INTERVIEW: KENNETH KIRSCHNER: MUSIQUE MACHINE
slow sad, yet persistent beauty.... [2011-08-05]
Kenneth Kirschner is a New York based composer whose often lengthy & slowly developing pieces mix together elements of ambience, slowed electronica and modern minimalistic classical music to create something very distinctive & highly rewarding. Kenneth has just put out his new epic three cd set “Twenty Ten” on the always rewarding and consistent 12k label. He kindly agreed to do an email interview with M[M] discussing his new release and his work in general.
m[m]: What are some of your earliest musical memories, and do you think these in any way shaped your decision to start making sound yourself?
Kenneth: I would hope they didn’t shape my decision! I started studying piano at age 5 and absolutely hated it. I had no interest in music of any kind – classical, pop, anything – and it wasn’t until many years later, in 1982, when I was 12 and first encountered a synthesizer, that everything changed.
m[m]:When did you start making sound yourself, and how did you go about getting your first works published?
Kenneth: My earliest recordings date from probably 1983, and my first official CD release was around 2003, so that’s 20 years in what jazz musicians call “the woodshed” – where you learn your craft and make your mistakes alone, before subjecting others to them. In truth, though, a big part of that delay was my ambition to release my music freely online – the technology just wasn’t there yet, and I stubbornly refused to release anything on CD for years. But then once mp3s did take off, I realized that no one would ever find out about my work once it was actually online, given my semi-reclusive nature and aversion to self-promotion. And that’s where my old friend Taylor Deupree and his now well-known label 12k came in.
m[m]: Can you give us some insight into what your earliest recordings sounded like, and do you ever plan to release any of the work you did between 1983 and 2003?
Kenneth: Well, my website has a lot of my pre-2003 work – most of the good stuff, really. And a few of those pieces are also out on CD now. The earliest thing on my site at the moment is from 1988 – it’s a piece I did when I was in high school that I recently damaged (further) for an installation at Princeton University (not coincidentally, my hometown). I’ve toyed with releasing even earlier stuff, but hesitated. One track, for example, that I had all ready to post was a little synth thing from 1983. What does it sound like? Minimal techno. But I didn’t want people thinking I’d somehow invented minimal techno in 1983, because if all you’ve got is an analog synth arpeggiator and a drum machine, that’s just kind of what you end up with. And I’m not sure that these really early recordings are going to be of much interest to anyone beyond the novelty of seeing what some kid was doing back in the 80s with his synthesizers.
m[m]: How have the equipment, instruments and way you compose changed over the years from your very early recordings?
Kenneth: I started out with a Roland Juno-60, which was just about the last synth made before MIDI got standardized, then gradually added on a TR-606, DX7, Emax sampler, and various other pieces of gear, recording them all to an old 4-track. And there was often piano thrown in there too, even some bits of guitar and other stuff occasionally. The gear got bigger and bigger…until it got smaller and smaller. And now it’s pretty much just a MacBook Pro that I can throw into my backpack.
The ways I compose have changed every bit as much as the technology – and changed with it, since my work has always been essentially technological. I was never really someone writing scores, or working in traditional ways – my composition has always been innately tied to the gear I’m using. And while it’s true that my earliest work was very much about “playing keyboard” as one does in a band, with chord progressions, verses and choruses, melodies and solos, it’s gotten unrecognizably abstracted from there as the music and tech have evolved. There’s decades of abstraction upon abstraction layered on a solid foundation of cheesy early 80s pop – that’s the secret.
m[m]: All of your pieces are named after a date – is this when you started the piece or when you finished it, and what made you decide to use this date format for your track titles?
Kenneth: In theory, that’s the date the piece was started – and it’s true for most of them. But some of those dates are semi-fictional, or slightly modified, or even best guesses. There’s even one case where the person commissioning the piece specifically asked that I change the date, for mysterious reasons he wouldn’t tell me, and it was such an intriguing request that I of course said yes.
Kenneth: I started going with the date-titles when I was about 18, after finally accepting just how awful my titles were – everything I came up with was totally painful and pretentious. And I had been noting down the dates for a while on my 4-track tapes, so I finally just decided to stop damaging the music with these terrible titles and leave it alone – the dates would be enough.
Actually, there’s one piece on my site that still has a title in it, a title I actually like. It’s tagged within the mp3, not in the file name, so you’ll have to download every one of those millions of mp3s to find it; I’m not telling.
m[m]: On average how long will it take you to compose/construct a piece?
Kenneth: Sometimes a day, sometimes endlessly torturous months. Most often I’d say it’s between 1 and 2 months, unless things go horribly wrong. And length isn’t always a factor – sometimes the long pieces are actually easier, and the short ones can be very hard.
m[m]: I first became aware of your work on the excellent Filaments & Voids, which saw you mixing languid and somber piano, synth and string elements with sometimes jarring digital editing. Your new 3-disc album Twenty Ten sees you creating a more organic, less edited feeling to the tracks – what made you decide to move towards this?
Kenneth: There certainly was no conscious decision to “do things differently for this album,” because I never plan things out that way – I work piece by piece, not album by album. The albums are always built retrospectively, and have to do with picking out finished pieces that seem like they might work together or form some sort of coherent story. Look at Filaments & Voids
– the pieces there span over a decade, and I certainly wasn’t planning that all out since 1996. I’m always writing, and my work is always evolving in a bunch of different directions at once, so for me an album is about finding a thread or narrative through all the different work I’ve been doing that makes some vague kind of sense. And hopefully that someone will be willing to release.
m[m]: Still on the subject of your new record – can you tell us if there’s any concept/theme connecting all the pieces together? What does the album’s title mean to you? And what is the blurred picture on the front cover of?
Kenneth: Clearly a lot of the focus is on microtonality and acoustic instruments, and it’s also about my attempts to push my writing in more complex directions (which I’m always trying to do, and usually failing at). And there’s of course a temporal aspect, which brings us to the title. Most of the key work for the album, either the pieces themselves, or the source recordings, got done in 2010. And “Twenty Ten” seemed like a cooler title than “Twenty Ten – Twenty Eleven,” so there you have it.
As for the photo, unfold the album and turn it sideways; it’s trees in the forest near Taylor’s house in upstate New York.
m[m]: Twenty Ten opens on the surprisingly upbeat, almost vibrating and chaotic “January 4, 2011” with its active mixture of metallophones and xylophones – how did this track come about and what made you decide to open the album on such an upbeat point?
Kenneth: My kid Beckett was born in May of 2010, and when he was about 6 weeks old we left Brooklyn to spend the rest of the year out on Block Island, a fairly remote island off the coast of New England. There I got to know the music teacher at the local school, and offered to trade some MIDI consultation for access to any instruments they might have lying around. When I walked into the music room and saw this shelf full of all these little metallophones and xylophones that the students learn on, I was universally described as having the classic “kid in a candy store” look.
I spent a day at the school recording all the instruments, and my idea was very much to just capture raw sounds for later sound design – not at all to write or perform anything intentional or serious on the spot. And because of that, I was very relaxed as I started banging away with mallets on everything. When I started working with the recordings later, this loose and relaxed feel was so nice, so spontaneous, so, in many ways, unlike my usual over-disciplined work, that it ended up becoming the foundation of the piece. Other than some layering, some time shifting, and a lot of careful editing, what you hear is pretty much just me smashing away on those instruments, having a great time.
As for opening the album with this track, it’s like Taylor said in his press release: I like to lull people into a false sense of security before hitting them with the really scary stuff.
m[m]: Your sound is very difficult to define or bracket under one banner, as you mix together elements of modern classical composition, ambient, slowed electronica and musique concrète – have you deliberately tried to blur the lines or has your sound just come out this way?
Kenneth: Genre has never really been that useful a concept to me. Ultimately, the music I write is just a remixed version of the music I like, and if you sift through my site enough, you’ll find fragments of pretty much everything I’m into: there’s all the styles you mention, plus bits of hip-hop, techno, gamelan, African drumming…the list goes on. Probably the only music I truly love that’s not perceptible somewhere in my work is jazz – and that’s because I played briefly in a jazz ensemble when I was young, and was a terrible, terrible jazz musician. So no need to embarrass myself there.
m[m: ]Have you ever performed any of your work in a live or art gallery setting? And if so, can you tell us what the performance was like?
Kenneth: Boring, I’d say! I’m not a big fan of my live shows, and see them mainly as a scam to get free trips to cool places – but people do sometimes seem to show up, so maybe there’s something to it. Actually, some of the shows I do with Taylor Deupree, where we combine live piano and electronics, are quite nice – you can listen to our live album on Room 40, for example, and there’s also a couple sets up on UbuWeb now that are freely downloadable. So while some of the collaborations are worthwhile, I don’t ultimately think of myself as a great live musician – it’s just not the direction I’ve gone in.
m[m]: Your website is very thin on the ground with information about yourself – why is this? Do you like to remain semi-mysterious?
Kenneth: It’s fun to be mysterious! And I should mention that Thomas Pynchon is my hero. But in truth, composers don’t, as a rule, have interesting lives. Maybe we sit around thinking great thoughts, and hopefully write the occasional interesting bit of music – but, well, let’s just say that I’m not sure my day-to-day life is going to be the subject of a major motion picture anytime soon. So better to keep it clean and simple.
It’s also an important exercise, I think – a sort of discipline. One shouldn’t get too caught up in notions of career, of ambition, of “being a composer,” whatever that means. Ultimately you do the work because it’s what you do, not for any extrinsic ends or expectations. And I think my site reflects that attitude.
m[m]: You’ve released a lot of work via your website in free MP3 – why did you decide to do this, and will you ever release some or all of this work in CD form?
Kenneth: Ever since I was a teenage cyberpunk sending tiny chunks of ASCII over Bitnet, it’s been my dream to build an online resource that offers a complete and freely accessible archive of all of my published music – and I’m pleased to say that’s pretty much what my site now represents. That said, I’d love to see it all out on CD as well. The trick is finding labels who actually want to release it, given that a) I insist on (eventually, if not immediately) putting it all up on my site for free, which is perhaps not the best business proposition, and b) my albums for some reason don’t sell the same number of copies as those of, say, Lady Gaga. I’m sure you find that every bit as shocking as I do, but it’s the sad truth.
m[m]: You live in Brooklyn, New York. Do you think any of NYC’s influence can be found in your music?
Kenneth: The city itself has played such a fundamental role in the development of my work that I wouldn’t even know how to begin to disentangle its influence, much less put it into words.
m[m]: List the ten records that mean the most to you in the world and explain why they mean so much to you?
Kenneth: Wow, I’d be typing this interview forever if I had to decide on my definitive top ten records ever, so let me just throw a few random ones out there. Gary Numan’s The Pleasure Principle
– finding a copy of that album in the basement when I was a kid was what ultimately made me a musician. Joy Division’s majestic Unknown Pleasures
. Listening to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue in the rain, looking out the fire escape of my very first New York apartment. Hearing for the first time Aki Takahashi and the Kronos Quartet playing Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet while stuck on a broken-down train – and not even noticing or caring about being trapped. And recently I’ve been spending a lot of time with Glenn Gould’s 1955 Goldberg Variations
, which I first heard while walking through the woods in Manhattan (yes, there’s a primeval forest hidden at the top of Manhattan, not many people know this). My kid, who’s now only a little over a year old, is completely obsessed with Bach, so we’ve been doing a lot of Goldbergs.
m[m]: Where do you see your sound moving to next?
Kenneth: Who knows! I feel like I’ve learned a lot in the last couple years after a longish period of relative stagnation, so I hope to be able to continue to push things further in the direction I’ve been going in, compositionally speaking. I just finished up a piece I’m pretty happy with (“June 9, 2011”, now up on my site) which perhaps succeeds in doing that, while continuing in a similar direction to Twenty Ten – microtonal, instrumental sources, etc. But at the same time, I recently managed to get myself a Teenage Engineering OP-1, which is just about the most fun little synth I’ve ever played, so I’ve been writing all sorts of silly stuff with that, some of which I might publish eventually. I’m hoping we’ll soon see the release of Toys, my “comedy album” with Montreal multimedia madman Herman Kolgen. And there’s a couple top-secret projects in the works that I can’t talk about. So stay tuned…
Thanks to Kenneth for his time & efforts with the interview. Kenneth's website can be found here & you can buy “Twenty Ten” direct from here, where you can also hear mp3 samples of the album too