INTERVIEW: KENNETH KIRSCHNER: TOKAFI (2007)
It's been almost exactly a year since we last spoke to Ken, his inspirations as a composer and his aspirations of writing pieces in Duran Duran style. Strangely enough, we not even once touched upon the issue of the piano in his oeuvre, which would have been an obvious choice. Quite a lot has happened since that first interview. A narrow staircase prevented his very own piano from joining him in his new apartment and thus temporarily robbed him of the chance of using the instrument he is probably most associated with on a daily basis. All of which should suffice to explain why we chose the piano as the theme of this round of debate. A recent release further intensified the need for clarification: Kirschner's "May 3, 1997" (one of "Three Compositions" on Sirr ecords) is built around the awe-inspiring title track, a thirty-minute long tour de force of piano-clusters, -chords, congruencies and -contortions and an enveloping mass of electronic metaphors. It thus once again focusses on the search for new forms and modes of expression for the instrument amidst a tradition spanning centuries. The album also follows the second volume of "Post_Piano" as well as a couple of live sessions with close friend Taylor Deupree, in which Deupree uses his laptop to engage in a dialogue with Kirschner's live piano performance. The piano is everywhere in Kenneth's oeuvre and yet, he keeps insisting that he is not a pianist. How can this be? The question looks like a good starting point to catch up with his personal history as well as his thoughts on Cage, Feldman and - Elton John.
Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Nowadays I spend my summers shuttling back and forth between two points along a terminal moraine from the last ice age: Brooklyn, in New York City, and Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island. This interview will have been written at both locations, as well as points in between.
What’s on your schedule at the moment?
Well, it’s been a difficult year for me: I’ve been dealing with some significant health problems, among other disasters, all of which has limited my ability to take on projects and collaborations. So I’ve just been focusing what energy I can on writing. Thus the best place to hear what I’ve been up to is, as usual, my website, where I hope to post some new recordings in the next month or two.
You started playing the piano at the age of five. Was that a choice you made yourself or were you “gently coaxed” into picking up an instrument?
Yeah, I was certainly coaxed by my parents into taking piano lessons, all in your typical middle-class-suburban-let’s-see-if-junior-has-any-musical-talent type of way. Interestingly, although my parents were these brilliant literary, intellectual people, they were almost completely non-musical. My mother only knew how to play Beethoven’s Für Elise on piano, which she played over and over again throughout my entire childhood very, very badly. My father was aware, I think, that there was this thing called music, which was some sort of modulated sound that had emotional effects on people, but it wasn’t entirely clear that he’d ever actually heard any. Again, this is quite odd, since my parents were incredibly cultured and creative – it’s just that music wasn’t a big part of their lives. And perhaps that became part of the attraction for me, that music offered a different direction, something new and unexplored.
I suppose (correct me if I’m wrong) that you started playing the piano with the Classical repertoire. When did you have the feeling that you wanted to switch to something different and – your own music?
Yes, I started with classical music, which I thought was just incredibly boring. But I was a very obedient child, and I stuck with it because my parents wanted me to. It wasn’t until I was 12, in 1982, that things changed. I was on a school field trip, and I met this kid David Giuffre, today still my best friend, and now of Brainclaw, who had brought with him a little Casiotone MT-60 synthesizer. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I got my own little Casio and started writing my own music immediately.
How would you describe your relationship with the piano in the year 2007? Is it an addiction, do you need to play every day? Do you still “practice”?
Now this is one of those things I say over and over again, but which no one ever seems to believe: I’m not a pianist! Yes, I can press down keys on the instrument, and sometimes I have some vague theoretical sense of what I’m playing, but none of this makes me a pianist. And I have enough respect for the artistry of real pianists to insist that I’m not one. Consider my friend Dan Tepfer, who’s a phenomenal young jazz musician. Dan is a pianist; I’m a guy who likes to play with synthesizers, and who just can’t stop using piano sounds. This is not to say that one or the other is better or worse – I’d like to think that the world needs synthesizer geeks just as much as it needs jazz pianists, or techno DJs, or Indian classical percussionists. But if you’re Zakir Hussein, and everyone just seems to assume that you’re this awesome techno DJ, then I think you do have some responsibility to say, no, actually, I play tabla. All of which to say, yes, I’m addicted to piano, and no, I never practice.
You mentioned that you found the academic atmosphere to be “conservative and stifling”. Did that, in any way, change your perception of the piano and of the repertoire you were interested in?
I think my frustrations with academia actually drove me away from piano for some time – and it’s only been through a long path that I’ve found my way back to it. Because for me, the possibility of creating new music has always been tied to the potential of electronic music. This brings me tangentially to a key story in my whole relationship with the piano, which took place long before my encounter with academia, but which seemed to anticipate it in a way. One day, when I was maybe 5 or 6 years old, I was sitting at the piano with my mother next to me, and she turned to me and said, “Write something.” And I remember thinking very clearly: it’s impossible. I remember looking at those 88 keys, keys which had been fixed in those exact patterns for hundreds of years, and I believed, naively, that every possible combination of notes must have, at some point in time, already been written. Of course, I realize now that this isn’t literally true – and yet in a sense I was onto something. Because there was this sense that the piano was exhausted, that its possibilities were exhausted, and that the only way to move forward, to do something new, was to find another path, a way out of that history. And it was not until years later, when I first encountered that little synthesizer, that I came to believe that new music was really possible. Or at least that it was something that I myself could aspire to create.
Your music is electronically processed to a large extent. Why then, are you still interested in the piano as a basis?
I think piano is often for me the clearest and most direct way to get across a harmonic or emotional idea – which to me is almost the same thing, as I really see harmony as being the principle carrier or medium of emotion in music. And so when I want to say something very directly, or very clearly, I often end up falling back on piano – because I know what I can do with it. So there’s a clarity of expression there, and a confidence I feel in knowing how to find the result I’m looking for. And there’s also a simplicity, which can be a nice break from the technical side of electronic music, much as I enjoy that. And I often find myself turning to that simplicity when I’m asking very basic questions about music, questions of form, of narrative, of what a composition is, or can be. And I often end up writing pieces that ask those questions first on piano, then later adapting what I’ve learned to other more technical tools.
Were Ligeti’s and Cage’s prepared piano studies in any way an issue for you (possibly during your academic years)? Have you ever considered changing the instrument in this physical way, instead of the digital method of editing?
Cage’s prepared piano music has certainly been a big influence on me, and that’s a direction I’d love to explore one day. But right now I don’t have a real piano! This is the sad truth. When I moved to my current apartment in 2006, I failed to take into account the geometry of the building’s staircase, and my piano couldn’t make it, it just couldn’t be done. So it’s living down the street with my friends Anne Guthrie and Billy Gomberg, and my studio is all electronic these days. But what for me has been very helpful is the wonderful PianoTeq, a piano physical model which is actually quite impressive. With the right processing, the sound can be quite compelling, plus you have control over a large number of parameters that you obviously can’t tweak on a physical instrument. Thus the little mean-tone piano piece 3/20/07 up on my site is all PianoTeq, and I’ve got another piece, 6/21/07, this one actually equal tempered, coming soon as well. But until they start to put stray nuts and bolts into their model, or I get a new apartment, prepared piano per se will have to wait.
Do you keep up with the contemporary piano repertoire? Is there any composer out there who inspires you for your work on the piano?
My brother Ted does a nice impersonation of me that goes, “Morton Feldman! Morton Feldman! Morton Feldman!” in a sort of nasal, annoying voice. Which about sums it up. I’m really not up to speed on everything that’s going on in the world of piano music, and it’s the legacy of Feldman that I tend to focus on, almost monomaniacally. Certainly a piece like Triadic Memories is hugely important to me, but to really understanding where it is I’m coming from, you need to look at the Piano and String Quartet. I first heard the P&SQ in the final days of 1993, and, sad as it is to say, I really don’t believe that I’ll ever have an epiphany like that again in my life.
Especially with the ten-year old “May 3, 1997” from your latest release on SIRR, I had the feeling that you were looking for new, spontaneous and organic ways for the piano and electronics to interact. Is that a direction you still consider to be fruitful today?
Continuing on from what I was just saying, I think you could look at all of my work with the intersection of piano and electronics as a sort of pathetic attempt to rewrite Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet as Piano and Synthesizer. Because that piece is always what I’m trying to get to, what I’m reaching for – and I never quite make it. I’m not sure I even come close. I listened to the entire P&SQ again earlier this year, and I was really struck by how it represents a sort of limit for me, a limit in the mathematical sense, something one’s always approaching but never quite reaches. The intricacy and genius of that piece, that one piece – it will always be beyond my grasp. But the hope is that in my endless, bumbling attempts to mimic it, I might occasionally stumble onto something interesting or new.
Having asked all that: Have you ever thought about recording an album with unprocessed solo piano works?
I love the idea, and I probably would never do it – because I just don’t think it would be good enough. If there is anything interesting in what I’m doing, it comes from this tension between the piano and the electronics, and not from my skills or abilities as a pianist or a composer of piano music. So I think I’d just feel way too self-conscious about publishing an entire album of nothing but my piano noodlings, fun as it might be for me.
In our previous conversation, you also mentioned that you found many electronic live performances to be “a dangerous art”, because of its restricted performance aspect. I was wondering why you haven’t chosen to integrate the piano into your concerts, to counterweight the laptop stasis.
Actually, my friend Taylor Deupree and I have been doing a series of concerts over the last few years taking exactly this approach. We walk on stage with nothing, no plan, no sounds, nothing. I sit down at a piano and start playing, and Taylor samples my playing into his laptop and starts slicing it up and sending processed fragments back at me. And I in turn respond to those, and we go back and forth, and build up a piece from it, all on the spot, all improvised. It’s totally terrifying, and occasionally successful. As with a lot of fully improvised music, you get some great moments, and you get some train wrecks. But Taylor and I have been working together for nearly 20 years now, and we know each other really well, so we usually manage to keep it from going entirely off the rails.
I had the slight impression that the piano used to be the main starting point for your pieces until a few years ago, but that in more recent work you have made a discreet switch to different source material. Is that a correct perception?
If you look at just about any period in my work, you’ll find pieces that are totally focused on piano, or that are all about piano-type thinking, and then you’ll find pieces right next to them that have nothing to do with piano at all, that are all about escape from the piano, escaping from that mode of thought, into a world of insects, or particles, or strange forces or other planets. This is one of those long-term themes that runs through my work, this constant push and pull, back and forth, to and from the piano. And it’s certainly true of my recent work as well. So while I wouldn’t say that I’m moving away from using piano as a source, I would certainly agree that this tension is one of those key dynamics that animates what I’m doing.
You mentioned you really wanted to turn towards pop, but didn’t have the hair to be Duran Duran. Do you think you could have the pianistic technique to be Elton John?
I have neither the pianistic technique nor the fashion sensibility to be Elton John. Needless to say. But this does remind me of a great line I heard about my playing. I had contributed some material for vidnaObmana’s Opera for Four Fusion Works – basically just my usual Feldman impersonations, i.e., simple, repetitive piano patterns. And he then took them and looped them further, making them even more repetitive. And one of the reviews came in, and it said the piano playing was so repetitive it “makes Harold Budd sound like Liberace.” And I thought that was just the greatest line I’d ever heard! I really love it, and I quote it all the time.