presents an interview with Kevin Kastning & Sándor Szabó
The Perspectives Interview
mwe3: Perspectives was recorded at the end of October 2015. Why did it take so long to come out on CD? I was thinking that there have been so many amazing albums coming out on Greydisc in the past few years, so I guess the scheduling precluded an earlier release. How does Perspectives showcase your latest collaborative ideas?
Kevin Kastning: Prior to the recording sessions in October 2015, we last recorded together on a day off during the 2012 European Tour. That recording session became the album The Book of Crossings, which was released in 2012. We began discussing our next recording project almost immediately after we finished the 2012 sessions. However, living in different countries makes it difficult to schedule studio time together. Sándor was able to come to the US in October 2015, and we spent several days in the studio.Perspectives is the first album release from those sessions, with more to come in the near future. It was almost a year since the recording dates to the release date because there was literally several hours of recorded material through which to sift. When you have that much material, selecting pieces for the album can be a slow process.
Sándor Szabó: Well, on the other hand we did not want to release so many similar recordings on CD soon after each other. The other reason is that there was a developing and changing process in both of our artistic lives and we wanted to wait for a moment when we can play the essence of this developing period. From my part the Perspectives album really showcases what I imagined and maybe even more.
mwe3: Because you both live in different countries describe how you prepared for the Perspectives album before Sándor came to the US. For example Kevin says that you worked together on different tunings, were these tunings presented by new challenges combining the 16 string guitars with the 36 string guitars? And Sándor was also discussing other challenges of recording with Kevin’s extended range carbon-fiber guitars. Sándor even talked about calling the album The 52 String Project! How has the carbon fiber guitar changed the sound of your shared guitar soundstage? What was Sándor ’s initial reaction to seeing and hearing the 36 string guitar in person and has he played it himself?
Kevin Kastning: Yes, “The 52-string Project” was our working title for this project for a couple of years. As I devised new tunings for my instruments, specifically the 30-string Contra-Alto guitar and the 36-string Double Contraguitar, I would email the tunings to Sándor. As he created new tunings, he would email those to me. He would sometimes create his own tunings to blend with or to contrast against my tunings. Prior to rolling tape, we decided on which tunings we’d be utilizing for these recording sessions. That served to establish a kind of harmonic environment in which to work. It also set the tone for some of the pieces.
In our 2012 sessions, my main instrument was the 12-string baritone guitar. Now my main instrument has 36 strings, and a range more than double that of the baritone. All the instruments I used on this record were new to us as a duo; these instruments didn’t exist when we last were in the studio together in 2012. So yes, that’s a rather massive impact on our sound. The 30- and 36-string instruments are true stereo instruments: both have dual soundholes, which is very rare for non-archtop guitar-family instruments. Plus they are mic’ed with two stereo pairs of microphones in the studio. The soundstage of these instruments is vast.
Sándor’s reaction to seeing the 30- and 36-string for the first time was one of surprise. He had mixed my two solo albums, on which I used both of those instruments (and others), so he was intimately familiar with their sound. Our first day in the studio with those instruments, he made a comment to the effect of “I had no idea how you were getting those sounds out of these instruments; now that I see it, it is incredible to me.” They really require a whole new technique, and seeing this is very different than trying to describe it.
Sándor Szabó: Many years ago I was quite skeptical about the carbon-fiber guitars, because nobody could make a decent instrument. By now this has changed. When I first heard Kevin’s 30-string carbon guitar I knew we entered to a new era in the history of the acoustic guitar. Kevin’s guitars are perfect instruments and they are an acoustically perfect fit to my wooden guitars. Of course we were very curious how our guitars sound together and bit by bit we managed to create a really never-before-heard soundscape which will be the standard for us in the years to come. We both use strange tunings and multiple strings because this is the only way to extend the musical potential of the guitar. So we were at the threshold of a new world and we just jumped into the unknown.
When we started to think about a new album I had a thought that we have 52 strings all together and what we can do with these string monsters. We both were curious how we can use this potential in the music. I had also a goal to create something which never happened before on the guitar. It is known that the modern contemporary acoustic guitar music is at least 100 years behind; for example, the piano music. And now I speak about not entertaining guitar music. This is due to the instrument which made the players lazy and now I do not see that the guitar music would develop on the standard 6-string classical guitar and with the standard principles anymore. On the other hand, I also see that the classical guitar became a sporting contest similar as figure skating, which is not a good cradle for the new music on a guitar.
The jazz guitar playing also stiffened, there are no big innovators and explorers anymore, which would show a long term direction toward the acoustic guitar music. This is partly because the guitar players are satisfied with the convenient 6 strings; they are not curious enough to jump into the unknown and finally they mostly want to learn a skill to earn some money with entertaining as a working musician. This is like a prison. So these thoughts impacted my mental preparation for the Perspectives. My technical preparation was a couple of new tunings and a whole new string setup which cannot be seen on any other guitar anywhere.
mwe3: Has Sándor worked on most of the Greydisc albums as far as mastering goes and else can he say what albums or music he has been working on in Hungary these past few years? What’s new in Hungary? We know there’s some great musicians there but we don’t get to hear too many!
Kevin Kastning: Sándor has mixed and mastered all the Greydisc records since 2007, except for the records I’ve done with Mark Wingfield. As you can hear, he does beautiful work!
Sándor Szabó: Hungary is a place for great talents and new innovative things in all fields, however it is very difficult to achieve things especially in the contemporary music. Contemporary music is a very small periphery and inside that the guitar culture is even smaller worldwide. Hungary is small and is not about the guitar. If you see a Hungarian play guitar in Hungary it is mainly kind of imitation of a popular big name. We cannot really speak about contemporary guitar music in the sense of quality and musical depth in Hungary. This circumstance made me stay out of that small and closed circle from the beginning of my career so I tried to extend my music activity internationally. Naturally I work a lot in Hungary and I release solo and duo albums here but my music activity is international.
mwe3: What were your main musical directions and destinations on Perspectives. Are the tracks listed on the CD booklet as you recorded them or were the tracks ordered in a specific lineup? Also can you tell us about how you chose the song titles on Perspectives? I know “Exordium” is Latin for the beginning. Are all the track titles in Latin?
Kevin Kastning: The tracks are in a particular sequence on the record, but that’s not the sequence in which they were recorded. All the titles are in Latin except for “Sixth Pleochroism.” The Pleochroism series started back on Resonance, our first album together in 2007. We’ve added one Pleochroism piece on each album. I selected the titles based on what the composition said to me, how it felt, the structure. The titles, like the compositions, are all interrelated. I sometimes like to obfuscate meanings and descriptions, so I translated all the titles into Latin.
Sándor Szabó: I wanted to showcase my present approach in the new album because it is continuously changing. In the last years I started to arrange the notes in other ways in my music. The music is rooted in time. We can sense this sounding dimension of the reality by our time sense. Decades ago when I was more deeply in the so-called modern jazz, my music was based quite a lot on chords. The chords do not contain the time dimension, because the notes in the chord all sound at the same time. Playing chord notes in a linear way makes a big difference, the time appears between the notes, so this is why I use less vertical and more horizontal extensions of the notes.
Music history shows clearly that the chord is only a consequence of the polytonality. Since I also play oriental music where the notes are arranged horizontally in time, I went back to the ancient music paradigm, to build music horizontally where the time is always present. Actually, I manipulate the time and the time sense of the listener. This approach completely changed my playing and my music in the last 6-8 years. This can be heard on the Perspectives. As for the titles, I do not consider too big significance to them only to identify the piece. Kevin has a good talent to give nice titles, so I just trust him to create them.
mwe3: All the music is cut live on Perspectives, right? Was there any overdubbing or post-recording editing? During the process, did you ever feel the need to fix a note or a section that might need some tweaking? What was involved in the recording this time? You record to hard disk and then Sándor works his magic in Hungary? What is the latest news from Sándor when it comes to new mastering and mixing techniques and were there any changes from the Becoming session as far as capturing a better or even more dynamic sound on disc?
Kevin Kastning: Yes, everything was tracked live in the studio with no overdubs, just as you hear it on the record. Then Sándor takes the masters on a hard drive back to his studio in Hungary for mixing and mastering. There is always editing in post-production; you can think of this process as proofreading something you’ve written. That said, the editing process is very slight; usually just removing one or two notes in a piece. There are some pieces that didn’t require editing at all, so it doesn’t always happen on each piece. I asked Sándor to remove a note of mine here and there, and in a couple of places, asked him to remove several seconds of my parts. On one of the pieces, I asked him to remove about 40 seconds in my part. If something I’ve played doesn’t add to the overall composition, or worse yet, detracts from it, I’ll ask Sándor to remove it. My goal is to make the compositions as strong as possible; not to make sure that everything I played makes it onto the record. Sometimes the best thing I can play for the piece is nothing.
Sándor Szabó: We never use overdubbing but we use some editing to replace some incorrectly played notes, but this is all. The intuition is an essential channel when we record. We become one soul and we feel what to play. We never think during playing what and how to play. This is a deep psychological but maybe much rather a spiritual process. The music is not outside, the music is always inside and we have to follow the path which brings out the musical content. This is the reason why we always record live as if it were a concert.
I used to spend a lot of times to learn how to place the microphones on the right spot to avoid using EQ. Since theBecoming album, I upgraded my ProTools system and I developed out some new tricks with my Bricasti and Quantec reverbs to make the recording more three-dimensional and detailed. I also have a very strict and clear concept for recording, mixing, and mastering.
mwe3: Can you tell us what guitars are featured on what tracks? For example on the lead off track, “Exordium” what guitars were used and how do you pan the guitars in the audio (stereo: left / right) soundstage? I know Kevin plays the 36, the 30 and 15 string guitars and Sándor plays two 16 string guitars so that’s a lot of strings to keep track of.
Kevin Kastning: I have a stereo pair of mics on my instruments; one mic per soundhole. When you hear the 30 and 36 in person, you hear a definite stereo instrument; it’s rather remarkable. So I try to capture that with the mics. I also have an internal stereo pickup system (by K&K Sound) which I use for concerts, but it sounds so accurate and pure that I also use it in the studio, mixed in with the microphones. There is a separate, discrete pickup system on each bridge, so the 30 and 36 again have a stereo pickup output. The 15-string only has a single bridge, but its pickup system is also in stereo.
The soundstage panning is that my mics and the pickup channels are equally panned hard left and right. As I change necks on the 30 and 36, you can tell by the soundstage on which neck I’m playing if you listen closely. Sándor’s instruments are placed more in the center of the soundstage. So for Perspectives, not only am I using new (for our duo) instruments, but the soundstage on the record is also entirely different than anything we’ve previously done together.
The instruments I used on each track are:
1 Exordium: 36-string Double Contraguitar
2 Fenestram Lumen: 36-string Double Contraguitar
3 Geminus: 36-string Double Contraguitar
4 Albus et Albus: 15-string Extended Classical guitar
5 Conspicuum: 36-string Double Contraguitar
6 Poesis: 30-string Contra-Alto guitar
7 Sixth Pleochroism: 30-string Contra-Alto guitar
8 Vitrum Hyalus: 15-string Extended Classical guitar
9 Altum Valeo: 36-string Double Contraguitar
So you can see that the 36-string Double Contraguitar is home for me. There is more information about each instrument at my website: www.kevinkastning.com.
Sándor Szabó: The mix and the panning method are a little unusual on Perspectives. Kevin’s guitar needs 6 channels to capture what he wants to hear from the instrument without EQ. As I used much early reflections on his reverb path, so his guitar appears like a big wall in the space, like a background to create a perfect canvas for my guitar. As I always record my guitars in stereo I always use hard L/R panning but the real panning happens when I sit down with my guitar, I just place the instrument slightly to left or right of the microphones to create a natural panning. On Perspectives as Kevin said, I was panned to the center. I did not use Early Reflections on my reverb path; this is why my guitar sounds a little closer to the listener. This is an unusual approach but sounds beautiful and your ears can separate the notes well when both guitars play. And again the time: the phenomenon of the reverb is based on time, and I utilize this possibility for the artistic expression in the soundscape.
When I travel I can take only one instrument. The guitar I used on Perspectives was my 16-string guitar made by Tihamer Romanek. This guitar is more than 26 years old now- It was rebuilt twice and now it is in her final stage. On the recording session I also used one of Kevin’s guitars, a contra 16-string acoustic guitar made by Daniel Roberts. A phenomenal instrument and my microphone placement worked perfectly with that guitar, too.
mwe3: With all the new guitars since you both recorded Becoming, was it more challenging to capture and fit the music on disc this time? Would you say Perspectives is clearly a major step forward in your recorded repertoire?
Kevin Kastning: No, it wasn’t more challenging. Our recording process goes really smoothly. For me, Perspectives is certainly our best work to date. And you are correct, it is a step forward in that my new instruments and our new tunings have brought us to a new place to which we’ve never had access.
Sándor Szabó: We work very smoothly. To develop the method of capturing Kevin’s guitar took a while for him and also for me to find the perfect balance between his six channels and my two channels. I think the Perspectives album is a major step forward where the conception of the music and the recordings were more conscious than ever before.
mwe3: Which Perspectives tracks were the most complicated to play and to capture on disc? Were there some tracks that needed extra attention either during the creating / recording stage and also in the post-production stages?
Kevin Kastning: No, everything flowed really easily and organically. There weren’t any pieces that seemed more difficult than others. Everything you hear on the record were all first takes in the studio.
Sándor Szabó: I do not remember that any tracks were more complicated to play or record than others. The playing is unconscious and we are in the timelessness, we never feel it as difficult. Playing is not working when we execute a task. That is pure creation with the transcendent joy. When I mixed and mastered the tracks I always use the same session to keep the sound in the same setting. It occurs that we play some dirty notes or make unintentional noises in a track. Removing or replacing them demands sometimes more time than anything else including the recording.
mwe3: How about the CD cover art for the Perspectives CD? Did you purposely pick it because of the two windows, sort of a shared yet individual look out into the world? And does the fact that the album was recorded in late October have any bearing on the sound or moods on the CD? I know Kevin is a fall / winter kind of person.
Kevin Kastning: Yes, your observations are correct. The cover art is by a very talented Hungarian photographer named László Hutton. I’ve been a fan of his work for years; in fact, I was fortunate enough to meet László in person after one of the concerts on the 2012 tour and we had dinner together. Sándor has used László’s work as the cover art on several of his records, and I knew that someday one of our projects would be right for László’s work.
I saw this photo a few years ago and I thought of it when it came time for this record. The shape of the windows, the textures of the paint, the composition; everything about that photo felt right for this album. The two windows could be seen as representing Sándor and I, and certainly the album title ties in with the cover art as well. The album title also captures what Sándor and I believe to be our new perspectives in our harmonic structures and forward development and expansion since our last album.
We were in the studio in late October, and the weather was getting chilly. The leaves were past peak and most of them were off the trees and had accumulated on the hiking trails. So it was a nice and crunchy hike with every step. Our daily routine after getting up was tea and breakfast, then a hike. On the hikes we would discuss what we wanted to do in the studio that day and other musical topics of conversation. After being out in nature for a couple of hours, then heading into the studio, I believe that some of the nature comes into the studio with you, so yes I’d say this record was influenced by, and possibly even its direction was somewhat determined by the season in which we recorded it.
Sándor Szabó: As always I leave the design and art works to Kevin. He has an excellent taste to choose photos or picture for the music. By this time we got to a point when we can see around from a high mount how the world looks like. To express this situation the two windows are just perfect. The windows tell so much what can be behind them which is still a reflection of what is in front of them but always the unknown is behind the windows. My friend the great photographer László Hutton took this wondrous picture somewhere in Transylvania.
mwe3: Did you ever consider doing an album with overdubs which would make it 104 strings? Do you pride yourself on, not only the music, but also on your improvisational ESP guitar skills and the ability to capture all your music on disc the way you intended?
Kevin Kastning: We’ve never discussed doing any overdubs. But you’re right, that would be a tremendous amount of strings on tape. I think Sándor and I do have something akin to ESP when we play together. There are times wherein I’ll hear something in the post-production phase that I don’t remember recording and be very surprised at it; wondering how we ever could have done something like that.
Sándor Szabó: Overdubbing would be the last case when we would never meet again in a live studio session anymore. The overdubbing is a kind of industrial thing to me and I try to avoid it as much as possible. The presence of each other is the engine of our musical working, so we wait until we can record live in the studio. For an average listener probably the 104 string sounds as a world record, or a promising experiment but the number of strings as a number means nothing to me. It is possible to make very touching music on only one string and as for me I do not consider myself as an experimental musician on so many strings. The music is readily waiting for to come out deep inside my soul. The music is a communication and I try to preserve this attitude in the playing.
mwe3: So now with Perspectives out alongside your earlier duo albums and the trio album with Balazs Major, did you consider where you’d like to go next with your sound? I had mentioned to Kevin about a DVD or even a documentary to detail the sonic complexity of all you’ve achieved? Are there clear directions towards your shared sonic futures?
Kevin Kastning: I hope to record with Balázs again within the next couple of years. I must say that Balázs is not merely a drummer or a percussionist, though those are his instruments. Balázs is a true artist. I think with my expanded instruments that working with Balázs would take us into a whole other direction. Again, the problem here is living in different countries. At the end of the 2012 tour, Balázs told me that I couldn’t go back to the US; that I had to stay there!
Sándor and I are already planning our next recording project, which will be Sándor not on guitars, but on lutes. I’ll be on my usual instruments. The combination of lute and 36-string Double Contraguitar will push us into an entirely new place.
We’ve not discussed a DVD; that would be a massive undertaking. A few people have mentioned this to me. So who knows…. It’s something that could end up on YouTube at some point.
Sándor Szabó: When Kevin toured in Hungary it was easy and obvious to invite the very special percussion player Balázs Major on the recording session. However it would be very costly to travel overseas with two persons and instruments. My trip to the States was possible by the support of one of my friends László Boros and we can really thank this album partly to him. Of course we keep in mind that we can enrich our sonic complexity by such a player as Balázs, however unfortunately this became an economical question.
I am not a big fan of DVD and other video types. A video can show nothing of the moment in how and when we play. Not to mention the bad sound quality. The video is for consuming music for the masses. The visual perception sets the brain to another mode. After watching a video we always remember first what we saw and not what we heard. Our playing is not a great visual action. We do not dance, we do not move, visually nothing happens when we play. So it is not wise to enter a competition where we have no chance to win. I believe in the live concert and listening to music in proper conditions.
mwe3: What about your individual plans for the rest of 2016 into 2017 as far as new music and possible concert appearances? And can Kevin tell us something about plans on Greydisc as it relates to new releases and other guitar news regarding possible new gear as it relates to the extended range guitar instruments?
Kevin Kastning: For performances, Markus Reuter (Stick Men, King Crimson ProjeKCt) has asked me to do a couple of US concerts with him later this year. And there could be some recording together; not yet sure. We’re still discussing. Carl Clements and I start recording our next album in October. Mark Wingfield and I have our next record currently in post-production; that will be released in fall 2016. Mark emailed me just this morning about some 2017 US/UK concert dates and our next recording dates. I’ve started work on the next two solo albums; they’ll be rather different than the first two. And of course Sándor and I are discussing the how’s and when’s of the lute duo recording project.
I’m at work with Emerald Guitars in Ireland on the next two KK series instruments. Work on the first next one is slated to begin in early 2017. I won’t have it in time for the next solo album, but timing on new instruments is never a predictable thing, so we’ll see.
Sándor Szabó: My individual plan as a solo artist and composer is to go on with the project of a new 21st Century lute album I started in the beginning of 2016. I would like to include Kevin to this project in another duo album. Try to imagine how the lute sounds together with Kevin’s hypermodern instruments in our 21st century music. As for concert appearances we are continuously thinking on possibilities to play and record in Europe and in the States, but without sponsorship it seems difficult. The music in the world became a whole industry. The dictators of this industry created and set up the economical, artistic parameters of the music to make it a consumer product for the masses. In these circumstances the art is an underground phenomenon, and it is so much the more the valuable for those of us who truly hear it.