INTERVIEW: KENNETH KIRSCHNER: NASCENT AUDIO (2005)
NASCENT AUDIO - OCTOBER 2005
You have released numerous works with the piano as the only source element. What is it about a piano?
The piano was the instrument that didn’t change my life. I started studying piano when I was 5, and was a disinterested, unmotivated student. I have a very clear memory of sitting at the piano at a young age and my mother saying to me, “Write something!” And I remember very clearly thinking: it’s impossible. I had this immediate, intuitive sense that it was actually literally impossible – impossible to write anything new, anything truly new. It seemed to me that here was this instrument that had been around for hundreds and hundreds of years, played by who knows how many millions of people, and it just seemed like every possible combination of notes that could be written must have, at some point in the past, already been written. Of course, I now realize that this isn’t literally true – and yet it was kind of a profound thought for a little kid, this sense that somehow the possibilities of music had already been exhausted.
But the synthesizer changed all that. I first saw a little toy Casio at the age of 12, and it was like a whole new world opening up before me. And I never looked back. But what’s interesting is that the piano has always stayed with me. I return to it again and again, because I know it, and understand it, and know what I can do with it. It’s like that old, damaged humanity one can never quite give up – as if electronic music, which is this strange, alien world of the future, somehow allowed me rediscover where it was I came from.
I’ve seen Morton Feldman’s name come up a in a number of reviews I’ve read of your work. Do you feel he influences you? Also, you use chance procedures to generate potential source audio for your works. Do you feel an affinity to John Cage as well?
No, I wouldn’t say that my work is influenced by Feldman; I’d say my work is a complete and total rip-off of Feldman. I had this terrible realization walking out of a recent Feldman concert: that I’ve spent the last decade of my life expressing, at some fundamental level, someone else’s vision. To a certain extent, of course, this is inevitable: I don’t really believe in originality, in spontaneous, autonomous creation. Music isn’t something that’s created out of the void – it’s a process that flows through people, and “composers” are merely nodes in a much larger network that we can barely perceive. So it’s inevitable that you imitate your influences, and just as inevitable that this imitation fails – but hopefully I’m a bad enough mimic that my work starts to take on its own character.
And Cage too is crucial to me – though more, I would say, on a methodological level than an aesthetic one. I use a huge number of Cagean techniques in my work – most obviously chance procedures and, recently, indeterminacy – but anyone who listens to the end result must surely realize it’s Feldman I’m trying to sound like.
I’ve always felt that Feldman had a knowledge of the universe akin to that of the great physicists – a basic, fundamental insight into the laws of matter and the nature of the cosmos. And I sometimes feel like one of those indispensable minor scientists whose job it is to clean up the great theoretician’s hypotheses, correct his minor omissions, and tinker helpfully but insubstantially with the structure of his work. For so many composers today, Feldman is the giant on whose shoulders we stand.
What are your influences?
Nowadays I talk a lot about Feldman and Cage, but I started out on 80s pop music, especially Gary Numan, and that remains a big influence that I really embrace. As a teenager I got into Philip Glass, who was my first major influence among modern composers. Laurie Anderson has always been a great inspiration, and one of my big heroes these days is Meredith Monk. I love dance music, jazz, Bach, African and Indonesian percussion. The list goes on and on…
What inspires you to create your music?
My mother was a potter, a ceramics artist, and she created wonderful, functional art – plates, cups, everything we used in the house, both beautiful and very practical. She had a studio in our basement, with a kick wheel, a kiln, glazes, everything, and as a kid I’d go down there often to try to “throw” a pot, as they say. I was terrible, of course, and my pots always collapsed – but there was this real joy of getting dirty, making a total mess, getting completely soaked with mud, covered with clay and dirt, splattering it everywhere. It was wonderfully tactile, great fun. And that’s really the way, today, that I feel about sound. There’s a tactility to it, a real sensuous materiality. It seems strange, of course, because you’re talking about something so immaterial – compressions and rarefactions of air. And yet anyone who’s ever worked with electronic music knows that it’s a very material process, that it’s all about the physicality of sound, and the sculpting and shaping of it. So it’s perhaps not so far from pottery and the messy fun of it as one might think.
Do you ever score out your music? Have you ever worked with graphic scores?
I have this theory that I suffer from some basic musical dyslexia when it comes to Western classical notation. As a kid, I struggled and struggled with sight reading, and never really improved – it just seemed like a language I could never truly speak. Particularly with rhythm. I used to ask my piano teachers to play each piece I was working on, and I would watch carefully, memorize their every move, and then perfectly imitate the rhythms they used – all to avoid actually having to read them off the page. So at some level there was clearly a degree of musicianship there, even though I couldn’t handle the established way of doing things. And if it weren’t for electronic music, I probably would have been locked out of music altogether.
But when I was starting out, I always had this sense that I wasn’t doing “real” music. Electronic music really wasn’t accepted then; there was a hostility, a quiet but pervasive cultural sense that these new technologies somehow represented a betrayal of the spirit of music. As if electronic music were somehow unethical, immoral, wrong. It seems strange to say now, but that feeling was really out there – I certainly didn’t make it up. And it got to me. So when I went to college I swore that I would pull myself together and start writing music the “real” way – i.e., with a written score. And it was a total disaster. Forcing myself into this foreign mold really just crushed anything that was beginning to be original in my work. I realized this soon enough, abandoned the academic approach, and moved to New York. And I’ve been writing ever since.
This is of course not to say that you can’t do interesting and exciting work with conventional notation – again, look at Feldman. It’s just that it’s not the path for me.
As for graphic or alternative scores, I’ve just never really had a need. Since breaking with academic composition, I’ve always conceptualized my work as culminating in a recording, rather than a performance, and so I’ve never had to communicate the structure or details of a piece to a performer. The recording just is the piece. And that’s something I’ve grown completely comfortable with over the years.
Ideally how would your pieces be listened to? Loud or soft? Headphones?
If it was up to me, the only way anyone would ever hear my work would be sitting in my studio wearing the exact same headphones I wore when writing it. So it’s good it’s not up to me! I actually have friends who listen to my work on the subway, which is unbelievable to me – I mean, can they hear anything at all? They swear it’s interesting. And so I really try to let go of the whole thing, and accept that my work will inevitably be heard in a wide variety of environments and situations whether I like it or not.
That said, I do agonize a lot about this, because I don’t consider myself a great engineer, and I worry that my recordings, from a technical point of view, don’t always stand up as well as they should in different contexts. But hopefully people can get the general gist.
The post_piano CD idea was very interesting. What gave you and Taylor Deupree the idea to publish audio that way? Have you received any reinterpretations of the original sample?
Well, first off, yes, we’ve received some wonderful interpretations of post_piano – ranging from straight-up experimental type stuff, to dance remixes, to even Japanese bossa nova. That’s the best part of it all – hearing what people do, and the truly unexpected adaptations.
As for the idea, well, it was certainly something that developed gradually as we worked on the project. I had originally not meant to take my little sketches seriously – they were just going to be raw material for Taylor to chop up. But as I worked on them more, I began to develop a real affection for them, and started to feel like they had some merit – not so much as full, serious artistic statements, but rather as, well, sketches. Drawings instead of paintings. I thought people might be interested in hearing them. And that’s when I got the idea to do the data partition, to include the sketches as mp3s – and from there followed the idea of including the source sample, so that people had all the components we had used right there. And there was a little bit of showing off, too – of Taylor and me wanting to say hey, look what we’ve done – don’t try this at home!
July 18th, 2002 on your CON-V release is different from your piano work. Could you explain a little about the process involved in that piece?
In the years leading up to that piece, I had been working with really, really limited resources. I had a very old computer, and couldn’t afford to upgrade, even as I watched all my friends doing these very high-tech, state-of-the-art sounds. Finally, in 2002, I was able to get a new machine, and 7/18/02 was the first successful piece I did experimenting with the new possibilities I had available. So there was a real excitement there, and even though there were several pieces of that lineage that followed, 7/18/02 is still probably my favorite. The process was almost entirely digital, starting with soft synths, creating sounds, recombining and layering them in the sequencer, and then processing them very brutally through plug-ins. The large-scale structure, as with most of my pieces, was decided by chance procedures. And then there’s just lots and lots of editing.
For your TERM release you recorded environmental sounds into a cassette recorder. Many of the samples used in your piano pieces have a grittiness too them. There seems to be a lo-fi aesthetic to your recorded sounds. Could you talk about that for a bit?
Well, there’s two sides to this story. One – let’s be honest – is really just making a virtue of necessity. With no money, limited resources, etc., you work with what you’ve got. That was certainly the case of the 2000-2001 field recording series, all done with very low-tech cassette. That said, I do have a true and genuine love of these old, dirty sounds. There’s a warmth and character, often a real sadness, that goes with hearing something that sounds old and damaged – I love it. I’m a huge Duke Ellington fan, and have many recordings of his work – but my favorites are always the old scratchy, 78-sounding ones. Somehow the clean and clear stuff just doesn’t have that same feeling. And so, in my own work, I’m often trying to replicate that sense of beautiful decay, of age and time, because there’s a very strong emotional component there for me.
You have released numerous works on various net-labels as well as make all your audio downloadable from your personal site. You have published a CD that encourages the buyers to make their own interpretations of the same source material. You seem to be trying to sand down the wall between artist and end-listener. Is this something you are consciously trying to do?
It’s always deeply shocking to me that not everyone writes music. I mean, why wouldn’t you? Especially today, when the tools for electronic music in particular are so accessible. So yes, there’s definitely a conscious desire on my part to say hey, this is easy – do it yourself!
What is it that is interesting to you about free net-audio? Why is it important for you to have all your stuff available freely on the net?
It’s always been my dream and my ambition to release my work freely online – “always” meaning since the late 80s or early 90s, as soon as the concept of cyberspace and the direction we were headed became clear to me. There’s a political component, an aesthetic component, a philosophical component to this – and yet nowadays it just seems immediately clear that it’s the right thing for me, without any need for long-winded explanations. And the people who get it get it. And that’s very rewarding for me.
What do you feel about the development of the net-label culture that seems to be emerging lately? Any recommendations on labels to watch or releases people should download?
It’s very inspiring to see so much happening so fast, and it really gives me great hope for the future of music that is free – free in the broadest sense of the word. For years I felt like I was the only person concerned about these issues, and that everyone thought I was crazy. I was clearly wrong – at least about being the only one concerned.
In terms of recommendations, one thing I don’t often see listed among net-labels is http://www.quietamerican.org
, the site of my friend Aaron Ximm. Aaron’s a super-skilled field recording guy, and publishes all his stuff online. It’s indispensable for anyone interested in fieldwork. He also curates a wonderful little series called “One Minute Vacations,” which are basically tiny little one-minute field recordings of something, somewhere. Great fun – check it out.
What are you working on now?
As I write this, Taylor and I are just wrapping up work on post_piano 2,
which we hope to see released early this summer. I’ve just finished up a site update with the latest piece in my indeterminate series (1/15/05), plus a slightly edited version of a recent live show I did in Madrid (12/18/04). My plan now is to catch my breath (briefly!) and get back to writing.