For their 2018 album, Kevin Kastning and Sándor Szabó
enlist the sounds of percussionist Balász Major and the net
result is Ethereal II. The second in a series
of albums featuring Kastning and Szabó that began earlier in 2018
with the release of Ethereal I, this second Ethereal
album is just as dazzling sounding, if not better, than the first.
The addition of Balász on drums and percussion completes the
sonic structure and also echoes the Kastning / Major CD release of
Kismaros from mid 2018. The prolific nature of Kevin
Kastning, as both a guitarist and composer notwithstanding, serves
to underscore the brilliant fretboard moves in play on Ethereal
II. Recorded both in Kastning’s Boston-area Traumworld studios
and in Sándor Szabó’s studio in Hungary, Ethereal II merges
Kastning’s unique 36-string Double Contraguitar, his 30-string
Contra-Alto guitar as well as his acoustic piano with Sándor’s
processed electric guitars. The crafty guitar work and musical
insight of these groundbreaking artists reaches new levels of sonic
intrigue, while the drums and percussion of Balász completes the
wide-ranging musical imagination depicted on Ethereal II.
Guitar purists may question the ultra spontaneity and avant-garde
nature of Kastning and Szabó’s music, yet there’s no denying the
expertise with which these two unique musicians execute their
performances on Ethereal II as well as on various other
projects and recordings they’ve recorded and released on Kastning’s
Greydisc label—a fine American label following in the footsteps of
other avant-garde outlets such as the Germany based ECM label. Like
ECM, Greydisc offers the listener a range of boldly executed, and
sonically rewarding releases that combine high levels of improvised
music with a definite flair for the unusual. One of the finest
Greydisc CD releases to date, Ethereal II sets yet another
high standard of musical dialogue from the skillful trio of
Kastning, Szabó and Major.
presents an interview with
Kevin Kastning, Sándor Szabó and Balázs Major
How is Ethereal II an extension of the Ethereal I
album which was released early in 2018? Would you say the new album
moves forward or in different directions from Ethereal I in
both sound and scope and how does the addition of Balázs Major on
drums and percussion alter the sound?
Kevin Kastning: It is indeed a continuation. Ethereal II
is different in a few ways. Sándor is playing electric guitar with
processing. Balázs is playing full drum kit on most tracks, and this
is the first time we’ve recorded together with him on kit. And I am
on piano on a couple of pieces. Additionally, it has been six years
since our last trio record, and in that time we’ve all continued to
grow and evolve as artists.
Sándor Szabó: From my part the extension happened in two
fields, musically and in sound. The records I make are not only an
act to make the music, but also to create art in its sound. This
means that I do not only record, mix and master the music but I
illustrate the instruments in the stereo space and make them more
expressing. I noticed that the modern music with a few exceptions is
not so demanding in creating real stereo experience, they do not use
the space in its depth how I do it. Though the Ethereal series is
especially dedicated to this concept, adding Balázs Major to this
project, the illustration became even more detailed and accentual.
With his playing we have one more dimension on the Ethereal II
in sound and in music, as well.
Balázs Major: I hope that with my presence I managed to
influence the Ethereal II, which is kind of continuation of
the previous album. In my former Greydisc albums I played hand
percussion, but this is the first album where I play a full drum
set. My aim was to support the Ethereal concept, with a new playing
style, which completely differs from trendy drumming can be heard in
similar music. For me the drum is a whole orchestra, a huge
potential for creating colors, moods, tensions. All the elements of
my drum set are tonally tuned.
mwe3: The liner notes of Ethereal II mentions that the
album was recorded late 2017 and early 2018 in both Hungary and in
Massachusetts. Can you tell us which tracks were recorded in both
locations and did recording in one location change in both Europe
and the O.S. change the sound or vision of the particular track?
Balázs said that he recorded his parts in a “remote” way. Is that
the way Ethereal II was made?
Kastning: Yes, we tried tracking this one remotely, and I think
it turned out quite well. So much so that we’ll be doing more work
in this manner. I think we’d all prefer to be in the same studio at
the same time and tracking live together, but when you live in
different countries, that’s not always possible. Tracking remotely
is a very effective alternative. It enables us to continue our
recording work even if we are not in the same country and in the
Sándor Szabó: Well, the method of building the music was very
similar as on the Ethereal I. We had prerecorded tracks
mostly from Kevin in his studio in Massachusetts and then I composed
and overdubbed further layers in my studio in Hungary. As for the
drum and percussion recording, they made in Hungary in a concert
hall and both Kevin and I overdubbed our layers on it. So I can
answer to you that all the tracks made both in Hungary and
Massachusetts. This recording was made in a 21st Century way in a
“remote” way, due to the internet. We sent the high resolution sound
files to each other via internet.
Balázs Major: For me the great challenge was to start to
build a piece with my playing which means that the drum was recorded
first. I had to imagine a composition and to play a drum part. This
method is quite unusual, because my drum part was not composed in
advance. I had some ideas and I formed them into an improvised
texture. I did not get musical instruction as in the previous
recordings. I had a total freedom, which is very inspiring but I
missed Sandor’s and Kevin’s presence. The fact that the drum was
recorded separately did not change the sound. Sandor did a great job
with mixing and mastering.
Do you feel that the albums you’ve released on Greydisc are gaining
you more popularity among the more open-minded progressive music
fans and can you contrast that with your further inroads in the
neoclassical, jazz and also the avant-garde world?
Kevin Kastning: Most of the albums of mine from the past 7 or
8 years are always reviewed by Progression Magazine, which is the
biggest progressive music magazine of which I know. That may be
expanding my and our music a bit in the prog community. As for the
other genres you mention, my work is played on jazz and classical
radio programs. In fact, All About Jazz magazine did a nice
article on me last week. Sometimes not fitting into a single genre
can be helpful.
Sándor Szabó: Well, I personally do not think in popularity.
I just do not care, I mean it is not in the first place in my
preferences. Of course it is a good thing if the number of our fans
is increasing with every release. We do not follow trends, we just
play what we feel and hear inside. This is already far enough to be
in contrast with the neoclassical, jazz and also the avant-garde
world. We do not necessarily want to be different of others. Even we
do not intend to do something new. It comes by itself by our
attitude how we think and feel about music.
mwe3: How did your 2018 European tour influence each of your
compositional and performance styles and do you find different
levels of acceptance of your music among audiences in both the O.S.
and Europe, or rather specifically in Hungary? What are the chances
of other tour dates in North America?
Kevin Kastning: I don’t think a single tour impacts my
compositional approach. For me, a tour is more of a vehicle for
sharing your compositional approach. The acceptance of European
audiences is always amazing to me. My music is more well-received
there than in the US. North American tours are tricky, as I don’t
know many US agents. I would be open to a North American tour if the
circumstances were right, but currently there are no plans for it.
Szabó: We have a well-tried attitude how we start to play and
record music. The tour helps to be more in focus and to get closer
to each other mentally. We have an inexplicable chemistry so playing
and creating on concert or recording is so easy and natural.
As for acceptance, the Hungarian audience is very sensitive and
educated, they are interested in a lot of things. This attitude
comes from our very old and rich music heritage. In the western part
of Europe the acceptance starts to go to the trends which are very
strong and it is difficult to resist to them from the part of the
listeners. About the chances of tour dates in the US I think the
music scene is industrialized so much by agents and agencies that
such a special project cannot get enough attention because our music
cannot attract large audience. This is the first and most important
economical parameter and our music cannot fulfill this. Our music
wants to be art and never wanted to be a consumer product.
Nonetheless I experienced that the US audience would be happy to
hear this kind of music, though not in industrial scale, but it
cannot happen because the distribution of concerts happen through
profit oriented agents and agencies.
mwe3: Does Sándor’s guitar work with Kevin draw
further comparisons to the albums Kevin has recorded with Mark
Wingfield? Sounds like they’re equally appealing to fans of your
Kevin Kastning: I think Sándor’s work on electric guitar
would appeal to anyone who likes Mark Wingfield’s work. I’ve not
heard or read of anyone making direct comparisons; while they are
both on electric guitars, I think the similarities end there. Both
artists have their own unique identity.
Szabó: I think there are common elements in sound because Mark
Wingfield is a very great sound engineer, and our concept meets in
several point. We regularly have very nice discussions and learn
from each other, while both of us has the own specific style.
Musically we have also a great chemistry. We toured and recorded
together in 2017 in Hungary. With Kevin, Mark and Balázs we create a
nice artist family and musically we are compatible with each other
on recordings. We all are fans of each other, so it is easy to work.
Balázs Major: Sándor and Mark are kindred spirits, but they
are different, they have different approach for playing the
instruments and creating their voices. I would not compare them, but
both of them are fantastic personalities in their music.
mwe3: Going back even to the Becoming album you made
back in 2013, you have expanded on your sound, going from purely
acoustic to using electric guitars and piano as well. What
directions or other changes in your music are you considering moving
forward both as a duo and trio and as individual recording artists?
Kevin Kastning: At present, I’m not considering anything in
the way of other instruments in our music. However, I am only here
to serve the music, so if other instruments are required to achieve
a specific goal or an album’s direction, then I suspect we’ll move
to those instruments. I can’t speak for Sándor or Balázs, but that
is how I see it. I am always open to whatever is required by the
music, but I don’t always know in advance what that will be.
Sándor Szabó: We do not plan too much in advance. We know
that the life brings new things and we just let the process go by
its own. Of course we made kind of “bucket list” like lute/acoustic
guitar recordings, East/West project, etc, but somehow the life
wanted to make the Ethereal project first. Since the Becoming
album so many things happened. After 15 years I started to play
electric guitars and using processing, because it is also a part of
me. For me it is a fantastic field to experiment and create. After I
showed my very first electric album the Echolocation I from 1998 to
Kevin, he always asked me why we do not do something similar
together. First I resisted mixing acoustic things with electric, but
Kevin convinced me and now I am astonished on myself, how big fan I
have been in blending electric and acoustic sounds.
It seems like you are immersed in the nature of the “ethereal”,
calling both albums Ethereal I and now II and there’s
even three tracks called “Ethereality”, I, II and III. How does the
term ethereal impact your music, especially as there’s two words
connected, ether and reality? What can you tell us about the three
“Ethereality” tracks on the album? Are they connected in some ways
or are they each different?
Kevin Kastning: The Ethereal album series project is
based on Sándor being on electric guitars. By titling this album
series as “Ethereal,” it denotes that this is an electric project
with Sándor on electric, and not our usual acoustic works. The
Ethereality series of pieces are different; yet have a
connecting thread, much like movements in a symphony. The
terminology doesn’t impact the music. The music exists on its own,
before titles are determined; the music always comes first. When the
music is completed, then I try to find titles that fit the new
Sándor Szabó: Well, in Greydisc releases Kevin is responsible
for giving titles to the tracks. Though my Echolocation serial is
identical conceptually with the Ethereal project, we wanted another
expressing title. The music sounds ethereal, its inner “message”,
and the mood is ethereal, so the title could not be any other than
Ethereal. This is a long term project because the
possibilities are endless and we have enough ideas to extend it more
in the future. So by now the Ethereal serial is more than only album
titles, it is a comprehensive concept for creating music and sound.
Major: When Kevin asked me to take part on the next Ethereal
album first I did not know how I could add something into the
Ethereal project. Of course I had some references, like the
Ethereal I and the Echolocation albums. Sándor pushed me to gather
all my courage to play and sound in a way which is not typical. The
Ethereal can remind the listeners to some ambient music, but
in that style the drum is quite neglected or in the background.
Finally my conception started to form in my head: Given two guitar
players, who sometimes seems to arrive from another galaxy and this
was my leading thought. My aim was to create a musically coequal
partnership. After I heard the full compositions I was completely
amazed by the result in sound and musically, too.
mwe3: The tracks “Portals I” and “Portals II” are also quite
intriguing. There’s a sense of linear movement that differs from the
other tracks and it really combines some great moods. What can you
add about those two cuts?
Kevin Kastning: Balázs is on world hand percussion on
Portals I. And then moves to full drum kit for Portals II.
I think Sándor’s parts propel these pieces forward and provide that
linearity you describe. Balázs brings a lot of energy and movement
to both pieces as well.
Balázs Major: I definitely wanted to create something unusual
which inspires Sándor and Kevin, which give more space for their
mwe3: Speaking of guitars, Kevin’s 17-string Hybrid Extended
Classical guitar was not featured on album yet? How do you feel that
17-string Hybrid Extended Classical guitar will further change the
sounds in the future?
Kastning: The 17-string is different from any other of my
instruments in that it is a double-course instrument, but each
course consists of a classical (nylon) string and a steel string;
hence the ‘hybrid’ nomenclature in its name. So the instrument
blends two entirely different guitar voices; to my knowledge this
has never been done. Its voice didn’t fit into the Ethereal II
recording session directions, but it could be on another Ethereal
series album in the future. So far, the only record on which it has
appeared is my solo record from earlier this year 17/66. I
did use it on some recording sessions with Mark Wingfield in August
of this year. I also used it on a live radio performance in New York
City in August for WNYC and WFMU. And it will find its way onto my
solo albums going forward. It is really a fantastic instrument and a
new voice for sure.
mwe3: How about any comparisons between Ethereal II
and the latest duo album, Kismaros with both Kevin and
Balázs? You were also speaking about another album with this trio
and the addition of yet another electric guitar player, Roland
Heidrich. Is that album also planned for release at some point?
Kevin Kastning: After the spring 2018 European Tour, we were
in the studio for a few days, and recorded some new trio material.
We also recorded some material with Roland in a quartet format, and
it’s very likely that the material from all these sessions will be
released in the coming years. I’m not sure I can make any direct
comparisons between Kismaros and anything else. Kismaros
is in its own category for various reasons.
Szabó: The Kismaros was born in a live recording situation. No
overdubs, no editing. It just happened and recorded. It is a natural
recording, no electronic soundscapes and effects used. If you hear
similarity it is the ethereal quality of the music they play. This
means that a music can be ethereal not only by its sound but also by
the mood and emotions conveyed in the music through the player’s
musical personality. Yes, we made a quartet recording where the
excellent Hungarian electric guitar player Roland Heidrich took
part. This is a very special valuable recording. We still have some
work on it but as much as I know it is planned to release in the
Balázs Major: I also hope that the trio and quartet
recordings will be released in the future. The quartet recording is
very interesting, its elegant minimalism makes it so special.
Kismaros and Ethereal II are very different music, I
would not compare them.
mwe3: Seems like Greydisc is well on the way to becoming an
artistic dynasty of 21st century innovative / avant-garde
instrumental music. How do you see the label developing so far and
with a hopefully long recording cycle ahead of you, how do you see
the label’s future and can you also shed some light on other
possible artistic directions you plan on taking your music in the
Kevin Kastning: Thank you for saying so. One thing I see in
the direction of the label is more album releases every year; both
on CD and digital downloads. As for future artistic directions, I
can’t say. For example, three years ago I never would have thought
of any of the Ethereal series; in fact, those are
Sándor’s concept. Artistic directions change and grow and expand
over time; often unpredictably. Or at least I hope they do; I never
want to be trapped in one artistic place.
Sándor Szabó: Not much new labels can show up so rich and
artistically valuable releases as the Greydisc did in the last 10
years. The Greydisc goes to a special direction which cannot be
described in simple words. This small independent label does not
follow trend, it produces artistic value independently of what
happens in the music field. As an artist I am very proud to be a
partner of the Greydisc. The Greydisc is still quite young to say
that it created a new genre, but it already created a new sound and
I believe that in some years this label will be significant in the
innovative, creative instrumental music.