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A Quietus Interview

Finding Out Something True: Eyvind Kang Interview
Joseph Burnett , February 3rd, 2012 07:20

On the eve of a London gig, Joseph Burnett talks to modern compositional powerhouse, Eyvind Kang

Eyvind Kang is a composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist and performer who gained prominence in 2010 when he worked on arrangements for Sunn O)))'s much-celebrated Monoliths & Dimensions, helping the famed doom/drone unit transcend their guitar-based roots and connect with modern composition and experimental music. But beyond his numerous collaborations (which also include work with the likes of Bill Frisell, Laurie Anderson and John Zorn), Kang has established himself as a potent artist in his own right, as demonstrated by two albums released on Sunn O))) guitarist Stephen O'Malley's Ideologic Organ imprint, Aestuarium (credited to Kang and his partner Jessika Kenney) and Visible Breath. He also has an upcoming release on Ipecac Records, The Narrow Garden. All three albums reflect the diversity of Eyvind Kang's musical output, with none sounding at all like the others, but also his singular approach to tones and atmosphere.

With an O'Malley-organised concert at London's Cafe Oto coming up on Saturday night (February 4), as well as the recent release of The Narrow Garden, the Quietus caught up with Eyvind Kang to discuss his interest in diverse sounds, upcoming projects, plans for the Oto show, and the themes and approaches behind his compositions and music.

Could you please provide us with a bit of information about your background? Were you always into music? How did your recording career start?

Eyvind Kang: I grew up in Canada, Winnipeg and Regina, and a little bit in Iceland. My ancestry's a mixture of Icelandic, Danish and Korean. I was in awe of musical instruments. I've been taking different kinds of lessons and studying, practicing my whole life. As a kid, I noticed some other kids taking piano lessons, so that was my first impulse, but I started with violin, as a lot of Korean kids do in the US. I had an amazing teacher in elementary school, who introduced me, and everybody in the class, to orchestra music. In my teenage years, I got into reggae and played the bass with some friends in a band. We just learned music communally. And it just kept going - my God, it never ends!

By the time I went to college, I thought that I wouldn't go into music, but somehow I was hooked, so I ended up sticking with it - that's how I ended up in Seattle, actually, at Cornish, in the early nineties.

I started recording when I was in college. My first CD, 7 NADEs, was recorded around then, maybe in 1994. I've always been making music, from the get-go.

Do you want to know the names of some of my teachers? Every time I say their names, it hardens a shell around their teachings, so I prefer not to.

How are preparations going for your concert at Cafe Oto in London?

EK: Great. Me and Jessika are knee deep in that! We're married, so we do this all the time. It's really nice to bring it across the ocean. It's going to be my first appearance at Cafe Oto. We're excited to play there and be a part of the show.

What can we expect from you on the night? Will it be a more stripped-down show than the music on The Narrow Garden?

EK: Yes, but not as much as Aestuarium! It's rather confusing, because a lot of things came out at the same time, recently, like The Narrow Garden and Visible Breath, and then there's the duet with Jessika, Aestuarium, which is very stripped-down. There were eight or nine musicians on Visible Breath, and then on The Narrow Garden it was getting up to chamber orchestra size. The music we're bringing to Oto is Jessika. [laughs] It's not going to be as austere as Aestuarium, because that was recorded five years ago, and since then, a lot of plant-like tendrils have grown out of that, and we've gathered them up into one thing we can present.

I want to do a gig to release The Narrow Garden, but it's kind of a conundrum. It was taken from a live gig I did in Barcelona, however... There will be some brand new pieces (at Oto) and we might want to revisit bits of Aestuarium, but I can't imagine we would play it the same way. The stuff we're preparing is very different to anything that we've done that came out. Aestuarium is one pole, and we have another pole involving a lot of electronics and ambience. I don't know what the space of Oto is like, but we have a little tour coming up, so hopefully some of those rooms are appropriate.

Can you give me a bit of background on the recording of Aestuarium?

EK: Aestuarium was a bit like a shadow, a tone. Me and Jessika play together, and combine the sounds... O'Malley called it spectral music, which was a surprise, because I feel Jessika and I use phenomenology of sound and tone, so it's kind of the opposite of “spectral”, as I understand. Spectral composers want to study the nature and interior of sound - the consciousness of sound - whereas when we did Aestuarium, we were going into ourselves, our own consciousness of sound, where there was no difference between hearing and making sound. Intention, like the old Aristotelian meaning of the word. So we went into ourselves, and found that the sound and its shadow are like twins, and we joined them in our piece. But five years later, even with being graced by the vinyl reissue - which is like an echo back - we realised the shadow and the tone had grown apart from each other in an interesting way. I'm riffing on Ibn Arabi, the great Sufi philosopher. He said that the object that casts a shadow and the shadow itself, are related, point-by-point. But the proportions in the shadow can change so much that you're dealing with infinite proportions. The shadow can be infinitely large. That's the kind of thing that I think we're practicing. With the “marriage” of our tone, we can be shadows of each other. One can be finite, one can be shadow.

One of the other images is the stroke of the pen, the letter... The letter created by the stroke of the pen.

What was the theme behind the album? Water and nature seem very prominent, as well as the use of Latin lyrics...

EK: Yes, and Tibetan notation. I think Aestuarium was about consciousness, in a way. There was also the Latin text, which was very deep. Visible Breath was about nature and elements, wind and water; and The Narrow Garden is more about plants and animals. And stories...

At the time (of Aestuarium), we were living by the water on Puget Sound, and we recorded at our home. Our friend Mel Dettmer, a great recording engineer, came over and we just did it in a day or an afternoon. The composition too: everything just happened right there, nothing was pre-planned.

We were living on the water, and it's a place where fresh-water and salt-water come together, the “aestuarium”. You can actually hear the water on the record! It's an interesting place, where salt- and fresh-water meet, with a really interesting energy. There are salmon, a really important fish, and birds like the cormorant and the heron. So we were kind of entering into their realm.

The lyrics are from a Latin psalm. It's about a pelican, it's a lamentation, but it's kind of unimportant, because we didn't want to emphasise the biblical side... But when you're dealing with the song, it's so sacred. I'm really fond of Latin.

In contrast to Aestuarium's sparseness, The Narrow Garden is very lush, with a lot of musicians. How did you come to compose the music for that album, and was it a challenge working with so many collaborators?

EK: It is really different, but if you listen to the other two records that came out on Ipecac, it's very much in the same ball-park. They were sort of one-offs, that went down somewhere in Europe, with art groups, and the results are documents of those experiences. But it took a long time to digest and mix. It was a challenge to work with a lot of collaborators

Again, what is the thematic background to the album, if any? Do all your albums work to a theme or narrative?

EK: My albums center on a polarity, a sort of yin-yang dynamic. So it's a quasi-narrative, and actually, The Narrow Garden is a little more like that, because there's the storytelling. I wanted it to be like a children's story, so it kind of holds your hand and walks you through it at first, and then there's a forest, where you kind of get lost... But those are metaphors. With Visible Breath and Aestuarium, you're just in there, but in The Narrow Garden, there's more formality, more manners, it's mannered. But “narrative' is another term I'm not totally crazy about, because it suggests that music is subservient, or following a form. I think that's a particular phenomenon of film music. I'm glad when people say it's like film music, because it kind of means that it was like a dream to them, that it evokes more; but when I'm working on it, I don't like to think that it's following a narrative outside of the sound, really. I think of dynamic states, and I always want to know where it's going, that there's a direction in the sound and that I'm following that.

Aestuarium seems to have a Celtic feel to it, whilst The Narrow Garden features more Eastern influences. Have you always been interested in musics from around the world?

EK: From one point of view, it's an apt description, but I think of it in terms of time, more so. Like sound worlds, and time eras. The way human beings think of sound is like a language, so there are periods when different languages of sound are more dominant. I'm interested in thinking about what a person would have done in the year, say, 1000 Common Era, when they picked up an instrument and started singing. Everything changed after the so-called Renaissance era and then the Enlightenment. Your boy Francis Bacon, and all those cats, they just revised everything that was going on in music. But the symbols in music writing are really rich, more so than scientific writing or the alphabets, there's more to work with. They're sounds from old worlds, that are connected to the East... The Orient, which can refer to the Arab and Persian world, and to the Far East. From a composing point of view, I'm very interested in the Orient. I don't prefer the term “melting pot”, because I don't believe in the reductionist elements of that phrase. “Biosphere” is more fruitful.

You can talk about world music, but, to transition to that without going through Sun Ra, Michael White, would be impossible for me. I live in a colony, breakaway settler state. To think, like Aime Cesaire, about the pan-African as a door, which is called "world" but to deal with the means of valid knowledge, of language, translations, intuition, tradition where learning means receiving, composing/improvising means giving... There are a lot of musicians I met on the Arabic music scene in the States, and a few of them are on The Narrow Garden.

Visible Breath is very different to the other two albums, and feels darker. What was the context for composing that album? Do you plan the atmospheres in advance, or do they evolve organically.

EK: Visible Breath is the most recently-recorded of the latest releases. The atmospheres on all three albums just evolved. What you're listening to sounds completely different to me, and I think it sounds completely different to someone else. And I think there are other possibilities, because there can be spirits, ghosts, and it would sound completely different to them. So I want to leave it completely open, I don't want to say that [an album] is mournful or dark, because I don't know how it sounds. But it's interesting for me to hear... Visible Breath can be kind of dark, maybe, but I didn't feel that. A lot of magic happens, but it's a question of conscious and subconscious. What you think you're going to do, consciously, is only the tip of the iceberg.

On Visible Breath and Aestuarium, you play viola, but you are credited as conductor "only" for The Narrow Garden. What was the thought-process behind the decision?

EK: Just because it was a large group of musicians with limited time to rehearse. As conductor, I could just make it happen and cue the people so they didn't get too confused or lost, and just guide it. I think that's the ethic of the music too, because it's taking the listener and guiding them. A guided tour [laughs]. “Ethic” is a very strong word for conducting and organising. That and manners and there's an image of courtly love that comes up in the lyrics, “courtoisie”, chivalry, Sufi chivalry, which is called futuhat.

You of course worked with Sunn O))) on Monoliths & Dimensions. How did that collaboration come about, and was it a challenge for you to work with a metal band?

EK: They have a Seattle connection, so I met them through Mel Dettmer and Randall Dunn, who both recorded Monoliths & Dimensions. Randall does live sound for Sunn O))), so he was the connector, really. He talked to Sunn O))) about me, and to me about Sunn O))). I think maybe Stephen [O'Malley] initiated it, but I don't know. I got the long metal, doom tracks and they gave me free reign to draw and paint with their tracks. It was a great experience. For the choir, we went over to Vienna. Stephen and I met during those sessions, and we realised we had quite a lot to talk about. At that time, I was discovering the whole “spectral” music thing and Stephen went crazy with that, his own way of understanding that. Sunn O))) has touched a nerve with minimalist composers, and they're teaching them in their classes! Stuart Dempster is also the great link, and Stephen O'Malley flipped out that he was on board. Dempster has all these links to Deep Listening, he's just huge, and he was quite enthusiastic about Sunn O))). So you have all these composers who “get” Sunn O))), but in their own way, with all their background in contemporary music, and the terminology around that. Whereas Stephen and Greg (Anderson) call themselves cavemen.

It was challenging to work on Monoliths & Dimensions, because the envelopes of the sound - the attack, the decays, the swells - all those things that are lovely about Sunn O))) when they play, create another dynamic than acoustic instruments. So what I wanted to do was follow the dynamic curve that was implied in their sound through the unfolding of instrumentation. After a while, though, it wasn't very intellectual - I became a caveman too [laughs].

How do you approach the composition of a piece or album? Do you have a set idea that you work to, or do you let the writing evolve organically?

EK: It writes itself usually. There's a process of logic, finding out something true.

Finally, what are your plans for the rest of 2012? Are there any more releases on the horizon?

EK: We're looking to come back to Europe in July, and hopefully to London. We're doing these small shows for very small audiences. We performed at a zen centre on New Year's Eve, where there were about ten or twenty people, but even performing to two, three, four, five people would be ideal. Where we could all sit together. It's a completely different musical experience than a venue with microphones.

I'm working on some pieces right now. I just did a string quintet, a piano solo, and a duo for cello and oboe, so smaller pieces. I hope to include them on a record that I got the go ahead to do. The first rehearsal for the cello/oboe thing is tomorrow, so I've got to get my act together! I'm seriously psyched about the piano piece, so that's the ongoing composing side. I'm also putting more time into just playing. I play hardcore jazz with Bill Frisell - he's a serious dude, so that's the jazz side, and I'm trying hard to come face-to-face with something like John Coltrane or Charlie Parker. That legacy. And then also Persian music has been crazy: I also have a concerto for Persian ney that I'm recording right now. We're doing it like a student project. I'm hoping that will be completed this year. But the main work is practicing...

Eyvind Kang and Jessika Kenney will be performing live at London's Cafe Oto on Saturday February 4

Photo by Bryce Davesne