Interview with Jason Kahn 3
An expansive conversation with Jason Kahn about the relationship between sound and music, between his work and his life - part 3 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 third part of an expansive interview with Jason Kahn, we speak about various recording projects as examples of his perspective on space as well as the convergence of life and art as a unified space.
With your graphical scores for specific performers, how does space enter the equation? When you were in Berlin, for example, I believe you were playing a piece you had performed previously in different settings. So how have different locations, such as the Errant Bodies Space, asserted their influence?
Some of the graphical scores have been composed with a particular physical space in mind. For example, Dotolim (2009) took into consideration the size of the space (called Dotolim) we would be recording in; and Timelines Los Angeles (2007) took the sprawling physicality of Los Angeles as one parameter that went into composing the piece. But more than these considerations of space as a physical entity, the graphical pieces are about social spaces: what it means to bring people together and putting them in situations which might be challenging for them on a musical or social plane.
Josephy Beuy's concept of “Sozial Plastik” has influenced much of my thinking about these graphical scores, in the sense that we can sculpt a situation through its social dynamics. To my mind, music is about so much more than just sound or the organization of sound. I feel more drawn to the people making the sounds than the sounds themselves. And for this reason the graphical scores are composed for specific people. The bassist on one piece cannot be interchanged with the bassist on another piece – perhaps from a purely theoretical standpoint (in the sense that a bass is a bass) but not from the notion of the central concept behind these works.
The piece you heard me performing in Berlin at Brandon LaBelle's Errant Bodies Space was a new work, composed for that group of people. I could imagine the piece being performed again but only with this group of musicians. I am thinking of specific people when composing a new piece – not just how they sound when playing their instruments, but also their personalities, their energy, their presence.
When I was in Zürich recently, it was really interesting for me to walk along the Sihl. It was certainly very different from what I had imagined it to be after listening to your album by the same name. At the time, you told me that you wanted your music to sound 'like snippets cut from various audio topographies'. I am curious as to what, specifically, you are listening for or interested in. How can music sound 'the way light looks dancing on the water'?
I'm not sure any longer when exactly I composed “Sihl,” but as it was directly influenced by my observation of that river perhaps you were walking along its shores at another time of the year than when I was in residence at a studio there. The river changes radically from season to season. I can't really answer how music can sound “the way light looks dancing on the water,” as this will be different for each person and, beyond that, even different for me each time I see light on water.
So, what am in listening for or what am I interested in? These visual metaphors can trigger many ideas, they can also become actual parameters for composing with. Or they can just create a certain feeling to work with. I think, however, that I'm not much of an impressionist.
You've recently released a new tape on Wind Measure, which doesn't just contain sound or a text, but the recording of a text. Why wasn't it enough to just write down your perceptions of these spaces and let the audience read them? What's the difference from your point of view?
In the context of “Daitoku-ji Temple and Shibuya Crossing” my voice represents the sounds of these places as experienced by me. My voice contains the emotion of spending time in these places, then thinking about these places and writing down these thoughts. Reading this text is then like a field recording of these places, albeit on an abstracted plane. So, what the listener hears is not the sounds of the places but my thoughts on these sounds and on the atmosphere they create, as transmitted through the sound of my voice. Someone just reading these texts will not hear the same thing I hear from these words, and it is these words which indeed hold the meaning to the time I spent in these places. There is obviously a conceptual leap of faith involved here, which the listener has to be willing to make with me. But for anyone who has heard an author read their own work, it will become apparent that their reading of the text they wrote is a completely different experience than someone else reading the same text. “Daitoku-ji Temple and Shibuya Crossing” addresses not only the idea of the voice, and what it entails, but also plays with the notion of the “field recording,” which as a practice has, in my opinion, become incredibly codified in the last ten years with the advent of such cheap recording technology and computers. So, I'm asking, “What constitutes a field recording and how else can we communicate the notion of a place besides just playing back sounds recorded there?”
Can you tell me a bit more about your impression that field recording has become, as you put it, 'codified'? What are some of the qualities that you personally look for in these recordings?
I guess what I meant by codified was my opinion that the practice of field recording has through its growing popularity in recent years created many rules for itself. Of course, this will happen with any practice, as the more people who pursue a particular way of working, the more this activity becomes distilled and broken down into many different schools of thought. This subdivision of approaches does create a diversity but also a set of rules and assumed ways of what is the right way to work, depending on each individual's understanding of what a field recording denotes. Part of my intention with the In Place text pieces was to raise questions about what constitutes a field recording and, beyond this, what other ways there might be of transmitting a sense of place. Perhaps without viewing my text in the context of field recording practice, one would be inclined to just say this is an author reading their text. On the other hand, where do we place writers like Georges Perec with, for example, a work like An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris? Could this also not be a kind of field recording? There are no particular qualities I look for in field recordings. It all really depends on the nature of the work, of the artist's intentions. There are so many ways of approaching recording in this way that the qualities are infinite and I feel all methodologies are valid. Luc Ferrari once said something very beautiful about this, which I think sums up much of what I still find inspiring about this practice: I consider the moment of recording a creative act in its own right, since I choose what is significant through a process of auditory attentiveness. It is this auditory attentiveness which interests me most and which, of course, is not something we need to practice field recording for. But perhaps this practice is a way for us to develop a sensitivity to the world around us and likewise inspire other people to open their senses and re-connect with even the most banal sensations of everyday life. I don't believe that art necessarily needs a political imperative to be valid, but for me this idea of fostering an attentiveness towards our environment is one of the first steps towards resistance to repressive social and political practices, not just in the context of the environment but in the space of our lives in general. I feel that I need to become more aware, more conscious of what is going on around me and working with sound in the environment (be it field recording, a public space installation or interviewing people on the street) has been one way of heightening my overall awareness.
While listening to your recording on the tape, I did indeed have a pronounced sense of the space you were describing. I'd be curious about your opinion on how the different senses work together to create our impression of space in the first place …
Actually, this is something I'm still trying to come to terms with myself! I've been reading Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception in an attempt to better understand the complexities and dynamics of perception. In the context of my In-Place pieces, there is a good quote from Merleau-Ponty, which might also shed light on your question: ...the spoken word is significant not only through the medium of individual words, but also through that of accent, intonation, gesture and facial expression, and as these additional meaning no longer reveal the speaker's thoughts but the source of his thoughts and his fundamental manner of being.
As you predicted, the recordings on the tape require a certain leap - after all, are the sounds I'm imagining not rather the product of my own imagination? It seems to me what we have here is a field recording of your memory of these sounds, which makes it seem like a short story to me, albeit it one less concerned with a plot and more with description. I haven't really worked this out completely, but to get back to your question about what constitutes a field recording and how to communicate the notion of place outside of a reproduction of sound, what are your own findings?
Yes, for me the field recording is not an end in and of itself but a leap to connoting, in Merleau-Ponty's words, a fundamental manner of being, or, to put it another way, the space of being and being as space. It goes beyond a sense of place to the very notion of space: the production of space through our being; our sense of being through the production of space. How can I communicate these ideas through sound? I could just write about these things but for me perhaps sound carries more meaning, though I'm not always conscious of what the meaning is. Perception enters our consciousness, burns itself into our cells and leaves us with something beyond memory but which we are aware of and which we can recall through dreams, through sudden realizations each day, triggered by a certain sight, a certain sound. I want to understand these realizations as something beyond glimpses of memory, perhaps as keys to understanding the different spaces which I inhabit and create.
So there is a difference between a 'place' and a 'space' to you? I suppose this borders Kant'ean philosophy, but is there, from your point of view, a reality outside of what our senses can convey? And if there isn't – does this perhaps close the gap between the realms of 'science' and 'the arts'? How do you see your own role as an artist in this regard?
Perhaps another quote from Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception will be useful here: “Space is not the setting (real or logical) in which things are arranged, but the means whereby the position of things become possible. This means that instead of imagining it as a sort of ether in which all things float, or conceiving it abstractly as a characteristic that they have in common, we must think of it as the universal power enabling them to be connected.” So, a “place” would then be the position of certain things (concepts, things – anything we can objectify). And I think this “universal power” which Merleau- Ponty refers to is not something we can necessarily perceive with our senses but which is made manifest by the positioning of different things (place) through the perception of our senses.
As an artist, I don't see myself in a didactic role. Rather, I use these tools which thinkers like Merleau-Ponty expound to present my position, which is to expand our consciousness and, ultimately, an understanding of the world around us and ourselves through sound.
Another very obvious example for your approach to working with space seems to be your recent realization of Manfred Werder's 20051. Can you tell me a bit about that piece, please?
Manfred's score for the realization of “20051” consists of the following:
Some time before approaching Manfred with my idea of interpreting his piece I'd seen him realize this himself, not far from my studio in Zurich on the Limmat River. He would stand out there at an appointed time every day for one month (September 1-30, 2009). His presence was unannounced and, for all intents and purposes, to most people he could have been anyone who had just stopped to enjoy the scenery; though for me Manfred's presence filled that place in a way that perhaps just someone out on a walk might not. Or was this just because I knew what he was doing? Or did I really know what he was doing? These questions made me want to investigate this piece from the inside of a realization. But I decided to do this within the context of a “classical” realization of composed music: the paradigm of “interpreter (instrumentalist)” and the documentation of the “performance” in the form of an audio recording.
It would go beyond the scope of this interview to discuss all the fine points and complexities of Manfred's work, but for me much of what he does is in fact challenging these notions of “score,” “performer” and “documentation.” By realizing his piece using the very concepts he was questioning, I thought it would be possible to further clarify the role of “composer” and “interpreter” and investigate the idea of how we can represent our presence in a place through recorded sound.
My idea was to realize the piece in Zurich's main train station, appearing there in the same place every day in March 2010 at ten in the morning and recording my presence there for roughly thirty minutes. Aside from the “musical” and “compositional” concepts being addressed here, the realization of the piece also dealt with the concept of public space, in that I was legally not allowed to be doing what I was doing: taking photos or making sound or video recordings are technically not allowed in the train station, as it is “private” property owned by Swiss National Railways (SBB). On a more personal level, the realization of this piece also addressed the hideously tasteless misuse of Zurich's main train station, which has one of the largest and (in my opinion) most beautiful main halls in Europe. When left empty, this hall offers amazing qualities of acoustics and light. But, sadly, most of the time it is crammed full with some kind of “event,” everything from discos, to cinema, to an insurance company holding a convention to a weekly produce market...and so on.
It may not strictly deal with the question of space, but I find your description of Manfred's first performance and the question of performance intriguing. Is there a performance when no one's aware of it? What does the documentation in the form of an audio recording change?
This inevitably leads me to the well-worn query, If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? One school of thought defines sound as the perception of sound waves vibrating against our ear drums. Without this, there is no sound. Another school of thought would say, no, the tree falls, it makes a sound, regardless of whether anyone is there to hear it. And so, how should one define performance? The classical definition (from Wikipedia) would be, A performance generally comprises an event in which a performer or group of performers behave in a particular way for another group of people, the audience. So, was Manfred's performance on the shores of the Limmat River near my studio a performance if nobody was there to experience it as a performance or, even if there were people passing by, when nobody realized what Manfred was doing? For all intents and purposes he could have just been someone watching the river flow (which he was also doing). And it was exactly this aspect of his performance, and also the idea of public space installations and interventions, which interested me: this ambiguous area between intent and perception. For Manfred this was a performance. Just as for the artist Tehching Hsieh, spending one year living on the streets of Manhattan was a performance, even if nobody knew what he was doing and he just appeared as yet another homeless person. Tehching Hsieh documented his year on the streets with detailed maps recording his routes of movement each day. Manfred's performance at the river was not documented but his intent was, in a sense, pre-documented in the form of a score. If this was the case, then what reason to perform the score? Is not the essence of the work, the core of its meaning, to be found in the score? Is it not then enough just to perform the piece without a record of it? What does the documentation of such a performance change in the context of the score? Is a document even necessary? In a sense, all these aspects operate in conjunction and separately: the score exists without its realization; the performance exists without a document. And the documentation of the performance doesn't change anything. It is not necessary, but it is a work in and of itself, in the context of the score and the performance. And this indeed was a question asked by several people, Why even bother to document the realization of this score? Beyond this one could ask, why even bother to perform (realize, is Manfred's preferred terminology) the score? Is it not just enough to reflect on the ideas implicit in the score? Is not just thinking about the scored perhaps the ultimate realization? And so, this text is another realization of the score, another documentation of its intent. And also this text doesn't change anything.
After everything we've discussed, I feel as though the term space, which used to be very tightly defined as something relating to a place, has become a lot richer and expansive for me. With this in mind, I would love to close with an outlook on how you see the relation between the space of your work as an artist and the space of your life in general. Assuming this is a goal, how can one allow cross-fertilisations between them, turn these two spaces into one and potentially make life itself an artform? How do you see your own challenges and ambitions as an artist in this regard?
A famous quote from Joseph Beuys (one of my great influences) might help to answer this question: “Jeder Mensch ein Künstler.” (Every person is an artist). And this means for me that the way in which one lives can be seen as a “Gesamtkunstwerk” (an integrated work of art). Beyond this, that “Jedermann nun seine eigene besondere Art von Kunst, seine eigene Arbeit, für die neue soziale Organisation machen solle.” (Each person should use his/her own art or form of work towards a new organization of society). So, I feel that our work, whether explicitly political or not, plays an immediate and important role in the transformation of the world in which we live, both in the places where we live and work and around the world.
A challenge for me is to keep these ideas in mind when I approach my own work. Which is not to say I have a political agenda to follow but, rather, that I try to cultivate a sense of consciousness in what I do and realize that, especially as an artist, there is a certain responsibility in putting our work out into the world.
Jason Kahn Interview by Tobias Fischer