voicings, even combinations of instruments?

PSF: There's a profuse amount of quite naturally dominant/subordinate interplay in the duet CDs, as though one player listens, embroiders, and concretizes while the other stretches wings. Then places are traded. The subordinate, though, can be very subtle in his ministrations. I'm thinking particularly of "Returning to a Place We've Never Been" on Returning and "Tanz Grotesque, No. 3" on Resonance. There's almost never a direct vying for place or intense match-up anywhere... no guitar duels, if you will. Is this a matter of temperament, respect, design, or any combination of those?

KK: Temperament, respect, design, a guiding sense of form and structure, all at once and in service to the composition. The subtle ministrations, as you so succinctly surmise, are key at determining the meaning of all else. In the work with Sandor and me, if you focus on what Berg referred to as the hauptrhythm (primary voice) yet ignore or try to mentally tune out the nebenstimmen (secondary voice), you'll find that the hauptrhythm loses its meaning. The nebenstimmen, though ostensibly in the background, is constantly of equal importance as the hauptrhythm, so I think 'subordinate' is probably a mild inaccuracy; both lines are equal, neither would be possible without the other. I think you'll also find that in my work with Mark Wingfield.

PSF: Are you saying there was a sort of real-time instantaneous interdependence rather than leader/follower at the moment of play? I've always wondered about some of Yes' oeuvre, where, in listening to each separate instrument's line, it's almost shocking how dissociated they can be, yet everything falls together beautifully. How the whole survives the documentation process is another matter, but the recorded evidence is that everyone was in the pocket in a unique way. Is this what you're referring to?

KK: I can't speak for Yes, as I know some of their recording processes involve layering and not all of what ends up on the record were live performances, but (was) overdubbed and layered. For what they do, that's a perfectly valid approach. From what I've read, Topographic Oceans was largely created that way. That is certainly not to say they can't pull it off live; I've seen them a half-dozen or so times, and to see them tear through something like "Close to the Edge" in its entirety, even adding new complex details to it, is an amazing display. I only mean that I can't vouch for how they work in the studio. I can only tell you how I work in the studio and on all the duo and (as yet unreleased) trio albums: that means no overdubs, live performance only. But no, I don't think of or hear it as a leader/follower kind of setting or a relegation of primary and secondary component import, it is only the composition unfolding in real-time. I am doing my best to stay out of the way and allow that to go where it will. As I alluded earlier, what may sound like a hauptrhythmus would cease to have any meaning or impact if the nebenstimmen were removed. A fine example of this in practice and in real-life are the two Bartok violin sonatas. Historically, violin sonatas have been solo vehicles and showpieces for violin; not so with Bartok. His violin sonatas are like piano concertos; the piano part is astonishing and incredibly complex on those. I hear both instruments having equal importance and complete equality throughout. The structure of the pieces are so perfectly balanced between violin and piano that I can't hear those enough.

PSF: Having just finished listening to Scalar Fields with Siegfried, I note not a qualitative difference but a meta-quantitative one, a reduction of notes that nonetheless adds up to much the same effect, albeit I'd label this disc as para- and supra-melancholic. Is the title indicative of an allusion to the Teslavian scalar technology the U.S. government is secretly engineering or is it a play on words linking that to musical scales... or both?

KK: Wow, that's quite an analysis of that title! That particular name was suggested by Siegfried. He originally, as I recall, equated it to the technique of scalar field measurement concepts. It was equated as the scalar field measurement concept overlaid upon musical constructs; hence a double meaning, as "scalar" could refer to music scales. I thought it was a fine title, actually. Yes, it is a sparser set of compositions than many of my other works.

PSF: Then there's the pattern conjoining Kastning (K) and Siegfried (S) in a semi-cryptic aesthetic chemical relationship. The question of chemistry brings up a psycho-biology of personality. Though the tone in that release may be very kindred to the Szabo collaborations, the texture and volatility - that is, the airiness (rather than the fieriness almost universally mistaken against the term) - are miles apart. Do you choose your partners based on a set of certain criteria each time out?

KK: Good question. Oddly enough, I'm not usually the one doing the choosing. Siegfried, Sandor, and Mark Wingfield all chose me, but I concurred based on what I heard in their work. I knew in each instance that it would be a great fit. The work with Mark took a little convincing, because, as I've mentioned, he plays only electric, and I had never considered partnering with an electric guitarist. But as I listened to his albums, I heard an artist, not a guitarist. He did an release titled Three Windows, which is a trio record with him, a harpsichordist, and saxophonist. As soon as I heard that, I knew we'd be a great duo combination. I think we pushed each other outside our comfort zones and into the unknown. There is an instance of a duo project wherein I wasn't chosen nor did I do the choosing. I have an album date this year with bassist Michael Manring, and that came about by two mutual acquaintances who both said "You guys need to be working together!" as they felt we were kindred artistic spirits. I've long enjoyed Michael's work, and it turns out he was familiar with mine. He contacted me, and we began discussing a project together. There is an instance where I did select someone for a duo project: I've been a huge fan of cellist David Darling for years, and, one day while listening to one of his records, it occurred to me that we would work really well together, so I wrote to him and asked if he'd like to do something together. His response was an enthusiastic yes, so later this year, he and I will be in the studio together.

PSF: There's a musical current I like to tag as "somnambuesthetics," wherein certain musicians (Steve Roach, Robert Rich, Loren Nerell, Chuck van Zyl, etc.) like to play elongated synthesizer concerts people can fall asleep within, literally inviting them to bring blankets, sleeping bags, and etc. to the concert hall. I use a small roster of CDs to drift into lethean netherworlds as well (Roger Eno's Voices, Phil Glass' Koyaanisqatsi, Erling Wold's Missa Beati Notkeri Balbuli Sancti Galli Monachi, Bang on a Can's Music for Airports, David Hykes' Harmonic Meetings, etc. - and now the Kastning/Szabo and Kastning/Siegfried CDís), so I'm highly sympathetic to this, but what really intrigues me is the level of thought and mind entered into when listening to higher order sonic artworks. It's a crossing of boundaries which makes me wonder if dream, abstraction, nightmare, pure being, creativity, and attenuated thought aren't all just different aspects of the same state. With your omnivorous intelligence, what do you make of it all?

KK: Yes, and Chuck Wild also. I think it's an interesting genre, actually. I'm not as familiar with it as I'd like to be, but am listening to more of it. I do think that abstraction, pure being, and even dreams are all components of creativity. I've not considered them being different aspects of the same state, but that poses an interesting theory.

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