Darwin: Okay. Today I get a chance to talk to someone that I've just met. His name's Kenneth Kershner. He has got some really interesting stuff on his site. His site is http://www.kennethkershner.com. You'll be able to get a link to it on the show notes. It's really quite remarkable because it has a complete body of work on it. Kenneth is often described as working at the intersection of modern classical music and electronic music. I think it's something a lot of my listeners will find interesting. And so, I was really excited for the opportunity to learn more about it and also to share the info. So without any further to let's talk to Kenneth. Hey man, how's it going?
Kenneth Kershner: It's good. Thanks so much. Happy to be here.
Darwin: Yeah. Thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule and joining me. This is really quite interesting. Could we start off by having you describe your work a little bit?
Kenneth: Wow, that's a hard question to start with. What is it? What is it that I do? I'm reminded of a friend of mine who, whenever anyone asked him what he does, he says, "I make noises." But I maybe make something a little closer to traditional music. I'm in a weird place because I'm at the intersection as you said. I have a couple of different things. I work in electronic music. I am an eighties synth nerd is where I come from. and I'm used to working very technologically, but I'm also really interested in harmony and in the sort of traditional compositional questions. So a lot of that bleeds into my work in the way it maybe doesn't for a lot of purely electronic people. So my hero is - you can tell who I spend all my time ripping off - is Morton Feldman. A lot of my stuff is a very Feldman-esque. so I have an interest in these sort of somewhat dissonant approaches and I do a lot of longer form work.
Darwin: Right. Well having had a chance to listen to your work on your site - which is chuck full of work by the way - so thank you for that. It's really a beautiful thing because while I hear the Morton Feldman stuff, I also hear like a touch of Satie, and a variety of things, but also some stuff that is very much like... I would say after listening to a number of pieces, I also identify what your voice is as well. And so it seems like you have a pretty deep well of compositional effort to draw from, to have developed that kind of voice.
Kenneth: Well as you can see from the website, I've been doing this for a long time. The website is a unique act of madness; for anyone who hasn't seen it, it's just... I title all my pieces very abstractly by the date on which they're begun. And the website is literally just this, not endless, but very long, multi-decade chronology of every piece I've published. And so there's a lot there. I liked the fact that you can sort of hear the development. You kind of hear where I come from. You can go back to the late 1980's and hear what I was doing and throughout the 90's and follow the way I've explored different ideas and I think there is a lot of diversity in there. Another thing I should say with the site is that I really emphasize that it's all available free, because I'm really as a composer. I'm about taking risks not just as a composer, but for listeners as well. And I want people to be able to go to my website and it's conceptually intimidating, but you can click on something and there's no consequences. If you don't like it, try something else, delete it. It doesn't matter. You can freely explore. And I'm always hopeful that people will do that
Darwin: Right on. Well, one of the things that I found interesting: I came across your work actually through a link that was passed around via New Music USA, to a video where you described some of your work. And as you were describing some of the work I found a lot of resonance with the way that I think of work, but then also a lot of things that are almost polar opposite of I feel. And one of the things I noticed that you talked a lot about is this concept of creating work where the recording is "The Thing", not some performance of it or not some score that will be performed in the future, but it is the recording that's the thing. And that seemed to be really key to the development of your work. Did I get that right?
Kenneth: Absolutely. I mean, when I started writing my own music as a teenager, I think for me the point at which I really got excited about it was when I got a 4-track. A crude 80's, 4-track, and I realized that instead of fighting with bands and playing and trying to get musicians to practice their parts, I could do this myself. And a lot of my whole musical development has been this desire for a real autonomy of being able to create recordings myself and also to publish them myself. so I can work as hard as I want. I can push myself as hard as I want to. I can have total freedom in what I'm doing artistically and build it all into a form that I am as close to happy with it as I can be.
Of course, there's a sort of an asymptomatic process of pushing your vision, this perfection that you'd never reach. But I can go until I'm totally exhausted and can't take any more. And then I say the pieces done and I put it out there, which is actually going to be happening I think in the next week or so. I'm coming close to finishing a piece, which is a about a six month long process for me at this point. Hopefully in the next week or two you'll see something new on my website. So that's how it works.
Darwin: That's really interesting. And one of the things you said earlier that actually surprised me is that you labeled these based on the date that they were begun. I think for a lot of people that do composition, it's the ending date that's actually the stake in the ground. And the beginning date is sort of such an abstract concept that a lot of people can't even point to. "I started this on this date."" It's almost like, "Well it was kind of swirling around and then all of a sudden I belched it out in some way. It was done on this date." Why did you choose to label them by the starting date?
Kenneth: Yeah. Well, I think it speaks to something in my process, which is that I'm not really envisioning these... there's a very interactive relationship with the technology involved that as I'm working, I'm not envisioning a piece, I'm not sketching it out in my mind. I'm working with raw materials. I'm someone who composes by ear. I'm sort of like the, the anti-Beethoven myth. Like if I went deaf, I would be done because it's all based on hearing it. And having worked my entire life as a musician within the digital realm or the electronic realm, that feedback loop of hearing something, responding to it, changing it, modifying it is just - that's the fundamental component of my work process. And for that reason, the starting is actually very central because that's the moment where something gels, where something comes together.
And sometimes I'll be envisioning what I'm going to be doing. But usually there's this moment where something happens. You're like "That is the thing. I need to follow this idea!" So the dates along with, which is a longer story, may just be my way of avoiding responsibility for coming up with titles. I used to come up with titles and they were terrible. as a teenager, I would make these pretentious, awful titles. I came to realize they were actually damaging the music. Then I went through a period where I went to my piano teacher and I said, "Look, I gotta stop these horrible titles I'm creating. Give me some classical sounding things that don't mean anything." I had enough sense as a kid [to know] that a Sonata as an actual form.
Like you can't just say "It's a sonata" butsome give me anything: prelude or allegro. Mostly that doesn't really mean anything concrete. And I did that for a while and that was even worse. But what I was doing the whole time as I'm making these recordings on my little 80's four track is when I started recording, I'd write the date in which I started and then I figure I'm going to fill in the title later. And there was a point and I was in college, I'm maybe 19 or 20 where this idea kind of hits me. Why don't I just not fill in a bad title? And there's a title right there already. And that's kinda how the whole thing got started.
Darwin: That's actually pretty brilliant! You know what's interesting is I can even visualize the, the cassettes with the dates on them. Right? Maxell cassettes with that little dated stickers.
Kenneth: That's exactly, exactly what am I, and then hopefully the crossed out very pretentious title.
Darwin: Right. Well, I also can see where labeling things, "prelude" or whatever would feel like it's boxing yourself in when you're really being super-exploratory.
Kenneth: That was always kind of my point of not making my original justification for not having titles: say I call a piece "Ode to a Spring Morning" and you want to listen to it on a fall morning. Like, I've wrecked it. I like giving the listener that freedom, and I like them to be able to develop a relationship with a piece of music that works for them in whatever way it's going to. And when people tell me about listening to my music and the strange experiences or visions or emotions or things they go through, I really enjoy hearing about that because it triggers very different things and very different people. I don't want to lock that down by imposing my ideas. I really want you to get the pure abstract music and do with it what you will.
Darwin: That makes a lot of sense. Now, one of the things I like doing in my podcast is learning more about people's background. And in your case, this concept of blurring the lines between classical music with stuff you do on a four track plus eighties synth nerd stuff. I mean, it seems like a great intersection, where the crashes are going to be spectacular! I'd like to know a little bit more about your background. How did you get started in music? What was the things that drew you into both classical and electronics and how did you become the artist that you are today?
Kenneth: Well it was the 1970's when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and I was a kid in the Jersey suburbs - and every household has a piano and every parent says the kid's gotta take piano lessons. And that's just the way things worked. I was very obedient. My parents (who were not at all musical) said, "You should take piano lessons." And so I said, "Okay, I'll do it." And I hated it. I was miserable. I mean, I never practiced. I'd throw up before every recital. I was so anxious. I was just, the whole thing was a horrible experience. But I stuck with it because my parents said to stick with it. So I did. And it just never meant anything to me. I found classical music boring. I found pop music evil. I had no relationship to it and I just wandered along.
I come from a very literary family. It was a very cultural place, but they were not musical. That was not sort of the form of the arts that was present in my home life growing up. And when I was in middle school, about 12 years old, I went on a field trip for school and I met this kid who had this thing called a synthesizer. Now when I say synthesizer, this is 1982, so maybe it's a toy Casio. It's not a high tech piece of technology. But to me, seeing this, it was like something had fallen back in time from the future. It was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. It could make all these kinds of sounds, drums and crazy [stuff]. I thought that was just amazing. And suddenly I was inspired and I was interested in this and I fortunately had been slogging through these piano lessons all these years.
So I had a little bit of background that I could bring to bear on it. At the same time, I developed an interest in pop music, which is early 80's trashy New Wave Synthpop, and also, critically at the same time, I found a piano teacher who was willing to teach me the music I wanted to learn rather than force things upon me. He would teach me the music I was hearing on the radio, but he teach me how to learn it. He taught me how to learn to listen and play by ear. Cause I should say that I've realized over time that I have a very bad relationship with notation. I got a kid now who's nine years old and he's taking piano and he's honestly better at notation than me that I am. I mean, he sits there and he corrects me all the time as I'm trying to ostensibly teach him.
I just have this block: Western classical music notation doesn't, at some deep level, make sense to me. And so I was kind of frozen out of music. It was not something I could get, could penetrate - but suddenly here was a way I could learn to play by ear. I had these tools, these technologies that I could create music myself. And it changed everything. By the time I was 4, 15, 16 years old, I was saying, "Oh yeah, I'm going to be a composer." Like that's what I'm going to do. It's strange to me the most people aren't like that, but it was just completely clear that this is what I was going to do and it's what I've done.
Darwin: Right. Well, this difficulty with traditional notation, it's something that you and I share. I started off as a guitarist and guitars is typically a hard instrument to deal with notation with anyway. Beyond that, the rhythms that I heard and then the way that they were notated - or chords, the way that I imagine them and the way they were notated - there never seemed to be a match between what I would see and what I would hear in my head.
Kenneth: It's a weird way to chop up time. I remember what I used to do as a kid at these piano lessons as an elementary school. I'd struggle with these rhythms I'm supposed to play and I'd say to my teacher, "Oh, could you just play it for me?" And I hover over his or her shoulder and I would just perfectly match what they had just played. So clearly there was some musical ability there, but it just wasn't one that could make that translation. And so I became this really good mimic, of just watching my teachers. And then I would pretend to read what was on the page, which is exactly what every teacher says you should do. But I was not a good student.
Darwin: So, you had this teacher that taught you the process of learning. Is that where you started to get chops in terms of like learning theory and compositional development and stuff like that?
Kenneth: Yeah, that's where it got interesting to me because suddenly it was practical, you know? And of course I'm a middle schooler in the eighties - I want to form a band with my idiot friends and we're going to play at the dance. Isn't it weird? It was a whole series of disasters, but that's what I wanted to do. You have this ambition "I want to be Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran, I want to be whoever is on MTV at the moment." And so here was a way to get the skills to hit record on my boombox when a song I like came on the radio and I take it to my piano lesson. I'd say, "How do I learn to play this?" And he'd say, "Oh, okay, well you got to find the root. You've got to find the chord changes." And that's where the theory actually started to be something that was of interest to me, because it was something that would get me to that imagined result of being popular in middle school or high school.
Darwin: Yeah, but popularity and synthesizers don't always mix.
Kenneth: I just don't understand that. Why is that? What's wrong with this world?
Darwin: So, once you started getting a sense of structure and theory and that kind of stuff, how did you develop that into a compositional practice?
Kenneth: Well, that was really about that experimentation with the four track. So even as I'm struggling with bands and trying to get my friends to learn their parts, I've got this four track and I'm sort of saying I could have four of me instead of me and my three friends. And I started to learn that iterative process of recording, of layering things. I taught this all to myself. I mean, you didn't go to school for this. There was no way to do that then. So I just sat there with these tools and I kept asking my parents for weirder and weirder pieces of technology. They didn't know what they were, but they said, "Okay, you seem to need this thing, whatever it is." And I just figured it out on my own. And from that I really do feel like all of my compositional techniques I use nowadays are really rooted in that sense of developing recordings. That's what why the sense of creating a sculpture, creating a thing with a recording is the work itself. That's my process. That's the way I build these things. I think about how many how many copies of myself can I get? How much can I perfect these different lines and control it all within this medium. That makes sense to me intuitively,
Darwin: but at some time, at some point you clearly stepped away from the world of synthy pop stuff and started embracing both some of the instrumentation, but also some of the voicing, I would say, of classical music. And also abstract or avant garde music. You took it far afield from where Duran Duran was going to show up.
Kenneth: Oh, I don't think I've met ever matched the work of Duran Duran. But no, I mean, I think what's interesting is that at the same time I was getting into pop music, my older brother was introducing me to things like Philip Glass. And I was hearing stuff that, I think for me, hearing Phillip Glass at a young age sort of defined what a composer could be. Like, it becomes more abstract, but you're kind of doing the same thing. I also, could probably dig out from my cassette archives all of these little pseudo baroque pieces I was playing and composing because I love this stuff. I'd hear Bach, I'd hear different things and I'd say, I want to imitate that. I want to do that. So that was in there. And there's always been this push and pull throughout my work. I think between the acoustic sound sources and the electronic sound sources and I love them both, but I go back and forth and certainly where I'm at right now is a lot of my stuff sounds very acoustic and sounds very traditionally instrumental, but it's all being built algorithmically with processes and data and all these weird ways that are very electronic.
Darwin: Sure. I assume you've graduated from the four track to a laptop or a computer with some large number of tools.
Kenneth: I started electronic music right before MIDI was standardized and when I was my senior in high school, I got one of the earliest MIDI sequencers when I did a theatrical score for the school play, and I used the computer, which was, I remember - I ran into this friend of mine at a high school reunion who was saying "You can't believe the things Ken was doing. He connected a keyboard to a computer!" Like nobody's done that before. Like, it's not that nobody had done that. We had done that in our school before, but it was an interesting thing. and I was, I was already starting to transition to doing computer based work in 88, 89 certainly. so let's say, and it's if you work in multi-track recording, it's a pretty seamless transition to moving into a DAW. Same concept.
Darwin: Right. So most people that end up doing the music that you do go through a very traditional university process and all that stuff. Did you do that or did you just decide to do it on your own and
Kenneth: I decided to do it on my own. I was young and I was rebellious. I started out in college thinking I was going to study music, and I just hit a wall with it. I hated it. I mean, it was the late eighties, so I think academia is a lot more liberal nowadays. I think there's more interest in experimentation, but this was a very conservative time. And there was the sense that electronic music is, that's not something you do and what we're here to do is to make you into a 12-tone composer. What I actually referred to as "Music to Get Tenure By." And I have a lot of epic stories of battling my music professors and flipping over the table and saying, "I am going to write the way I want to!"
And they're like "Why are you here?" It finally occurred to me that I wasn't really meant to be there. I think there was this one fight with a professor where we got into this argument about how I was resolving certain chords in a piece of mine. And we're getting mad at each other and I'm trying to be rebellious. He finally said, "Look, the reason I'm here is to teach you the historical way in which these things have been done." And I realized he was absolutely right. That's why he was there. And that's why I shouldn't be there because that was just not what I wanted to do. And not long after that I moved to New York city and I've been doing my own thing ever since. There's pros and cons to it, I could tell you, but it is definitely the path I've chosen.
Darwin: Well that's really interesting. I'll never forget like having it out with a teacher one time about parallel fifths and I was "Black Sabbath does it all the time! Why can't I do it?" So then how did you kick off once, once you decided to break, break it out on your own? I mean, yeah, that's kind of a scary world because if you don't have the safety net and safe nest that the university academic system provides, how do you go out there and say, "Well, I'm doing this forward-thinking, forward-sounding neoclassical neo-electronic music stuff." How do you do that when you don't have the trappings of academia around you?
Kenneth: You get a day job is what you do. And that was the first thing I did out of school was: I got a job and I've had, to a lesser or greater extent, jobs ever since. I still have to work some as a freelance editor to support my music and that's just part of the deal - and I certainly have a better lifestyle now. Like when I first started out, I had to work full time in an office and it was a cool office - it was a molecular neurobiology lab. I survived throughout the 90's, working as the assistant to a famous neuroscientists. So he was a fascinating place to be. But I was an administrator. I mean, I've had menial jobs, you know, throughout, and that's that's the price you pay.
It's like if you want that freedom to really experiment and to really push the possibilities of what can be done, and to really explore it - you gotta pay for the freedom and that's how you get it. That's it. That doesn't change. I look at my friends, I have many friends who work in academia now and I feel like they have such a harder life than me, like grading papers and dealing with students, ending up being on committees and teaching classes. It's rough. And I feel like I do a little bit of freelance work here and there in between music projects and I get by and - I don't have tenure I don't have that security. but it's a bargain I'm very happy with for the freedom and the time I get.
Darwin: Yeah. So let's talk a little bit about some of the process of making your music because, like you said, it's long form. It tends to have a very much of an acoustic sound. So I'm curious where those sounds are actually coming from. But also you mentioned that it was like there was like some algorithmic stuff built into this and I'd like to hear a little bit more about that. What is the process you go through? Because, you know, you talk about this long form thing, like it's like it might be six months to develop a piece. I'd love to kinda hear a walk through of what it looks like. I gather here and I sift through here and I edit here. Tell me a little bit about that process.
Kenneth: Yeah, absolutely. I'll just walk you through a sense of the piece I'm building right now, which will hopefully be out very soon. I start with a general sense of... actually this piece changed a lot now that I think about it. There's always a push and pull between like what you want a piece to be and what it ends up being. But this one, as with most of them, starts out with a real simple improvisation. When I'm working nowadays, I work in these very constrained scales. I start with four note scales. I'm often using what I call a Tetra-chromatic scale. So just four adjacent semitones, which gives you a very Feldman-esque sound, I just improvise over that often with a couple different instruments.
For example, splitting the keyboard between piano and a string sample, violin samples, cello samples, whatever I'm working with. There's an initial sort of raw improvisation of just playing, which is like the oldest thing ever. You just sit down and have fun. You improvise like that. There's great things that happen and there's less great things that happen. So then for me, there's an early process of editing of taking these short (these are generally short) like one or two minute, three or four minute improvisations. Just these little melodies and crafting them and honing them and finding what interesting ideas I might have stumbled across in improvising. And that at least looking at the most recent piece, it forms almost like a fugueal theme of the piece like that there's a piece of raw material that begins the composition.
The next stage is a sort of creation of variations on that through digital layering. So taking this underlying pattern, this underlying melody that I've built and stretching it, transposing it, layering it against copies of itself, changing the pitch relations within the scales I'm using. And in all of this, what I would compare it most to - this is where my process gets very electronic, very electronic. It's like writing dance music. You sit there, you mess around with a bunch of loops, you get things going and you're playing, you're twisting dials.
And in this case, the dials and twisting are generally pitch transpositions or changing the harmonic structure. But there is an improvisational process there of layering things together, exploding them in the computer, shooting these patterns at each other and waiting for that moment for something interesting to happen. And when that interesting thing happens, you hit record. So whatever software or whatever template I'm working in, I've built it so that whatever crazy thing I've done, there was a moment where I can push one button and it's going to capture everything I'm doing.
Sometimes that's in audio form. More recently it's in MIDI form because I like having the ability to really micro-edit everything so then there's this long period of improvisation with that earlier little theme I've created of just creating all these different variations of layering the thing and twisting it and stretching it and finding a bunch of different moments. Usually it's 30 or 40, these little short fragments, each one will be four or five or six minutes long. They're usually a total mass and then there's another process that goes on of selecting the best ones - finding those that are the best that can be put together into a story that makes sense and then clean them up, editing them into something coherent. Then the technical process of making it sounding like a good recording and then hopefully next week it will be published.
Darwin: Wow. That's pretty amazing. But it sounds like a very organic process. Now you made a brief statement that like you used to do audio, but now you're focusing on MIDI. But I'm wondering to what extent audio isn't the right way to capture it because it locks you in, in, into one step in the process and says, "OK, now that step is there, now I go to the next step."
Kenneth: Yeah, that's right. I mean, I do find that it's helpful in my process to have those discrete steps because otherwise I just end up getting bleeding through different stages or stopping. I do find like: OK, I've written the underlying material, the theme of this piece. Now I'm moving on to the part of generating the material and I stop that and then I go to the part of editing material that science is very procedurally helpful for me. But it's true that it's only in the last few years, and there's a slight worry about as an ongoing project in mind that explains how I've moved in this direction. But MIDI has become more important for me as I'm focusing on more traditional instrumental sounds and on particular way of writing I've been doing recently. MIDI gives you a flexibility that you don't have when you're locked into the audio. And that's something which I've learned in the last couple of years to really take advantage of compositionally. I think.
Darwin: Interesting. Because sometimes for me having that stuff as MIDI actually complicates the process to the point that it stalls me out. It's almost like while something's still MIDI, it's too fungible for me to be able to say that's a piece that I'm working on.
Kenneth: Right. Yeah. And I think that's where my weird process helps me of having these distinct, discrete stages I go through. And another thing that I've learned to do as I've perhaps gotten slightly better at this in terms of survive... you've got to realize the fatality rate for my pieces. Historically I would burn three or four pieces for every one that gets finished and published. I've got a little better at that and I think part of that is being willing to do tests and to, like, reach forward in the process and to say, "OK, so what if I try this? Let me see if this is gonna work."
It's running a few preliminary studies and experiments and then ducking back a stage in the process and there is for me always a point where I like a lock a certain stage down and say, "Okay, I'm done generating new material. Now I've got to start editing it." But it does help to jump back and forth a little to make sure it's going to work, which is the hard part for getting any of these things to work.
Darwin: Now I would say that the process you're describing here seems to be almost as antagonistic towards collaboration as any process I've ever heard!
Kenneth: That is really true.
Darwin: But I noticed that you did a release with Taylor Dupree at one point, right?
Kenneth: Yeah. Taylor and I have done a bunch of work together.
Darwin: Yeah, the one that I heard I really loved.
Kenneth: Yeah. Which one was it?
Darwin: Post Piano.
Kenneth: That's a series of records we did. But yeah, Taylor and I have a particular process. Taylor and I had been friends for many years and worked together a lot, although not as much recently. It's been a little while since we did something collaboratively, but we had a particular way of going about things which, I would say, tried to take advantage of our respective idiosyncrasies and our ways of working in a collaboration. You've got to know that this is the part I'm going to be good at and this is the part you're going to be good at and we're going to go back and forth with this. I have another collaborative record coming out soon with a composer named Joseph Branciforte. He and I have been working together for the last couple of years on a project that's been incredibly educational to me.
Joe heard my work a few years ago and he felt like - and this is a crazy idea and he suffered greatly for it - but he felt like he could adapt it for acoustic instruments. We have been going through the process of reverse engineering some of my work, playable by acoustic musician. So I'm going to have a record coming out of collaborative album with him, which will have a piece by me and a piece by him. The piece by me is an originally electronic piece built from heavily manipulated samples that he madly and insanely managed to transcribe. This incredible, complex score. I couldn't even count. I couldn't conduct it, much less play the piano parts in it. It's adapted for piano and two cellos and we did a performance of it and last year we recorded it and we've now edited the recording.
It sounds gorgeous. I'm really excited about it. And that's going to be out on a new label called Grayfade that he started. And we're hoping to get that out in the next couple months. So it will be a new direction for my work. But I think for me what's been most exciting is that it has really impacted my compositional work: I'm starting to think in terms of maybe, whatever piece I'm doing, maybe one day we would be able to adapt it for acoustic instruments. So how does that change my thinking and how does that change how I go about writing these things? And that's been a really interesting challenge and I think I've grown a lot from it and I hope we'll continue with this work.
Darwin: Sure. Now, one of the things I see, and I mentioned it before, I feel like a lot of you work sounds like acoustic. Although you mentioned that a lot of your work actually is like you playing a keyboard with a split with piano and string sound or whatever. Is that always the case or do you play other instruments or...?
Kenneth: I'm originally a pianist and so I have I think like a pianist. I was never very good, but that's the perspective I have, which I think you can understand. It's like you're a guitarist. Do you think about things differently if you're a wind instrument person? You just have a certain perspective on music and harmony and structure. But I mean everything you're hearing on my website is electronic, I mean some... that's not entirely true. There are cases where I've recorded acoustic musicians and process their sounds. But the majority of stuff you're hearing is me working with samples, working with sample libraries, working with sounds that I'm manipulating, in in some way. And I take pride on in at times in the realism of it. I had a very respected colleague write to me at some point asking "What string ensemble played that piece of your?" I'm like, "Oh, that was me and my computer was the string ensemble".
Darwin: Well see, that's what I would have come at you with is the same thing. Cause I felt like what, what is sounded very much to me like was a processed string ensemble.
Kenneth: Yeah. There are cases where that's true. But I would say the majority of the stuff on my site is 100% electronic. There's exceptions to that. There's times I've recorded acoustic musicians. Ironically, and this is, I think, an interesting case is that when I record, I recorded [violinist] Conrad Harris from Flux Quartet a few years back. And I had this whole idea of what the piece was going to be like. And I started to put it together and completely failed (as every piece does). And I went in a totally different direction. What's interesting is I found that the pieces where I'm working with actual instrumentalists end up sounding more electronic. Whereas the pieces where I'm working with sample libraries sound more acoustic. So I think whatever you're hearing on my site, you should just assume it's the opposite of what they sound like! I mean I have pieces that are 100% violin, 100% cello, 100% viola, 100% flute. They are the most electronic things on the website. These sound totally bizarre and you'll hear something and you'll say, "Oh, that's definitely strange."
Darwin: Generally speaking on my podcast, I avoid gear talk for two reason: One, because it's generally boring, and two, because it's so much of a date stamp, right? You'd be like, "Oh, I use, I use Native Instruments, blah, blah, blah. Two weeks later you'll be using something else. But I have to know a little more because I am blown away to hear that you're just using sampling keyboard things for a lot of those work. Do you mind me asking a little bit about what is your composition system look like?
Kenneth: Sure. I mean, it looks like the thing I'm talking to you on right now, it's my laptop. I have an external hard drive with sample libraries. I think I kind of realized this about myself really recently. I always described myself as an 80's synth nerd, which is how I emotionally identify. But I'm really a sampler person. I'm not a synth person. I'm a sampler person. That was something I learned. I was maybe 16 or 17 and I went to a show at Princeton University and the score was this guy who'd done something with an EMU EMAX sampler. And I was so blown away by what you could do with it that, it was the next thing I got. And I've been a sampler person ever since. I think working with samplers for that long, it's like any instrument, you develop a feel for it.
And I've learned to work with them in a way that I can hide their disadvantages cleverly. Because there's a lot of disadvantages of working with samples. It's a dangerous thing. It can sound very fake. It sounds very mechanical. And I've learned to weasel my way around that pretty effectively and write to what I have available technologically. So it's all my laptop for a quick tech summary. I mean, it's nothing super-exotic. I work in Ableton and Digital Performer. I compose in Ableton in terms of improvisational stuff, and then I edit in Digital Performer. Performer was the sequencer I got back in 1988-89 when it was before digital. It was just Performer, which no one even remembers now - a long time ago. I've got a lot of plugins on that. I mean it's your basic... it's Native Instruments Kontakt, a lot of Kontakt libraries or libraries in general for whatever. Samplers have come a long ways in recent history in terms of scripting, in terms of particularly being able to get some of the nuance of acoustic instruments in the connection between notes in repetitions, you know?
I always would explain to people that Feldman, he plays the same note twice on the piano, but it's not the same note. There's a physics in there of the resonance of the string. You can't play the same note twice on a violin because the hairs hit the metal of the wire in this complex microphysics that you can never capture. That's why acoustic instruments are wonderful. Samplers always showed that weakness where you play the same note twice and you get the "sampler effect". And it's the same thing. Obviously like the mind hears it at some cognitive level. It's not even an Uncanny Valley effect. It's a, it's a "Canny Valley" and you're like, "Wow, that's really fake!" But I think it has reached that point where if you are really focused on the details and you have a facility with these tools, it's possible to create create stuff that has a richness and organic quality to it.
And to me, that's not about replacing the acoustic musicians. And I think when this new piece of mind comes out with piano and two cello, you'd be like, "Wow, it's so much better than my electronic version." But for someone who's compelled to work in this medium, because I can't work in notation, I can't work with staff paper; the way I think is through thinking about patterns on the computer and modifying them. This gives me a way to hear the sort of thing I'm envisioning and to really build it in a way that I'm close to being happy with.
Darwin: Well, and I would say that that as no matter how stunning the piano and two cello sound is, there wouldn't have been that composition had you not had the sampling and computer tools to formulate them in the first place.
Kenneth: Yeah. So this is what allows me to be a composer is having these tools, and the adaptation. And it's funny because having this power in these tools at your command, you become insanely neurotic or maybe, like me, you're that way already. But I gotta tell you, editing the acoustic version of this piece almost killed me because, of course, you don't have that control anymore. And we may have peaks of a given passage, but like I can't change the MIDI velocity values. Like the way I want to. I can't shift it a millisecond forward or backwards in time. And I came to learn that there is as a compelling compromise that takes place when you're translating these pieces into back to acoustic musicians. You get this richness and detail and you've got to learn to live with those notes that are just allowed to you, that just don't hit quite where you want because you don't, you've given up that control you once had. It's been a good learning experience for me. I've really enjoyed it.
Darwin: Yeah. A lot of people who find sampling that compelling part of electronic music oftentimes gravitate somewhat towards field recording or doing their own capturing. Have you experimented with that at all or is that something that just isn't that interesting to you?
Kenneth: I went through a period of doing field recording works in the early 2000's and you can dig those out on my site. It was a response to a very difficult period in my life, both personally and artistically. And I needed to start over in a sense and get back to get back to first principles. I was really struggling. And I found that by opening the window and sticking a microphone out it, I was able to get what I needed.
So I ended up doing this whole series of pieces that were based on different neighborhoods of New York city where I'd walk around with a concealed microphone and just capture the sounds. But I know a lot of people who are phonography people who take field recording as almost like documentary film making, which is very beautiful.
But for me it was a way of finding new raw material where could work through what I needed to do musically at the time. So they became sort of the compositional colors in the palette that I was working with for a couple of years. It's very noisy and dirty and industrial and these very rough pieces. And that's... you can dig it out on my website. And I think, I hope, that one is able to hear sort of the same, even though the sound design is very different, it helps that the same compositional concerns are in there and recognizable. It's a period I have some ambivalence about there cause I think it's, I think it's important.
Darwin: Well, your website is like the endless scroll, so I'm just going to have to keep on scrolling until I get to those early 2000's.
Kenneth: All of it in one sitting!
Darwin: Now the other thing is you talk about having come from the 4-track thing, and 4-tracks are making a comeback. Have you ever been tempted to just pull out the cassettes and start labeling cassettes again? Or is that long and happily gone?
Kenneth: I have a lot of friends who would do a lot of cassette stuff nowadays and they love it and they swear by tape and they get wonderful results. I have not been really tempted to go in that direction just because I feel like my thinking is elsewhere. I'm really focused on harmony and these very abstract principles. And I feel like if I need to reground myself in sound design and in like the tactility of the medium, that might be a direction I'd go in. But I'm really happy with what I'm doing right now and I feel like I got a little ways to go on this still.
Darwin: Awesome. Well, I'm sorry we're out of time and I've got like, I've got this whole list of questions I would still like to dive into, but we're going to have to save it for another time. For people who want to hear more: first of all, it's kennethkershner.com - that's the place to have the endless scroll of all your work from your whole lifetime. Right?
Kenneth: Well, I mean there's a lot I haven't published that you don't want to hear - my recording going back to 1982 and it's not pretty.
Darwin: All right. And the work that you did with Taylor, what are some names for people who search on for that?
Kenneth: Yeah, I think Taylor and I have three albums together. Those are Post Piano, Post Piano 2 (the cleverly named sequel). And then we have a live album called May, which was from a concert we did in the Lisbon in I think 2008. And yeah, I think those are all pretty widely available.
Darwin: Okay, fantastic. Well, man, I want to thank you so much for taking the time. This was just a really inspiring and exciting discussion. And with that, I will let you have the rest of your evening. Have a good one. Bye.
Copyright 2019 by Darwin Grosse. All right reserved.