presents an interview with
Kevin Kastning and Carl Clements
mwe3: You recorded A Far Reflection on two different sessions. One session was on October 25, 2013 and one on May 15th, 2014. Compare the two sessions, Autumn and Spring, and which cuts were recorded on what dates? Were certain tracks on A Far Reflectioninspired by the Winter and some in Spring? Speaking of which, Winter 2015/16 is more than half over now? How has the winter been in your area this year?
Kevin Kastning: Tracks 1, 3, 5, 8, and 10 were recorded October 25 2013; all else were May 15 2014. I would say that the tracks are certainly impacted by the seasons. I am a cold-weather person and more in tune with autumn and winter whereas Carl is a warm-weather person and more in tune with spring and summer. Usually when Carl and I are in the studio, we'll take breaks and go out for hikes. Some days we'll go for a hike in the woods covering several miles, then come back and spend the night recording. We're both very much connected to the New England landscapes and nature, so I think that influence certainly finds its way into the compositions.
We've not had much winter here this year; a couple of 1-foot snowfalls and two or three days where the temperature was ten below zero, but it's been very mild otherwise. A little disappointing for me because I love to snowshoe, but this year I've not been able to do as much of that as I'd like.
Carl Clements: We actually did a number of recording sessions from which we selected the tracks that we ultimately used onA Far Reflection. I hadnít realized that the final selections came down to just those two dates. Itís hard to say how much the seasons are audibly reflected in the music. I can say, though, that Kevin and I are both deeply influenced by the seasons, though often in different ways. I tend to be more of a summer person, while Kevinís more of a winter person. So the differences in our perspectives on the seasons likely balances out to some degree in our musical conversations. I think we both really like spring and fall, though for me fall carries a kind of nostalgia for all summers past, and spring is a time of renewal and rebirth.
Winter 2015/16 has been relatively mild this year particularly compared to last winter, which was frigid! But both this winter and last I spent about three weeks in India studying Hindustani classical flute with Nityanand Haldipur, which breaks up the winter and casts everything in a different light.
mwe3: What sort of new musical styles or contrasts of styles did you set out to achieve on A Far Reflection and how would you compare it to your 2014 albumWatercolor Sky as well as earlier albums Nowhere, Now Here from 2013 andDreaming As I Knew, the Kastning / Clements album from 2012?
Kevin Kastning: A Far Reflection came out of the same recording sessions as didWatercolor Sky; we were working on both albums simultaneously. WhereasWatercolor Sky was more meditative, A Far Reflection is more contrapuntal, active, and dense. We wanted this record to be more actively contrapuntal, with additional lines moving in and out of each other. I think it's more contrapuntal and active than any of our previous records. This is something I had discussed with Carl before we started these recording sessions. Originally, these recording sessions in 2013/2014 were only for the record that became A Far Reflection. The tracks comprisingWatercolor Sky were pieces that we knew wouldn't fit the contrapuntal-concept record on which we were working which became A Far Reflection. We decided to release Watercolor Sky in 2014 because we still weren't quite finished recording A Far Reflection. We both thought that Watercolor Sky established its own mood or atmosphere, and all the pieces on that record were very connected.
Carl Clements: I find it hard to talk about our music in terms of style, as I think our influences are very eclectic and diverse, and weíre not seeking to define ourselves in terms of style, and our audiences seem to cross sometimes surprising stylistic boundaries. I do think we do consciously set out to work with contrasts of various kinds Ė meditative versus intense, space versus density, counterpoint versus more unified textures, playing together versus alternation in playing, etc. Itís interesting to compare Watercolor Sky and A Far Reflection, as they both arose from a set of recordings done within the same time period. So I wouldnít say we set out to record a particular kind of album at the time of recordings as much as the tracks seemed to organize themselves into different categories that ultimately defined the two albums. For Watercolor Sky, we chose tracks that had a distinctly meditative character, though the term ďmeditativeĒ can be a bit misleading. I think for both Kevin and me, meditation can be both peaceful and intense, dark and light. As a longtime student and performer of Hindustani classical, Iím very conscious of the concept of rasa, which refers to the mood or character of each modal form known as raga. While most ragas are typically presented initially in a meditative manner, their particular sentiments vary widely. I think the same can be said of the tracks on Watercolor Sky. That said, on A Far Reflection, I think we chose tracks that reflect more overt diversity of character in terms of tempo, texture, varied forms of musical interaction, etc. So Watercolor Sky and A Far Reflection are uniquely united and divided at the same time. I think both represent a progression in our conception of our duo interaction.
mwe3: In describing your sound, what do you feel are some of the trademarks of your musical approach? You prefer not to be called jazz and itís clear your sound is more Neoclassical or even avant-garde. It is true that New Age fans might be challenged with the harmonic complexities of A Far Reflection, although you did mention New Age listeners have enjoyed your music too. Are you always reaching out for new audiences and have you been able to bridge any sonic divides in order to bring in new listeners?
Kevin Kastning: It's not so much that I don't want to be classified as jazz; it's more that I don't see one single category or genre that fully encompasses what we do. I think in our work, there are clearly elements of jazz, modern classical, early music, and perhaps even new age. There is arguably an element of world music in our work if you consider the compositions utilizing bansuri flutes. Therefore it seems that fans of each of those genres find something in our music that speaks to them. Regarding finding new audiences: I don't think I've ever thought about that. I just have to do the music that's true for me, and let the audience find it. Which they have and do, and for that I am grateful.
There is never a conscious decision or intent with Carl and me to create music that lies within a specific genre. The compositional and formal elements we discuss are components such as structure, registers, harmonic shape and content, rhythmic components, and at times various melodic elements. None of those are genre-specific. Carl and I share overlapping areas of artistic influence. Carl is more jazz-influenced than I, and I am more classically-influenced than him, but there are composers, artists, authors and periods in music that we both share as strong influences. I suppose when you blend all those influences of us both, the result is what you hear on our records.
Carl Clements: Itís not so much that I object to people assigning us to particular stylistic labels, as much as I donít see that any existing stylistic labels I can think of are actually able to contain what weíre trying to do. Both jazz and the Western classical traditions have avant-garde factions, and both Kevin and I have been inspired by these. But we also love music of the past, sometimes the distant past. When one is inspired by music of other cultures, which as an ethnomusicologist and longtime student of Hindustani classical music I certainly am, there seems to be a certain inevitability of being somewhat associated with the label New Age. Iím happy if listeners who associate themselves with any of these, or other, labels appreciate our music. Itís often easier to be associated strongly with a particular style from a marketing perspective, as the fan base is relatively clear and established. And I do play music that might be more easily categorized into a particular style (e.g. jazz, Hindustani classical, world music, etc.). But for my work with Kevin, we try to be open to whatever is most strongly flowing through us at the time of recording or performance. We hope that listeners can relax their stylistic boundaries enough to find their way into what we do.
mwe3: Carl mentioned that Watercolor Sky was more meditative than earlier albums, so was A Far Reflection less meditative than Watercolor Sky or a combination? There is a sense of kinetic joyfulness on A Far Reflection. I especially noticed that when I heard, track 2, ďPretext and FiguresĒ. Was that playfulness intentional?
Kevin Kastning: I don't know if I'd say A Far Reflection is less meditative; it is just in a different place than Watercolor Sky. I think the joy you hear in Pretext and Figures is again just one more element of our music.
Carl Clements: I think the phrase ďkinetic joyfulnessĒ is apt for a lot of the tracks on A Far Reflection, and I do think that the sense of kinetic energy is one of the things that distinguishes A Far Reflection from Watercolor Sky. And as I mentioned in response to an earlier question, this was the result of a very conscious selection of which tracks belonged on which album. When we record, we try to explore a wide variety of feelings, emotions, intensity levels, modes of interaction, etc. We donít always decide the mood beforehand, and it often evolves naturally in the course of playing. But playfulness is certainly one element that we explore at times. I think that most of our pieces contain a complex blend of characters. There is still a blend of the kind of moods and textures that I described in response to earlier questions.
mwe3: Thanks to a number of interviews on mwe3.com, readers know Kevin is having a very busy year so can Carl tell us what heís been up to for the past year or so? I also understand Carl has recently been to India, what was that like and what was involved in going there? Is that his first trip to India? I imagine it was flute related!
Carl Clements: This last year has been a particularly busy one for me terms of music, teaching, and travel. I started and ended 2015 with visits to India to resume my continuing North Indian classical flute (bansuri) studies with Nityanand Haldipur. I consider it to be a great privilege to study with Nityanandji, as he is an extremely knowledgeable musician, a profound and moving performer, a kind and patient teacher, and one of the primary lineage carriers of the music of Annapurna Devi, one of the greatest living musicians in the Hindustani classical or any tradition. I will be going back for another two-month period of study with him this summer, and again in December-January. While in India, I also perform and record in various contexts and teach saxophone lessons and workshops. In between visits, Iíve been teaching jazz history, music theory, American music, Indian music, saxophone lessons, and jazz ensembles at Amherst College, Hampshire College, Northeastern University, and Greenfield Community College. Iíve been performing and recording in a variety of contexts, some of which are more easily categorized such as jazz and Hindustani classical music, and Indian jazz fusion; and others less easily categorized, such as my collaborations with Kevin, and performances with Bob Weiner and Jason Robinson inspired by the artwork of my wife, Amanda Barrow.
mwe3: Is A Far Reflection is the second duo album of yours to features the sax and flute with the 36 string guitar? Also can Kevin give us an example of a track or two on A Far Reflection where he plays the 36 string Double Contraguitar and then a track with the 30 string Contra-Alto guitar? Does the track composition determine which guitar will be played on the recording and how would Carl compare any new sonic developments regarding playing along with the 36 string and the 30 string?
Kevin Kastning: Yes, this is our second album which involves the 36-string; the other being Watercolor Sky. Tracks 5 and 10 are on 30-string Contra-Alto guitar. Everything else is 36-string Double Contraguitar. Sometimes the composition decides the instrument; sometimes with Carl it can be a combination of instruments; for example, soprano saxophone with 30-string Contra-Alto guitar. We have often discussed combinations of instruments and determining the resulting textures and colors as they impact and shape a composition. I've never set out on any record project with a predetermined list of instruments; in other words, there were compositions from these recording sessions wherein I used other instruments, but when we made our final track selection, it turned out that the pieces we selected only involved the 30- and 36-string.
Carl Clements: I believe the tracks recorded for Watercolor Sky and A Far Reflection were the first in which Kevin used the 36-string guitar with me. Iíve played saxophones and flutes on all of our recordings, though alto flute and bansuri have been starting to take on bigger roles in this context. Iíve really enjoyed playing along with Kevinís 36-string guitar, as it expands his orchestral capabilities and his ease of accessing and keeping track of this very wide palette of strings. But Iíd say itís more of an expansion of possibilities than an abrupt change. I believe that Kevinís continuing innovations in guitar design reflect a natural development in the evolution of his style and his increased awareness of what he needs from his instruments to best realize his conception. The 36-string guitar has allowed Kevin to have sets of strings tuned to consonant and dissonant intervals immediately available to him, whereas previous guitars tended to force him to choose between consonant and dissonant intervals. This increased range of options has opened up many possibilities in color and texture, and the nature of my interaction with these colors and textures changes accordingly.
Kevin Kastning: Carl, well-said and exactly right. The 30- and 36-string allow for both types of tuning at once which is impossible with any other instruments.
mwe3: Did Carl change his the type of sax or flute as it was called for on a certain track? I was thinking of the track on A Far Reflection, ďAn Open Window Of The PastĒ with Carlís soaring horn work. Can you both say something about the way you approached that track? Itís very stark and haunting at the same time.
Kevin Kastning: That piece is performed on 36-string Double Contraguitar and soprano saxophone. It was recorded in October 2013, and as I recall we had been out on a hike prior to rolling tape that day. I don't think we had anything sketched out for it. The piece opens with a 45-second intro by me, then Carl enters. From there, we just allowed the piece to develop and grow as it wished. If I've been out in the forest on a studio day, I feel as if some of the forest environment finds its way back to the studio with me and onto tape. This piece may be an example of that.
Carl Clements: ďAn Open Window Of The PastĒ is one of my personal favorite tracks onA Far Reflection. Itís hard to look back on any single track and say what I was thinking at the time, but when I listen back to that track, I think I have some sense of my subconscious influences. While we donít think of this music as jazz, for me this track is reminiscent of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington in a fairly abstract way. And as it happens, Ellington didnít think of his own music as jazz, despite the fact that his is one of the first names that historians cite as part of the jazz canon. While I think Kevin has moved away from jazz as a preferred mode of expression, itís a strong part of our shared past, and remains a significant part of my present. I canít help feeling that the soaring lines of Johnny Hodges influence me to some degree, and some of Kevinís harmonic choices remind me of some Ellington/Strayhorn textures. That said, a similar kind of fluidity is pervasive in Hindustani classical music, and much vocal music across a variety of styles. The vocal works of Webern, Berg, and Shoenberg are a common influence for Kevin and me. I find that the soprano saxophone lends itself particularly well to a soaring, vocal chromaticism. I canít say that we consciously tried to evoke any of the above influences, but I hear them nonetheless. But I imagine Kevin might hear this differently. As Iíve said before, our influences are too diverse to ascribe them to any single style.
mwe3: Kevin mentioned that on Watercolor Sky he was listening to Korean zither player Byungki Hwang. And of course Carl has numerous Indian music influences. So on A Far Reflection were there any subliminal or outside musical influences that might have crept into the creation of the new CD?
Kevin Kastning: Around that time, I had been pretty immersed in the string quartets of Franz Joseph Haydn. When the 36-string first arrived, I was listening to Haydn string quartets every day. There is so much in those quartets that helped to teach me things about the 36-string; for example, the life of independent lines. Keeping in mind that A Far Reflection was recorded at the same time as Watercolor Sky, so I was also listening to Byungki Hwang at this time. I think another influence which is equally strong is the discussions with Carl about the direction of this project. We usually have music discussions that can go on for hours, and I get so much from those.
Carl Clements: As I mentioned in response to the previous question, in retrospect I sometimes hear particular influences in a track, though Kevin may or may not hear the same influences. We donít usually set out to play in a particular style or evoke a particular musical influence. But that doesnít mean such influences donít affect a given performance. Trying to pin it down to any one influence is usually futile, though. One often listens with oneís own set of filters, though Kevin and I hope that listeners can relax those filters and let the music speak for itself. Hindustani classical music is a very big part of my musical life, as is jazz, and both certainly affect my approach to almost any music I play, whether subtly or overtly. Iím enormously indebted to many great musicians and traditions that have come before me, but in my work with Kevin, I donít try to maintain allegiance to any single style.
mwe3: How many albums has Kevin played the 36 string guitar on so far? Have any challenges of playing the 36 string as an entire instrument been overcome somewhat or does the complexity increase depending on the album and the recording partners?
Kevin Kastning: That's a good question. I'd guess about 5 or 6 that are released and a few that are not as yet. For me, the challenges of any instrument are never overcome. But of all my instruments, the 36-string feels the most like home. Four of the five pieces on Skyfields, my new solo album, were recorded on the 36-string Double Contraguitar.
mwe3: The CD liner notes list Kevin playing both the 36 string and 30 string guitars but also mention the ebow. Can you tell the readers something about how the ebow was used on A Far Reflection and how you came upon it initially? Is there an example of an ebow type device used on any horn or flute sound?
Kevin Kastning: I used the Ebow on the 36-string Double Contraguitar on the final track on the album. I love what it does, but using it on my instruments is highly difficult. The Ebow doesn't deal well with either double-courses or bass strings. It also doesn't like bronze-wound strings, which I use more than nickel-wound strings. I have both on the 30 and 36, so it's a struggle, but when it works, I love it. I wanted to use it on a track with Carl when he was on flute, and I think the Ebow voice really blends well with Carl's bansuri flutes. It creates something akin to two singing voices, which is a texture inaccessible without the Ebow.
Carl Clements: Both Kevin and I usually stick to an acoustic approach to the performance of the music. I believe the ebow is the one exception I can think of that Kevin uses. There are certainly a wide range of similar electronic options available to saxophone and flute players, but so far Iíve preferred to cultivate the subtleties of the sounds of the instruments themselves. I have friends and colleagues who employ electronic resources very effectively on wind instruments. But so far I havenít found myself drawn in that direction for my own music.
mwe3: How many flutes did Carl play on A Far Reflection? Carl has said he has many different Bansuri flutes in different registers. Can Carl explain the different registers of his bansuri flutes and how certain ones were chosen for certain tracks onA Far Reflection?
Carl Clements: On A Far Reflection, the only flutes I play are alto flute and a bansuri flute in the same pitch as a Western concert C flute. On some of our other recordings I also play the Western concert C flute, and in the future I plan to employ bansuri flutes in a wider variety of pitches. I play bansuri flutes in all keys, and Iím particularly interested in making use of some of the lower pitched flutes in future recordings. Iíd also like to bring bass flute into my palette, but I havenít as yet found it in my budget to acquire one. So far the only saxophones Iíve used on our recordings are tenor and soprano. Each instrument has its own character, so if I know in advance that weíre aiming for a particular aesthetic and texture before we record a track, Iíll chose my instrument accordingly. Inversely, my choice of instruments will often affect how we approach a track. That said, weíll sometimes try to record similar tracks on different instruments, which inevitably changes the nature of the track despite the similar approach. Alto flute allows me to explore a lower range than concert C flute while retaining a very comfortable chromaticism. The bansuri flutes are not as easy to play completely chromatically due to the lack of keys to facilitate chromatic fingerings, though Iím able to play chromatically and beyond by partially uncovering some of the finger holes and making adjustments in my embouchure. Bansuri allows for a vocal fluidity that canít be achieved in the same way on keyed instruments, as Iím able to flow seamlessly between notes and create subtle and less subtle variations of pitch through finger positioning on the holes.
mwe3: Another standout track on A Far Reflection is track 8, ďConstellation And DistanceĒ which is very lively and peppered with unusual twists and turns. What inspired that track and how did you approach it? Hard to believe the track is improvised, as the lines are very melodic and sinewy sounding.
Kevin Kastning: I can't recall exactly how we set up this piece, though I know we discussed the tempo. It was, like all the other tracks, spontaneously composed in the studio. I think there are many of the pieces of Carl and I that sound composed. I think that comes from an amalgam of various elements: active listening, having overlapping influences, playing together for so many years, and both allowing pieces to organically evolve in the moment without trying to control their direction.
Carl Clements: Itís hard to say exactly what inspired this track, or recall exactly how we approached it. But we often discuss certain parameters before beginning our improvisations. My sense is that in this track we chose a strongly articulated medium tempo, as distinguished from a more rubato approach or a faster, harder driving tempo, a contrapuntal texture with an equal balance between the roles of the guitar and saxophone, and a more linear approach as opposed to a more chordal guitar texture. We might have discussed particular scalar or thematic material as a starting point, but I canít recall. In the spirit of the counterpoint, weíll often exchange roles, with different levels of rhythmic density. There are many other parameters that could have been discussed, though itís also possible that we just started playing and this is what came out. Everything that is played at any given moment influences what comes next, and generally supersedes any predetermined conceptions.
mwe3: I was amazed you guys had a band together called The Kevin Kastning Unit when you were in Berklee and you recorded an album back in 1988? Is the recording still in print somewhere and what kind of music were you playing back then?
Kevin Kastning: No longer in print, but there are a few clips of it on my website. The Unit existed as a performance vehicle for my compositions, and also Carl's. It was a quartet with drums and acoustic bass. The music was all straight-ahead acoustic jazz, influenced by the early recordings of Ornette Coleman. The guitar played more of a 2nd-horn role than a traditional piano harmonic role. I was clearly in a jazz phase at that time, but then my quartet compositions were pretty rehearsal-intensive and becoming more and more complex to the point that when I'd hand out charts to the bassist and drummer, I'd often get dirty looks in return. I began to realize that what I was writing was no longer able to be expressed by a jazz quartet and I dissolved the Unit and spent a few years composing things like string quartets, piano sonatas, trios, quintets, and more.
Carl Clements: I think Kevin still has the original recordings somewhere, but I donít think itís available for sale at this point. That was a wonderful time of exploration for both of us when we were developing our musical conceptions and sharing ideas. We were roommates for about four or five years in Boston until I moved out of the area. Weíve maintained a close friendship throughout all of the years that our lives have taken us to different locations, and itís been great reconnecting for our various duo recordings since weíre again living in close to the same area.
mwe3: What kind of concert would you two like to have and is there any chance for a long form video from you? What other plans do you have for 2016 as far as new music goes?
Kevin Kastning: We've done concerts in New York City and a few in Massachusetts and those have gone very well. It really takes a lot for me to want to do a concert, but I'm looking forward to doing more with Carl this year. I've never even thought of a video, but could be interesting.
New music for me in 2016: Skyfields, my second solo album, was just released, and a new album with Sandor Szabo will be out later this year. I'm already at work on the third solo record, and that may be released this year as well. This month, Carl and I are starting recording sessions for our next record. Recording sessions for the next record with Mark Wingfield are complete, and that record should be out in late 2016. Michael Manring and I are trying to schedule studio dates this year for our next album. I've started work on a duo record with flugelhornist Mike Metheny, but not yet sure when that will be released; hopefully this year. There is another KK-series instrument in the works with Emerald Guitars, and no doubt that will spawn a ton of new compositions and recordings.
Carl Clements: I would love to do a more extended concert series with Kevin if the opportunity arises. It can be a bit difficult finding the right venues for our music due to the previously mentioned eclectic nature of our music. Probably more classically-oriented music venues would be ideal acoustically, and due to the fact that such environments tend to have attentive audiences. We have played our music in jazz clubs, which has also been a good experience due to the expectations of improvisatory exploration. But playing in environments that serve food and drink can distract from the musical experience. I donít think weíve discussed making a long-form video yet, but it does seem like a good idea. We plan to start recording our next CD in the near future, hopefully to be released later this year or early next year.