OnClassical, July 2009 (Italy)

Kevin Kastning: A New Classical Language

"Kevin Kastning is the new artist at onclassical.com: guitarist, composer and instruments inventor, he is obtaining large consensus in America for his innovative music and recordings. His four last publications (2006-2009) have been recently included in our catalog: these albums are artistically relevant, curious, and impeccable at a sound level. The art of Kevin Kastning and of musicians Szabů and Siegfried, who flanked him, is innovative, courageous, hypnotic. We directly speak with the artist in a long interview that Alessandro Simonetto, founder of OnClassical, prepared for the OC blog."

A.S. Your music is a sort of improvisation that becomes composition in the act of performing it. We know this is a very original style of composition and performance at the same time. What are the influences of your artistic language? How do your thoughts and your own musical artistic processes impact these compositions?

K.K. Wow, that is a good question. I donít know if I could list all my artistic influences, as I am sure there are some which are there, but unconscious and unknown to me. A few composers that come to mind are Bartok, Elliott Carter, Gesualdo, Tallis, Beethovenís middle and late period string quartets, Ockeghem, the second Viennese school, Schnittke, Shostakovich, Bach, Byrd, Josquin, Praetorius, and even going back as far as Machaut. Bartokís string quartets had a deep and tremendously profound impact on me; both artistically and even spiritually. I also suspect that I have been impacted by artists from the French post-impressionist and the abstract expressionist periods; as well as authors such as Joyce, Proust, and Eliot. Sometimes I think I have a tendency to translate the visual into the audible.

OnClassical featured Artist: Kevin Kastning.

K.K. I find that when Iím involved in observing and really taking in a painting, that I will start to hear things; I look at a Jackson Pollock work and I can hear a lot of sound in that. Architecture can be an influence as well; I am a fan of Frank Gehry, and can hear sound when I look at some of his designs. I have thought of how the architectural concept behind flying buttresses of the Gothic period can translate into compositional form, or become a structural element of a piece. I also find that I am pretty heavily influenced by nature: landscapes; the seeming randomness of things like leaf veining and bird song and avian sounds. Lately I see things like cloud formations, forest growth patterns, river meanders, and certainly snow and snow patterns and wonder how I could translate that directly to score paper. I think that an artistís varied influences and impacting exposures become internally aggregated and sort of transmogrify into a new and unique amalgam; this becomes that artistís voice.

A.S. The collaboration with other musicians such as Siegfried and Sandůr Szabů: how do you discover to have the same "frequencies" / feeling for working at the same project?

K.K. As for the works with Siegfried, he and I began working together in the early 1990s; our album ďBinary FormsĒ was recorded in 1992. In this case, Siegfried knew we were operating on the same artistic frequency. I didnít; he brought it to my attention and asked if we could record together. At first I said no, but Iím glad he pressed me to do it, otherwise it never would have happened. He was right, by the way.

Kevin Kastning and Sandůr Szabů at the Traumwald Studio.

Iíll use Sandůr as a more detailed example; I hope he wonít mind! I met him a few years ago; before we met, I knew who he was, and he had found my music and researched it a bit prior to initially contacting me. We conversed quite a lot and listened to each otherís music. I had a strong sense, both conscious and subconscious, that he and I would artistically fit together like two puzzle pieces. And we did, in fact, on not only an artistic level, but also on a spiritual and deeply inner level, which of course translated to and became evident in the works we jointly create. We just knew that we were operating on, to use your rather accurate term, the same frequency. Sandůr stated the same thing to me, but an interesting difference is that he knew it long before I did! Itís tough to verbalize or explain; it is as if weíd known each other artistically long before we actually met. In fact, Iíve never met anyone with whom I have so much in common artistically. The work he and I do together is the most natural process in which Iíve ever been involved. I know he and I will be working together for a very long time.

Iíve been asked by other artists to collaborate or record with them, but itís really rare that I feel an artistic connection or affinity. There are a couple of other artists with whom Iím either working or with whom Iím going to be recording, though.

A.S. The guitars you, Kevin and the other musicians, play: how do you choose them? Do you personally build them? How and why?

K.K. As for the instruments I play, I initially select them based on their voice and tonal response. I will select a specific instrument for a certain composition or recording based on the requirements of that composition. For several years, I have been internally hearing (and still do) compositions which involved ranges and registers of instruments, specifically of the guitar family, which were not extant. Iím fortunate to be an artist endorser for Santa Cruz Guitars; we have a wonderful working relationship. After weíd established that relationship, I approached them with some instrument design ideas I had which extended the range of the guitar, and asked if they were interested in building them for me. To my surprise, they were not only agreeable, but very excited to do this. The first instrument I designed, and by designed I mean the register and range and tunings, was the DKK, which is an extended baritone guitar; it is tuned to F#, which is one whole step above a bass, and a seventh lower than guitar. For this extended range to be possible, a much longer scale length is required; this in turn requires a very different playing technique. I used the DKK in the studio on an upcoming album with Sandor wherein I had it in bass (E) tuning, and it sounded amazing; just really full and rich. With a lower-pitched instrument, far more string harmonics are available. When using the extended baritones, many of my chord voicings and harmonic structures involve artificial string harmonics; this just is not possible on a standard concert-pitch guitar. From the DKK came the DKK-12, which is a 12-string version of it, also in F# tuning.

Photo: The DKK-12 extended baritone Guitar.

I have devised many of my own intervallic tunings for the DKK-12, and I first used these on the album Parallel Crossings. On that album, for some pieces I used concert F# tuning and on others I used my intervallic tunings. To briefly explain: in F# concert tuning on the DKK-12, the string pairs are all in octaves; for example, the first course is F# / f#. In intervallic tunings, the first course might be F# / A. In other words, each course is tuned to a different non-octavic interval. In fact, all my work on Parabola was recorded using entirely my own intervallic tunings; I didnít use any concert tunings whatsoever on the entire record. The intervallic tunings also provide entirely other sets of artificial harmonics; as well as the possibility of 12-note chord voicings.

The newest KK / Santa Cruz instrument is the Alto Guitar. This is a small-bodied, short-scale length 12-string which is pitched a P4 (perfect fourth) above standard guitar concert tuning; concert tuning is E; the alto is in A. Itís a very unusual guitar voice; it sounds like an amalgam of harpsichord and mandolin. I will touring Europe with Sandor this year, and will be taking the alto on the tour with me. So to answer your question: I donít build them, but I did design them.

A.S. Yes, that was my intention...

K.K. And they were built to fill an artistic need: that need being the compositions for instruments which didnít exist. Now they do exist. Interestingly enough, Sandor has a 12-string baritone which was built using the DKK-12 specifications; once he heard mine, he had to have one! He uses this instrument rather virtuosically on Resonance and Parallel Crossings. We have an album in the can which will be released in 2010 wherein we are both using different intervallic tunings on 12-string baritones. The harmonic densities and soundscapes are just huge! There is another new instrument on which Iím working with a wonderful and gifted luthier here in the US named Dan Roberts; it will have a wider range even than the DKK-12. Again, this instrument is conceived out of a need for an even wider ranging instrument for new compositions and their required tunings on which Iím working. The intervallic tunings are born out of a similar process: I have these pieces, or Iím hearing compositions involving harmonic structures that I canít achieve. Unless I re-invent something; first the instrument, and then that instrumentís tuning scenarios.

A.S. When I was teen I improvised at the piano with closed eyes, looking for the best sound for my invention: I defined the music that came out: blind music. Do you think we could define your own language in the same way?

K.K. HmmmÖ I donít know, but thatís another good question. I come from a discipline of composing; Iíve composed over 200 pieces; various string quartets, piano sonatas, trios; mostly chamber works. So even though Iím improvising with Sandor, for example, those improvisations are coming from a place of formal composition. Form is always a consideration, even where there is what might be perceived as a lack of form. I did an album in 2004 with Siegfried entitled Bichromial, and on that album, we focused on a concept I defined as open form compositions: these were improvised pieces with no repeating sections or motifs. The form was not cyclic in any way, but purely linear. So even in the absence of form, there is form. At least in my mind.

Photo: The KK-Alto guitar in progress.

A.S. What are the technical equipment used to record (I mean microphones, preamps, and more ...). What is your attitude/mood before and during the recording session?

K.K. I am very, very finicky about, and demanding of, recording equipment. The albums have been recorded using microphones by the German companies Gefell and Neumann into Millennia preamps. The Millennias are the cleanest and purest preamps Iíve ever used. The Gefell mics are so incredibly detailed that I think they can almost hear your thoughts! Lately Iíve been using some microphones from Peluso; I really like those very much and am excited about them. I have them in the studio, and am already at work on the next couple of albums, and the Peluso mics are being used on those, as well as the Gefells. The Peluso mics are really wonderful. They render the image in such a manner that they provide a wider soundscape, which is difficult to do and something for which Iíve been searching. My recording chain is very pure and direct: microphone to preamp to recorder. In both the recording and the mixing process, no EQ, compression, or limiting is ever used. The only outboard gear used in the mixing and mastering process other than the mixing desk and mastering recorder is the Bricasti M7 reverb unit. This is like having Boston Symphony Hall right in the studio; itís inexplicably beautiful and pure. Every album from Resonance on has been mixed with the M7; in fact, Resonance was the first album ever mixed with the M7. Iíve been really fortunate to work with companies like Bricasti and Peluso, too. For the past year or so, I've been using the Enhanced Audio M600 microphone mounting system. It really adds a measure of clarity, depth, and detail. In fact, Parabola was recorded using the M600 on the mics.

Photo: Kevin Kastning during a recording session.

As for the mood before and during the recording sessions, I suppose I would say itís relaxed and natural. Sandor and I have recorded four complete albums together, and parts of two more. The feeling in the studio is highly energized; yet very placid and calm. I think he and I both have about the exact same artistic temperament and approach; no stress, no nervousness; we just allow the music to speak through us. I know that may sound a little odd, but I donít how to explain it other than that. For me, the recording process is very natural. Itís a part of the creative process which tends to be more concrete than others. Strangely enough, as much as I find this process to be a natural one, after a day in the recording studio, I am just so wiped out that I can barely speak. The albums Iíve done with Sandor were each recorded in just one day; while thatís a pretty fast recording pace, it can leave you rather drained at the end of that long day!

A.S. The musical language from Scalar Fields to the new album, Parabola, through (via) Resonance and Parallel Crossings, is constantly evolving. Do you think to bring this moving language versus forms of electronic or maybe microtonal music, for example, using the computer to modulate the sounds during the performance or tuning the guitars with strange temperaments?

K.K. Iíve never been very interested in electronic music, though I have listened to it; I find much of John Cageís work interesting. Real acoustic instruments speak to me very directly and entirely spiritually; I think we will never fully explore their capabilities. Microtonal music I do find interesting; for example, Ezra Sims and the quarter-tone work of Charles Ives especially. The various tunings Iíve created are like extra paint colors on an artistís palette; theyíre not a an end unto themselves, but a means to an end. I think my (for lack of a better term) research into scordatura has been one catalyst for growth and forward momentum, though not the only one. Since you mentioned the three released albums Iíve done with Sandor, Iíll answer based on those. Iím not interested in repeating something Iíve already done; each new composition or new album will always be different from what preceded it. Not as a prerequisite exactly, but as far as I can tell, this is just part of my artistic process. At any given moment, Iím working on two or three new albums in the studio, and usually around 10 or so new non-guitar compositions; pieces for string quartet, for example. There is a new album with Siegfried which is complete; it will be released later this year or early next year. Itís very different than anything weíve done; yet itís still us, and in my opinion, itís the finest and most evolved work he and I have done together. And Iím working on a solo album using my various guitar voices; specifically the DKK-12 and the alto together, and also an album of medieval works. With so many new pieces to complete, and so many new ones beginning all the time as others finish, thereís just no time to repeat something Iíve already done. So I think that what youíre describing as hearing the music constantly evolving is maybe just a part of this forward-moving process or momentum. I know Sandor feels the same. I think this is not something unique to he and I; I suspect this is a normal developmental element of a healthy artistic trajectory.

Van Gogh once said something to the effect that ďa true artist is one who is always seeking, but never finding.Ē I think the evolvement youíre hearing in my music is just part of an organic process. And by the way, thank you for saying so.

A.S. To be part of our artists (and albums) at OnClassical is not very easy. We received each month tens of musicians that send their material to our office but very few products have been considered good for our purpose. Your albums are instead a summary of innovative music and well-captured sound. Why did you choose OnClassical? What do you think about the project we are working on?

K.K. OnClassical came along at a time wherein I was thinking about what they were doing, before I even heard of them. I wondered why recording technology was moving forward, but content delivery was moving backward vis a vis the low-res mp3 download trends. It would be like having a high-definition DVD player, and connecting it to a 1950s black-and-white TV. It didnít make sense to me. I wondered why no one was offering high-resolution downloads; with the advent of broadband connections, the low-res and terribly compressed mp3 format was no longer valid. I had thought of posting high-res versions of the albums and making them available for download, but before I could implement it, and I doubt that I could have done this very effectively, as itís not an insignificant move, I was contacted by OnClassical, and was invited to sign with them. At first I wasnít interested in signing with more download sites, but when I saw what they were doing, I was pretty excited about it. Finally someone was making it possible to download high-res files, and a classical online label at that. The genre which could benefit most from high-res recordings more so than any other genre; it was finally happening. I hope to provide OnClassical with the 24-bit masters of some upcoming releases, too. I think itís a great concept, and I like how OnClassical is executing it, otherwise I would never have signed with them. Iím really proud to be a part of OnClassical.