Kenneth Kirschner – January 1, 2019

by 5:4

It’s the first day of Lent, and also therefore the start of this year’s 5:4 Lent Series. Three years ago my focus was on miniature works, and for 2020 i’m going in the opposite direction, exploring compositions that occupy larger-scale durations. However, this is not simply about pieces that are ‘epic’ (something i’ve examined before) but more about the way time is used (by the composer) and perceived (by the listener). For that reason, in general i’m not going to be looking at sectional works or cycles, which are lengthy simply because they’re made up of numerous individual component parts, or operas, which are invariably longer due to the fact that it takes a while to tell a decent narrative. That being said, there will be exceptions to both of those exclusions.

i’m beginning this year’s Lent Series with a recent work by a composer who has made me think more about time than anyone else: Kenneth Kirschner. Kirschner’s work has intrigued and fascinated me for many years. On the one hand, in many respects i feel i know it well; i’ve spent time with everything he’s made available over the last couple of decades – which, depending how you classify what counts as a ‘composition’, amounts to as many as 185 pieces – and have written about his music on numerous occasions, most extensively in the 2014 book Imperfect Forms: The Music of Kenneth Kirschner (available as a free PDF download). It was Kirschner’s work that inspired and helped shape my thinking about what i ultimately called the ‘steady state’, the structural concept in which short-term change and long-term stasis combine to create a never-/ever-changing musical tapestry that’s always the same, yet always new. That description could almost be said to apply to Kirschner’s output itself; many of his compositions evoke, allude to or at least resemble many of his other compositions: always the same, yet always new. Yet for all the knowledge and familiarity with it, Kirschner’s music keeps you on your toes, regularly coming as a surprise. Always the same, always new.

Back in 2014, when talking with Kirschner about his music for a conversation published in Imperfect Forms, i remarked on the fact that the human voice was a sound conspicuously missing from his output. His response clarified that this was:

…certainly not for lack of desire. The human voice is the very best instrument we have, and it’s one I do very much hope to work with one day in a substantive, large-scale way. Perhaps I’m just waiting for the right vocalist. […] And what I need is a very specific balance of chaos and stability, of simplicity and diversity. It’s something that’s hard to communicate… [p. 134]

This hope was made real in June last year, with the release of his 43-minute composition January 1, 2019, in which the only sound we hear is the voice.

The first thing to say about the piece is to raise the question as to whether or not the voices we hear are real. This is something i remain unsure about (i haven’t wanted to ask Kirschner directly – not yet, anyway – as i’ve been enjoying the lack of certainty; besides, ultimately i’m not sure it matters either way). His music is certainly characterised for the most part by synthetic sounds masquerading as real ones, and there’s a distinct “uncanny valley” sensation permeating this piece – reinforced by the fact that only a single open vowel sound is used – that suggests synthesis. Yet, as in many of his pieces, certainty remains elusive, resulting in a lovely liminal teetering between possibilities of reality and artifice.

Then there’s the fact that January 1, 2019 is in eight movements. But is it? The extent to which these movements are different from each other, behaviourally speaking, is minimal, so this creates an interesting perspective whereby the piece could be viewed as a single 43-minute span articulated in eight sections, not unlike different stanzas of the same poem. Or, conversely, it could be regarded as having a variable duration of between roughly three and six minutes, each movement being a unique expression of the whole piece – or at least its essence. Yet again, if we accept the fact that, considering how they behave, the choice of eight movements is a somewhat arbitrary one, perhaps January 1, 2019 is of whatever length we want it to be, and we could loop and repeat our way through the movements in a random order for as long we wish, this cumulative duration being the work’s actual length. This last possibility has a lot in common with Kirschner’s indeterminate works of the mid-2000s, the durations of which were established in precisely this way – determined by the listener – and which also operated in a manner that sounds similar to that of January 1, 2019. These different perspectives, all of which are as real as we perceive them to be at the time when we listen (personally, i’ve found them all to be true or false on different occasions), are a direct consequence of the steady state, whereby everything is changing yet static at the same time, and all of the time. Always the same, always new.

There are other ways that January 1, 2019 blurs reality. At times, the way the voices move or coalesce provokes a spark of recognition – the semblance of a familiar chord progression or harmonic implication or cadential possibility. Yet each and every time the piece slips away again, sidestepping convention and memory in favour of something altogether less determinate. Also, the use of voices and the way Kirschner has delicately placed them within a (pseudo-)space that expands them with modest amounts of reverb, unwittingly invites a sacred sensibility to be applied, or at least hinted. i’m not saying that this is sacred music – though, equally, i’m not saying that it’s not – but to my mind it inhabits precisely the kind of floating, luminous, meditative state that would satisfy that description. If anything, its wordlessness only heightens that perception, and i for one have called on this piece from time to time to colour (or should that be ‘tint’?) my environment with its soft but spine-tingling numinous glow.

It’s a challenging, disconcerting, beautiful piece, just as paradoxical in nature as any of Kirschner’s compositions. i think i’m glad it took him this long to finally explore the voice; one of the few definitive statements one can make about the piece is that it was definitely worth the wait.

January 1, 2019 is available as a free download in both FLAC and MP3 formats from the composer’s website.

By way of a postscript, since larger-scale use of time is the focus of this Lent Series i can’t fail to mention that Kenneth Kirschner’s most recent work, November 19, 2017, is not only by far his longest, but one of the longest pieces i’ve encountered by anyone. Released earlier this month by Contour Editions as a free download, the piece lasts a full 24 hours. i’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of this behemoth, but my initial impression is that it’s another example of steady states – always the same, always new – and that its duration should likewise be regarded as indeterminate, as long or as short as you want it to be. Of course, as i work my way further into the piece, that perspective may well change…

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Chris L

What a wonderful start to this series, Simon! Something about the slowly shifting chromatic harmonies reminds me of Nono’s Prometeo, one of the few operas that I will happily sit down and just listen to. That score makes heavy use of electronic effects, of course, which leads me to the question of whether Kirschner’s voices are synthetic. Well, they certainly aren’t standard MIDI “voices”, that’s for sure, as they seem to preserve intact the essential vulnerability that individual choral voices possess, regardless of how accomplished they sound in ensemble. Perhaps Kirschner has extensively sampled real singers?


Seconded – this is shaping up to being another great Lent series. And thanks for reminding me about Nono’s Prometeo – I know very little of Nono’s music but I’ve heard very good things about that particular opera – I’ll definitely try and make time to give it a listen.

Chris L

No worries, Dan. As luck would have it, a new recording has recently appeared…

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