Kenneth Kirschner – July 17, 2006; September 10, 2006

by 5:4

Despite the fact that, a few years ago, i wrote a 10,000-word monograph about the music of Kenneth Kirschner, supplemented by a 5,000-word conversation with the composer, both of which should indicate in-depth knowledge and understanding of my subject, i’m always aware of the degree to which Kirschner’s work continues to surprise me. It’s somewhat obtuse that i’ve not yet included Kirschner in my annual explorations of music available free online, since the entirety of his output, dating back over a quarter of a century (consisting of well over two days’ worth of music) is available as free downloads from his website. Perhaps it’s also something to do with a cross between an agony of choice and an embarrassment of riches. Either way, i’m going to rectify this by focusing on just two works from Kirschner’s vast catalogue, both of which i’ve been spending time with lately and, despite knowing them both well, feeling caught off guard by them and hearing them anew. They date from 2006, during a period when Kirschner was focusing on the rawness of electronic sounds (part of a general move away from (obvious) artifice in his work at this time).

Indeed, September 10, 2006 isn’t simply raw but almost rudimentary, akin to an artist assembling colours in preparation for a composition. Continuing that metaphor, it’s easy to hear the piece as a palette, presenting nine discrete ‘swatches’, each of which has a texture derived from a unique combination of pitch and noise, arranged into the form of a cluster. (It brings to mind Ryoji Ikeda’s album Technicolors, released last year, which displays a similar, more formalised and even more rudimentary, process, moving through adjacent colourations of noise.) Earlier in the piece, there’s the impression that Kirschner wants to emphasise contrasts, beginning with an extremely high stream of tones, subsequently moving through a mid-range cluster – which, as it progresses, occasionally suggests something else, probably imaginary, moving within; some high throbbing with constantly varying beat patterns resulting from microtones within the approximate space of a major second; and a strikingly imposing deep drone that sounds clean and clear but which has its own cluster elements, all of which causes the room to vibrate.

After this, though, the registral shifts are less marked, Kirschner keeping things in the mid-band. The way pitch emerges or is implied in these clusters is fascinating, sometimes giving the impression it’s not a cluster at all but simply a few proximal pitches in front of some noise, other times distinctly suggesting (as previously) certain intervals due either to the apparent span of the cluster or the kind of beating clashes that are occurring. The final swatch is the only one to occupy more than one frequency region, combining a low, vague cluster with very high whispery noise, suggesting something industrial, or even possibly from inside the human body, with faint indications of breathing.

Although July 17, 2006 is similarly preoccupied with raw electronic sounds, Kirschner uses them completely differently, exploring different permutations of oscillating pairs of dyads. Initially, the piece follows a pattern whereby the dyad pairs repeat four times. But after only a couple of minutes the pattern breaks: 4-dyad sequences appear, repeating twice; and some 2-dyad sequences repeat only twice; furthermore, the spacing of these repetitions fluctuates, causing ripples in the structural certainty and implied connectivity of the music. The work culminates by pushing this variations further, in each direction: a 4-dyad sequence repeats four times, followed by a single dyad heard four times, the spacing now much further apart.

The interplay of regularity and irregularity in these permutations is interesting enough, but more engrossing are the harmonic connotations of the dyads. Nothing anywhere corresponds entirely to a clear, familiar chord progression, but – as in a great deal of Kirschner’s music (to the extent that this is likely a fingerprint of his work as a whole) – everywhere there are implications of progression, either in terms of chords or an undulating line of two or four notes. In a similar way to September 10, 2006, each group of repetitions becomes a kind of harmonic swatch characterised by its discrete, narrow range of intervallic relationships. Though superficially rather austere, i can’t help hearing the piece as highly playful, both in terms of the way the dyads are formed and juxtaposed, and also the (possibly mischievous) manner in which patterns are suggested and then deviated from.

In addition to these two works i’d also recommend a couple of others, related to them, the date from the same period: August 19, 2006, which over the course of three minutes explores the formation of a number of repeating triads over gentle purring noise, and October 19, 2006, a longer piece presenting clusteral ideas in a pointillistic manner, emerging from and receding into darkness. All of these pieces, along with everything else Kirschner has created, are available to download from Kirschner’s website.

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