INTERVIEW: KENNETH KIRSCHNER: TOKAFI (2006)
A couple of years ago, Kenneth Kirschner made one speech after another, calling for the freedom of information to be applied to the music industry. Back in those days, which he now refers to as his "Cyber Punk" phase, he was still publishing his music on tapes, encouraging everyone to copy it and spread it at will. Since then, the parameters have changed dramatically and a whole world of music has opened up, just waiting for listeners to download to their pcs, laptops, ipods or other devices. Kirschner's ideals have turned into a reality and unlike many other "revolutionaries", he has actually stayed true to them: His entire oeuvre, virtually hours and hours of music, is available at no cost from his website. This includes his indeterminate compositions: Tracks influenced by Cage'an concepts, consisting of several layers of music, which are algorithmically put into a new order and new overlaps with each listen. This may lead to some confusion and so might his site (which solely consists of a string of time lines) and the titles of his tracks (their date of conception or publication). In the end, though, confusion is not Ken's business. Despite its experimental character, there are simply too many good-old fashioned moments of melodic appeal, spell-binding harmonic progression and sheer beauty in his music. In theory and in practise, this is indeed a whole new world of sound.
Hi! How are you? Where are you?
The answer to both questions: Block Island. (It’s a tiny, beautiful island off the coast of New England; in other words, I’m doing very well, thank you.)
What’s on your schedule right now?
I’ve just wrapped up the longest piece I’ve ever written: March 16, 2006 (http://www.kennethkirschner.com/kirschner031606.mp3
), at 1 hour, 12 minutes and 37 seconds. The piece is a requiem for my friend Jimmy Schwartz, the great neuroscientist, who died recently. Next up is a short piece for a forthcoming DVD by the Russian installation artists Dmitry Gelfand and Evelina Domnitch, whose Camera Lucida brings together art and cutting-edge physics via the mysterious phenomenon of sonoluminescence. After that, I hope to focus on putting together a CD-ROM for 12k of some of my recent indeterminate pieces. And somewhere in there I’d like to do a little writing for myself too
.What or who was your biggest influence as an artist? Do you see yourself as part of a certain tradition or as part of a movement?
I usually cite my three biggest influences as Morton Feldman (music), Thomas Pynchon (literature), and Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari (philosophy). In terms of traditions, experimental music has always been something of an anti-tradition, an anti-movement. Thus you could say that I’m a loyal and devoted member of a movement that rejects all movements.
What’s your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?
I hope so! Music proceeds by crises. In my own work, every time I feel that I’ve finally figured it out, found the magic formula, perfected the perfect method, discovered the right way to write for the rest of my life – it means I’m headed for stagnation and failure. So we have to seek out our crises, in our own work as well as in music itself – it’s the only way things move forward.
What does the term „new“ mean to you in connection with music?
People talk a lot about “new music” as a genre, but it’s a term that I’ve never really been able to fully embrace – I feel like it’s one of those concepts that’s so broad as to lose all meaning. I mean, you could say Arvo Pärt is new music; you could also say Peaches is. I’m a fan of both artists, but you have to wonder about any single category that tries to unify the two.
How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
I’ve always seen music as being composed of three fundamental elements: pitch, rhythm, and timbre or sound. Like many composers today, I’m very focused on sound; we get this from modern technology, with its vast palette of possibilities, as well as from sound-oriented predecessors like Feldman. But unlike a lot of electronic artists today, I also have a serious interest in harmony, in pitch, in drawing on these more traditional elements of music and bringing them into the very sound-focused world of digital music. So for me sound remains just one part of a larger compositional whole.
How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
Improvising is for me a key part of my whole composition process – I usually compose in spontaneous and unpredictable bursts of activity, improvising freely and using software to capture those moments of inspiration that succeed, that are worth keeping. But this improvisation is never an end in itself – it’s a rich means of generating material, yes, but for me composition is all about editing. It’s about the discipline of taking all these great, fun, inspired moments and crafting them into something that has a narrative, a necessity, a coherence – a story.
What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?
It’s a dangerous art, live electronic music. With nothing more than a nerd with a computer up there on stage pushing buttons, you could just be hitting play on a single pre-recorded sound file and then checking email; I’ve in fact been tempted to do this myself. And so I think it’s important to try to achieve a real spontaneity, a real sense of interaction and improvisation, which is something that the best laptop performances do occasionally achieve. But I don’t feel that I myself have really succeeded at this. I’ve tried many approaches and many techniques in my solo shows, and I’ve never really been satisfied with any of them. The truth is, I’m not that interested in performing. I think the strength of my work lies in editing, in the obsessive attention to detail that can be brought to composition and recording. And so I really don’t take my live shows that seriously; I do them because people want me to, but my real love, my real focus, is composing.
A lot of people feel that some of the radical experiments of modern compositions can no longer be qualified as “music”. Would you draw a border – and if so, where?
I’ve played in punk bands, done covers of Cage’s 4’33”, built compositions out of dead television channels and urban street noises. The whole debate about whether something is or isn’t “music” has never really been that interesting to me.
Are “serious” and “popular” really two different types of music or just empty words without a meaning?
When you hear the word “serious” applied to music, it’s usually a code word for Western classical. My standard joke on this subject is as follows: I’m a big fan of Western classical music, up to and including Bach; then I feel like it goes through a bit of a dry spell until you get to Feldman. The point being that everyone chooses their own tastes, their own aesthetic, their own sense of what is valuable or important, and we shouldn’t get too hung up on pre-existing notions of what does or doesn’t constitute “serious” music. Let’s not forget that Duke Ellington wrote “popular” music, and it’s hard to imagine a more serious composer.
Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?
The question here seems to be: can/should/must art be political? I would say that great art can be political, but that there is much great art that isn’t. To draw examples from the visual arts, you could look at the Berlin Dadaists or of course something like Guernica to see great art that’s inherently political – but then you can also look to artists like Cornell and Calder, two of my favourites, to see art whose connection to any political reading is remote at best. In terms of my own work, I generally think of its main political component as being the way in which it’s distributed: freely, online, under open licenses. But that said, I also do have some pieces that are overtly political – just take a listen to March 20, 2003 (http://www.kennethkirschner.com/kirschner032003.mp3
True or false: People need to be educated about music before they can really appreciate it.
Imagine a situation in which there’d be no such thing as copyright and everybody were free to use musical material as a basis for their own compositions – would that be an improvement to the current situation?
I got to experience this very situation when I wrote June 8, 2003 (http://www.kennethkirschner.com/kirschner060803.mp3
) for the 12k anthology Two Point Two: I approached all the artists on the CD, and received from them either sounds, or permission to use some of their existing sounds. And let me tell you, it was great fun. Of course, there are pros and cons, possibilities and limitations, to working with others’ sounds rather than your own – but it certainly can be very inspiring and very enjoyable. And this is precisely what I aim for when I encourage others to work freely with my own compositions, to transform and build on them, to incorporate elements into their own work – it’s about trying to encourage and support exactly this kind of open collaboration. And when I get a CD or an mp3 from someone who’s taken something I’ve done and built something new out of it, it’s just tremendously rewarding for me.
You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
I think there remains a certain degree of mutual non-understanding between the worlds of the 20th century “classical” avant-garde and the contemporary experimental electronic scene. Many electronic people, for example, call themselves “minimalists,” yet have never heard Glass, Reich, Monk, etc. And many “classical” people who know this work well just aren’t aware of how these traditions are being expanded and extended in the current electronic scene. And so what I’d want to do would be a festival that brings together both of these worlds, that intersperses classical minimalists with electronic minimalists, Feldman and Cage with digital music, the acoustic experiments of the 20th century with the electronic ones of the 21st. Because we’re all really dealing with the same sets of problems here, the same concerns and questions.
Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
As I get older, I really feel that my ambition, more and more, is to write pop music. I mean this semi-seriously, in the same way that Deleuze & Guattari said they wrote A Thousand Plateaus for teenagers. I’ve spent so many years now writing music that tries to be challenging, that tries to be “new” and formally experimental, that there’s this growing desire to just write what I like, to write what I love. And that to me is the definition of pop music. To write what you love. But of course, by this point, what I love has been so warped by so many years of experimentation that what comes out won’t sound like pop music at all, or perhaps only the pop music of a distant, alien world. But the instinct behind it should be that same pop instinct of direct and honest expression, even if no one would mistake the results for a Top 40 hit. All of this is not to say that I don’t want to be Duran Duran, because of course I do. It’s just that I don’t have the hair for it.