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

by 5:4

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 mixtapes (#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.”

Today we would describe such music as computational, or generative. One wonders if this demonstrably hands-off approach – ostensibly removing the composer from direct, active involvement once things have been set in motion, at the same time fundamentally questioning and undermining the role and place of both musical narrative and creative intent – is a factor in the lack of in-depth critical engagement with his music. To what extent is it possible, one might ask, to make statements that are anything but provisional about music that passively emerges from a system, the product of computational spontaneity and algorithmic whim? Yet not only is this question moot, it misses the point, placing the emphasis entirely on how the music is made rather than what it actually sounds like. Far from inhabiting its own unique, hermetically-sealed musical universe, listening to works such as Tektra, Infra, Makro and the Electronic Symphonies (among many others) reveals clear aesthetic connections and similarities to the worlds of experimental electronics, ambient and noise, often drawing comparisons with the likes of Klaus Schulze, Éliane Radigue, Merzbow and Autechre.

To anyone even vaguely familiar with Kayn’s work, citing Autechre might seem incongruous. Yet during the 14 hours i spent in the company of A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound, it was Booth and Brown’s more recent work that came to mind more than anything else. In particular, AE_LIVE, the duo’s nine-hour collection of live performance pieces released in 2015, and elseq 1–5, their four-hour cycle from last year. When discussing these albums, i made the following remarks, which in many ways are no less applicable to the Kayn:

(of AE_LIVE) Nine unique pieces, or one piece rendered nine different ways? That’s the question that repeatedly rears its head […] there’s a distinct sense of these pieces being variations on a theme—or, at least, on a method. Using a similar timbral palette throughout, […] There’s a constant sense of hearing new ideas for the first time—and this is of course true and false, both within each piece itself as well as within the larger group…

(of elseq 2) More than ever before there’s the sense that it’s not just an internal logic at play in these pieces, but an unequivocal artificial intelligence, determining, governing, shaping and evolving the sound materials in real time to its own inscrutable creative agenda.

The reference to artificial intelligence is of special relevance to A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound. Not because Kayn has created (or even sought to create) an authentic synthetic brain, but rather in the sense that one is continually aware of the music’s governance – at both the macro- and above all micro-structural levels – by a synthetic mentality, albeit one designed and informed by a human being. Therefore, there’s an initial ‘acclimatisation’ process whereby one adjusts to the very particular type of musical narrative and concomitant drama being demonstrated here. The flow of ideas is as fundamentally unpredictable as it is unstoppable, and the relationships between those ideas – and their relative significance within both local and and more extended contexts – are volatile and capricious. This perhaps suggests a musical experience that’s not only difficult to penetrate and parse, but the sense of which is inherently subjective or even fanciful. i don’t think that’s true, as there are various factors that keep the music ‘grounded’, primarily (as with the Autechre examples) the range and nature of the elements that articulate the details of Kayn’s abstract language. Throughout the 22 movements of the cycle, these elements emphasise two key qualities.

The first is timbre, specifically here the quantity and clarity of noise or pitch that a sound object displays. Many of the materials in A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound are positioned towards the noise end of this continuum, but are shaded such that they veer between exhibiting hard or soft edges. The former can be extremely abrasive, forming dense streams and torrents of sound that swirl and pound and seemingly threaten to erode the speakers down to their coils. The essential tussling between these poles of noise and pitch can be heard from the outset: opening piece Czerial establishes a paradigm where despite noise being dominant – torrential and extremely powerful – yet pitch seems to be present for much of the time, occasionally glimpsed more directly in brief, beautiful glades of simplicity and near stasis along the way. The relationship between noise and pitch is more complex than this, though, as these cascading noise elements are often channelled into quite small bandwidths that as a consequence focus on narrow clusters or even specific pitches, which are then wielded like the cutting edge of a chainsaw. Likewise, both pitch and noise alike are at times softened to the point that they resemble vague wind formations, making their identity impossible to fathom. At times, such as in Ilay, this can make the music feel impenetrable, as though it were surrounded by a wind-like ‘shield’.

The second emphasised quality is proximity, the sense of how near or far a sound object appears to be. In general, the cycle doesn’t make a lot of use of the middleground; most of the musical elements are positioned either in the fore- or background, often moving swiftly between these poles or, just as often, a foreground element will abruptly cease, exposing something in the distance that may or may not have been there all along, hitherto masked. This aspect of the music is highly stimulating, continually shifting our sense of perspective, and at the same time calling into question whether the most adjacent sounds are the most important.

It’s another generalisation, but throughout the cycle proximity and density tend to be proportional, i.e. the nearer a sound seems to be, the more tightly-packed or rapidly fluid its behaviour. This basic trait allows for some arresting exceptions, particularly the occasions when material that’s evidently pretty intense, moving quickly, speaks as if from far away, its details barely tangible within the reverberant space each piece inhabits. Zearid includes some of the most telling examples of this, pulling back its torrential streams into near-silence, an effect that’s magical. But even when they’re simply positioned just a little further away, these streams usually become more engaging; Somitoh has some particularly good examples of this. However, that piece is one of a number where the narrative feels somewhat remote – or to put it another way, the music comes across as self-contained, self-absorbed even. The aforementioned impenetrability of Ilay is an example of this, taken further in its successors Aseral and RactilAseral in particular seems to spend no small amount of its 50-minute duration twiddling its thumbs, preoccupied with internal processes; despite being hard-edged and gregarious, the extended duration and lack of clear points of focus make if difficult to know where to place one’s attention, let alone gain purchase and break through its surface. The aloof demeanour of this preoccupation can be stimulating when, as in Radox, it acts as a counterpoint to more overt episodes, as though the music were by turns excited and bored with itself. However it manifests, though, within such a generative context as this, concern with how interesting or engaging are its musical machinations is essentially irrelevant, but it’s nice when it becomes an element within a larger organic drama.

Kayn’s palette in A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound may be relatively confined, yet there are numerous instances where surprises and shocks occur. Here and there a completely unexpected, contextually incongruous clang or thud or bell or squelch will appear literally out of nowhere, sounding once or at most two or three times before vanishing again, seemingly having a catalytic effect on the music, or at least, making things feel very different in its wake. The most radical and lovely example comes towards the end of Qyrials II, where tinkling bells materialise, setting off a chain reaction that leads to an amazing textural burst of chimes and vocal calls. It leaves one breathless, wondering where on earth it all came from, and where just as suddenly it all went.

An impressive aspect of the cycle is the knack Kayn has for harnessing exceptionally powerful, hard-edged Japanoisy materials that, despite being so abrasive and caustic are nonetheless kept accessible and fascinating. Nowhere is this more cogently demonstrated than in penultimate piece Icursim, easily the most astringent in the entire cycle, leaving one’s ears practically red-raw and bleeding, yet its extremes are an exquisite filigree of razor-sharp points that sound as though they might have been fashioned by Clive Barker’s cenobites. By contrast, perhaps mercifully, Kayn ends the cycle with Arasa, by far the most gentle piece, like a gas giant surrounded by a complicated, evolving atmosphere of varying surface tension. Its ending, bringing the entire 14-hour cycle to a close, is electrifying: increasingly blank, gentle noise with pitched material caught within it, suspended, as if the music were simultaneously warm but frozen.

i approached this enormous piece in two seven-hour shifts over two days, yet i don’t think that’s in any way essential. Kayn appears to have regarded A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound as a single piece, so if you have 13 hours, 42 minutes and 46 seconds to spare, then go ahead and dive in, deep and long and entire. Yet each of its 22 component pieces is in essence both a microcosm and a paradigm of the whole. You obviously need to hear them all to understand and experience the breadth and extent of its enormous invention, but not necessarily at one or two sittings. Apropos: if this cycle is exhausting – and, from my experience, it is – this is not particularly due to the duration, but to its invention, exhibiting a huge range of behavioural flexing, an impossible blend of inscrutability and (for the most part) immediacy. In this respect it is genuinely exhausting – yet exhilarating. This is a historic release of a singular, momentous composition by a uniquely ingenious composer whom, one can only hope, might finally start to receive the recognition he has long deserved. In so many ways, essential listening.

The box set of A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound is available from Frozen Reeds in a limited edition of 750, available direct from the label as well as (in the UK) from Boomkat and Norman Records.

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[…] there’s a theme at play here, one that draws connections with both the Roland Kayn box set i reviewed earlier this week as well as the examples of ‘steady state’ music discussed […]

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