As much as I have to say I'm ceaselessly intrigued by Kevin Kastning's music regardless of how he chooses to manifest it or with whom, I find the addition of percussion does much to delineate another geography in the terrain of his austerely hypnotic pieces (well, actually, they're not quite his, being spontaneous improvisations attributable to all three musicians) from a dimension companioning the one usually inhabited. That is, the work is equally valid with or without percussives, but yanking that element into the mix is distinctive. More, with the addition of guzheng, Kastning's most constant foil-complement Sándor Szabó locates the exact middle of everything in Becoming.
The guzheng is of the koto / zither / autoharp family and, once you pay attention to the stiffer sonics for what they are, it dawns on you that the guitar is actually a percussive instrument too…or is it? The physical, though perhaps not the historical (in which one must consider the lyre, cithara, etc.), lineage goes like this: piano → dulcimer → guitar, the point being that the strings are struck in some fashion, especially in plectrum play in the latter two. More, when you think upon it, fingers, when used, are merely soft plectra. Let's look at this for a moment.
We're informed that the guitar is of the chordophone family, and it certainly is, as a chordophone is any instrument that obtains its sound from vibrating strings. We're told this through the esteemed Hornbostel-Sachs method of classification, which also tells us that the piano is likewise a chordophone. "What???", you may ask, shocked and indignant, "but I've always been told it's a percussive instrument!" Well, yes, exactly, and that's why I'm harking back to the brainchild of Erich (Moritz von Hornbostel) and Curt (Sachs): those early 20th century bad boys displayed unusual categorical wisdom…which, heh!, I have to tell you actually rooted not just in Victor-Charles Mahillon's work before them but, at its core, the Natya Sastra, which comes to us from the land which birthed the most complex and virtuosic music style on planet Earth: India, with its extraordinary Carnatic mode.
I say all this for a reason, as Kastning's work has always been dominantly, almost obsessively, chordophonic and thus at least somewhat increasingly percussive in the attributed 20th/21st century sense as well, bridging between the two sets of perceptions, both of which are correct when all's said and done because—and please listen closely Erich, Curt, Vic-Chaz, Ravi et al—all stringed instruments are actually simultaneously percussive and chordophonic…except when they're bowed mayhap? Maybe not, as one could erect an imposing argument that even violins are half percussive, their pitch characteristics arising from rasping, which is a matter of a constant flow abrasion; that is: of being struck by the irregular surface of the bow hairs, physically an act of constant percussive response (and we'll bypass arguments re: sonic characteristics in idiophones, etc., as it's getting close to dinner time and I don't want to miss tonight's souffle d'seraphime).
I also note all this because Kevin's was one of the most interesting interviews I've ever conducted (along with Michael Mantler, Tomasz Stanko, Morton Subtonick, etc.), and I rapidly discovered that all his mentations, in discussions and in music, even in the improvisatory mode that is his wont, are extremely well informed if sometimes a bit obtuse even to the well-informed listener. Dig deeply enough, though, and you'll find a synthesis that spans the entirety of the musical spectrum. Thus, when you hear a wrinkle developing, it's never coincidental and knowing its wellsprings increases appreciation for what's occurring in all the CDs, opens up a whole new dimension. When I tutor college level students in critical analysis, I peel the layers away in literature and reveal the many levels a great work of art can occupy. Music acts the same way in the right hands.
In later CDs, Kevin and compeers have slowly been ratcheting up the use of chord strikes and such to imitate pianistics. Then of course, there's the rare presence in this outing of Kastning actually playing piano as well as his favored custom baritone guitars, so all and sundry are engaged in processes pushing the envelope even beyond what's manifested previously, coming, as Kevin notes "ever closer to [their] own artistic ideals". Balász Major, for instance, is very much in the Colin Walcott / Marc Anderson / Trilok Gurtu vein and so the sounds he makes are as important as the rhythms manifested, more so actually, gongs walking in when Szabó orientalizes things. The music and what it fleshes are what matter, not just the dexterities. Those are the means to the end.
Kevin Kastning is one of the few musicians for whom it's almost pointless to review new works because his entire catalogue is of a piece; no matter where you choose to start, here or elsewhere, you'll come away immensely gratified and thirsting for more. In fact, if you…but, oh hell, this turned into another aesthetics seminar, didn't it? Man, I really gotta start cutting back on the Dr. Pepper's, but this is what happens when you commence looking into uncommon musics, and that's why increasing numbers of very serious musicians are attracted to Kastning's oeuvre and to sitting in with him. Great music is not always easy to acclimate to, you have to work at it a bit, which is why I ruminated on the matters above, but when it's finally understood, the effect is subtly oceanic, all-encompassing. When you no longer desire to fight the undertow is when you know you've become a part of it.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2013, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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