INTERVIEW: KENNETH KIRSCHNER: TOKAFI
One sometimes wonders how far Kenneth Kirschner could have come if giving away his releases for free had been nothing but a clever marketing ploy. Maybe today he would be receiving enormous sums for high-profile speeches at futurological congresses. Maybe he'd be offering luxuriously packaged Vinyl box sets of his early works. And most certainly he would have devised some clever digital strategy wherein the free were merely a teaser to attract his fans to a plethora of non-free goodies, mugs, teeshirts and his regular tours all around the world. As it happens, however, Kirschner truly supports the idea (and the ideal) of sharing one's art, defying the popular position that the ego is responsible for everything that's beautiful and stimulating. "I don’t really believe in composers", Kirschner says today and: "Music is a distributed, collective system that remixes itself through us" - perhaps this is also why he values the role of the DJ as an educator, catalyst and distributor of music in society much higher than many of his academic colleagues. It is obvious that positions such as these, in a media landscape which is increasingly anchoring itself in the cult of personality, is not going to you get dirty-rich and famous, even though Kirschner enjoyed his fair share of attention when he first launched his website as a permanent archive for every official piece he has ever written (it has retained its minimalistic allure until the present day). But the consistent quality of his work, despite his occasional bouts of prolific productivity is living proof against the widely-held falsity (fixed in copy right legislation) that financial compensation is a prerequisite to creativity. It is not the only paradox in Kirschner's oeuvre, which is still being sold in small but respectable quantities on CDs all over the world despite being available for free online. This interview, for example, took place a short while after the release of his most recent album "Filaments & Voids" on Taylor Deupree's 12k Records, which managed to turn into both his most demanding and successful full-length to date. And everyone suspecting this to be part of a clever strategy to sell physical items has got it wrong again. With production costs at an all time high for 12k, Kirschner jokes: " I think Taylor suspects it's just part of my ongoing campaign to bankrupt his label!"
Filaments & Voids is your most expensive and longest album; it deals with silence, and all of the material is freely available from your homepage. Still, it has been very successful. Is that success testimony to the fact that there are alternative ways of promoting your music to the old model?
I’m glad you think it’s been successful! I myself am never entirely confident. Just as each individual piece I write is an experiment, my entire distribution philosophy is a kind of experiment as well. So far, it hasn’t gone too horribly wrong, but maybe I’ve just been lucky. I’ve managed to maintain a balance between keeping all my music freely available on my website, while also releasing the occasional CD when I can. But I think it’s really still a challenge to get people to focus seriously and thoughtfully on work that’s solely released online. For one thing, there’s no real framework for reviewing pieces published online – I only get reviews when I put out a physical CD, which is ironic, because the individual tracks on that album will usually have been up on my site for quite some time. There’s also still a perception that online releases somehow aren’t as “serious” or “legitimate” as work that’s been released through more traditional channels – there’s still a real sense of hierarchy, with CDs considered the most respected format. To a certain extent this makes sense, in that a CD has historically had a label behind it, which means there’s been a process of selection and curation and quality control that has gone into it, whereas anyone can just go ahead and put anything online – there’s no filter. Labels have always played this dual role, providing both the means of production for the physical object, and a curatorial process – the selecting and crafting of an aesthetic, a seal of approval or quality. But CDs are on their way out now – we all know this. And we’re going to have to develop new ways of finding our way through all the music that’s out there, of deciding what standards are going to apply in this new world. And that’s part of what I’m trying to do with my site – to see if it’s possible to just write music and put it out there and have faith that the people who need to find it will do so.
You started simply releasing your compositions on your homepage as they were finished when the idea was still in its infancy. Why, at the time, were you no longer that interested in the album format anymore?
As a composer, I really think on a piece by piece basis, rather than album by album. Each piece for me poses a particular set of questions and problems, and hopefully opens up a new set of questions and problems for the next piece. I’m not usually interested in writing the same piece twice, though perhaps sometimes I do. And when I’m working on a piece, I tend not to think about how it will relate to other things I’ve done. I don’t think, “Hey, I’m working on my next album!” It’s always, “I’m working on the new piece.”
And while I certainly enjoy crafting the longer narrative of an album, finding the right selection and getting the flow right, building a story out of it all – there’s always this voice in my head saying, “Why only this?” Why only this one selection, this one track order? Why can’t there be many? Because other combinations could be just as good. And I start to worry that people will think this is “the” order, “the” only way these pieces should be heard, which of course isn’t the case. The best thing, really, would be to have every individual CD be unique, crafted just for one listener. I used to do that with mix tapes of my music, long before I had CDs out, and I always really loved finding just the right story to tell, just once, to one particular person, and then later taking maybe those same pieces and putting together a totally different story for a different person. And in a sense that’s what you can do now with my website.
Was one of the considerations of your move to the web that this allows you to document and share your creative path as you go along, complete with what you consider failures
Oh trust me, you don’t hear the failures! Right now, there are 16 dead pieces lying on my hard drive from just the last 6 months alone. For every piece that goes up on my site, there are usually at least 3 or 4 that never make it that far, that I abandon either early on or after a lot of very frustrated and unhappy work. And generally, that’s because they’re really not any good. I’m a big believer in being one’s own toughest editor, and I delete a huge amount of work, even within pieces that survive: for example, “March 16, 2006”, which takes up the entire second CD of Filaments & Voids
, was originally over 6 hours long. And we’re not talking Feldman’s Second String Quartet
here – most of it was really awful. So you edit and edit and edit, and delete and delete and delete, until you get down to some core or kernel of essential quality that has the traits you’re looking for. And this applies to one’s overall body of work as well. So while there are some pieces up on my site that I may, in retrospect, consider failures, I always had at least some faith in them when I first posted them. The vast numbers of real failures you’ll hopefully never hear.
As with Filaments & Voids, you're still releasing physical albums from time to time. What, to you, is the difference between this physical product and the online file – is it really just the fact that you're holding a CD and a booklet in your hands?
As an artist, I have to confess that I’m really just not very interested in physical objects. Perhaps this is because, unlike a lot of my friends and colleagues, I’m not also a designer or a visual artist – I’m just a musician. And because of this, I end up staking out a fairly extreme position toward the “objectless” end of the distribution spectrum, where what you get from me is just a music file with a title – and even the title is just a date! So you’re really not getting much of anything at all, except pure sound.
That said, though, I do have a great appreciation for the very beautiful physical objects that others create, and for me this aspect often becomes part of a collaboration. Filaments & Voids
is a good example: Taylor’s design ends up being an integral part of what the project ultimately becomes, as does Marc’s text. I’m working right now on a project with Canadian multimedia madman Herman Kolgen, and if you know skoltz_kolgen’s stunning Silent Room
– which is just about the most impressive combination of physical and digital object you can imagine – you’ll understand why I’m quite excited to see how this particular physical object turns out.
In one of your earlier interviews, two important quotes came up: “If I have a religion in life, it’s the iPod.” And: “The Walkman changed the way we understand cities.” So what, would you say, has file-sharing done to change how we understand music?
What strikes me most nowadays is just the sheer volume, the sheer amount of music that’s immediately accessible to you at any moment. There’s gigs and gigs and gigs sitting on my hard drive. And having such a tremendous amount of music instantly accessible changes your relationship to it, I think – it changes the way you listen, and the way you think about music. I sometimes feel like it’s almost impossible for me these days to actually want to hear a particular piece of music – the quantity is just so overwhelming, you don’t know where to begin. What do you do if all the music in the world is at your fingertips? If you can point your finger and hear anything, anytime, anywhere? How do you find your way through it all, navigate, draw a path that makes sense and has meaning? And how does this change our sense of aesthetics, even our sense of what music is, or can be?
You have to find new approaches, new ways of thinking and hearing, new methods and tools to navigate this world of sound. Think of what shuffle play has become – a whole new way to approach your music collection, as if we all had little John Cages sitting inside our computers. These days I find myself listening to streaming music a lot more, which for me is simultaneously a way to avoid responsibility for making choices, and also a nostalgia for my pop music days in the 1980s, when radio was at the center of everything. And then there’s dance music: DJs are as much curators as they are performers, sifting through a vast and intimidating body of music and making it comprehensible to their audiences. So we find ways to navigate this sea of music, even though our tools and our understanding are still evolving.
You’re extremely forward-thinking when it comes to technology, but you're not always able to realize your ideas yourself. Is that frustrating sometimes?
Yeah, I have endless crazy ideas I’d love to realize, but that I just don’t have the skills to pull off. This is one of those inherent challenges of working in a technological medium – you have to balance honing your technical skills with actually getting around to writing music. I’m sure that, if I really worked at it, I could learn enough programming to allow me to realize some of my more bizarre ideas – but all that time would have to be taken away from composing. And so what I end up doing is just taking the skills and abilities I have, and the level of technology I have, and trying to push it in new directions. To work creatively within my own limitations. Because what I’m really most interested in is how new technology allows us to think differently about music, to conceptualize different possibilities of what music can be – and you don’t necessarily have to be the most extreme geek in the world to do that. We haven’t yet begun to exhaust the possibilities of what electronic music can do.
Most of your music is freely available on the web and you've initiated several collaborational open source projects. Would it be correct to say that your interest exclusively goes out to musical results rather than questions of ownership?
These questions are very interesting to me, because, on a philosophical level, I don’t really believe in composers. When I meet someone, I’m forced to tell them that I’m a “composer,” but I know it’s not really true. There’s no such thing as a composer, as this magical person who creates music out of thin air. Music is a distributed, collective system that remixes itself through us. There’s a single, incomprehensibly complex signal path that runs from every piece of music I’ve ever heard, into a messy tangle of neurons and sequencers and plug-ins, up onto a website and off into the net, and then hopefully onwards – and none of it looks anything like a guy wearing a wig scratching stylized symbols onto parchment using a quill made from a bird’s wing. In fact, if you could see the guy with the wig clearly enough, he’d probably look more like an effects chain or a patch bay, a complex machine for recombining patterned sound. The best thing would be to somehow perceive music in its pure, pre-personal state. It may travel in interesting ways through particular people, but it ultimately isn’t a game of authorship or ownership – it’s more collective and impersonal than that. This is something that comes across clearly in dance music, where the vast majority of the people creating the music are anonymous. You may know the DJ, but you generally have no idea who wrote any individual piece of music. To traditional notions of authorship, this seems terribly wrong – but from a more modern point of view, this way is much more honest, more reflective of the way things actually work. Before I started publishing my music, I used to dream of even going so far as to release it completely unattributed – no composer, no name, nothing. Just put it out there on the net and watch it go. And that really would be the ideal, not just from a philosophical point of view, but as a challenge: how could you write something so distinctive, so compelling, that even without a name attached people would begin to take notice, to suspect that there’s some secret structure or hidden system of meaning within this body of disconnected sounds? It’s hard, maybe impossible. I never had the courage to try it myself, and it’s clearly too late now!
By Tobias Fischer
Pictures by Dominique Skoltz.