by Christopher McFall (08/21/2006)

Within the realm of sound composition there are few composers who stand out like Kenneth Kirschner. So, given the prolific nature of this artist, I felt that people should know a bit more about him....

From his minimalist workings with piano to his manipulations involving field recordings, Kenneth has produced an extensive body of works that fall nothing short of exhibiting his tremendous ability as a composer. As luck would have it, I was able to catch up with Kenneth and ask him a few questions.

I'm really amazed by the massive body of work that you have available, so one question that I'm curious to know is how long have you been working with musical/sound composition? Furthermore, did you receive any training at some point in time that directed your interests into the area of minimalism with regards to sound and piano workings?

I first started studying piano when I was 5, and immediately became an uninspired, disinterested student. I thought classical music was boring, and pop music was somehow actually evil. But I was an obedient child, and continued studying for years because my parents wanted me to; I never practiced, and never got any better. But then, when I was 12, I met a kid with something called a "synthesizer" – then just a little toy Casio – which was just about the coolest thing I'd ever seen. I was immediately fascinated. And fortunately, around this time, I was studying under a wonderful teacher who, along with being a tremendously accomplished classical and jazz pianist, was also very open minded and progressive. As I got more and more interested in synthesizers, I got more and interested in pop music – something that my piano teacher was actually willing to teach me. Where I'd always struggled with notation, he taught me how to play by ear; where I'd always been bored by the music I was forced to play, he taught me how to learn the music that I was, more and more, listening to every day. At the same time he instilled in me a strong sense of all the fundamentals of music theory. And I just started writing and writing. My models at the time were 80s pop music, the minimalism (particularly of Philip Glass) that I was exposed to, and, as I got more self-consciously "serious," little bits of baroque and classical recordings I came across, especially sad, dark adagios. My first recordings date back to when I was maybe 13, and by age 15 or 16 I was already, if a bit prematurely, referring to myself as a composer.

I went off to college fully assuming that I would study composition – and was in for an immediate and very rude awakening. This was the late 1980s, and the atmosphere that I encountered in academia had little sympathy for the sort of free-ranging, experimental and in particular electronic approaches I was interested in. The whole system seemed set up to churn out little serialists writing sophisticated and unpleasant 12-tone studies – what I sometimes jokingly refer to as "Music to Get Tenure By." I immediately became very alienated, very disillusioned – although this being said, I was young and hot-headed, so a certain amount of this can be chalked up to teenage rebellion rather than outright hostility on academia's part. Still, I felt like the only way I would ever be able to answer the questions I was interested in would be to strike out on my own, so I abandoned the academic path and moved to New York. And I've been writing ever since.

With regards to the compositions that I have heard by you, one predominant aspect of this body of work is that there seems to me to be a tremendous sense of diversity in your works. I guess by this I'm referring to the fact that your work seems to have evolved a great deal over the course of time. I'm curious to know what your current interests and pursuits are as far as your workings go.

This to me is the real beauty of electronic music – the diversity. You can go from writing a quiet little piano piece, to doing a huge percussion smash-up, to doing something that sounds like it's just been transmitted live from an alien planet. And you should! I'm always a little amazed that so many people who do electronic music just seem to settle into one style, one set of signature sounds or techniques – because to me the whole fun of the thing is to be able to do anything and everything, to constantly switch things up, to evolve. And yes, I definitely do think of my work as always evolving: there are broad periods that I go through where I'm focused on one set of problems or concerns, and then there are paradigm shifts that change everything and make me rethink all the most basic principles of what I'm doing. I feel very strongly that the best composers are those who are always changing, always growing, always seeking out and taking new risks, and that's very much what I try to do in my own work.

In terms of my current concerns, that's a long and complicated question, but I'll try to at least sketch out some of where I'm at. For many years, from maybe 1997-2001 and even up through some pieces as late as 2004, I had a very consistent set of methods that I used regularly and reliably: I'd compose a large number of individual components or fragments in isolation from each other, then use chance procedures to recombine them into a single big assemblage; when a piece like this "worked," these individual fragments would gel together into a coherent, emergent whole, something more than the sum of its parts, and I'd then spend a lot of time carefully carving and honing this new, chance-derived structure to produce the final piece. But these methods began to fail me more and more, and I really longed to move beyond them. No single paradigm has emerged for me yet, though there have been many different directions I've gone in: the indeterminate series, for example, or some of my very spare, very strictly linear pieces in which each event happens once, only once. At the moment, after much frustration and struggle, I'm trying to just settle down a little and simplify things: I've found myself writing in the same fits of inspired chaos that have always possessed me, but instead of having some complex method for constructing a composition out of all these fragments, I've just been laying them out one after another in time, often with large spaces between them – somehow it seems more honest to me right now. And then I edit only by snipping out elements that don't "work," never rearranging, never recombining. And so the composition just ends up being a simple linear record of the writing process, edited for quality and narrative. I first started writing like this when I did the sketches for the first post_piano CD with Taylor Deupree, and again, for whatever reason, I think of it as somehow being a very "honest" way to write – to let the sounds, the notes, just be themselves; to trust that in the process of writing there is a latent story; to avoid any impulse to overcomplicate or to overreach for the sake of impressing the listener. But all of this is just how I feel right now – tomorrow will probably be different! Or at least I hope so, because I really hope my work will be able to continue to change and grow.

My final question is centered around your feelings regarding "open source" audio. I really enjoy the fact that your work is so accessible on the web, and I've noticed that you don't release too many things on disc. Your work is of a tremendous caliber, so I'm assuming that having your work released on labels for CD distribution is a very viable option for you, yet I've noticed that you release in mp3 format often still. I guess what I'm getting at is that I think it's great that you make your work so open to others. Additionally, I'd like to know if you have any thoughts regarding the future of "open source" audio.

Let me start with a story. One day, when I was a little kid, I went with my parents to my favorite toy store, where I saw a toy, a little toy spaceship, that I desperately wanted. Somehow, though, I knew there was no chance that I was going to get it – maybe Christmas wasn't coming, maybe I'd just had a birthday, maybe I'd just gotten a present – whatever the reason, I knew it was hopeless, totally hopeless. And so I formed in my mind a fantasy, as kids do. I imagined that I could somehow reach down, pick up and take with me a "secret copy" of that little spaceship. I pictured this as being like in the movies when a person who's dreaming has a translucent duplicate of themselves rise up and walk around on its own. I imagined myself being able to pick up and take home with me a secret, imperceptible double of that toy – no one else could see it, but I could carry it around and play with it any time I wanted, leaving the original safely behind.

Now this was years before I first encountered computers; it wasn't until I was about 11 that personal computers first entered the schools. But when I did become exposed to computers, I immediately became a very enthusiastic and skillful young software pirate – copying early videogames, which were of course the toys I was most interested in then. And there was something here that reminded me of that early childhood fantasy of a secret, invisible toy that one could simultaneously possess and leave safely intact in the world. There was something so simple and compelling about this idea of a good thing that you could take for yourself, share with others, and yet leave sitting right there where it was, untouched. It was like a toy that everyone could play with at the same time. And that seemed to me the coolest thing imaginable.

Now at this time, I had an excellent computer teacher at school, someone I had great respect for. And he would tell me over and over again that what I was doing was wrong. He would explain that every time I copied one of these games, I was depriving someone somewhere of money. That the people who had made the game were somehow losing money even though I hadn't actually taken anything away from them – the "original" game, after all, was still there. There was a level on which his argument made perfect sense – and there was a level, an intuitive level, on which I just didn't buy it. Because there was something so undeniably wonderful about this idea of a toy that everyone could simultaneously possess, a game that everyone could play at the same time. And that seemed to me so much more important than some vague idea of someone somewhere not making money.
Today the toys in question are of course music, digital music. I'm older now, and I realize that it's not my place to advocate the copying of other people's music. But it is most certainly my place to advocate the copying of my own. Because somehow I'm not quite ready to give up on that silly idea I had as a kid.

I've always had this sense – since long before the rise of Internet music – that these issues around digital copies, intellectual property, and the freedom of information would be absolutely crucial for our times. And so, very early on, I resolved that I wanted to make my feelings on this an integral part of my work. In the early 90s, even as more pragmatic friends of mine like Taylor Deupree were beginning to build reputations and careers for themselves, I resolved that, to support my strange ideals, I would never release my music on CD. Clearly, this is a plan that failed. The story is that I spent the 90s writing and writing and writing, and having broad, vague, idealistic visions of some future in which music could be free, in which I'd somehow distribute my work freely through some as yet unknown but surely inevitable digital technology. And like any good impractical person, I was quite startled at the end of the decade when this vague vision inconveniently became a reality. Suddenly, with the rise of mp3 and broadband, here was the technology to do exactly what I'd always dreamed of. And I had no idea what to do. I was totally paralyzed. If I built a website, who would hear about it? How would my name get out there? How would people ever find out about my work? I realized I had no idea, no plan, no clue. And so, in one of those rare moments when I do get in touch with reality, I wrote to Taylor for his advice about releasing CDs.

By this time, 12k was increasingly well established, and Taylor was very supportive about releasing my work on CD while also allowing me the freedom to keep releasing it – freely – online. And this has been the delicate balance I've walked ever since with record labels. My real goal has always been, and remains, to put my music freely online, to let it be copied and live its life. I'm very open about this. Yet I'm no good at promoting myself, I'm hopelessly impractical, so I need labels and the structure they provide to help me. And I've been very fortunate to work with labels that are supportive of my philosophy, however eccentric, however against their own interests it may at first even seem. I've managed to get a small body of work out on CD – an absolutely invaluable aid in getting my music known – while at the same time preserving the ideals of free distribution that are, to me, so essential. And so I've been really lucky, I think.

As for the future of online music, my own interest, my own concern, is in helping make sure there's at least the option for people to release their work freely online – that there's an acceptance, a framework, a context there for those who choose to take this path. Because there are a lot of economic forces and vested interests out there that would like to see this possibility taken away. Many people believe that copying music, in whatever form, for whatever reason, is just plain wrong. What I'm interested in showing is that there's a real beauty to the notion of the digital copy, that there's a creativity that comes from having a true digital commons, that there's something positive and valuable here that isn't about "stealing" or "theft" or any of these concepts we've learned from physical objects. Digital objects are different from physical objects, and it's only through a social act, a social process, that we make them the same. What happens when we let digital objects be digital objects, rather than trying to shoehorn them into the preexisting property relations we've developed for physical objects? Some people will still want to treat their music like a physical object, for philosophical reasons or for just plain economic ones – I understand and respect that. What we need is to work toward a future in which these different approaches, these different philosophies, are equally accepted, equally valid, equally viable for those who choose them. The people who want to commodify their music – to have it treated exactly as you'd treat a physical object, as a zero-sum game – they should have the right to do so. My personal feeling is that for this to work, they're going to need serious, strong copy protection – because there is enough genuine ambivalence in our culture about the nature and status of the digital copy that people are always going to copy things that can be copied. I myself believe that a robust yet fair system for commodified online digital music can be found – but that's really not my concern. My concern is to see what happens when you take the exact opposite approach, when you allow digital copies to be digital copies, when you let them express what is, to me, their fundamental nature. When you release music freely, and let it proliferate. As we used to say in the cyberpunk days, information wants to be free. What happens when it is? What kind of music do you create, what kind of social context emerges around it, what happens? I don't know the answer – it's an experiment. And like any experiment, it can fail. But I think it's worth trying, and that's why I do what I do.
Kenneth Kirschner