Perfect Sound Forever

Kevin Kastning

A Second Conversation
by Mark S. Tucker
(March 2011)

I should mention a few things somewhat briefly. This is certainly as much Kevin's interview as mine, we both worked long and hard at it (and much thanks go to Jason Gross for so readily allowing our prolixity). In fact, at some point, we simultaneously realized it was turning into a partial seminar in aesthetics. I will not apologize for the length as I feel the American public needs this sort of exercise, and indeed, within the PSF and wider readership, there are those who will immediately appreciate the depth of exploration. More, that depth is why I undertook this at all. In the last few years, I had somewhat given up the colloquy aspect of writing; for me personally, interviews are just too much work, requiring far more in re-listens, ponderings, the process of shaping worthwhile questions, and then a lot of editing- far more of everything than is evident in the reading of the completed product. However, over the extent of reviewing Kevin's work for X number of years (hey, my memory sucks lately, and I'm practically innumerate, so reminiscence and time-numbers don't mix for me) and a number of private e-conversations, I came to appreciate not only his unique and masterful style in music-making but also an exceedingly incisive mind, a rare thing.

Kevin makes a number of intriguing assertions and opinionations here, as do I (my wont) and he could easily be a prime critic of a stripe almost absent in America (far more prevalent in Europe) should he choose to do so. In the course of what you're about to read, this became yet another verification that I had made an unusually good choice. Only this interview and the one I conducted with Copernicus, available for perusal in the PSF archives, have been this absorbing. I suspect more than one controversy will arise from our exchange, and I couldn't be more pleased.

As those who follow my work already understand, I am not in this game for either money (please ignore the gales of laughter you may now hear in the distance, all from crits who know precisely what I mean) or to satisfy anyone but those who enjoy the life of the mind. My intent is to help resuscitate and further the almost dead art of criticism and discourse, and in that, I must have a worthy counterpart lest a joining of the ranks with too many of my "brother" crits and with equally imbecilic artists - whom I otherwise frequently, nastily, and sardonically deride - occur (shudder!).

This present discourse has forced me to re-examine more than one personal tenet. While I may not harmonize entirely with Kevin, and he not always with me, his appraisals are thoughtful, forceful, and backed by immense insight into the mechanics of his art, much more so than I can even begin to muster. The analysis he offers is compelling as I encourage interviewees to speak frankly and not concern themselves with whatever I or anyone may or may not think, and the blend of the two has resulted in many engaging and singular revelations, gestures, and evidences of provocative ideation that will extend to the reader. This, ladies and gentlemen, is precisely what informs me that my earlier tendency to want to eschew the interview process was premature; there is much still to warrant the toil when it results in this level of outcome. That is to say: I am delighted with and gratified by this encounter. My only regret is that we did not have the space to continue ever more dialectically into aesthetics... but that would have forced us to pen an entire book.

So then, please look upon our meeting of the minds as a Socratic form of chamber recital, if you will, and join in from your armchair where you feel it appropriate. You will be welcomed.

PSF: I was intrigued by the compositional experiments noted in the "String Quartet No. 5" work in transposing harmony and melody against and into each other. This notion of the interleaving of strands is very much like Michio Kaku's string theory: everything being woven while remaining distinct and separate. What antecedents, what roots, are you using in this technique, and what structures are you reaching for?

KK: The antecedents originated in some of my previous compositions. A vertical overlay and intertwining of polyrhythmic textures is something I'd used in the past, but not the extent of the fifth string quartet. I had envisioned something like a rope, a twisting and interwinding of both and of simultaneous singular and multiple strands, a polyrhythmic density stacked and layered to the point that it produces its own harmonic density. I had been carrying this around with me for a long time. I think bits of it escaped in previous pieces, but not to this extent. The structures for which I was reaching were a kind of density akin to... well... in the manner of the construction of chords, I was hearing something equating that, but instead of single notes as vertical chord and harmonic components, I was hearing differing tuplet-based rhythmic structures as the vertical building blocks. In previous compositions, it peeked out a little here and there. In the fifth quartet, it became the structure itself. It is possible that it originated in another way, or was subliminally planted. One day in winter, I was out driving near where I live, which is a very forested and hilly area. There was snow on the ground, and, with this white background, the trees stood out in sharp contrasting detail like a black and white photograph. As I was driving through this, I glanced out the left window and saw the trees whizzing by in blurred smeared detail. As this was a fairly dense forest, some of the trees were closer, some were further back, so there was a kind of 3-D effect of closer trees/distant trees. My first thought was "Where have I heard this before?." Then I thought that this was an odd reflex to a visual scene, but I could indeed hear something. A couple of seconds later, a snippet of the fifth quartet popped into my head: the polyrhythmic, or perhaps I should say, the polytonality of the layered tuplet rhythms sounded exactly like those trees looked. Thus the fifth quartet could have had a subconscious genesis vis a vis driving through forested New England roads.

PSF: You've said that the recording process happens pretty much in a day. What do you and Sandor (Szabo, guitarist) start out with - brief sketches? A set of chord changes? Perhaps a few tightly scripted passages? And, percentage-wise, how large a part does pure improv play?

KK: With Sandor, it is a single day. We've done seven complete albums that way so far. With (guitarist) Siegfried, it can be several months. I've been working on some solo recordings, and that has its own pace. The process with Sandor on the first album involved, at first, small sketches, mere germs of ideas, a hint of a suggestion. It can be a verbal description, a declaration of meter, an assignment of register, a determination as to whom begins a piece and how; it can be all, some, or none of those. Sandor and I don't have a formula, we just have a soul connection, many influences in common and matching end points in mind. Pure improvisation plays a tremendous part. On every record, there are entire pieces which are improvisations in their entirety. However, I don't like to think of it as improvisation. I think a more accurate term of what I do is real-time composition. All composed, written, scored compositions were at one time improvisations. Written compositions are little more than frozen improvisation. Think of it in this context as improvisations which have been frozen at a moment in time and space. Sandor and I are composing, but to tape instead of score paper, in real-time instead of editing and erasing, refining and perfecting with a pencil over an infinite period... though I certainly do plenty of that, too, it just doesn't take place in the studio.

My work with British electric guitarist Mark Wingfield has taken on a similar flow. Mark and I recorded material for three albums over the course of two days in the studio in November 2010. Our first album together will be released in spring 2011. We approached our work together much like I do with Sandor. A brief discussion would transpire prior to rolling tape, and the result is the performance you'll hear on the record. This album will be pretty different from anything either Mark or I have ever done, and we're both rather excited about it.

PSF: Yeah, since you were kind enough to cut me a pre-release rough, I have to say it's great stuff, another step forward in expanding your horizons. Wingfield blends a lot of influences - esp. Metheny, early Frisell, Rypdal, Abercrombie - into his own vocabulary and demonstrates masterly discretion in all the weird and cool slurs, trills, and bric-a-brac he peppers his part of the "conversation" with. I was also a bit surprised at your movements behind him in various places and then the exchange of front and backing roles all through the release... similar to but very different from your work with all the others. How did it feel to be committed to that kind of electric environment, something you normally eschew? What did you discover as it progressed? There's a definite feel of shift of perspective.

KK: Thank you, and I daresay a shift of perspective is correct. I don't hear the exchanges in terms of front to back; in fact, I'm not sure I hear the parts as exchanges at all. I hear them as equal and side-by-side, even though I can fully understand a front-to-back perspective on these works. The recording sessions were pretty intense. Two very full and long days. During the sessions, I was only focused on the pieces, letting them organically form and come to life. I mean, that's my usual approach, but simultaneously I can tell if what's being created and tracked is strong, if it's headed in the direction of a record and that kind of sensing. However, during the sessions with Mark, I didn't have that sense. I think I was so focused on what was transpiring that I didn't know what we had. I remember during a break on the second day, late at night, I even asked Mark if he thought what we were doing was anything usable. He said yes, but I just couldn't tell; I thought what I was doing was horrible. I loved what he was doing, though. It wasn't until several weeks later, when I heard a few of the rough mixes, that I realized what we had done. Oddly enough, I didn't feel it as an electric environment as opposed to an acoustic environment. It was just creating, composing in real-time, very different to me in that there were various new situations during the sessions; hence the shift in perspective. But the electric-vs.-acoustic environment wasn't one of them.

PSF: What were the changes?

KK: This was the first recording session with the 14-string Contraguitar. I had recorded a couple of quick solo pieces with it, but nothing in an actual recording or performance situation such as with Mark. At the time of the tracking sessions, I'd had it for less than two months, so I was just starting to learn it, really. I also played classical guitar on a few pieces with Mark; I'd not done that on other records. And I used some new percussive and tapping techniques on which I'd been working, so some new paths for me there, and you sensed it by saying a shift of perspective, which it certainly was. I am excited about our work together, and this album will be the first in a series for us.

PSF: Your choice of label is appropriate (Greydisc), as your work is often Rouaultian in its hues, but you've mentioned Pollock as one of your influences graphically. I also envision Tanguy, Klee, certainly Greco's View of Toledo, and the like. In fact, one easily envisions Roualtian denizens in your Greco-Toledo environments, but what images are you seeing as you write and play? And what images are you creating? Listener and player mind-theaters often differ on the same works, and it might be intriguing to note here how closely or widely the tableaux match.

KK: Yes! The sky in Greco's Toledo! Can you not hear that sky just by looking at it? And that is a very interesting comparison to Rouault. I can understand your hearing those thick dark textures in there. It's less that I am envisioning these visual works when playing or composing; I tend to hear them when I see them. I have stood in front of some late-period Pollocks for what seemed like hours and just listened. Same for Rothko, some of the less representational and more of the abstract expressionist pieces of De Kooning, and Kandinsky sometimes. Different visual and aural textures to be sure, but equally strong and utterly palpable with aural tangibility. Architecturally, I have gotten something very similar from Gehry, Calatrava, and even elements from Gothic cathedral architecture, elements like the flying buttress and the percentage of window versus wall area, or the cathedral at Reims, which has double-span flying buttresses. I wonder how this same concept would be expressed in music. What is the compositional equivalent? How does it translate? How does a work of art in a non-music medium translate over and into music? What is that process? What is the resultant linear structure, form, harmonic structure?

PSF: I'm glad you mentioned Gehry. I only recently got into his work. Marvelous stuff. He reminds me of [James] Hubbell [mentioned in Part 1 of this interview]. In such people, I can see the mindset resemblances between work such as yours and theirs, endeavors abandoning parameters of thought that do not recognize boundaries but usher in whatever creates the art, but what has been the history of your reception in the consumer/appreciator environment for indulging purely artistic means and ends?

KK: Yeah, I am a huge fan of Gehry. I go see his buildings whenever I can. I view his buildings as living sculptures. A good friend of mine used to work with him, and, a few years ago while visiting in California, I got a tour of Gehry's offices. Really amazing! What a treat that was. To define our terms, you're referring to two separate and perhaps disparate entities when you say consumer and appreciator environments. In the consumer environment, it varies by country. On the European tour last year, I was constantly amazed at the people I'd meet who brought copies of my albums for me to sign, and even people that told me they had all my albums. In the U.S., I don't see that quite as much, but I suspect art holds a more sacred position on the list of priorities and life in Europe. There's centuries more of this heritage and value system instilled there, and it shows. Art is more revered there, and there's less of the hollow and sacrilegious sense of commercial success which mistakenly equates to successful art such as we see in the U.S.. In the appreciator environment, I am regularly surprised at the emails I receive and what people say to me when I meet them.

I'll share one example with you. Last year, I received a very touching e-mail from a woman in California that told me she had lost her husband to a fatal disease; I believe he was in his mid-40ís. He had passed on about eight months prior to her e-mail. She said that music had always been very important in their life together, but since he had died, she had lost her love of music; in fact, she said she had not been able to listen to it at all since then, there was too much pain of loss wrapped into her experience of music. But then someone had given her one of my CDís. She said it was the only music she'd able to listen to, and it was the first thing that had given her any sense of comfort or peace since she lost her husband. It took me a couple of weeks to reply to her e-mail; I just did not know what to say. And I have received other e-mails which were very touching and personal. So, to answer your question: I do get these glimpses from time to time wherein people let me know that, yes, it is appreciated.

PSF: Shostakovich sits in your portfolio of reverences, and I find your material not unlike the somber and disconsolate sections of his 14th Symphony. Have you, or you and Sandor, or you and Siegfried, considered working with melismatic vocalists, perhaps even somewhat a la Machaut?

KK: Shostakovich, yes. The opening of the 4th symphony - had I composed only that, I could die happy. The transitional moment around the 0:16 mark where the percussion signals the entrance of the ostinato eighth-note figure in the strings just destroys me, and again around 1:15 where the low brass re-enters. Then the full-on brass chord with percussion at 1:28. And that's just in the first two minutes! My favorite symphonies of his are 4, 8, and 14. 14 just knocks me over. In the second movement, he so entirely and completely exploits the extreme upper violin registers, like the sound is just being ripped from somewhere deep inside the instrument itself. But it's not just sound fabric for the sake of texture or post-modernity, it is a charged emotional excursion; a complete communication. Yet that communication, that message, could only be delivered using the sopranino violin texture as its vehicle. It's brilliant, yet it is just raw feeling.

Yes, I am a total fan of Machaut and another composer who I somehow associate with him in intent and direction: Ciconia, even though Machaut was ars nova and Ciconia was ars subtilor. Regarding vocalists, four or five years ago, I did some recording dates with French artist Laurent Brondel. He is a very interesting person, composes songs which are like 4-minute movies. We have standing plans to work together again in the future. I have not considered working with any other vocalists, but that's not to say I wouldn't if it were the right project.

See Part 2 of the Kevin Kastning interview

Also see the previous interview with Kastning

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER