Kevin Kastning: Otherworld and Others

"Kevin Kastning cuts a striking figure, not just for the winter-white hair cascading down his shoulders but more significantly for the 30-string contra-soprano guitar and 36-string double Contraguitar he's seen cradling in photos. The pioneering work he's done in the field of modern acoustic guitar composition extends beyond these remarkable, self-invented instruments to the music he composes and performs. Kastning, who studied privately with Pat Metheny at Boston's Berklee College of Music and currently calls northern Massachusetts home, has written in excess of 200 works and issued nineteen recordings, many of them with notable figures such as Michael Manring, Balazs Major, Mark Wingfield, Sándor Szabó, and Carl Clements. Stylistically, Kastning's work resists easy categorization: it's neither strictly blues, jazz, folk, rock, nor classical, even if traces of each might be found within it. In its dense array of microtonal textures and tones, his music might best be described as impressionistic tone paintings that allude to classical composition without being bounded by it. Compositional structure and improvisation are both present in the material. Needless to say, Kastning is a virtuoso, but grandstanding is foreign to his approach and anathema to his sensibility. The six albums reviewed here (all issued on his own Greydisc imprint) offer an in-depth portrait, especially when five present him in partnership with others and one features him alone; in those that pair him with another, an effective balance is achieved, with neither musician dominating the other. We begin with the latest and then jump back to consider the five others in logical manner.

For whatever reason, Otherworld is his first solo album despite it being the nineteenth he's issued. Regardless, the sixty-six-minute collection offers a compelling sampling of his artistry, especially when heard in its purest form. Alternating between the orchestral density provided by the double-neck 36- and 30-string guitars and the 12-string soprano and 15- and 6-string classical guitars, Kastning picks, plucks, and strums his way through sixteen settings whose crystalline glisten can be appreciated by listeners and guitar musos alike. His technical facility is evident throughout but always used in service to the song, the implication being that Kastning's credibility as a musician and artist is most effectively revealed in his rendering of the compositional material. Space, dynamics, and tempo are tended to with care, the guitarist often opting for slow tempos to accentuate the reflective dimension of the recording. As emphatically pursued as such aspects are on “In Stillness Defined,” it's hardly the only instance: notes also bleed reverberantly into the pregnant pauses between notes within “Lingua Ignota,” “Veiled Silent Overturn,” and “Arc Rotation Shadow,” and as wonderful as it is to hear the rich sound generated by the 36- and 30-string guitars, there's also much to be said for the stark clarity the 6-string classical brings to “A Lingered Chamber to Wake” and “Whisper Garden.” Mark Wingfield's comment that Otherworld is “guitar playing on the highest artistic level” isn't, it turns out, hyperbole.

Of the five collaborative releases, it's The Book of Crossings that aligns Kastning with another musician most like himself, sonically speaking, though the recording indicates that the two also are very much soulmates in general terms. Recorded on March 23, 2012 in Hungary while the two were on tour in Europe, the seventy-three-minute collection pairs Kastning on a number of 14- and 12-string guitars (plus E-bow and piano) with Sándor Szabó on classical, 16-string, 10-string viola caipira guitar, and guzheng. On no less than twenty-one pieces, they produce an elegant, multi-layered sound that in its stately presentation exudes the formal character of classical music. On “First Transversal” and “Modus Novus II,” the Eastern sonorities of Szabó's guzheng playing dramatically expands on the musical breadth of the recording (in the latter piece, it even takes on a zither-like quality); in similar manner, Kastning's E-bow adds a powerful sense of mystery to “To Carthage Then I Came.” The music also sometimes flirts with an outdoorsy peacefulness (though they're hardly needed, faint bird sounds even sometimes surface to strengthen the effect) that likens it to folk music as much as classical, and their playing is at times so complementary it could pass in places for the playing of one musician only.

The albums with Carl Clements are welcome additions to Kastning's catalogue for above all else the different soundworld the collaboration presents; whereas all four of the other releases reviewed here are guitar-oriented, the two with Clements are distinguished by the contrasts between Kastning's arsenal and his partner's saxophones and flutes. Issued in 2013, Nowhere, Now Here adheres to the format of the typical Kastning release in featuring fourteen settings, almost all in the four- to six-minute range; released a year later, Watercolor Sky changes things up in presenting seven pieces only, though these generally longer tracks often push into the nine- and ten-minute zone. One other key difference is that on the latter recording, Clements supplements his saxophone (tenor and soprano) and alto flute playing with Bansuri flute. On Nowhere, Now Here, the pairing of Clements' sinuous soprano lines and Kastning's spidery runs makes for a compelling combination on “Lunar Incantation Precision,” a prototypically explorative meeting of the spirits. As satisfying are the pieces featuring alto flute, with one such as “Somewhen” exuding a subtly aromatic allure, especially when the 30-string guitar's luscious textures are present. Listening interest is maintained through alterations in mood and the musicians' approach: during “Incomparably Light and Repose” and “Deceptive Corridors Passing,” for instance, there are long stretches where the soprano sax and alto flute are heard alone, with Kastning's commentary arising as interjections more than continuous flow. With respect to mood, differences surface, such that the brooding, subdued “Rust in Form” stands in stark opposition to the spirited animation of “First Hovering; First Vanishing” and the labyrinthine “Into Propagation Suspension.”

At sixty-one minutes, Watercolor Sky is slightly shorter than the seventy-six of Nowhere, Now Here, though the more significant difference lies in its aforementioned focus on longer settings. That change allows the duo to cultivate moods of even greater mystery and potency, as the haunting “A Transparency Through” reveals when the lonely call of Clements' Bansuri flute emerges alongside Kastning's dark 36-string shadings. Clements once again plays tenor and soprano saxophones, though only on two of the seven pieces, and the emphasis on flute textures naturally lends Watercolor Sky a differentiating character. If anything, the material is slower and more ruminative on the later recording, and the musicians use silence in bolder fashion, too: “Complete and Early if Later,” for example, opens with a minute of unadorned tenor sax musings, and during “This Daytime Haunted,” the two separate alternating soprano sax and 30-string expressions with prolonged measures of open space. There are many striking moments (even a few macabre, as attested to by “While Still and Moving”), and of the six Kastning projects reviewed, it's arguably the most meditative of the lot.

The Dark Sonatas outing with electric guitarist Mark Wingfield (their third such collaboration, in fact, 2011's I Walked into the Silver Darkness the first) is the one that most overtly nods in classical music's direction, specifically for drawing inspiration from American composer Elliott Carter (1908-2012). But though both acknowledge his influence on their work, Dark Sonatas isn't a collection of Carter works newly interpreted and arranged for two guitarists; no direct quotes of Carter pieces arise, the two instead choosing to channel his spirit in thirteen live in-studio improvisations sans overdubs. The classical character of the project is reinforced by track titles such as “Andante Sostenuto,” “Sonata Tenebrae No. 2,” and “Allegro Cimmerian,” but that detail notwithstanding the material itself positions itself comfortably alongside the other Kastning releases. The musical pairing is effective, especially when the contrast between the electric and acoustic instruments is so pronounced. Armed with the 30-string contra-soprano as well as 16- and 12-string variations, Kastning proves to be an ideal foil to Wingfield, the former doling out thick clusters and the latter sharp, single-note lines. The British guitarist opts for a largely distortion-free sound on the recording and shapes his notes elastically, deviating from rote bar notation and introducing vibrato-tinged warbles here and bent notes there. Much of the music's impact derives from the unpredictable, real-time interactions between these kindred spirits and the contrast between Kastning's pointillism and Wingfield's piercing undulations, their to-and-fro escalating and intensifying during certain episodes and then decompressing elsewhere. One of the primary pleasures in listening to Dark Sonatas involves monitoring their interactions, as many of the tracks really do unfold like dialogues (“Illustratio Triocha I” and “Andante Sostenuto,” for example), and their angular material evokes the character of Carter's bold soundworld without literally referencing it.

Issued a year later, In Stories updates the sound of its predecessor minus the Carter connection and captures the two catalyzing their expressions into sound painting form. The feel on the duo's fourth outing, an hour-long set featuring thirteen pieces, is slightly more relaxed, the approach less brittle and explorative, the hard edges smoothened ever so slightly. An autumnal tone is pervasive, noticeably so during “A Season While Fading” where sparse brush strokes nurture a wistful mood, and there's also an emphasis on atmosphere, with a representative improvisation such as “Halcyon Mist Unknown” spotlighting the mistier side of the project. Kastning's playing on “From the Passing of Summer” is folk-like in its sparcity, and the restrained approach nicely supports Wingfield's lead lines. Though the latter's electric can't help but stand out, the two are equal partners, and Kastning is often as forceful a presence as Wingfield. Formal by comparison, “In Stories Without” wends a stately path through dramatic chambers where the acoustic guitarist forcefully challenges the electric for supremacy. A strong impression of musical maturity is generated when the two execute the settings with such restraint and control.

All six of these high-quality releases are worthy of recommendation, and even though they constitute a small part of Kastning's recorded output they still provide an in-depth portrait; certainly one comes away from the six with a clear grasp of who he is and where his interests lie, and you certainly get your money's worth when each is an hour long at minimum. Yet as rewarding as it is to listen to his solo playing on Otherworld, the recordings with Clements and Wingfield appeal for the instrument contrasts they introduce as well as the conversational interactions the collaborations engender."

-- Textura Magazine (CANADA)

January 2016