Roland Kayn

Singular, ingenious, historic: Roland Kayn – A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound

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From a certain perspective our galaxy, the Milky Way, could be described as being ‘little’. However, with a diameter of up to 180,000 light years across, comprising as many as 400 billion stars, that perspective would be a decidedly rarefied one, viewing things, both figuratively and literally, on an astronomical scale. One gets the impression that German composer Roland Kayn looked upon sound in a similarly rarefied way. Certainly, approaching Kayn’s newly-released 2009 cycle A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound, a veritable sonic galaxy comprising 22 movements that last a little under 14 hours, necessitates getting one’s ears and mind around an altogether different kind of organisational perspective.

My relationship with Kayn’s music stretches back many years. First contact was around the turn of the millennium, while studying at the Institute of Sonology in The Hague, where Kayn had worked during its time in Utrecht, in the early 1970s, and whose name – along with that of Gottfried Michael Koenig – was spoken of not quite in hushed tones, but with a real sense of admiration, even awe. These fleeting encounters were consolidated by the marvellous CD reissue of Kayn’s Tektra, a five-hour work completed in 1982. Since then, i’ve got to know many more works, both via rips of old vinyl records that can be found online as well as some of the Reiger-records-reeks discs that were released during the late nineties and early noughties, and i’ve come to regard his output as among the most fascinating and significant of the last 70 years. He’s been featured on two of my mix tapes (#12 and #21) and a major electronic work of mine, Simulated Music, is dedicated to Kayn’s memory.

So for those who are interested to explore it, there’s a lot out there, now crowned by this sumptuous new sixteen-disc box set of A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound by the innovative Finland-based label Frozen Reeds. Yet it’s important to stress how extremely unknown Roland Kayn’s music remains, even to many of those directly involved in or otherwise knowledgeable about electronic music. Furthermore, despite the quantity of music that’s available, the amount of information and scholarly discourse about Kayn’s work is, to put it mildly, minimal (though the recently revamped Roland Kayn website has at last improved this situation a little). The reason for this is partly ignorance, of course, but perhaps as much to do with the fact that Kayn espoused a compositional approach (initially inspired by the philosopher Max Bense) that he termed ‘cybernetic’, where the composer’s involvement lay in systemically setting things up – sound possibilities, behavioural rules, etc. – but then allowing this system to go its own way. In one of his only published interviews (with Frans van Rossum), Kayn described the process and the envisaged result in this way:

The music becomes autonomous once the composer has no control over the direction it takes once he has set it in motion. […] No single composer, no matter the extent of his imagination, could conceive of this enormous variety of sounds, nor could he have conceived of the way they might be created, only the impulses which set the piece in motion can really be considered direct involvement by the composer. The result is because of purely autonomous processes.”

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Mix Tape #21 : Noise

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With noise is born disorder […] In noise can be read the codes of life, the relations among men. Clamor, Melody, Dissonance, Harmony […] when it becomes sound, noise is the source of purpose and power, of the dream—Music.

Stirring words from the opening chapter of Jacques Attali’s marvellous book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, and noise is the focus of the new 5:4 Mix Tape. As such, i suppose it could be deemed the least accessible of these mixes, although my interpretation of noise here extends beyond fortissimo walls of abrasion; there’s a lot more to noise than just that.

Three of Alva Noto‘s miniature renderings of computer files pepper the mix, blurring the distinction between active and passive compositional intent. To some extent, the same could be said of Richard James’ AFX track ‘Ktpa2’, one of a pair of ferocious static blasts that remain his most brutal music to date. Most of the tracks included here, though, are less single-minded than these, and drag a variety of æsthetic manners into their obstreperous orbits. Three Trapped Tigers (whose first album is one of this year’s most outstanding releases) explore a complex amalgam of math rock and glitch, while Ukranian soundscapists First Human Ferro put noise at the core of their paradoxically radiant dark ambient. Japanese experimentalist Lethe takes hard metallic field recordings in abandoned resonant spaces as his starting point, while Nine Inch Nails do what they do best tucked away deep in the bowels of a studio. Noise is a sine qua non of all music with a hauntological aspect, heard here in the hissy nostalgia of Black Swan and the searing, gritty glitter of The Stranger (in my view, Leyland Kirby’s most riveting persona). My own work the Ceiling stared at me but i beheld only the Stars is a large-scale conflict between noise and pitched material; the excerpt included here is from the centre of the piece, where bell-like pitches first emerge. One could hardly have a noise mix tape without Merzbow; i’ve included part of the opening track from one of his latest albums, a typically kaleidoscopic feast of electronic mayhem. At the end comes a fittingly curt signing-off by Thomas Bangalter, from his soundtrack to Gaspar Noé’s film Irréversible. Read more

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Mix Tape #12 : Electronics

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Back, not so much with a vengeance as a new mix tape; the theme this time is simply electronics. Many of the pieces are rather long, so this mix, more than the others, features excerpts rather than complete works.

The mix opens with one of the most exciting electronic works by the duo FURT. Taking Brahms as its starting point, “Rigor” immediately slows, seemingly descending closer and closer upon its surface, the ensuing music seemingly scrutinising the Brahms material at the microscopic level. i was fortunate enough to witness this piece performed live (at the ICA, back in the mid ’90s), and it was thrilling, a truly memorable experience. The complete work can be downloaded free from FURT’s website; link below. “fol4” is Autechre‘s expanded version of “Fol3”, found on the limited double edition of Quaristice. It’s just as mercurial as its sibling, darting between the speakers with nervous, frenetic energy, from which assorted rhythmic patterns obtrude. A brief interruption comes in the form of Alva Noto’s “fontlab4.0”, one of his assorted miniature slews of (presumably) raw data from his superb album Unitxt. i’ve been interested in Ambrose Field‘s work since i heard him give a talk at Birmingham University about 15 years ago; he has a unique and fascinating approach both to sound itself as well as to its relationship to the listener. Included here is an episode from his splendid electroacoustic work Expanse Hotel, “Orient Express”. Next a work taken from an ancient off-air radio recording lurking in my archives, a work titled “Augustine’s Message” by the Welsh composer Robert Mackay. i’ve not heard anything else by Mackay, and sadly this piece doesn’t appear to be available on any releases, but i’ve been able to clean up the recording very well, and it nicely demonstrates the composer’s joint interest in music and drama. Despite its brevity, “Augustine’s Message” is an intense, beguiling listen. Then a lengthy excerpt from one of my very favourite composers, Roland Kayn. Kayn’s electronic works are nothing short of amazing, spanning vast durations with equally vast slabs of sound, slabs that are constantly re-shaping themselves. To my knowledge, few of Kayn’s works have been reissued on CD (the main exception being Tektra), but most of his vinyl releases can be found in high quality rips on the web (particularly here). Included here is a portion from the first part of his 1979 cycle Infra, “Isotrope”. Also conceived on a large scale is Pan Sonic‘s album Kesto (234.48:4), encapsulated in its 61-minute final track, “Säteily (Radiation)”. The excerpt here demonstrates the track’s beautifully radiant, shining character. Read more

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