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Interview with Kenneth Kirschner 2

img  Tobias

Filaments & Voids is your most expensive and longest album; it deals with silence, and all of the material is freely available from your homepage. Still, it has been very successful. Is that success testimony to the fact that there are alternative ways of promoting your music to the old model?
I’m glad you think it’s been successful! I myself am never entirely confident. Just as each individual piece I write is an experiment, my entire distribution philosophy is a kind of experiment as well. So far, it hasn’t gone too horribly wrong, but maybe I’ve just been lucky. I’ve managed to maintain a balance between keeping all my music freely available on my website, while also releasing the occasional CD when I can. But I think it’s really still a challenge to get people to focus seriously and thoughtfully on work that’s solely released online. For one thing, there’s no real framework for reviewing pieces published online – I only get reviews when I put out a physical CD, which is ironic, because the individual tracks on that album will usually have been up on my site for quite some time. There’s also still a perception that online releases somehow aren’t as “serious” or “legitimate” as work that’s been released through more traditional channels – there’s still a real sense of hierarchy, with CDs considered the most respected format. To a certain extent this makes sense, in that a CD has historically had a label behind it, which means there’s been a process of selection and curation and quality control that has gone into it, whereas anyone can just go ahead and put anything online – there’s no filter. Labels have always played this dual role, providing both the means of production for the physical object, and a curatorial process – the selecting and crafting of an aesthetic, a seal of approval or quality. But CDs are on their way out now – we all know this. And we’re going to have to develop new ways of finding our way through all the music that’s out there, of deciding what standards are going to apply in this new world. And that’s part of what I’m trying to do with my site – to see if it’s possible to just write music and put it out there and have faith that the people who need to find it will do so.

You started simply releasing your compositions on your homepage as they were finished when the idea was still in its infancy. Why, at the time, were you no longer that interested in the album format anymore?
As a composer, I really think on a piece by piece basis, rather than album by album. Each piece for me poses a particular set of questions and problems, and hopefully opens up a new set of questions and problems for the next piece. I’m not usually interested in writing the same piece twice, though perhaps sometimes I do. And when I’m working on a piece, I tend not to think about how it will relate to other things I’ve done. I don’t think, “Hey, I’m working on my next album!” It’s always, “I’m working on the new piece.”

And while I certainly enjoy crafting the longer narrative of an album, finding the right selection and getting the flow right, building a story out of it all – there’s always this voice in my head saying, “Why only this?” Why only this one selection, this one track order? Why can’t there be many? Because other combinations could be just as good. And I start to worry that people will think this is “the” order, “the” only way these pieces should be heard, which of course isn’t the case. The best thing, really, would be to have every individual CD be unique, crafted just for one listener. I used to do that with mix tapes of my music, long before I had CDs out, and I always really loved finding just the right story to tell, just once, to one particular person, and then later taking maybe those same pieces and putting together a totally different story for a different person. And in a sense that’s what you can do now with my website.

Was one of the considerations of your move to the web that this allows you to document and share your creative path as you go along, complete with what you consider failures?
Oh trust me, you don’t hear the failures! Right now, there are 16 dead pieces lying on my hard drive from just the last 6 months alone. For every piece that goes up on my site, there are usually at least 3 or 4 that never make it that far, that I abandon either early on or after a lot of very frustrated and unhappy work. And generally, that’s because they’re really not any good. I’m a big believer in being one’s own toughest editor, and I delete a huge amount of work, even within pieces that survive: for example, “March 16, 2006”, which takes up the entire second CD of Filaments & Voids, was originally over 6 hours long. And we’re not talking Feldman’s Second String Quartet here – most of it was really awful. So you edit and edit and edit, and delete and delete and delete, until you get down to some core or kernel of essential quality that has the traits you’re looking for. And this applies to one’s overall body of work as well. So while there are some pieces up on my site that I may, in retrospect, consider failures, I always had at least some faith in them when I first posted them. The vast numbers of real failures you’ll hopefully never hear.

As with Filaments & Voids, you're still releasing physical albums from time to time. What, to you, is the difference between this physical product and the online file – is it really just the fact that you're holding a CD and a booklet in your hands?
As an artist, I have to confess that I’m really just not very interested in physical objects. Perhaps this is because, unlike a lot of my friends and colleagues, I’m not also a designer or a visual artist – I’m just a musician. And because of this, I end up staking out a fairly extreme position toward the “objectless” end of the distribution spectrum, where what you get from me is just a music file with a title – and even the title is just a date! So you’re really not getting much of anything at all, except pure sound. 

That said, though, I do have a great appreciation for the very beautiful physical objects that others create, and for me this aspect often becomes part of a collaboration. Filaments & Voids is a good example:  Taylor’s design ends up being an integral part of what the project ultimately becomes, as does Marc’s text. I’m working right now on a project with Canadian multimedia madman Herman Kolgen, and if you know skoltz_kolgen’s stunning Silent Room – which is just about the most impressive combination of physical and digital object you can imagine – you’ll understand why I’m quite excited to see how this particular physical object turns out.

In one of your earlier interviews, two important quotes came up: “If I have a religion in life, it’s the iPod.” And: “The Walkman changed the way we understand cities.” So what, would you say, has file-sharing done to change how we understand music?
What strikes me most nowadays is just the sheer volume, the sheer amount of music that’s immediately accessible to you at any moment. There’s gigs and gigs and gigs sitting on my hard drive. And having such a tremendous amount of music instantly accessible changes your relationship to it, I think – it changes the way you listen, and the way you think about music. I sometimes feel like it’s almost impossible for me these days to actually want to hear a particular piece of music – the quantity is just so overwhelming, you don’t know where to begin. What do you do if all the music in the world is at your fingertips? If you can point your finger and hear anything, anytime, anywhere? How do you find your way through it all, navigate, draw a path that makes sense and has meaning? And how does this change our sense of aesthetics, even our sense of what music is, or can be? 

You have to find new approaches, new ways of thinking and hearing, new methods and tools to navigate this world of sound. Think of what shuffle play has become – a whole new way to approach your music collection, as if we all had little John Cages sitting inside our computers. These days I find myself listening to streaming music a lot more, which for me is simultaneously a way to avoid responsibility for making choices, and also a nostalgia for my pop music days in the 1980s, when radio was at the center of everything. And then there’s dance music: DJs are as much curators as they are performers, sifting through a vast and intimidating body of music and making it comprehensible to their audiences. So we find ways to navigate this sea of music, even though our tools and our understanding are still evolving.

You’re extremely forward-thinking when it comes to technology, but you're not always able to realize your ideas yourself. Is that frustrating sometimes?
Yeah, I have endless crazy ideas I’d love to realize, but that I just don’t have the skills to pull off. This is one of those inherent challenges of working in a technological medium – you have to balance honing your technical skills with actually getting around to writing music. I’m sure that, if I really worked at it, I could learn enough programming to allow me to realize some of my more bizarre ideas – but all that time would have to be taken away from composing. And so what I end up doing is just taking the skills and abilities I have, and the level of technology I have, and trying to push it in new directions. To work creatively within my own limitations. Because what I’m really most interested in is how new technology allows us to think differently about music, to conceptualize different possibilities of what music can be – and you don’t necessarily have to be the most extreme geek in the world to do that. We haven’t yet begun to exhaust the possibilities of what electronic music can do.

Most of your music is freely available on the web and you've initiated several collaborational open source projects. Would it be correct to say that your interest exclusively goes out to musical results rather than questions of ownership?

These questions are very interesting to me, because, on a philosophical level, I don’t really believe in composers. When I meet someone, I’m forced to tell them that I’m a “composer,” but I know it’s not really true. There’s no such thing as a composer, as this magical person who creates music out of thin air. Music is a distributed, collective system that remixes itself through us. There’s a single, incomprehensibly complex signal path that runs from every piece of music I’ve ever heard, into a messy tangle of neurons and sequencers and plug-ins, up onto a website and off into the net, and then hopefully onwards – and none of it looks anything like a guy wearing a wig scratching stylized symbols onto parchment using a quill made from a bird’s wing. In fact, if you could see the guy with the wig clearly enough, he’d probably look more like an effects chain or a patch bay, a complex machine for recombining patterned sound. The best thing would be to somehow perceive music in its pure, pre-personal state. It may travel in interesting ways through particular people, but it ultimately isn’t a game of authorship or ownership – it’s more collective and impersonal than that. This is something that comes across clearly in dance music, where the vast majority of the people creating the music are anonymous. You may know the DJ, but you generally have no idea who wrote any individual piece of music. To traditional notions of authorship, this seems terribly wrong – but from a more modern point of view, this way is much more honest, more reflective of the way things actually work. Before I started publishing my music, I used to dream of even going so far as to release it completely unattributed – no composer, no name, nothing. Just put it out there on the net and watch it go. And that really would be the ideal, not just from a philosophical point of view, but as a challenge: how could you write something so distinctive, so compelling, that even without a name attached people would begin to take notice, to suspect that there’s some secret structure or hidden system of meaning within this body of disconnected sounds? It’s hard, maybe impossible. I never had the courage to try it myself, and it’s clearly too late now!

By Tobias Fischer

Pictures by Dominique Skoltz.

Interview conducted by Tobias Fischer for “Beat” Magazine. Many thanks to Thomas Raukamp. Beat Magazine #52 contains the "Beat EP" selected by Kenneth Kirschner. It can be ordered here.

October 22, 2000 term) 2002
6 Track EP (TIBProd) 2003
Post_Piano (12k) 2009
September 19, 1998 Et Al. (12k) 2003
January 2, 1999 Et Al. CONV) 2004
June 18, 1995 Et Al. (Test Tube) 2004
May 3, 1997 (Autoplate) 2004
Post_Piano 2 (12k) 2005
'05 Compositions (Alg-a) 2006
August 10, 2005 (EKO Netlabel) 2006
Indeterminate Series (Natural Media) 2006
May 6, 2001 (and/OAR) 2006
November 18, 2004 Et Al. (Leerraum [ ]) 2006
November.2006 (Rope Swing Cities) 2006
Three Compositions (Sirr) 2006
Unlit Cities (Test Tube) 2006
10/19/06 Fragments (Musica Excentrica) 2007
July 29, 2004 (Leerraum [ ]) 2007
Maundered Souls (Rain) 2007
September 8, 2005 (Leerraum [ ]) 2007
04:46:26 (Rain) 2008
Filaments & Voids (12k) 2008
March 20, 2007 Et Al (Mikroton Digital) 2008
May (Room40)2008
The Piano Sketches (term) 2008
The Beat EP (Falke Media) 2010

Kenneth Kirschner

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