Review of Twenty Ten [12k1066]

Tokafi (.COM)

Two months ago, Kenneth Kirschner wrote me an enthusiastic email, letting me know that he had „grown hopelessly annoyed“ with his website and finally overhauled it. To others, this might have constituted a rather trivial affair, but with Kirschner, whose homepage represents an up-to-date archive of his entire oeuvre, it qualified as an incisive decision. Intrigued, I browsed straight over and spent about half an hour listening to his recent work „June 9, 2011“, a slowly breathing maelstrom of quietly rasping string fields and prepared piano droplets, while looking at a white screen filled with nothing but a timeline and track titles. And as much as I tried to discover changes of any kind, I just couldn’t make them out. It was then that I realised how hard it must be for an artist like Kirschner to find an audience in a world accustomed to unambiguity and instant satisfaction. Although his complete work was available for gratuitous download, it never came for free, demanding full attention and active participation. And it relied seminally on the listener’s ability to differentiate between two seemingly identical tones, the intricacies of a virtual bow scraping across the virtual strings of a software-generated violin. I did like the courageous minimalism of Kirschner’s new homepage a lot. But I sure hoped he hadn’t stashed out a couple of thousand bucks on a fashionable agency to come up with the design.

That said, Kirschner has never been without his ardent followers. 12k’s Taylor Deupree has probably been the biggest champion of his work, if only by taking it out of this beautifully sober environment, framing it with associative imagery, providing a context and offering discrete hints at how to approach this equally intimate and intimidating galaxy. Proving the efficacy of the approach, 2008’s <i>Filaments & Voids</i> on 12k quickly sold out its 1000-copy print run despite its almost provocatively challenging contents. The success was, at least partly, down to the album almost monothematically focusing on silence as a structural constant. In a a sense, this also made it slightly misleading: Freshly-won fans will now vainly peruse the almost three hours of music on <i>Twenty Ten</i> in search of a similarly striking and easily deductible concept. As if to consciously wipe out any expectations, the first of three discs opens with a piece built entirely from xylophone- and glockenspiel-sounds recorded one afternoon at his son’s Kindergarten in New York. Although, as closer inspection will reveal, „January 4, 2011“ is an intricately constructed composition with clearly delineated sections of thematic presentation, development and reprise, it has an unusual playfulness and timbral lightness to it, as Kirschner groups his lines into gleeful rhythmical patterns, occasionally speeding up his sequences into humorous sprints. And despite silence playing an important role in almost everything that follows, it never turns into a conceptual anchor, remaining just one device among many in his tool box.

If the album is more open to interpretation than its predecessor, then this is a logical result of how the material was selected: According to Kirschner, he simply played Deupree some of his latest pieces at his apartment, with the latter picking those he liked best. Which is not to say that <i>Twenty Ten</i> is without its inner map or Leitmotifs: A focus on the refined nuances and possibilities of a strictly reduced set of colours and techniques is one recurring interest, for example. Using classical solo- or ensemble-settings as departure points for acoustic architectures which would previously have seemed unsustainable over these lengths – two out of three discs here are made up of just one epic track – is another. Kirschner is initially designing and organising his tracks as though they were traditional nocturnes, quintets or fantasies and then uses technology to take them far beyond the possibilities available to composers of the romantic age. Kirschner himself has referred to his work as being „about the act of recording“ and what that means is that their essential characteristics and defining features are not so much physical performances or „the materials in themselves“, but the long and arduous process which follows – the cutting up and re-aligning of themes, the tweaking of sonic details, the layering of elements. In an analogy with the Baroque variation model, it is not the melody itself which counts, but what is done to it, the transformational eye of a needle the music has to squeeze through on its way to sublimation.

The most perplexing demonstration of this philosophy is provided on „September 25, 2010“, comprising a sequence of island-like chords generously spread out over a forty-seven-minute canvas. It is an astounding display of economy and patience, as Kirschner introduces sonic events at a rate of about three to four per minute, arriving at a total of 142 in the end, each one of them preceded and followed by a large span of complete silence. There are passages, where there seems to be a connection between two successive chords, the beginning of a sequence. But these notions are immediately dispelled and although the stretches of silence appear to all be of a roughly similar length, their durations never follow a discernible pattern. There may or may not be a system at work here, but even if there is, it remains outside of the audience’s reach or perception. Even the last chord, a sensual and anything but concluding construct, could just as well be the first. Soon, one has lost count and given up on trying to figure things out, loosing oneself agreeably in the tide and flood of events.

The press release makes a point of mentioning that there are „no repetitions and no recurrences“. But in fact, with millions of possible combinatory possibilities, that is actually the least interesting aspect here. The really astounding thing is that although he doesn’t repeat a single chord, Kirschner has managed to nonetheless created a sense of coherency. Silence and minimalism may take away a lot of notes – but in doing so, they paradoxically adds a lot more interpretational layers in turn. They also sharpen one’s senses for the most minute details: After a couple of spins, one suddenly realises that, in fact, the piece doesn’t actually contain any „chords“ at all. Rather, each note within a triad is treated like an individual line with its own attack and decay, its own volume and dynamic curve, its own degree of processing. As a result, these short passages all have an inner dramaturgy to them, like a succession of equally related and self-sufficient, ultra-condensed miniatures. Some of them will leave you cold, but others are touching enough to make the tears well up in your eyes.

It is tiny, but momentous realisation like these that <i>Twenty Ten</i> is built around, precious instances when the trivial takes on a revelatory radiance. Kirschner isn’t looking for the truth, he is gauging its validity as a concept and it is precisely this courteous disobedience to the gods of reason that make his work stand out. The thing about epiphanies, is this, after all: They happen when you least expect them – and in places, where even seemingly insignificant changes can make you see things in an entirely different light.

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