Kenneth Kirschner is an avant-garde, experimental composer whose works mesh together electronic processes with acoustic instrumentation to build on the minimalistic, and aleatoric styles John Cage, and Morton Feldman set in place. Many of his works linger in the quiet folds of sound that must be listened to attentively or not at all. One of his most recent projects, variants, involved creating audio/visual compositions, in collaboration with visual artist Joshue Ott, to be performed/composed by the listener through an interactive app.
You buy a new album, or hear a new piece for the first time; describe your routine/experience of its first listening.
Once upon a time, you got in a car, rode on a train, or walked on foot to a building that had a store in it. There you bought a piece of plastic with music etched onto it and took it home, where you’d listen to it using a special music playing machine. None of this happens anymore. The music I listen to now starts as a string of alphanumeric characters – uniform resource locators, hastily jotted down names or titles, unclear notes to self – in a disordered document apparently on my computer, but actually stored on a different computer in an unknown location somewhere in the world. I barely remember shrink wrap; to play music is to click a link, or an act of copy & paste. This isn’t a bad thing; like anything, it has its advantages and its disadvantages. The vast majority of times I brought home those round plastic objects from the store and sat down to listen, I was, within minutes, disappointed, frustrated, even angry; I shouldn’t have bought it, why did people say it was so good, it’s just not my thing. To be disappointed now is simply to tap the spacebar and move on; we’re not lacking further music to listen to. The downside, of course, in this post-scarcity world of music (if of nothing else), is that we’re so lost in an endless sea of infinitely accessible music that to get our bearings and navigate successfully at times seems hopeless, and we may find ourselves drifting with the currents or just treading water.
On subsequent listens to that same record/piece, which aspects of the music do you focus your listening on? How does your listening perspective change over time?
Subsequent listens? That document I mentioned, of stuff to listen to, is so huge I’d never get through it even if I spent every minute of every day of every week listening, much less doing what’s needed to survive or even writing a little music myself now and then. It’s a rare new piece of music that I’m able to – and that I want to – return to. This, again, is an effect of plenty: there’s so much music to hear, so much to explore, that we rarely have time to revisit any of it. But then perhaps these returns become reserved for those even rarer, most valuable discoveries, the ones that radically reorient us, spin the compass, and send us in a new direction on that endless sea.
If you could choose your favorite listening environment, what would it be? What draws you to that place to hear the music you’re listening to?
The perfect listening environment for me is an unexpected confluence of music and place. Such perfect intersections – of just the right location, just the right music, at just the right moment in time – can’t be planned or predicted, and they certainly can’t be repeated. But every once in awhile you’ll come across just such a moment, when everything snaps together perfectly, unexpectedly, to form a precise, unique convergence of sound and space. Recently: a southbound train coming into Penn Station over Queens; a high hill overlooking New York Bay; a storm rolling in over the Atlantic Ocean.
How does one make their listening listened to? What is the best avenue to communicate your listening experience to others?
I’m an extremely private listener. Much as I dream of a comfortable room with a perfect sound system, that’s almost too public for me; I listen to pretty much everything on headphones. The most important music is somehow the most secret. Certainly I write my own work on headphones, and that’s how I always hope people will hear it. If I could hand every listener the exact same pair of headphones I write on, I would.
How does your focused listening to music help you hear the world around you? How does it build awareness to the sounds in your everyday life?
For an ostensible Cagean, I’m really terrible about this. I tend to be pretty unaware of most of what’s going on around me, and sadly that goes for sound too. Far too often I’ll be thinking of some abstract musical problem I’m struggling with rather than hearing what’s going on just outside my ears. I need to work on this.
Are there differences in how you listen to music as a performer, versus an audience member? How so?
I wish I could still enjoy listening to music – enjoy it in the way I enjoy a reading book or watching a movie. But I can’t turn off that part of my brain that analyzes every piece of music I hear, that takes it apart, breaks it into molecules and algebra, searches for new ideas or concepts or inspirations I can, um, borrow. It’s sad, but I guess it’s just the price you pay.