Interview with Jason Kahn 1
An expansive conversation with Jason Kahn about the relationship between sound and music, between his work and his life - part 1 of 3
Because music is an artform which develops in time, its relationship with space has often been forgotten, neglected or misrepresented. In the musical oeuvre of Jason Kahn, meanwhile, the importance of space expands from the tiniest details into a philosophy of life - from the city-spaces he has lived in to the live- and studio-spaces where his work is created; from the acoustic spaces awarded to his sounds to the creative spaces that govern their arrangement and behaviour; from the spaces built to appreciate music to the mental spaces that something as simple as a pop song can conjure up. One of the reasons for the astounding richness of Kahn's oeuvre is the fact that all of these aspects factor into his compositions, creating sonic worlds that are as alien and inquisitive at times as they are sensitive and reassuring at others. It has grown into a fascinating foliage of releases, from his still percussive early works on his widely admired, now defunct cut imprint, via the tranquil, almost static tracks of Sihl (inspired by a small stream in his current home of Zürich) to the mental field recordings of recent tape release In Place: Daitoku-ji + Shibuya Crossing or the epic 8CD realisation of Manfred Werder's 2005(1). Now into his third decade as a performer, his latest releases on his new, personal Editions imprint, Noema and Open Space, can be considered as arguably his best work yet. In many respects, Kahn's path as an artist has become inseperable from his path as a human being, which may sound cheesy, but goes a long way into explaining what has made his music so continually rewarding and surprising over such a long period of time.
In this first part of an expansive interview with Jason Kahn, we speak about the period of his time after his stay in Berlin and the changes initiated by his move to Switzerland, about his connections with the Swiss scene around Günter Müller and the influence of cities on creativity.
An article in Austrian mag Skug suggested that it was your stay in Berlin around the time of the second Repeat album which made you re-think and eventually change your way of working with drums. Would that be a correct assessment? What role did the city itself, as well as the community of artists and possibly even concert locations, play in this regard?
Actually, the changes in my approach to playing the drums were part of a longer process, starting pretty much when I arrived in Berlin. Repeat (a duo with Toshimaru Nakamura) was the first project where I was able to integrate everything I had been developing. The second Repeat CD (“Temporary Contemporary” on Four4Ears) was actually recorded in Tokyo after I had already moved from Berlin to Geneva. But perhaps this recording could be seen as the musical culmination of my nearly nine years living in Berlin.
Looking back on the time in Berlin, it now seems strange to me how everything came together. I had moved to the city, thinking I wanted to focus more on free improvisation. I had been playing in a rock group (Universal Congress Of) which had enjoyed some notoriety in Germany, so I wasn't known as a free improviser. And what I actually discovered upon moving to Berlin in February 1990 was that the most interesting things happening for me were in the area of electronic dance music, not improvised music.
Right after I arrived in the Berlin I was at Tacheles (an old abandoned department store in Berlin Mitte which had been squatted and turned into artists studios, a cinema, a club, etc.) for a concert and ran into an old friend of mine from Los Angeles, the artist and musician Brad Hwang. I met Brad when I was living at The American Hotel in downtown Los Angeles (a former transient hotel, converted into a rooming house of for artists—where I also first met Joe Baiza) in the mid-1980's. We hadn't seen each other for several years and were both like, “What are you doing here?!” Brad was there with a friend of his, Mo Loschelder. Mo had also just moved to Berlin. She had started DJ-ing and producing her own music. We became friends and through her I was able to learn about the underground dance scene in Berlin. This was my introduction to the sounds and structures of electronic dance music (in this case, Techno). Up till then I hadn't had much exposure to this kind of music in Los Angeles, where I had grown up and was still living in before moving to Berlin. I was a drummer playing in rock bands, starting to find my way in free improvisation. I didn't have the exposure to this kind of music, although I know now that, for example, Detroit Techno was already a precursor from many years before to the sounds in Berlin.
The pared down approach to rhythm and the idea of process as musical material in Techno were refreshing to me. I lacked the wherewithal to make this kind of music myself but I would say the gist of it appealed to me and I somehow wanted to integrate this aesthetic into my playing. Aside from the rhythmic aspect of the music I was also interested in the use of sampled sounds. This wasn't as new to me, having heard so much hip hop, but perhaps combined with the rhythmic properties I found a new interest in trying to integrate this into my playing. At this point, though, samplers were still too large and expensive for me to consider using them for live work and the first laptops powerful enough to use as sound tools were still a few years away. I also became interested Middle Eastern drumming. In Los Angeles I had studied about African music as a student at the University of California Los Angeles. My interest in Jazz led me back to its roots and I spent several years really interested in Nigerian and Ghanaian drumming. The focus on Middle Eastern music really only occurred after moving to Berlin. During my first year there I lived in an apartment in the Naunynstrasse in Kreuzberg. This is a Turkish neighborhood. Everyday I was immersed in the sound of this community's music. Several times over that year I would be walking around the neighborhood and hear what sounded like a party going on in one of the buildings, with drumming and people singing. I'd go in the building to see what was going on and discover a wedding party in full swing. As soon as I'd poke my head in the door someone would wave at me to come in. And so, there I would be, experiencing this amazing music. Even after moving from this apartment I kept my practice studio in the cellar until I moved to Switzerland, so this soundtrack of Turkish music pretty much accompanied me through my entire stay in Berlin.
But what I ended up actually studying was Arabic music with Farhan Sabbagh, an oud player from Homs, Syria. I was interested in playing the frame drum (daf), which appealed to me more than the Turkish darabuka. One of my great inspirations in drumming had been Jaki Liebezeit (of Can), who played all these crazy asymmetrical rhythms while still making them sound really groovy. I'd read that he took many of these rhythms from Middle Eastern music. I wanted to try the same approach, somehow integrating this with my interest in Techno and improvisation. So, for a little more than two years I studied the daf and tried to bring this rhythmical approach into my playing on the drum set.
In 1993 I recorded a CD with Günter Heinz, a trombonist from East Germany. This was another one of those formative experiences, as Günter worked extensively with live electronics. So, as we were recording Günter's sound was being processed by an engineer working with us. Of course, in the history of contemporary music this was nothing new, but for me this was the first time I'd had the opportunity to experience this first hand as a player and not just as a listener. This use of electronics, outside the context of dance music, started me thinking about other ways of integrating electronics into my playing – not just with sampled sounds but with the actual transformation of the sound at hand from my instrument. I started working in this direction at the end of the 1990's (after I'd moved from Berlin), when the first powerful laptops became available, enabling real time sound processing.
Not long after this two events coincided which made it possible for me to start working with more electronics. The first was the advent of cheap samplers. I was able to buy a Yamaha SU20 sampler and, as limited as this was, it got me on the road to bringing electronic sounds into my playing. Around the same time my Sony Walkman broke down and I took it to a shop in Neukölln to have it repaired. The owner of this shop also made his own binaural microphones for Walkmans. I bought a pair of these and this got me started with recording environmental sound and integrating this into my playing with the sampler. Although I probably didn't think of it at that time in these terms, I was now decontextualising the recorded sounds and approaching the practice of Musique concrète, using these recorded sounds as sound objects and inserting them in my playing as I would the actual physical objects of my drum set.
Aside from the advent of electronics in my playing, there was still a great community of acoustic drummers performing regularly in Berlin which made me re-think my approach. One of these musicians was Peter Hollinger. He came more from rock music but played almost exclusively in improvised contexts. He also did solo concerts, playing a piece called “Koffersuite,” where he used all sorts of bits of metal and other “non-musical” objects, performing sitting on the floor. This reminded me of the work of Z'ev, though on a more reduced scale. I also admired the fact that Hollinger could bring the energy of rock music into the context of free improvised music. This spoke to my background and was really inspiring for me. Another drummer who I often heard in Berlin, though at the time he wasn't living there, was Paul Lovens. In Los Angeles I'd only known his work through recordings. Now that I was living in Berlin I had the chance to hear him many times and his approach really opened me up to many new ideas – not just the material he used but his thinking about structure. His playing was very pared down in a way but also maximal in its freedom and diversity.
In 1994 another of those propitious experiences occurred for me when the American composer and artist Arnold Dreyblatt asked me to play in his group “The Orchestra of Excited Strings.” His drummer, Pierre Berthet, couldn't do a series of upcoming performances in Prague due to the fact that his wife was about to give birth to their first child. Arnold didn't know me before this but the saxophone player in his group, Werner Durand, did. For around a year before this I'd been coming to Werner's house to play with his wife Amelia Cuni, who was a singer in the Dhrupad tradition of Indian classical music. I met Amelia through my daf teacher Farhan Sabbagh. Slowly I began to feel a part of a musical community, if not from outward appearances a very disparate one.
In Arnold's group I had to strip my playing down even further. Mostly I just played the snare drum and bass drum, occasionally a cymbal or wood block. The pieces were composed but elastic, meaning that the changes from one section to another were called by different players in the group (often the drummer). Arnold liked to joke that his music was in “1/1” time signature, which more often than not had a very steady 1/8 note pulse coupled with some march rhythms, all of this set to a harmonic system based on just intonation, which when played at a certain volume (and in this group the volume sometimes became very loud) had a certain psychedelic effect of swirling overtones and inner ear reverberations.
After the series of Prague concerts the cimbalom player Chico Mello left the group and Arnold asked me to take his place. This would be the first time that I played in a group not sitting behind the drums, which was really an eye opening experience for me. I was now dealing with the rhythm of just my two hands, playing cells of different rhythms coupled with each chord of the given composition. When I first started to learn the drums I spent a year just on a practice pad learning rudimental drumming (marches, etc). Playing the cimbalom echoed back to this and I really enjoyed the simplicity of repeating these cellular rhythms over and over again until Pierre Berthet gave the signal to move on to the next chord of a composition. In a way, this wasn't that far from the ideas I'd been hearing in Techno, also dealing with cells of rhythm, phasing and layering.
A bit before starting to play with Arnold I formed the project “Cut” with Birger Löhl, a rock guitarist from Hannover. The modus operandi of this group was to bring improvisation together with structures built upon cells of rhythm. I was playing a lot of the rhythms I'd been studying in Arabic music and using the idea of repetition and process taken from Techno. And into this I wanted the element of improvisation and flexible structures. I think there was no audience for this type of music at the time, so we had it pretty rough finding gigs. But we persevered and recorded one seven inch single and CD as a duo. The group expanded to a trio with Swiss saxophonist Gregor Hotz in 1997. We recorded one last CD as a trio and then the group disbanded in 1998.
I was now spending a lot of time traveling back and forth to Hannover for rehearsals with Cut and going to Paris to study Iranian drumming on the tombak with Madjid Khaladj. This was on a grant from the Arts Council of Berlin (Senat) and, once again, I wanted to try bring the rhythms of Iranian classical and folk music into my playing on the drum set.
In 1995 I met Toshimaru Nakamura when we played in the same group providing the music for a butoh performance in Tacheles (actually, in retrospect, if it were not for Tacheles so much during my life in Berlin probably wouldn't have happened. For several years this place was very important for the artistic community in Berlin). Shortly thereafter we started working together. I went to Japan several times and Toshi had started coming to Europe. We released our first CD “Repeat” in 1997. By this time I was using a full-size sampler and a drum pad to trigger it. But still, the music on “Repeat” was a far way off from our second CD “Temporary Contemporary.” “Repeat” was quite active, perhaps having more to do with much of older forms of free improvised music. I think both Toshi and I were still grappling with how to synthesize all our newfound ideas (Toshi was still playing guitar on this recording, for example).
It took another two years before we both came to that place where we could create something new for ourselves and in the context of the music happening around us at that time. “Temporary Contemporary” was, for me at least, the fruition of the 1990's, bringing all I experienced in Berlin to a unified form. This probably had as much to do with Berlin as Tokyo, as my trips to Japan throughout the 1990's also played a strong role in my development, having the opportunity to play with Taku Sugimoto, Tetuzi Akiyama, Otomo Yoshihide and many others. But that would be another story …
I guess looking at all this in the context of “space” one could easily deduce that the extraordinary situation of Berlin right after the wall came down played a direct role in my own development as a musician. For one thing, much of East Berlin had vast amounts of residential, industrial and retail space sitting empty. When I came to Berlin almost none of my friends payed rent for their apartments, studios, clubs or galleries. And if they did pay, it was next to nothing. With the pressure of money gone an extremely creative atmosphere prevailed, especially I would say around the time period 1990 – 1992. Most of the underground dance music I heard took place in clubs in East Berlin. And this went for improvised music as well. For me, West Berlin was like a ghost town. The real artistic community was in the East. In the DDR improvised music held a special place and was actively supported by the state. This meant that even after the fall of the wall many clubs and community centers in East Berlin still lingered on (but not for very long, unfortunately). This gave me many more playing opportunities than if I had just been living in West Berlin before the wall came down (not to mention Los Angeles). And the same was true for much of the former DDR, in large and small cities there were so many places to play (and even be payed) that I was able to gain a lot of experience as an improviser, playing with people like Dietmar Diesner and Johannes Bauer.
I found the community of musicians I met in East Berlin much more supportive than in western half of the city. Living in East Berlin were not just musicians from the former DDR but also west germans and people from all over the world who had come to Berlin like myself to experience the moment of change. I just remember people being really helpful and supportive in general, whether one needed assistance in finding a place to live, to start a club, open an art space. The only pressure I can recall was that of trying to take it all in, there was so much going on. West Berlin, on the other hand, was almost relaxing in its lethargy. But in the end I always found its atmosphere stifling. Places to play there were so delineated: rock, jazz, world music. In East Berlin, most spaces for live music featured many different types of work. Everything felt much more open in East Berlin than in the West. And I think this encouraged me to try out more directions in my own work. For sure the whole idea of bringing electronic music into my playing would probably never have occurred to me had I been living in West Berlin before the wall came down.
I remember going to the Hard Wax record store when it was located in the Reichenbergerstrasse in Kreuzberg, not far from my apartment in Treptow. My friend Mo worked there. I would often go there hang there for a while as she and the staff played all this great music. Then I would go out at night (more often than not in East Berlin) to some club as a listener or a performer. And the next day I would be back in my studio trying to make sense of all this, assimilating all this different input. I feel sad now that this space is gone or, better said, relegated to the space of memory now, but I'm glad that I had the chance to experience it all while it still existed.
What I find intriguing about what you just wrote is that these city-spaces are never just self-contained, but actually open systems, drawing in influences from around the world by means of the international artists that live there or the circulation of ideas through the Internet. In how far do you believe that there is still a distinct spatial character to these cities in artistic terms at a time when the whole world is at our fingertips, to to speak?
I feel that the whole idea of the Internet, this notion of “the world at our fingertips,” is a bit misleading, or at least at variance with my experience. Of course, the Internet puts a lot of information at our disposal, and this in and of itself is certainly an experience and a certain aspect of “reality,” but that this would so radically influence the character of cities doesn't jive with what I've seen. There is certainly more cross-pollination possible, with people perhaps being able to draw on more influences through access to information (sound, image, text, etc) in the Internet but I can't see this negating what takes place on the ground, as so much of what defines a city space has to do with the structure of a city, its population, its culture … so many factors that have very little to do with the Internet And for this reason I still find it interesting and important to perform live, to meet people, to hear other people play, to play with other people, to just be with people. This might sound like an exaggeration, but one thing I've certainly noticed since the growth of Internet is that perhaps fewer people seem to get out. The net sucks people in, the way television once did, and has also greatly changed how musicians work, not just alone but with others.
For example, this whole notion of collaborating over the Internet probably arises out of this sense that we don't need to “be there.” We can always “be here” and “be there.” Have our cake and eat it too. But I don't see it this way, or, at least, this is not the way I want to work with people. Someone once asked me, in regard to the graphical scores I compose and realize with different groups of people, why I didn't just solicit recordings from people and realize the final pieces at home. At first I was really baffled by this question, because it obviously seemed so self-evident to the person asking it, and then I realized that the mind set behind such questions lies in the Internet. The whole point of these pieces is about working with a specific social space (the group of people realizing the piece) in a certain physical space (the place the piece will be realized). The space of the Internet doesn't provide any of these possibilities for me.
Which all ties into your question about the distinct spatial characteristics of cities in artistic terms: this will never diminish, no matter how much people spend their lives sitting in front of a computer. The Internet is certainly important and necessary in many ways, but it is not the life outside, it is not the life in a city and for many people around the world it is hardly a factor at all because they can't afford to own a computer, or because their network is so slow that the Internet is practically useless for them, and so on.
I don't mean this as a rant against on-line culture but more my own personal flag going up in the context of when, for example, I came to Berlin in 1990. This was right before the time when the Internet took off, but still at this point there was for all intents and purposes no Internet being used for social organization in the circles I moved in. All this great creative surge of energy happened without forums or blogs or wiki's or Twitter or Facebook. People met in bars and clubs or on the street and the word spread around. Where I lived in East Berlin there were still no telephone lines installed. I didn't have a phone at home and mobile phones were not an affordable reality yet. But still, people would take the time to come by and leave a note on my door if I wasn't there. And the whole of East Berlin worked this way!
One of the factors which ironically drove me from Berlin in the end was the very artistic community which I once found so energizing and inspiring. I agree that cities are, as you say, open systems but it's not just about input from the Internet or from visiting artists who add to the creative environment of a city, it is more I believe the indigenous population having its influence on the visiting artists. And in the end, what I noticed about Berlin was this huge gap opening between the artistic community and the indigenous people from Berlin. Many of the people I noticed coming to Berlin had nothing to do with Berlin other than having their studio there or finding cheap places to live and go out at night. I knew so many foreign artists who didn't show the slightest interest in learning German, even after living many years in Berlin. So, not only was the city being eaten alive by political priorities and land developers, but it was being inundated with all these people from around the world who had so little interest in the place they came to live. And, quite frankly, this really began to drag me down after a while. As recently as a few years ago, long after I'd moved from Berlin, I met this woman on a residency who still lived there. And she could not stop telling me how marvelous the city was, how “she only knew artists there.” And where did she live in Berlin? Neukölln! One of the areas with the highest crime and poverty rates in all of Germany!
So what difference did it make to move to a city like Zürich, where the cultural infrastructure for experimental music is, as I believe you once mentioned, relatively minimal, compared to Berlin? In how much did - and does - this directly affect your work? I noticed in this regard, for example, that the beginning of cut followed in the wake of your move to Switzerland and that you eventually released your first solo album there - which may be coincidences, but could certainly be considered a result of a new environment.
Actually, I started the label cut while still living in Berlin. The second release from the group cut (for which the label was initially named) “Popular Music That Will Live Forever” came out in 1997. The second release on the label from Repeat, entitled “Repeat,” was released in early 1998, right before I left Berlin. So, the idea of releasing my own recordings from groups I was in didn't necessarily correspond with my move from Berlin. But certainly the idea that I could release work outside a group context had something to do with moving away.
After leaving Berlin in July 1998 I went to Geneva, where I stayed until August 1999. This period was really productive for me. I finished two solo CDs (one electronics, “Analogues” and one for drum set, “Drums and Metals.”) Toshi and I also recorded the second Repeat CD, “Temporary Contemporary,” in October 1998 in Tokyo. I'd actually started working on “Analogues” in early 1998, while still living in Berlin. So, the idea of releasing work under my own name was not a notion directly tied to moving away from Berlin. But what Geneva did give me was the isolation to work in. Basically, when I moved there I knew almost no one, and certainly I met practically nobody who was interested in the music I was doing. There was also no music being played in the city which interested me. Unlike my life in Berlin, there were no distractions. And I had escaped from this treadmill-like existence there of being a “professional” musician, which I'd grown tired of and had pretty much given up the notion of pursuing. I was just focusing on composing pieces for “Drums and Metals” and “Analogues.”
I was living in a squat in Geneva and had a practice room in the basement. I basically just went down there every day and worked on the pieces for “Drums and Metals.” Parallel to this I was composing with my sampler and drum pad and recording the pieces for “Analogues,” which I recorded direct to two-track DAT. I also recorded much of the working material (environmental recordings, percussion, short wave radio) for “Analogues” in Geneva. By March of 1999 “Analogues” was done and by late July of that year I'd finished the basic recordings for “Drums and Metals” at Studio Midi in Caudeval, France.
In August of 1999 I moved to Tokyo, where I stayed until December. My time in Tokyo was even more isolated than in Geneva. All the people I knew there were either away on tour most of the time or, like most people in Japan's larger cities, so busy with their day-to-day existence that they rarely had time to meet. I think my experience living in Tokyo pretty much clinched the idea for me that I was going to have to go it alone and concentrate on working outside of groups for a while. I just didn't have the context any longer for this modus operandi.
After Tokyo I went back to Switzerland and, more by force of circumstance than anything else, ended up in Zürich – which certainly wasn't even remotely anywhere on my list of places to move to at that time. Again: more isolation. I don't mean this in a romantic sense, as in the struggling loner artist desperately seeking to forge his voice in a wilderness of despair and general lack of interested for his work. But more as an objective description of the working environment I had to deal with. At that time, and certainly also now, there wasn't that much going on musically in Zürich which interested me. It has gotten somewhat better and, like most places, circumstances change in waves, but in early 2000 I didn't find much to connect me musically to the city. A kind of nascent experimental electronics scene was as close as I came to finding people who had some similar lines of interest. But certainly not the improvisation community. For practically all intents and purposes this was closed to me.
So, pretty much out of boredom, I started a roaming concert series, “Sonique Serie,” staging concerts in different places around Zürich: an acquaintance's studio, the cellar of a house I was living in, etc. And I was inviting friends of mine to play like Steve Roden, Brandon Labelle, Tetuzi Akiyama, Utah Kawasaki, Voice Crack, Kevin Drumm, Illusion of Safety, Günter Müller and many more – all in all 20 concerts over the span of two years. I sometimes played as well but usually I was just the host. I think the series woke some interest in Zürich for these new directions in music, but it was really tough going. To give you some idea, the Voice Crack concert, one of their last and also one of the few they had played in Zürich at that time, drew only around fifty people! Most of the other concerts had much, much less people.
For the second season of the concert series the arts council of Zürich gave me a small grant to help pay the musicians. Up till this time I was paying everyone from entrance money, but mostly from out of my own pocket. But for me Sonique Series was a success and a great experience. It helped me meet like-minded people in Zürich and build some interest, albeit a very small amount of interest, for this work. Zürich, unlike Berlin, had much financial support for experimental music but, unlike Berlin, lacked both an audience and places to hold concerts – which is still pretty much the main problem in Zürich to this day. There are practically no affordable spaces to do experimental work in. Most of this work does not generate much income (if any), and hence there is no way to afford the horrendous rents which plague Zürich's real estate market. Unlike in the 1980's and into the middle of the 1990's, the squat scene in Zürich has all but been decimated. And the squats were always vital for providing a place to experiment in and draw a non- exclusive audience to hear new work. Nowadays in Zürich (and probably most of Switzerland) finding a place to have experimental music concerts is the biggest hurdle in helping this area of music to grow. Until this changes – and I don't think anyone realistically foresees this – Zürich will probably not become any more active in this area of music than it was when I moved here in 1999.
So, to sum this all up, I guess this sense of isolation I experienced moving to Geneva, then Tokyo and finally to Zürich put me in a position where I had to concentrate on finding my own voice. And that Geneva and Zürich had little of interest for me musically, freed me up from the constant distractions and even sense of competition which were endemic to Berlin which, in the end, was great for a sense of community (at least in the first few years I lived there) but perhaps not the best city for me to get my own work done in.
Would you say that your immediate, local environment has become more important for your music after the end of cut, with which you'd built up an international network?
I don't feel like cut established any substantial kind of international network for myself. A lot of the personal projects I published on the label involved people I'd either already known or had already been working with well before I started cut. Of the twenty-five releases, only a few involved people who I had never personally met before (and, in retrospect, I can now say these were some of the more unsatisfactory releases in the catalog for me). I had never thought of cut as a way of “making connections” or building up a “network,” though I know of many people who have started a label with these goals specifically in mind. The label merely reflected a necessity, namely to be able to release my own work. With time, friends of mine approached me (or me them) and asked me to produce a CD.
The importance of Zürich – my immediate, local environment as you put it here – is de facto important for what I do. As would any place I might be living. However, I certainly cannot put Zürich on the same plane as other cities I've lived in such as Los Angeles, London or Berlin. And this not because Zürich is an inferior city to these larger cities, but more because perhaps in this phase of my life the city I live in has taken a less impinging role on my work. Though I still try to find ways to work with Zürich, through various projects (like Sonique Serie concert series (2000-2002), the radio piece “Unheard Zürich” (2007), the public space installation “Triemli Passage” (2007), the ongoing text pieces “In Place” (2011-) many of which deal with places in Zürich, as well as numerous projects with musicians from Zürich). But I would probably be doing these projects in any city I lived in – they are not specific to Zürich, or, rather, living in Zürich didn't give me the idea of doing these pieces (there have been other radio pieces in the “Unheard Cities” series, such as “Unheard Delhi” (2011), “Unheard Kyoto” (2012) and “Unheard Tokyo” (2012), as well as several public space installations in other cities over the years; and I have quite naturally worked with musicians from every city I ever lived in).
Whatever international network I might now have has essentially developed over the years through extensive touring. Very few of these initial contacts arose through cut. I think cut was a great project and it meant a lot to me but, realistically, I'm not sure it was much more than a blip on the screen during its existence. I've never been one for building up all these contacts through email correspondence, social media and so on. It's always been a lot of footwork, traveling, meeting people. And this is all becoming more challenging for me now, having five kids makes it difficult for me to get away as often or for as long. I also enjoy being home. And so, back to Zürich … I am here but I don't see much more of the city these days than the different routes to my kid's schools, the way to my studio and the immediate neighborhood, which, due to gentrification, is increasingly becoming a place I tend to spend less time in. I guess you could say I split my time between my home and my studio. Most of the work in my studio consists either of new compositions or working on recordings made with people during my recent travels. I currently don't have many collaborators in Zürich, or even Switzerland, for that matter. This is all not a problem for me – it is what it is. Perhaps I am just happy that Zürich doesn't take its toll on me – like Tokyo or Los Angeles did with their horrendous travel times – and that its character is neutral enough to give me a blank slate to work on. There's not much more I would ask for at this point in my life.
Can you, just very briefly, speak about the sound art community within Switzerland at the time? I'd love to know more about how you met people like Günter Müller, for example, and what attracted you to working with him? What were some of the shared objectives between the Swiss artists, would you say? How important do you rate labels like For4Ears – and is that imprint now officially defunct?
There does not seem to be any grouping of a significant direction between different practices involving sound. Perhaps this has to do with the Swiss art schools, that still have not caught up with the rest of the world (such as the USA, UK, France, and many other countries) which in their art departments recognize sound as a medium to work with in the context of art as opposed to the the context of music. Many schools in these countries already have studies in experimental sound practice, which I'm not aware of in any Swiss art schools.
Their appears to be some linkage between arts funding trends (art and technology) and current tendencies in sound work – things like d.i.y., hacking, and, of course, the prevalent “media art.” But it seems to me, that most of what's going on in Switzerland is a pale copy of what has already been going on in other places of the world for years before. Perhaps one glaring exception would be the woefully overlooked work of Norbert Moeslang, who since the 1970's has been working with sound and technology in ways which are prevalent today.
Moving on to Günter Müller, we first “met” through a CD he produced of the German trombonist Günter Heinz, who was one of the first people I played and recorded with when I moved to Berlin. On this CD I played drums and Günter trombone with live electronic processing. It was for me at the time very uncagetorizable music and I enjoyed playing with Günter, who didn't fall into what I considered at that time to be the prevalent modes of improvised music. Four years later, I had just finished a third set (the first set was released as the CD “Repeat,” the second set has been lost, unfortunately) of recordings with Toshimaru Nakamura for our project Repeat. We were looking for a label to release this and contacted Günter Müller, who immediately replied very enthusiastically.
When I returned to Switzerland in 2000, after traveling a while and living in Japan, I contacted Günter again and we began playing together, in duo and gradually with other people. We've since released many CD's and played all over the world together.
I think what attracted me to playing with him at first was his enthusiasm for the recordings with Toshi. This indicated to me a certain shared sensibility which, at the time (beginning of this century), was still forming. I'd seen Günter play in Berlin in the mid-1990's, which I enjoyed, though this was much different from where his playing was at when he and I finally began collaborating together in 2001. You ask about the shared objectives of the Swiss artists, which, I assume, means the people I have worked or continue to work with. Well, to be honest with you, as with the “sound art” scene in Switzerland, I can't really comment on any shared objectives or much community in the experimental music scene in Switzerland. Perhaps in the french-speaking part I sense more solidarity, but for the most part in Switzerland there just seems to be many small groupings of different practices, each one battling to get its piece of the funding pie. And perhaps this, sadly enough, is the only shared objective: for each micro-community (jazz, improvisation, new music, etc) trying to advance its position of influence through recognition by the different funding bodies.
And because of this, I'd have to say that, though I find some positive aspects of arts funding (of which I have also received my fair share) in Switzerland more debilitating than facilitating. There often seems to me to be more focus on creating work which will receive funding than on pursuing a unique artistic vision, without any consideration of whether what one is doing will be seen as “good,” or “acceptable” (in the sense of what is normally expected by funding bodies, prevailing festivals, concert series, etc). I guess this must be the same everywhere, but as I live in Switzerland I perceive it more acutely here.
Regarding Four4Ears, I would definitely say that this was a very important outlet for experimental music pretty much since its inception. If you look at the catalog of releases you will see many names which are now well known today but which published their work very early on in their careers on For4Ears. As for if the label is now defunct now or not, I can definitively say. Günter hasn't released anything for a while now but I'm not sure of the exact reasons why.
Jason Kahn Interview by Tobias Fischer