Kim Cascone studied electronic music at the Berklee College of Music and the New School in Manhattan. He founded Silent Records in 1985 and has released more than 50 albums of electronic music on Silent, Sub Rosa, Mille Plateaux, Raster-Noton, Störung, Monotype and Emitter Micro. Cascone has performed with Merzbow, Keith Rowe, Scanner, John Tilbury, Tony Conrad, Pauline Oliveros and worked as assistant music editor on two David Lynch films.
Cascone founded the .microsound list in 1999, has performed and lectured in Europe since 2001 and conducts workshops in Subtle Listening. He has written for MIT Press and guest-edited Contemporary Music Review and is an advisor for the audio culture journal Interference. His writings are included in many books on sound art.
Photo John Kannenberg. Sheffield 2002
1. What do you remember about your first guitar? Why did you stop playing?
KC: My very first guitar was a late-60's Zim-Gar electric guitar that I got for Christmas when I was 13 years old. I don't remember if it had one or two pickups. I still have it in storage somewhere although I modified it by reshaping the body in the early 70's. I later added a pickup behind the bridge and used it as a tabletop guitar with preparations. I played some free improvisation sessions with it in NY and then later with a project I started called Language Lab here in San Francisco in the 80's.
But my first "real" guitar was a late 60's black Gibson Les Paul Custom which I played in high school and as a student at the Berklee College of Music.
I stopped playing the Zim-Gar because the neck was difficult to play on and impossible to keep in tune, and I stopped playing the Les Paul because I had trouble playing on the micro-frets and I didn't have the money to get it re-fretted, so I eventually sold it.
2. How's your art routine rituals?
KC: I spend a lot of time in pre-composition mode doing research before actually composing. I usually get interested in a subject, technique, author or composer and spend months reading everything I can get my hands on about or by them. Right now I'm very deep into the work of Rudolf Steiner and his thoughts on musical intervals which I've been using in my "Lunar Mansions" adaptations.
The one physical ritual I have before playing the guitar is washing my hands thoroughly and doing a short meditation before playing. I see this as my way of showing respect to the craft and to the instrument.
3. What's the relevance of technique in music, in your opinion?
KC: Having worked as a composer and performer of laptop music (electro-acoustic, glitch, microsound, etc) for the past 25 years I've come back to the guitar world with a fresh perspective. When I was still actively playing in the 80's the "need for speed" was a trend but with fewer role models than there are today. There was Eddie van Halen, Steve Vai, etc. in rock and John McLaughlin, Al Dimeola, etc. in jazz fusion but there was still room for players who were not interested in being guitar athletes.
Today, in the Internet "selfie-era" there is a need for a guitar player to be recognized for their playing speed, which is mistaken for virtuosity. We live in a time where we impatiently wait for web pages to download. Everything has to be instant-on, moving at light-speed and spectacular so it's no wonder there's an obsession for many players to shred 32nd notes at 200 BPM.
The problem is that many players who can play at superhuman speeds are not very good musicians. Their playing reminds me of those radio commercials that time-compress the voice-over disclaimers that come at the end...you can't follow what's being said because the speed of the voice distracts from the content. When the guitar is played that fast there is no music between the notes, but people are easily impressed by the spectacle of guitar athletes and this has cheapened the craft in my opinion.
There's a quote that is often (mistakenly?) attributed to Claude Debussy, "Music is the space between the notes." You will hear this if you listen to Miles Davis -- he could say more in three notes than most other musicians could say in an entire solo. This "music between the notes" is what moves me, not athletic technique.
4. What are the challenges and benefits of today's digital music scene?
KC: Having been involved with the post-digital laptop music scene since the late 90's I can say that digital music has collapsed from offloading the creative process onto the software application as a effort to make "workflow more efficient" thereby making the process of "create then upload to the cloud" nearly instantaneous. This offloading of the creative process to software removed the aspect of exploratory research.
I saw this most clearly in the glitch genre. What started as a subversive artistic practice of getting under the hood and tinkering with software or exposing its flaws and bugs quickly turned into a style easily achieved with presets or plugins. It became a trope for a dystopian cyberpunk aesthetic and can be seen in the opening credits of many sci-fi films.
Now there are literally thousands of people following tutorials found online on how to make glitch images, music texts and video then posting their work to Tumblr or Soundcloud. As a result, digital music and sound art resemble social media memes more than art these days.
5. Depict the sound you're still looking for, or the sound you'd like to hear.
KC: I've been searching for a certain sound on the guitar that came to me in a dream. I was playing a strange looking guitar, it didn't quite look like a guitar as we know it but it had strings and a fretboard. When the strings were plucked or strummed they emitted a clear sound of the harmonic series which I could control by fretting the string a certain way.
I can't remember if in the dream I was using a pick or my fingers but the sound was otherworldly. It felt like I was playing with a prism and splitting light into myriad gradations of color. I'm not sure I'll ever get that sound on a guitar but I'll see if I can get close.
6. Which is the main pleasure of the strings? What are their main limitation? How did you find again the guitar?
KC: I've always been attracted to the vibrating string. It has a divine monochord, or Pythagorean spiritual aspect to it. When I first picked up a guitar at age 13 and played a note I felt the neck and body vibrate in my hands and that established a connection no other instrument had done for me. There was a psychic/physical continuity with the instrument and that always seemed magical to me.
This past summer I was cleaning out my studio in order to have some work done on my house and I got my Warmoth guitar out of the closet and opened the case. It was like seeing an old friend again after many years. I picked up the guitar and suddenly everything clicked into place. I knew that the guitar was the next stage of my journey as a composer yet that the path back would be a difficult one both artistically and physically.
I needed to find a way back to the guitar yet not in the usual electro-acoustic/academic way. I took a piece I wrote for the Union Chapel pipe organ last fall titled "Lunar Mansions" and adapted it for electric ensemble in order to provide a conduit connecting the worlds of guitar and minimalist, electro-acoustic music.
As for limits, there are always limits - either self-imposed or external. But if you find your path and use your experience to light it then the limits become guides rather than obstacles.
7. Can you describe a sound experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a musician?
KC: I told this story in an article I wrote about my Subtle Listening workshops but as a child I was having a bath and heard the sound of a propeller plane approaching in the distance. The sound of the propeller caused a symphony of harmonics to ricochet and bounce around the room. As the plane got closer the sound changed, I was transfixed by this but had no idea what was causing this to happen -- that experience plus having an odd sort of aural synesthesia was my inspiration for becoming a musician. I found certain sonic environments - and music - to be very transportative. I call this being a "sonic sensitive."
8. Tell me one musical work which has provoked a change in your music.
Actually, there are four works that completely altered my thinking about music:
Get Up With It by Miles Davis,
A Rainbow in Curved Air by Terry Riley,
Electronic Music by Iannis Xenakis and
On The Other Ocean by David Berhman.
I listened to the Miles Davis double LP until I wore the grooves off the record. The other pieces were discovered after I left Berklee to study electronic music at the New School in Manhattan.
9. What is your relationship with other art disciplines?
KC: After leaving Berklee I hung out a lot in NYC soaking up the music that was happening then. From minimalism to no-wave to noise to free-improvisation I immersed myself in everything I could. I had a friend in art school studying painting and my brother was in film school so I got to sit in on many of their classes. I saw an immediate link between filmmaking and music and began to think in terms of cinema when composing music. Later on, after moving to San Francisco, I had the chance to work as a sound editor on several David Lynch films where I learned a lot about sound design and film sound. Cinema has always played a large role in my approach to music since it is more of a "world-building" medium.
10. Where are your roots? What are your secret influences?
KC: That's a tough question to answer. Over the years there have been so many things that helped to shape my aesthetic. But if I had to select a major influence I'd have to say reading fiction has played an important part in my development as a musician and composer. I love the work of Gaddis, Pynchon, the Beats, DeLillo, Auster, Bernhard, the Oulipo authors and others. Fiction is another form of world-building.
11. What quality do you most empatize with in another musician?
KC: Understanding and speaking the language of musical "gesture." By this I mean grasping the inner spirit of music as a conversation or narrative conducted in gestures -- I don't mean physical gestures but the use of a vocabulary consisting of sound shapes which form musical sentences.
You can hear this most clearly in jazz music where musicians speak to one another in this way. It's a non-verbal, psychic thing that seems telepathic to those who don't understand it. It's a musical wisdom that comes with a lot of musical experience and hardships. Life writes its history onto one's body and soul and the musicians with musical wisdom can communicate this.
12. What instruments and tools do you prefer?
KC: I prefer to build my own tools, whenever possible, whether it be software or hardware. Since switching from OS X to Linux in 2009 I've switched from working in Max/MSP to working in Pure Data (a dataflow visual programming environment) constructing my own software for my projects. I programmed a Pure Data patch that generates just intonation sine waves that beat against whichever acoustic instrument I'm writing for.
I use Ardour (a digital audio workstation) to compose and perform with. But the laptop has played less of a role in my work lately.
On the hardware side: I have a background in audio electronics so I like to build my own guitar pedals and this is something I plan on spending some time doing this year. I have several clone pedals scheduled to build, most of which are geared towards crafting a sound for the "Lunar Mansions" drone piece.
My main instruments at the moment are a Warmoth Strat styled guitar that was constructed for me in the mid 1980's by the Bay Area luthier Leo Knapp, and a Epiphone Wilshire Pro reissue. I use the Warmoth Strat mainly in the studio because the three Bartolini pickups give me a lot of tonal variations.
13. What projects are you working on now and what does the future hold?
KC: I recently completed adapting my "Lunar Mansions" piece for string ensemble and for an ensemble consisting of electric guitar, 2 electric basses, tanpura, vibraphone and harmonium and has interest from a US label.
I'm developing the 2016 edition of the Drone Cinema Film Festival that will take place in Leiden, Netherlands and in Seattle, Washington next year.
I'm working on materials for a guitar masterclass called Slow Guitar that I plan on conducting next year that combines aspects of my Subtle Listening workshops with a compositional approach to playing the guitar.
I have a CD coming out in the fall titled "subflowers-ɸ" on the emitter micro label in Berlin. This is a continuation of my work with sine waves and interference tones or beats.
Subtle Listening workshops
Blue Cube (Raster-Noton 1998)
Cathode Flower (Ritornell 1999)
Residualism (Ritornell 2001)
Dust Theories (c74 2001)
The Crystalline Address, with Scanner (Sub Rosa 2002)
Pulsar Studies (anechoic 2004)
Rondo/7Phases/Blowback, with Merzbow (Sub Rosa 2004)
Gravity Handler (CRC 2004)
Statistically Improbable Phrases (anechoic 2006)
The Astrum Argentum (anechoic 2008)
Pharmacie: Green & Red (anechoic 2008)
Music for Dagger & Guitar (Aural Terrains 2008)
anti-musical celestial forces (Storung 2009)
The Knotted Constellation (fourteen rotted coordinates) (Monotype 2011)
Silence (PGR, 1985)
The Flickering of Sowing Time (RRRecords, 1986)
Cyclone Inhabited by Immobility (Permis de Construire, 1987)
The Black Field (Silent, 1989)
Fetish, with Arcane Device (Silent, 1990)
The Chemical Bride (Silent, 1992)
The Morning Book of Serpents (Silent, 1995)
A Hole of Unknown Depth (Silent, 1996)
As Heavenly Music Corporation
In a Garden of Eden (Silent, 1993)
Consciousness III (Silent, 1994)
Lunar Phase (Silent, 1995)
Anechoic (Silent, 1996)
with KGB Trio
Swiss Pharmaceuticals (Utech, 2005)
Smoke on Devil's Mountain (Scrapple Records, 2008)
Noise Forest (Aural Terrains, 2009)
with Spice Barons
Future Perfect State (Silent, 1995)
- "Aesthetics of Failure." Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000.
- "Laptop music-counterfeiting aura in the age of infinite reproduction" Parachute 107, 2002.
- "Grain, Sequence, System: Three Levels of Reception in the Performance of Laptop Music." Contemporary Music Review Volume 22, Issue 4, 2003.
- "Evolving the Emergent Content Workshop. Interace Cultures - Artistic Aspects of Interaction - Christa Sommerer, Laurent Mignonneau, Dorothee King (eds.), 2008.
- "Grain of the Auditory Field" Junk Jet No.1, 2007.
- "The Use of Density Groups in Electroacoustic Music" Contemporary Music Review, Volume 30, Issue 2, 2011.
- "Residualism" Sound - Caleb Kelly MIT Press, 2011.