Interview with Jason Kahn 2
An expansive conversation with Jason Kahn about the relationship between sound and music, between his work and his life - part 2 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 second part of an expansive interview with Jason Kahn, we speak about the changing role of space in his work, the studio as a space for creating and the role of the audience in shaping a space for music to come into being.
When was the first time you noticed that space plays an important part in your perception of music?
I was born in New York city in 1960 and lived there until my family moved to Los Angeles in 1964. In New York I didn't have a sense of the music I heard being connected to any certain space, aside from perhaps the space of friendship when singing Beatles songs with my friends. But as soon as we moved to Los Angeles the space of the automobile became an important part of our lives. Very soon for me, being in the car and traveling somewhere became inextricably tied in with how I experienced the popular music of the day. And, in fact, much of radio programing at that time (if not still to this day) was specifically targeted for people driving around in cars, listening on poor car stereos and trying to hear music over the din of traffic and engine noise.
And I soon realized that not only did the songs I heard on the radio while driving around in the car with my family sound different to when I heard them at home, but that perhaps they even sounded better in the car, or maybe sound was not the issue but more the total experience of hearing this music in the car (with the scenery rolling by outside, the sun streaming in though the windows, the sense of going somewhere, anticipating an arrival). All these factors became tied in with the music, which in essence then became the soundtrack for our lives driving around in the space of the car, going places. And certainly much music of the day celebrated the concept of moving on down the highway …
Around the same time I also discovered how singing these songs could create a space of my own. So, in a reverse sense to your question, I wasn't only aware of a space playing an important role in my perception of music but also of the realization that a song, or even just a melody repeated over and over, could play a role in the creation of a space – namely the space of the song and how we perceived the world outside this space, filtered through a melody or the general emotion that a certain song conveyed. And I still notice this with my kids today, how they can just get lost in a song, singing the same melody over and over, ensconced in this space they've created for themselves through music. In much the same sense that the car became this mobile space with the soundtrack of hit radio moving through the landscape, so too was this space of the song analogous to the car – something we could move within as we traveled through the day, be it in some sort of vehicle, on foot or even not going anywhere.
Were you aware of some of the typical classical examples of music recorded in extraordinary spaces, such as Paul Horn's Inside the Great Pyramid? What are some of the spaces that most impressed you, personally - is it always a question of a lot of reverb, or are there other characteristics which play an important role for you?
For me, what is most interesting in defining a space are not its physical characteristics (reverb, for example) but the social dynamics which produce a space. Of course, as a musician I am not insensitive to a space with interesting acoustics, but this doesn't really go far enough for me. I feel more inspired by music created in the space of a compelling social context. For example, when I was a child much black American music fascinated me. It had this energy which attracted me, but I was too young to understand where it came from. I felt its emotion but its origins baffled me. As I grew older and became more aware of the social and political conditions for black people in America, it became clear to me why their music sounded like it did. And I realized that this space of oppression they lived in resulted in a very special kind of music, in whatever style it might manifest itself: blues, jazz, funk, etc.
When punk happened this felt like a space of revolt for my generation. I was not a disadvantaged black person, but I felt alienated and also very much oppressed by the world I was living in: rampant consumerism, reactionary conservative politics, police brutality, war, pollution, racism and so on. The space of revolt became the most meaningful space for hearing and creating music for me, be it punk rock or black American music (to name just a few). This isn't to say that I feel like music has to have this component to be meaningful for me, but it is to say that, when talking about spaces that most impressed me, and which continue to compel me, then it would have to be this space of resistance. And for me resistance can also mean creating work which opens our ears to other ways of listening, of signifying with musical forms (like noise, free improvisation) a certain abnegation of the social and political circumstances we find ourselves in; and perhaps just by the very fact of persevering with this kind of work, which brings very little fame or fortune but which means so much to us – and hopefully to others – is in and of itself an act of resistance in a world where more often than not creative pursuit is derided and only considered valuable when it generates a profit.
In addition to all this, I often find too much emphasis placed on “extraordinary places” (like recording in a pyramid, a rain forest, the arctic, etc), as if their exotic location or unusual acoustical qualities lend them some kind of greater value or reason to take notice of them. I want to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. I'm constantly surprised when recording in the most banal of circumstances how often I come away with recordings of the greatest interest. I think that just by reconnecting with the everyday world of sounds around us we can rediscover the extraordinary – it's all just a matter of being open to let the world in and not try to shut it out, as most of us do as a means of getting through a normal day of constant sensory bombardment.
A case in point was my stay in Kyoto last year for three months. Among other activities I was there to record material for a new composition. Kyoto is, of course, famous for its many beautiful temples and shrines. And these have been extensively documented inside and out through the years in numerous recordings. I too made my recordings in many temples and shrines but what I found over the time of my stay was that the city had a life of its own beyond the appeal of its historical structures; and that this life offered a rich world of sounds in many ways more surprising and intriguing to me than most of the temples or shrines I'd recorded in.
My 2003 CD For Nicolas Ross consisted of many shorter compositions using recordings I'd made in Los Angeles as the working material. In retrospect, I'd say this CD was my attempt to re-chart the memories of a city I'd moved away from over a decade before. The sounds I recorded could be labeled as nothing special, but exactly this made them special for me. These were the sounds of the the everyday, sounds we might not ever take notice of (like the coins jingling in a beggar's cup), but placed on their own in the context of a composition they not only had a very strong aural presence but exemplified the richness of sounds awaiting us if we'd just open our ears.
It is often habitually assumed that humans are visual beings, something I've never been sure of. What are your ideas about the role sound plays for us, even on an unconscious level? How we can open our ears, as you put it, to what surrounds us – and in which way would this enrich our lives?
The subconscious effects sound has on us is a huge subject, there are so many aspects of our psychological, biological and spiritual existence which are influenced by sound. Just spend a day in a busy city and then the next day out in the countryside somewhere and you will immediately know what I'm talking about.
In terms of opening our ears it really isn't that complicated a task, but perhaps daunting all the same. We just need to cultivate an awareness of the sonic environment around us, trying to think about listening. It sounds almost banal in its simplicity, but the task at hand really doesn't involve more than this. It could be something as basic as sitting down on a bench somewhere and trying to listen intently for ten minutes. And then with time trying to extend the durations of listening with each “listening session.” The goal would be to listen to the environment as one might listen to a concert or watch a film.
For me there is an implicit political imperative in cultivating a consciousness of our environment – be it through sound or any other means available. When we lose touch with the world around us we also lose connection to ourselves. This can lead to a sense of apathy, both towards ourselves, society in general and the environment. And this lack of awareness makes us easy to manipulate by the powers that be. This may sound dramatic, but I think a sense of resistance against repressive political tendencies (which can also include pollution of the environment, alongside other problems such as infringement of our civil liberties) begins with an awareness of the world around us and and a clearer understanding of our place in that world. For me,
listening is one way of heightening this awareness
Many others share your childhood memories of driving around in cars listening to music or how a song can be even stronger when enjoyed together with friends. Why then, has space been so undervalued in western concepts of music, which always seem to detach it from the actual composition, would you say?
Well, on the face of it this would be too vast a question for me to answer here – “the western concepts of music.” But if I just limit myself to, say, “western popular music” I'd posit that probably more often than not popular song has been very intricately tied to an intended space: the space of love, of celebration (party), of betrayal, sadness, resistance, longing, friendship and so on. Perhaps the confusion here lies in the conception of space, which I wouldn't necessarily define as just physical space. There is also the space of thought or social interaction or dreams. And when we take this concept of space into account then it quickly becomes clear that, at least in the tradition of the song (in whatever form it might take: a ballad, a rap, blues etc.), very often a particular space is the very starting point of a song, that without this space a song wouldn't even exist. This is perhaps one reason I have recently appreciated the work of artist Susan Philipsz, in that she works with the ideas of songs and takes the space of these songs' melodies and places them in the context of other spaces, abutting the two space against one another. The ensuing friction or cohesion is what I found interesting.
And perhaps too this is what is so fascinating for me about hearing any song and linking it, either through the song's intended meaning or because of its juxtaposition to the occasion one first heard it (in the car, on a summer day, after heartbreak, etc), to a particular space. And how powerful the space of a particular song becomes, resisting its integration into any other space – it will always remain what it was for us, transporting us each time to its space, no matter what space we find ourselves in. Songs are so powerful.
When I spoke about "Western concepts of music", what I was mainly referring to was the concept that a composition is absolute and that it exists in a realm of ideas, untainted by physical/real-world considerations. Within this view, if we were to play a piece by Bach in a closet, a church or within the great pyramid, it would still be the same piece. Whereas, from a more sound oriented perspective, one could argue that since the experiences are altogether very different, we're talking about three different works here. Where do you stand between these poles?
For my own work – such as the graphical scores – I tend to think of compositions as being “site specific.” And for me, the “site” can pertain to a certain group of people or to a specific place. For example, a piece I did for a group of musicians in Seoul was conceived not just around their
musical personalities but in the context of the space we would be recording in as well. So, in this sense, my compositional work is a departure from the example you give here of a Bach composition being more or less the same no matter where or by whom it gets performed.
In a sense, you could say the compositional space of my work pertains to different places – be it a social place (of specific people) or a physical place (being informed by a city or a specific room). And I guess that for some of my work I'm not really that interested in creating compositions divorced from their environments. When I can, I try to find a way of using a specific situation – be it a place or a certain group of people – to guide my compositional strategies. This is also an approach I use in much of my installation work, where in fact the main focus is working with distinct spaces and places. I've done some stand-alone installation pieces – in the sense that they can be shown anywhere – but even these are relatively flexible and their dimensions are always tailored to the particular space they are being shown in.
I don't want to be dogmatic about all this, though. Many acousmatic pieces I've done have only been intended for a CD or LP production. Sometimes the basis of these pieces is the notion of a certain place, or perhaps using the actual sounds of a place, but there is also much electronic-based music which I've done that only pertains to the space of my imagination, the sounds in my head. So, I am open to many ways of approaching the notion of the composition. I do not have a problem with people who compose in the lineage of the Western classical tradition you mention
I don't want to dwell too long on your famous quote about "everything being already there" when walking down the street. But I just recently read Bernie Krause's The Great Animal Orchestra and he frequently arrives at a very similar conclusion: That there is greater satisfaction to be derived from listening to what he calls the geophony and biophony (sounds produced by animals and the non-organic world around us) than any human-made recording. This seem to hint at the concept of space as music, so what's your take on these ideas today – perhaps also with some hindsight on your statement?
For me these two concepts – “music” as opposed to “sound” (and I know that I am opening a huge can of worms here, even beginning to use such vague terminology) – are not mutually exclusive. I can still completely enjoy a piece of music (be it a song or someone's noise music or a composition using field recordings, etc) or just walking down the street. And, of course, sometimes “just walking down the street” also includes hearing “music.” What I really enjoy about New York is walking down the street there in the summer – especially in Puerto Rican or Afro American neighborhoods – and hearing all the great music on the street. It's like this continuous mix of music (and sound) from street corner to street corner. Back in the 1980's, when everyone had these huge boom boxes it was even better! I know that some people might see this as “noise pollution,” but I never fell this way.
And beyond hearing actual “music” out on the street there is the whole idea of any sound we hear being music. I adhere to this line of thought, but I don't value the one (a song) more than the other (environmental sound). I think every form has its place and time and so much depends on the head space I find myself in at any particular moment. Sometimes, of course, I don't want to hear anything!
So, yes, I still enjoy just walking down the street with my ears open, digging all the sound. It really never gets boring for me. The last couple of years I've been working on a series of pieces entitled “In Place,” where I spend a day (roughly ten to twelve hours) in a particular place, just listening, just being there. I don't take any notes, make a recording, or photos or do anything else but just be in this place and try to concentrate on all its sounds and, beyond this, the overall feeling the place imparts on me. After spending time in a place I then write a text about it (analog to the “recording” of the place). And I'd have to say that I've never once become bored just being in these places, which would put me in line with my original statement back in 2001. Another recent project was a realization of the Zurich composer Manfred Werder's piece “2005(1),” which entailed me going to the main train station in Zurich every day at 10:00 AM in March 2010 to make a 30-minute recording (the realization was not the recording but the actual act of being in this place – the recording was merely the document of the realization). This was released as an 8 CD (with each day's recording edited down to 18 minutes) set on the Winds Measure label in New York. And as with the “In Place” series of works I'd have to say that being in this train station everyday never got boring. Of course, the sound environment was not constantly thrilling but with patience and concentration I was always surprised at what arose. When I was least expecting it the most interesting sounds occurred. So, we have “space as music” but also “music as space” (going back to your last question). I
think this is a totality which we can't ignore.
Tell me a bit about the space your music is created in: Your studio. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking. are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
Not all my music is created in the studio. A lot of what I do is done “on-site,” so to speak: live concert recordings, environmental recordings, recordings of installations, etc. Of course, I also compose and this work gets done in my studio. But what can I say about this place? I had no criteria, I was just glad that a friend of mine offered me to sub-let his space. In Zurich one can't be choosey, there is so little working space available and that which is available lies pretty much outside my budget.
Before I had this studio I always worked at home. This was not by choice but by necessity (I had no other place to work in). But as I have five kids now, working at home has become increasingly challenging! And I live in an apartment with very thin walls. Much of the music (and I'm sure most of my neighbors wouldn't construe this as such) would definitely not make me many friends where I live, though I tend to not work at loud volumes (to save my ears). The problem tends to be certain frequencies. Low bass frequencies are very good for annoying neighbors, as are abrupt sound changes in volume or frequency. I even have these problems in my studio, as someone lives above me there as well.
One thing is certain and that is I can't work with headphones. I don't even really like to listen to music on headphones – only when it is necessary (like it's late at night and I absolutely have to hear something; or using them as a kind of microscope to hear something very subtle which I just can't seem to make out on my speakers). But for the most part I tend to hear music or create my own music on speakers.
I have several spaces I work in, though. For example, I'm typing this from the library of the Zürcher Hochschule der Künste (Zurich High School of the Arts), which is near my house, is quiet, has lots of light and an internet connection. When I want to play the drums I go to the Werkstatt für improvisierte Musik Zürich (Workshop for Improvised Music Zurich), of which I'm a member and which is also not far from my house. But when I compose then it's in my studio.
I just want to make a pitch here for open source software (Linux), because this has been what I've been working with for around the last seven years, and I've never regretted making the switch. I feel that the more people there are who work this way the the more this platform will be developed and made useful for more people. When I first tried to work with Linux and sound back in 1999 I felt it was still too undeveloped for the common user. I couldn't really get anything done, despite spending a lot of time trying to get my system to work. But now, nearly fifteen years later, I think this is a real solution and I would encourage.
You've mentioned that physical space and social space are frequently related in your work. What is your ideal of collaboration in this regard? What, from your perspective, is the role of the audience in a live setting in shaping this space?
Social space is key to collaboration for me, whether this be in the context of a live improvisation or working together in the studio with someone. Just as acoustical space provides the resonance for the sound of our instruments, so too does social space provide a place for our thoughts to reflect, deflect, sound in other ways than acoustical resonance can. And for this to occur I need to be in the same room with my collaborator. The idea of collaborating through the internet won't suffice. This doesn't interest me at all. There is so much talk about “social media,” but for me this concept approaches more an “asocial media,” and a space of vast and stifling alienation. Sitting in front of a computer and “interacting” with someone – that is supposed to be social? I just don't get it ...
When I perform before an audience I sense their energy, their presence. I feel my own thoughts resonating in the space of the audience's presence and I sense their energy on a physical plane, as well. The presence of an audience puts me in a totally different place. I could play in the same room without the audience and the experience would be totally different, and not only because the acoustical properties of the space would have changed without people in it. Generally speaking, the further removed I feel from the audience – because of stage size, room configuration, etc – the less I enjoy the playing experience. The audience is essential.
When I spoke to Thomas Ankersmit about the topic of working with the space, he commented: "I think the relationship between the music and the space it's composed and performed in is in my case - and in most people's case usually - actually not that relevant. It's an exception. Most of my performances take place in very straight-forward theatres, clubs with a stereo PA system, seating and a stage and the response of the space and my response to the response of the space will be very small." Is that your view as well? How do you keep things interesting for yourself when playing at fairly conventional locations?
This isn't my view of performing. There is a fundamental difference here in what Ankersmit is referring to – space as a physical / acoustical medium – and how I perceive space, which also includes concepts such as the space of thought, the space of conflict, social space and so on. I don't think of space in strictly physical or acoustical terms. And even if I did, my take on acoustical space is certainly at variance with Ankersmit's: in nearly every playing situation, be it on a large stage relatively removed from the audience or in the intimate confines of a small small room, I almost inevitably sense – at the very least – the energy of the people there.
I think for me the problem is not with “conventional locations” but conventional ways of thinking about playing in various locations and situations. And thinking about space as just an acoustical medium is certainly a very conventional way of approaching a performance practice. If I were to even think of acoustical space in these terms – as not being relevant – then I would really see no point in leaving the house to perform. This would be totally boring for me, to play in some vacuum on stage, out of touch with the audience, with the room I'm performing in, even with what I am feeling. This just isn't an option for me.
Jason Kahn Interview by Tobias Fischer