Kevin Kastning: Thoughts on The Source

Introduction: September 2010: During an interview with Barry Cleveland for Guitar Player magazine, he asked me where my music comes from.
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Introduction: September 2010: During an interview with Barry Cleveland for Guitar Player magazine, he asked me where my music comes from. My recordings are largely improvised affairs, or in more accurate terms, spontaneously composed; or composed in real-time. Barry, being very familiar with my work, asked how that could be. I answered that I didn’t really know; it just seemed to happen. I said it just seems to come from some other source. We discussed that "off the record" for a while, and then continued with the interview. A couple of months later, Barry asked if I’d write an article about "the source."


"This is your new string quartet?" Uhhh ... Yes.

"I love your new album!" Oh ... Well ... thank you.

I have been known to hesitate and seem awkward when someone compliments my music. And even typing the words "my music" in the preceding sentence caused a bit of a pause as my fingers hovered over the keys before typing it. Is it my new string quartet? Is it my new album? Can I or should I take credit for it? Is it truly my music?

I have two separate and as far as I can discern unrelated parts of my artistic life. I am a composer, and I am also a guitarist. The composer writes pieces for solo instruments such as piano, and chamber groups such as string quartets. The guitarist has recorded several albums with various duo partners such as Sandor Szabo and Alex De Grassi and Mark Wingfield. None of the records have included pieces I’ve specifically composed in advance; yet I am responsible for half the composer credits on the albums. Most of the recorded pieces are created in real-time; some have very basic sketches. Both approaches yield very different compositions. On the surface, neither genre seems to have anything in common with the other. Yet there is one commonality. Something I’ve tried to understand for many years. And still really do not have much of a grasp on it.

There are times wherein I look back over a score of one of my compositions, and see passages I don’t remember writing. Sometimes these sections are a couple of bars; sometimes many pages. And then there are the albums. Before signing off on the final mix of a record, I must listen to it in its entirety in microscopic detail. More than once I have heard things on one of my albums which I don’t remember playing. In fact, on some of those mystery passages, I’ve heard things which I am not sure I even know how to play. I have heard passages I’m playing on a couple of my albums wherein I can’t figure out how I’m executing it. How can that be?

It all makes me realize that "my" music isn’t really mine at all.

If I can’t remember composing sections of compositions, and if I hear things on my records that I don’t recall playing, and in some cases can’t even technically analyze, then where does it come from?

I have had this discussion with other artistic collaborators. Most of them have similar stories. No one yet has an answer. I’ve come to refer to the origin of where it might all come from as "the source," for lack of a better name.

So then. What is the source? Where is it? From where does it come? Some of the answers I’ve heard have been nature, God, something with which you’re born, a supernatural element, and others. If the music isn’t coming from me, but someplace else, how can I allow it to come though? What is that unknown process? Clearly I have more questions about the source than answers. I have heard some artists state that it is channeled; they can tap into it and it seems to work through them. Personally, I find that it is not something I can turn off or on. It’s always there. It’s always on. I simply try to allow it to do or say what has to be said, and I try to stay out of the way. Imposing my will on it can often seem to cause interference, and the end result is not as strong as it could have been. Nor is what I had in mind in these instances what actually transpires. I’ve had experiences in the recording studio where I can both hear and see where a composition is headed, but I’ve tried to change its course mid-performance. Upon hearing the playback, it’s never anything I would want anyone else to hear. It’s now a wasted take, but had I just allowed the piece to unfold as was intended, it wouldn’t have been wasted.

One of my string quartets is in three movements, and runs about 25 minutes. When I began the early sketches for it, I had a sketch of a quartet in a single movement with a run time of less than eight minutes. During the composing of this piece, I always felt as if I was physically running behind something, trying to keep up. As if I were taking dictation, music coming at me very quickly with me writing as fast as I could in order to keep up. I don’t know the origin of all the extra material. How did this piece more than triple in size, when the entire time I was trying to keep it near the original sketch. But was unable to do so.

I believe it came from the source.

I’m not trying to lay claim to some special tap into the source. I’m almost saying just the opposite. That it seems to come through at its strongest when I stay out of the way.

There have been times when I’m practicing that I listen for it. This doesn’t happen when I’m doing some arduous bit of practicing like sight-reading, working on scales, exercises, learning a new Brouwer piece, or anything of the sort. I listen for it while playing long, sustaining tones. Single notes, making them as voice-like as possible. Long, flowing notes; one leading to and tying in to the next. Almost meditative. I’m unable to report that anything divine is revealed to me in these times; nothing revelatory; sunbeams don’t pour forth from parted clouds with a choir of angels. But it is like vitamins to me. I believe this kind of blended practicing and meditation provides a growth experience that is for me otherwise unattainable. It’s very focused and yet I’m not conscious either of myself or of which note comes next. It is a similar mental state to being in a recording studio with tape rolling.

Perhaps being open to the source is achieved through listening. It may be up to each of us to determine the origin of that to which we are listening. Maybe it’s different for each person; maybe this is why no one to whom I’ve spoke that has experienced the source can agree on what or where it is.

I used to question it. Wonder if it was really real. If so, where did it come from? Since the time I first started to think these thoughts, there have been too many evidentiary instances for me to question its existence or reality. I no longer question it. I accept it. I believe in it. And I try to stay out of its way.

Click here to read Barry Cleveland's interview with Kevin Kastning.

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