presents an interview with
Kevin Kastning and Sándor Szabó
mwe3: Your 2017 album Ethereal I just came out in early January 2018. It sounds even more “ethereal” than your last album from 2017 called Invocation. How are the two albums different or related in some ways and are you walking down new sonic roads or bringing some fresh perspectives to the Ethereal 1 sound and vision?
Kevin Kastning: I don’t think Ethereal I is related to Invocation in any way. Invocation was all-acoustic and was recorded as we usually do, which is a live and improvised performance. For Ethereal I, Sándor moved from acoustic to electric guitars. But the difference doesn’t stop there; he is processing his electric guitar voice to be entirely unique and unlike anything I’ve heard. So not only is the instrumentation new for us, but his guitars on this record are entirely new within themselves as well. To do this, we had to change our approach to fit the requirements of such a new and different instrument in our duo, and for me to support that voice. I had to create a new and supportive environment for these new colors and textures. This has resulted in different compositional directions and approaches, as we knew it would. So yes, this is certainly a new direction for us. And also the start of a new direction…
Sándor Szabó: I think the unusual part of the Ethereal I is mainly from me. I play electric guitar and a lot of live and studio processing. Though my name became known as an acoustic guitar player, I always had electric guitars and 2 decades ago I made an electric album called Echolocation I. Last year I finished the mixing of Echolocation II. I showed it to Kevin and he liked it a lot. Then I asked him about the possibility to try how my new electric soundscapes would sound together with his new carbon acoustic guitars. Kevin is a very open-minded person to new and unusual ideas so we made a track and he liked it so much that with this a new kind of musical collaboration started between us. We extended our sonic palette with modern electronic guitar soundscapes.
mwe3: Was there anything unique about the studio set up during the recording of Ethereal 1 and/or was anything done to the music in the post-production to give it some different kind of sound, say compared with your earlier releases? Did Sándor use any pedals or effects to give his electric guitar some unique sounds and is the electric guitar something he’s been wanting to bring out on one of your albums?
Kevin Kastning: My studio setup was the same. Sándor’s setup changed quite a bit…
Sándor Szabó: The recordings happened in the same way as before the only difference was that I played exclusively electric guitars, a Burns Barracuda Baritone and a Duesenberg Starplayer with modified pickups. For the basic sound and harmonizing, I use a TC G Force rack multi-effect and a Strymon Timeline loaded with my own custom made algorithms. I never use pedals except the Strymon, which has the same quality as a rack effect. In the studio I use very sophisticated high-end reverbs and effects, like the Bricasti M7, Quantec 2498, Eventide DSP 7500, and some really crazy new plugins. From the beginning I had my first electric guitar I wanted to bring out a new sound which nobody else uses. I started to study how to create new effect algorithms. All the sounds you can hear on the album are created by me and they are cannot be found in those units as factory presets.
My specialty is creating different harmonizer algorithms. Over the music I wanted to create more, to illustrate things in the stereo field which are not so usual in these days. Ethereal I has a sonic conception: using spaces, the different musical happenings on the instruments are placed in different space layers. The space is dynamic… I created waving, moving atmospheres, so the sound is kind of like a living being.
mwe3: The cover art for both Ethereal 1 and the earlier Invocation are both very colorful. What can you tell us about the two different cover arts and artists behind them?
Kevin Kastning: Cover art is always difficult. It is very arduous to find something in visual art to represent, tie-in, or otherwise connect with an aural art. For me, finding the right cover art is one of the most time-consuming parts of the album process. The cover for Invocation was shot in the Himalayas, near Mt. Everest, in 2016 by the wonderful Hungarian photographer Laszlo Hutton. That cover is a photo of prayer flags outside a Buddhist monastery in Tibet. The color and movement of the flags had, for me, a connection to the feel of the pieces on Invocation. The composition titles on Invocation all refer to prayers or types of prayers, and that was also a tangible connection to and representation of the prayer flags. Also, the motion in that photo is palpable, and I felt a connection with that motion and the movement within the pieces on Invocation.
For Ethereal I, the cover was done by French artist Tim Paulve. Tim is quite an original artist, who also created the cover art for Skyfields, my second solo record. The colors, textures, and movement of that piece of Tim’s art represented to me almost a visual, tangible, interpretation of the pieces of Ethereal I, and to my way of thinking, that piece of art has its own inherent ethereal qualities as well. My sincere gratitude to both Laszlo and Tim for their support in allowing us to use their beautiful work.
Sándor Szabó: As always I leave the cover design to Kevin. When he makes the mockups he sends me some versions and we discuss and choose the proper one, which expresses the music. In this album we really created a lot of new colors in the music and this is why we needed a new colorful cover.
mwe3: Is there a story behind the lead off track “Choros Nympharum”? How did you come up with that title and why did you choose to start the CD with that track? You can really hear the unique interplay between the 36-string and Sándor’s baritone electric guitar sound. Did Sándor try to lay down a kind of sonic carpet for Kevin to punctuate that track with the 36 string and would you say that track almost sounds like a synthesized backing which, in turn, offers a striking contrast to the 36 string Double-Contraguitar?
Kevin Kastning: That was the opening track because we felt that it had a kind of introductory or mysterious overview atmosphere… a kind of introduction to this new sound world. There are no synthesizers, either keyboard or guitar, on this album.
Sándor Szabó: When we record we have a certain basic musical material from the instruments which, from my part, includes some effects but after that in post-production, I create even more. Sometimes the sonic carpet gets laid behind the solo instrument. Just to avoid misunderstandings, we never use synthesizers in any form. All the electronic soundscapes are created by the sound of vibrating strings, no samples, and no MIDI. They are kind of handcrafted electric guitar-based sounds using special studio hardware effects and plugins.
mwe3: Kevin also plays piano quite a bit on Ethereal 1 and it offers a wonderful balance to the guitar sound. What instruments are you playing on “The leaves are full of voices”? It also sounds like there’s some guitar volume swells on that track. What piano and what guitars are featured on “The leaves are full of voices”? It’s a very suspenseful sounding track and in fact, all the tracks have high levels of sonic suspense.
Kevin Kastning: I am playing a Kawaii grand piano on that piece. I concur; the piano brings a very sharp contrast to Sándor’s instruments on this album. I think the two instruments blend very well and provide yet another texture and palette. My acoustic guitar voices also blend and contrast very well with Sándor’s electric instruments, but the piano is another very different; yet equal, contrast. The piano pieces seem to carry a kind of atmospheric environment with them, which again provides an ideal and fitting canvas for Sándor and thus for the compositional structure.
Sándor Szabó: Piano and electric guitar can work very well in the music even with a lot of processing. This kind of soundscape is not typical at all in the so called New Age or ambient music, though the piano and the synth are basic tools. We did not want to play New Age or ambient music, we wanted to surf above the trends and creating new things in our style. I wanted to try how a processed guitar sound can merge into a warm acoustic piano sound.
mwe3: “And in the water” is a kind of musical conversation between two guitarists who are quite familiar with each other’s sound. So, is “And in the water” a kind of guitar conversation between two musicians clearly on the same wavelength and how did Sandor treat his guitar sound on that track?
Sándor Szabó: All the atmospheres are reverb-based and as such are quite complicated. Some of them stand up 4-6 stereo layers. I use some new reverb plugins especially designed for electric soundscapes and atmospheres. I also used some preparation on my Burns guitar so this is why it sounds so otherworldly.
mwe3: How did you come up with the title for “For which the stone is cut”? Sandor’s guitar almost sounds like an organ at times. That track seems a little more chilling compared to the first three tracks.
Kevin Kastning: The opening of that piece starts off with some cluster-voiced chords that I’m doing on 36-string, and then Sándor’s part reflects that eeriness, and I think this permeates the entire piece. The titles on this album are a bit unusual, even for me. The opening and closing tracks have connected titles to illustrate the opening and closing of the album, like an introduction and a conclusion.
Titles for the other pieces, tracks 2 – 9, are actually an eight-line poem. Each title is a line in the poem. So not only are the titles interconnected; in fact, tracks 2 – 9 are almost one single title, but the tracks are connected in this manner to further illustrate the overall structure of this record. I leave it to each listener to determine their own meaning or interpretation of possible hidden meanings in each title.
Sándor Szabó: My most important sound device is a simple analog volume pedal. It cuts down the transient of the guitar sound and then I can form the guitar sound in different ways. It is quite easy to make organ-like sounds. I also have a conceptual restriction in that I do not use distorted sounds, not because I do not like it, but now the guitar world lives almost in the distorted sound world, which creates a lot of limitations in the overall sound. I want to create more ethereal things with extended polyphony. The distorted sounds works like an icon, they predestinate the listener from the very first second. There are people, who cannot imagine modern music without distorted guitar. I think in music, and for that purpose, I need an extended polyphony, which cannot be made with distorted guitar sound. As I mentioned I use harmonizers but in this music they have another function: they are compositional tools to build never heard, unpredictable chord progressions for the melodic lines.
mwe3: “Drift under hills” has some unique melodic ideas which sort of rubs up against the more atonal or avant-garde nature of your music. Again, Sandor’s electric guitar sounds very intricate in places. Is “Drift under hills” one of the more New Age or meditative type tracks on Ethereal 1? It’s a definite highlight on the album. It’s hard to believe it was all done live right?
Kevin Kastning: In the realm of our music, I usually shy away from categorical labels such as New Age or jazz, or whatever it may be. I have no issues with New Age music; in fact, there is some of it that I quite like. Sándor and I don’t think in terms of genre when planning out a new album project. Genre classifications matter not at all to us. In other words, we don’t say ‘Let’s make this more of a New Age record,’ we just plan the direction of the pieces and then follow that mapping or structure, and allow the project to organically grow and expand. If someone hears it as New Age, or jazz, or however they are hearing it, that’s fine. With this kind of music, it’s kind-of genre agnostic, and therefore lends itself to being thought of in different camps I suppose.
I suppose it is again up to each listener to determine if a piece is meditative for them. I can hear that element in the piece, but the piece wasn’t planned to be meditative. And I think the matter of meditative qualities in a piece of music is largely determined or decided by each listener. In other words, there is music that I find meditative that you might not at all. Which is fine; this is part of the magic of music: it can mean something different to each person, yet no meanings or interpretations are wrong.
Sándor Szabó: No, it was not all done live. After recording the basic material, I started to create a structured musical architecture. For this I had to make some overdubs to put the right layers to the right place. This is serious creative studio work. I could say that I continued the composing in the studio after all this, significantly more than making a simple duo recording.
mwe3: “Spoken by wind” is another piano-centric track with a unique melodic edge. How does the piano add a melodic contrast to the guitar sound? Is “Spoken by wind” another kind of meditative New Age type of track, considering it’s kind of harmonious in a way.
Kevin Kastning: I’ve been starting to incorporate more piano into the projects where it fits. I played piano on almost half of the latest album with Mark Wingfield, “The Line To Three.” It really brings other colors, textures, and compositional environments into a piece, when the piece is right for it. This was one of those pieces. Oddly enough, or maybe it is only odd to me, but playing piano on a studio date doesn’t feel that much different from playing guitar on a studio date. The process is always the same: to be in service to the music, and that’s still true no matter the instrument.
Sándor Szabó: Well, we do not think in terms of so-called New Age music. In the moment when a musician or composer starts to use this term, it’s unconsciously committed to a trend, a fashion and a want to correspond to all the parameters of the so-called New Age style or genre. We just try to recall and create what we hear inside. The New Age music in general uses simple chords and melodies. Following that would be too big restriction for us musically in spite of that sometimes we use simple chords and melodies, but in another way. Why you hear this piece sounding like a kind of New Age music is that it sounds a little minimalist, and it has a very definite tonal center, which can remind you of some New Age music. For us, the modal or chromatic sounds are equal compositional tools. We use them without thinking of any styles or genres.
mwe3: What can you say about “The eyes of day”, especially as it’s one of the longest tracks on Ethereal 1? Is that the 30 or 36 string on that track? What can you say about the chord patterns on that track and some of the musical ideas that came into play on “The eyes of day”?
Kevin Kastning: That is the 30-string on that piece. I was trying to create a sense of space, an openness, both harmonically and structurally. From there, the piece took on a life of its own. I really had no idea of its melodicism until I heard the rough mixes in post-production.
Sándor Szabó: Kevin composed the chord progression in a very airy way to leave space for the listener to really deeply immerse in the mood of those mystical chords. I decided to overdub a special melody to fill out the space between those pentonal chords. My intention was to surf above those chords to create a floating tonal tension. Finally, it became a very organic conversation between the instruments.
mwe3: “You never seem to have discovered” is a unique title. How does that title fit the music? That’s another track with those incredible volume swells that are punctuated by the 36-string. Anyone who doubts the veracity behind your music should listen to that track.
Kevin Kastning: You never seem to have discovered is the seventh line in the eight-line poem that is the titling structure of tracks 2 – 9. I won’t say how I think the title fits the music in this piece, but will instead leave it up to each listener to find a connection… or not!
Sándor Szabó: Well, when I saw this title I did not really know what was in Kevin’s mind, but I can associate to the fact that the more valuable music we create, the less is the chance to be discovered. The expression itself “to be discovered” is from the music industry, for musicians and composers who follow a trend and hoping that one day they will be discovered by a producer or manager or a label. This is not our world. We are artists and what we do, we have to do… the music has to happen and put into the world. We do not want to entertain people, the music is not for that in our world. The music is a sacred activity and kind of communication, but always art. So this is how I can translate that title.
mwe3: What can you tell us about “Moves only now and clinging”? Is the 36-string and 30-string more prevalent on that track? The sonic chemistry on that track is brilliant as there’s hardly any loose ends or off notes. The dynamics are perfectly in place on that track, so do you consider “Moves only now and clinging” one of the high points on Ethereal 1?
Kevin Kastning: No, that is only the 30-string on that piece. I hear it as a very atmospheric piece, especially with the opening chords and harmonics. As to the question of a high point, again it’s not for me to say. Maybe because there are certain records where it is almost impossible for me to separate out individual pieces, and I think Ethereal I is one of those. Instead of a set of or a collection of pieces, I hear the record as a whole, the album in its entirety, as one large composition. A singularity. Similar to a symphony or a classical piece constructed in movements. Yes, there are individual tracks or movements, but they are only components of the overall structure and singular composition.
Sándor Szabó: For us, each track means a high point, each track is our sweet child. It is very subjective for a listener which one can be the favorite track. When I was working on the tracks, that track was my favorite at that time, but when I started another one that became the high point for me. When I finished the work and I started to listen the whole material after each other, I was not able to choose a favorite.
mwe3: “Sylva Nympharum” is a bizarre title and it’s another piano-centric track. It’s also the longest track on Ethereal I. The piano really adds another dimension to Ethereal I from start to finish. What brought on “Sylva Nympharum” and how did that track end up being the final track on the CD?
Kevin Kastning: Sándor asked me to do some pieces on piano for this album, and that was one of them. It was selected as the final track because we felt that it had a kind of epilogue-esque quality. It seems to contain a kind of conclusive feeling within itself.
Sándor Szabó: To be honest, Kevin did not want to put piano pieces on this album first. When I heard some ideas from him on piano I convinced him to compose some for the album. One of my favorite composers is Frederico Mompou. His sparse and unpredictable musical architectures would be a perfect base for such an electric/acoustic project. So I asked Kevin to compose some sparse piano music.
mwe3: What else is new for you in the guitar world? I was reading about the new 17-string Hybrid Extended Classical guitar. What can Kevin tell us about that guitar? Hard to imagine it uses both nylon and steel strings or as you call it “courses”. What can you say about the tunings and sound of the 17 string and what other instruments are coming up for possible design and recording in the future?
Kevin Kastning: The 17-string Hybrid Extended Classical guitar just arrived last week, so I am still very much in the discovery and getting-to-know it phase. This voice has never existed in the guitar world. The tunings thus far are all octaves and unisons, but of course that is subject to change. Before I start experimenting with new tunings, I really must know the voice of the instrument. When the 15-string Extended Classical arrived, it took me the better part of a year to learn its voice; it was and is so very unique and different; equal parts guitar and lute. The 17-string will require a similar process; it’s voice is quite unusual, but very beautiful. I expect it will be on the next solo record.
As to future instruments, there are two, but I can’t really say much more about those right now. As for other things new in the guitar world, I think that what Sándor is doing with his two electrics is notable. We are already at work on the next two albums in the Ethereal series, and he has and is going beyond what you hear on Ethereal I.
Sándor Szabó: Your question is very interesting if you ask me what is new for me in the guitar world. I was thinking on how to make a new, never heard clean sound with an electric guitar. It is difficult, everything is invented and all the guitars sound practically in the same way. After Bill Frisell’s sound it is really very hard to find or create a special, original clean voice for electric guitar. One day a very old recording came across where I heard a vintage Burns guitar. It was so new to my ears in spite of that I grew up with the sound of Hank Marvin of The Shadows and Bo Windberg of The Spotnicks. That very ancient single coil pickup sound sounded so modern to my ears that I decided to get an original Burns. When you combine things that are not typical, it always results in something new. In my case the old Burns sound was combined with a baritone range and with my finger picking plus the harmonizers and different delays, reverbs all together.
As for Kevin’s 17-string, it is an amazing, phenomenal guitar, which blends two very different sounding guitars. The result is something I never heard, a lute, a harpsichord together, with a very ethereal sound. I think this new instrument will inspire both of us to create really new sounding guitar albums.
mwe3: What other projects are both of you exploring for 2018? Will Ethereal I be a kind of musical template for you as you consider a follow up? What kind of projects will Sándor be releasing this year and what other albums are on tap for Kevin’s Greydisc label for 2018?
Kevin Kastning: Ethereal I is the beginning of an Ethereal series for us wherein Sándor will be using electric guitars. And Sándor and I are at work on Ethereal II, which is not only the follow-up to Ethereal I, but an extension of this established direction. The wonderful Hungarian percussion artist Balázs Major will be joining us on Ethereal II. I have had the good fortune to tour and record with Balázs, and for me, he is not merely a percussionist; he is a true artist. Even though we are doing the Ethereal series does not mean we won’t be doing further acoustic projects. Sándor and I are doing a European tour in spring 2018, and the tour will no doubt include some recording dates. The next record with Mark Wingfield is completed and ready for release. He and I have recording studio dates scheduled for August 2018, and at least one new album is likely from those sessions. Carl Clements and I will be starting on our next album soon. In fact, there is a trio record of Carl, Sándor, and I that is recorded and should be released this year. And I am currently at work on three very different solo album projects.
Sándor Szabó: We started to work on a trio album, the Ethereal II as a continuation of this album. On that we want to go even farther in music and sound. We invited the great Hungarian drummer and percussion player Balázs Major, who keeps some secret new sounds for the album. I’m working on different other projects with other Greydisc artists like Mark Wingfield. I just finished the mix of a quartet album including Mark Wingfield, Balázs Major, Roland Heidrich and myself. This album will be probably in the download repertoire of the Greydisc Records. With Kevin we have a lot of new ideas for future releases but now it would be early to say anything about them.