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Name: Kenneth Kirschner
Nationality: American
Occupation: Composer
Current Release: From the Machine: Volume 1, a collaboration between Kenneth Kirschner and Joseph Branciforte, has just been released on Branciforte's greyfade imprint. Most of his physical output, meanwhile, is available via 12k as beautifully presented CD-editions.
Recommendations: Nasreen Mohamedi and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.

If you enjoyed this interview with Kenneth Kirschner, visit his official website, where he publishes all of his finished compositions. He is also on twitter.

For a deep look into his thoughts and musical processes, download Imperfect Forms, which, contains an 180 page ebook; 4,5 hours of new and exclusive music; a generative software piece; specially curated videos as well as a three-part 'Best Of“ of selected pieces from the past 15 years.



When did you start composing – and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

My earliest recordings date from probably late 1983, when I was 13, and were made with a Juno-60, a TR-606 and a Radio Shack boom box. What had gotten me started on electronic music, about a year before that, had been a Casiotone MT-60 and Gary Numan’s The Pleasure Principle.

For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

Do you remember in Manhunter (1986) when Hannibal Lecter says, “If one does what god does enough times, one will become as god is”? That was always my approach to Feldman, and through it I managed to succeed in becoming …a leading Feldman impersonator! This is maybe like being an Elvis impersonator, but with a dangling cigarette, thick black wig, Coke bottle glasses, etc.

But I had a strange experience recently: I was walking the streets of my neighborhood listening to the “Untitled Composition for Cello and Piano” (sometimes known as “Patterns in a Chromatic Field”) and I suddenly thought, this isn’t what I’m doing, this isn’t where I’m at any more. I love it, it still informs everything I do, but I’ve gone somewhere else. So maybe that’s progress?

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?

I don’t believe in identity.

What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?

Do you play any modern board games? A lot of modern or “Euro style” games are structured around gradually building up an “engine” – a system for making stuff out of limited resources. And in some games – I’m thinking of Wingspan here – you put a lot of work into building your engine, but the pace of the game speeds up as you go, and as you get toward the end, you’ve got very little time left to actually run it. So that’s where I’m at now – just running my engine as quickly as I can before the game ends.

Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?

Ursula Le Guin described music as “the art that is made out of time.” I’m not sure that there’s anything I can add to that.

How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?

I identify as an 80s synth nerd, and that means I should be all about sound, about timbre. And yet my obsessions these days are all harmonic and formal, and timbre has just become a way of getting there, a way of exploring those ideas – a means to an end. I feel like I’ve betrayed my roots! That great dream of being up there on stage with big hair and a Fairlight CMI.

But seriously, there’s this feeling that since I’m an artist who works in electronic music, I by definition need to put timbre first, I have to foreground sound, that has to be my focus. I’m not saying sound isn’t something I love, maybe even something I want to get back to, to focus more on – but the truth is I’ve gone in a different direction. Maybe it’s the direction I’ve always been headed in. And maybe that’ll change, maybe I’ll be able to push things further yet; I’m certainly trying to right now. But the tech, timbre, sound itself, that’s all, for now, just become a way for me to get at what it is I’m trying to get at.

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?

I’ve got a new record out – From the Machine, Volume 1, on the new Greyfade label – and it’s my first project with a new collaborator, Joseph Branciforte, who I met about 6 years ago. It all actually started with one of Taylor’s concerts: he invited me to this gig he was playing with Marcus Fischer, and I glanced at the series it was a part of, and saw they were doing Feldman’s “Piano and String Quartet,” and I was super offended! I mean, they didn’t even invite me to play! And here I am, the leading Feldman impersonator, I mean come on.

Turns out the series was put together by some guy Joe Branciforte, and the reason he hadn’t booked me was … he’d never heard of me. But we met at Taylor’s show and clearly had a lot in common. So we started hanging out, and I think we were both immediately struck by the fact that we’d been coming at some of the same musical problems, the same questions, from different directions. And there was hopefully some insight we could offer each other in how to get around some of the roadblocks we’d both been smashing up against.

As we talked more, Joe developed an interest in adapting some of my electronic work for acoustic instruments, which I thought was an intriguing and probably crazy idea. But what you’re ideally looking for in a collaborator is someone who can do what you can’t do, and hopefully vice versa. And Joe has this amazing set of skills that allowed him to – through brute force, really – take my chaotic and aleatoric electronic work and fight it into something that could be notated and performed by acoustic musicians. And so we ended up with an adaptation of my “April 20, 2015” for piano and two cellos. And conversely, I think I was able to push him forward a little with what became his piece for the album, which is this mathematically obsessive algorithmic string quartet called “0123” – with those numbers standing for a 4-note chromatic cluster, i.e., four adjacent semitones, a long-time harmonic obsession of mine.

So I think we were able to help each other go forward in ways we perhaps couldn’t have individually, which is what a collaboration should really be about. Check out the record and see what you think.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other – do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

I’m an extreme creature of habit, pathologically disciplined, and also a crazy person: I get up at precisely 5:00 a.m. every day, rain or shine, weekend or weekday, and start working as soon as I’m able to. The great thing about getting up insanely early is that … nobody bugs you! You’ve got total quiet, total focus, total solitude, nobody wants anything from you. And the day hasn’t yet beaten you down.

So for me at least, that time before anyone else is awake is my most creative and productive; it’s the secret of my success, such as it is.

Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

The most important moment in my recent work happened on July 7, 2014. I was preparing some sounds to send off to my old friend Gil Sanson, who had returned to his native Venezuela – which is a tough place to be these days. We had, and still have, a sort of slow motion ongoing collaboration. If one of us got stuck on a piece, or didn’t know how to move forward, or gave up entirely on something we were writing, we’d send it on to the other – because as with the Joe project, having the perspective of somebody else, someone who’s dealing with the same questions from a different angle, can sometimes show you a way forward you couldn’t see yourself. So I was going through fragments and failures and abandoned pieces I wanted to send on to Gil, but I felt like I needed to do my due diligence first and really make sure there was no way forward with any of these things.

I had just finished up a disappointing little piece – “April 1, 2014” – and as so often happens, to make a piece hang together, you sometimes have to take out your favorite parts. It’s the old “kill your darlings” the Beats talked about. And there was this great little violin line that I just hadn’t been able to fit into that piece. I thought it was perfect for Gil, but there was this one last idea I wanted to try first. And I’ve spent the last 7 years trying to understand what happened next.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

As noted above, I get up at 5:00 a.m.! I guarantee no one will bug you then.

Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?

I think I’ve told you this story before. There’s this piece of mine – “November 3, 1998” – that to me has always been a fairly minor, fairly innocuous work, yet it’s always had the most extreme effect on people.

My girlfriend at the time would lock herself in the bathroom when I was writing it. Another girlfriend listened to the first few notes then violently flung my nice studio headphones across the room. My older brother laughed at these stories and then, on actually hearing it, said it was the most disturbing thing he’d ever heard and darkly warned me to never again mock anyone’s reaction to it.

I think it’s pretty! So my point is, you never really know.

There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?

As someone who has a deep love of music from a lot of traditions other than my own, this is an important question for me. My hope – and I emphasize that this is really just a hope – is that, if you truly appreciate and understand a given tradition, you’ll naturally stop yourself from problematically appropriating it. And I mean this on a purely aesthetic, rather than a strictly political level.

Consider gamelan, of which I’m a huge fan. Now I know people – I’m thinking of my friend Nick Brooke – who really know gamelan, who’ve lived in Indonesia and studied for years and are able to take what they’ve learned and integrate it quite meaningfully and respectfully within our own Western/avant-garde/experimental context. But me, when it comes to gamelan, I don’t really know anything; I’m just a fan, I just love it. And a while back I got my hands on this crazy polyrhythmic modular hardware sequencer thingy a friend had built and I had the clever idea of hooking it up to some gamelan sample libraries. Super cool, sounded awesome, was thinking of doing something with it – and yet I just couldn’t get past the fact it sounded like “me doing gamelan” – there was no real insight there, no true understanding.

And I listened to what I’d done and I said, you know what, not good enough. And so that’s my hope: that you can love a music, and yet have the humility to know when to step back and remain just a fan.

Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses – and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?

I’m not sure I have any real insight to offer in comparing sound to vision or smell or whatever, so let me twist the question around a little, toward a particular area of interest of mine, which is the study of abstract structure, also known as math.

You could say that humans have a sense for mathematics, an ability to perceive abstraction, so maybe that keeps us sort of on track. And I would say that this is a subject I’ve historically really very badly misunderstood. Because you always hear people talking about the intimate interrelationship of math and music, and I was always very skeptical and dismissive of that idea. The problem, though, was that I didn’t understand what math was; like many people, I mistook math for arithmetic. Which is something I’m terrible at – I have panic attacks trying to calculate the tip on dinner checks! But math, really, is something different: it’s the science of patterns, the study of the kinds of abstract structures that are possible. And this is, of course, exactly what music is. So here’s one more place where I’ve maybe learned a little something.

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

Setting aside my, ah, unusual distribution philosophy, which is its whole own thing, there’s a thread of political music running throughout my work. And I could put all these pieces together, many of which aren’t published, and they might make an interesting story. But here again, like with the gamelan question, I have to ask: Is this really my thing? Is it what my work is really about, what makes it hopefully interesting or distinct, or is it instead one of many smaller side stories that branch off from what I’ve been doing?

If I were to build the definitive canon of my own work – which I emphasize I don’t want to do! – the story I myself would tell is one of harmony, of harmonic development and exploration. And the political vein in my own work remains underdeveloped. When things got bad here recently, as bad as I’ve ever seen, my artistic response was … to write counterpoint. Of course, there are plenty of artists out there who do genuinely great, genuinely engaged political work, and I’m deeply appreciative of them – but I don’t really think I’m one of them. I guess, in the end, you can’t do everything.

So for me as an artist, the political – like the gamelan, the techno, the million underexplored directions in what I could do or could have done – it’s just not the main story of what I’ve been trying to do.

What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

Wittgenstein said that what we can’t speak about we must pass over in silence – but he was really talking about the limits of language, not music. I think music gives us some options.