Kenneth Kirschner: Twenty Ten

It might be every electronic composer's dream to have his/her work appear on Taylor Deupree's 12k label, so exceptionally high are the production values the label head brings to the recordings he issues. No better example than that is Twenty Ten, the latest opus from the Brooklyn-based composer Kenneth Kirschner, whose four pieces present nearly three hours of music that's beautifully packaged in a three-CD gatefold presentation. Certainly he's no stranger to ambitious projects, as evidenced by 2008's two-CD set, Filaments & Voids, which now can be seen as a natural precursor to the new release. There's an obsessiveness about its pieces when they're broached singularly, but the cumulative differences in the strategies applied to the four settings make the recording feel more wide-ranging than might be expected. The merging of the natural sonorities of acoustic instruments with the manipulations and treatments provided by computer processing allows a rich sound world to flower throughout.

At twenty-four minutes, the opening track, “January 4, 2011,” (all of the titles reflect the date on which they were begun) is the, ahem, shortest of the four, a telling detail that signposts the absorptive nature of Kirschner's settings. One is captivated immediately by the natural sound world produced by its metallophones and xylophones, especially when the instruments generate such bright sprinkles and hyperactive patterns. Technically speaking, no computer manipulations were applied, and what we're hearing are two layers of subtly microtuned percussive bells that speed up, slow down, and dance around and play off of one another, with the only non-playing intervention being the editing involved in collapsing hours of playing into the final, shimmering result. An understandable gamelan character surfaces on occasion, with the elements cohering into discernible rhythmic form at certain moments before slipping away from such regulated bar structures and then formally regrouping again moments later. It's about as accessible a point-of-entry as could be imagined for Kirschner's work, and the piece exudes a playful and explorative, even child-like, spirit that makes it a delightful starting point. It also serves as a marked contrast to the piece following it, “November 7, 2010,” which is almost twice its length and noticeably brooding and sombre by comparison—more the kind of creeping, slow-motion work that one might expect from a composer working in this area. The ghostly sound mass, sourced from microtonal shards of piano, strings, and celeste, assumes a glassy and brittle quality, and an almost unbearable degree of tension builds as the piece unfolds, with high-pitched bowed tones and piano fragments stretching out like held breaths and the noose growing ever tighter as the minutes pass.

Formally speaking, the design applied to the middle CD's single piece “September 25, 2010” is fascinating. Kirschner here sequenced 142 unique chords, voiced by combinations of strings, woodwinds, and horns, into a seemingly limitless expanse filled with voids of silence (unique in this case means that every chordal combination occurs but once during the forty-seven-minute setting). The timbral character of the piece isn't therefore unusual, but its structure is; the pregnant pause that follows each chord outstrips the chord itself and if one were so inclined to formally measure it one would likely discover more time allocated to so-called silence than there is to the physical instrument sounds. As it develops, an eerie mood gradually asserts itself, though the rests tend to undercut any violent hint the accretion of pitches might produce otherwise.

In its focus on decaying piano elements, the final disc's “January 18, 2011” reminds me a bit of Akira Rabelais's Eisoptrophobia, the obvious difference being that its short pieces are micro in scale compared to Kirschner's fifty-one-minute setting. A similar focus on age and decrepitude pervades both projects, however, with textural elements prominently heard in each case. A kind of entropic quality shadows the Kirschner piece, a quality that's most conspicuously felt when the piano material (which involves two equal-tempered and microtuned layers) is either smothered in static and hiss or when brief, jarring edits erase it altogether. Banks of fuzz and grime wash across the interlaced piano patterns, sometimes lashing them with electrical static, and the scraping noises and gaseous atmospheres create an impression of erosion that extends far beyond the piano instrument alone. Needless to say, it's also the piece that's most overtly electronic in nature, with the supra-musical treatments more audibly present than in the other pieces.

Not surprisingly, time-suspending is the word that often springs to mind while one is listening to—inhabiting might be more accurate— the immersive world presented by Kirschner's Twenty Ten. In truth, it would appear that any of the recording's four pieces could be amenable to shortening or lengthening—with an adjustment to the number of chords used, “September 25, 2010,” for example, could be presented as a twenty-minute piece as much as one eighty minutes or longer. Not every listener will have the patience to follow Kirschner on this long journey, but those with a love for all things microtonal will certainly find much to celebrate here.

September 2011