Followers of this blog and my musical releases will know that the American sound-artist Kim Cascone has become both a friend and inspiration over the last few years. I wrote a piece on this blog in 2014 about my experience of a couple of concerts and workshops that I had invited him to present at Leeds Beckett University, and I also made him one of the subjects of the chapter I wrote for Void Front Press’ Sustain//Decay anthology. You can also find my chapter archived online here.
I tend invest most projects I work on with imaginative images: I find the process of working with music conjures symbols, and I explore them – I see how they unfold in parallel with the piece in question. Often the exploration of the symbols becomes so intense that the music almost seems like a by-product of this engrossing internal process. This is the kind of thinking that led me to write texts like Psychogeographia Ruralis, and which is explored in more scholarly terms in The Bright Sound Behind the Sound. Layla and I have also carried these approaches into our work with Hawthonn, which became the other subject of the Sustain//Decay piece.
While writing the chapter, which focuses on Arthur Versluis’ idea of the ‘hieroeidetic field’ – a shared imaginative and symbolic space conjured between artist and audience – I was intrigued as to how Kim’s experiences of the creative process would differ from my own. Kim had, at the time, just finished developing a series of electronic works that he likened to scrying mirrors, and which were intended to reflect aspects of the listeners back at themselves. I found listening to these pieces in a meditative setting an intense experience. They conjured profound experiences of pareidolia, sensed presences, and – during one concert – vivid imagery of impossible architecture: Escher-like cathedrals composed of spongiform, bone-marrow like materials! However, Kim – although his work is invested in many esoteric ideas – is often primarily focused on the psychological benefits of meditation, rather than the sort of visionary ‘journeying’ which is my bias. I became very intrigued as to how – or whether – Kim experienced an imagistic dimension to his music-making. The questions below were aimed at teasing out some answers to this, and they form quite a pleasing appendix to the chapter itself, as well as providing some insight into the creative inner-life of the artist himself. The answers also present a series of embryonic themes, which I hope to see Kim expand on in future, such as the concept of magnitudes that form manifest respective ‘spatialities’ of digital and physical instruments. I am grateful to Kim for granting me permission to publish them here.
PL: I’d like to concentrate mainly on your recent musics focused on meditation. Would it be possible to recount a few philosophical, mystical, musical and aesthetic influences informing this work?
KC: It’s a tangled web of influences but essentially I’d have to credit Rudolph Steiner and Carl Jung as primary influences in my meditative sound pieces. There’s a wonderful book of lectures on music by Steiner titled The Inner Nature of Music and the Experience of Tone which has impacted my creative work quite a bit. It was mostly through Steiner and Jung that I came to develop my Subtle Listening workshop and that platform embodies all the concepts I’ve intuitively used in my creative work over the years.
As for aesthetics, it’s more difficult to say what influenced my meditation pieces. I wanted to combine a non-musical, i.e. scientific, sound so the listener could approach the material with less baggage — in other words, invite less of a musical experience for the listener and more as a nutritive one. I researched many different approaches to altering brain states with audio and some of them had an interesting “aesthetic as by-product” – as if an aesthetic was imparted purely by chance. So I adopted a similar approach: stack ideas and sounds and when an organic aesthetic emerges from that mix then “keep the tape rolling.”
But ultimately, everything comes from the unconscious via the subtle realm. And I work very hard to maintain a channel between the two and investigate what comes in. I tested all of the material I generated by meditating with it and this kept pushing me further.
PL: Although your musical work is primarily electronic, articles like The Avant-Garde as Aeromancy, The Grain of the Auditory Field and Transcendigital Imagination all draw upon influences from the natural world. How would you say these ‘participatory’ experiences influence your relation to sound and the compositional process?
KC: I look back now and think that some of these essays were precognitive since I’ve been distancing myself from electronic sounds and field recordings lately. I have come to the conclusion that the origin of electronic/field sounds is an infinitesimal space, this is not a judgement but a personal observation. I didn’t realise this until I picked up my guitar again after 23 years of not playing. As soon as I plugged the guitar into my amplifier I realised that the sound was coming from a completely different space, one that was large, almost infinite.
So my writing about clouds and fields and the transcendigital all hinted at my engaging with spaces larger than where electronic synthesised sound comes from. The psychic energy transmitted and stored in a physical instrument made of wood and steel is more “spatial” than a synth or laptop because energy transfers from bone, flesh and consciousness into these materials and is then fed back to the player. So I moved from a field-oriented participatory experience to a tactile/spatial participatory one. Some guitar players say that their “tone” is all in their fingers and this is very much the truth. The physical/psychic circuit created while playing an instrument is enchanted, alive with thousands of subtle interactions that take place all along the circuit. Even though I process a guitar signal with electronic circuits the origin still exists in a large space. The effortless flow of electronic music via digital technology speaks volumes about what sort of space it originates in and it’s mode of consumption. I’m not sure if I can explain this more clearly but I feel an intuitive need to balance infinitesimal electronic space with a larger one, one that originates in psychic space.
PL: Errormancy and the creative possibilities of the glitch are a theme that some of your aforementioned writings often touch on. Do you ever intentionally use divination, chance or pareidolia (e.g. hearing voices in noise) as part of your creative process?
KC: Not directly. Years ago I used a seeded random number generator in a Max/MSP patch that I performed with but that was abandoned when I switched to Linux and performed live mixes of composed pieces in Ardour. But there were a few pieces I composed that came about from hearing patterns in noisy backgrounds.
For example I composed a piece that originated via pareidolia came about when I was driving in a car in Belgium with a friend. We were on the highway in the rain and he had left the radio on, very low in volume, almost at the threshold of hearing level. I’m still not sure what the radio was playing but it sounded like someone had left a microphone open after a conference speech in a hotel ballroom; all you could hear was the sound of dinner plates, cutlery and glasses along with very low background ambiance. The noise in the car from the wind, wheels and rain created a gauze which masked the tinny radio noises and the mix was like nothing I had ever heard before. I didn’t have a digital recorder at that time so I wrote copious notes as to what I was hearing and how to possibly recreate it. When I got back to my studio I attempted to recreate it from my notes and that piece, The Silver Star, wound up on my Astrum Argentum CD.
PL: Can you describe the development of a piece like Dark Stations? Do you listen to it in the meditative context as part of the composing and refining process?
KC: The pieces from that time evolved from my meditation sessions. When I use the term “meditation” people usually visualise sitting in a lotus position and chanting “Aum” but that isn’t the technique I use. Many of the meditation techniques I teach in my Subtle Listening workshops came from techniques I developed for my own use and are very different from sitting and clearing the mind of chatter.
Around that time I was experimenting with maintaining a hypnagogic state for as long as possible and making a mental note of the “seeds” that came through. Once something came through I would unpack it and contemplate on the contents and their associations. So my meditation sessions would deliver these hypnagogic seeds that contain patterns which then served as instructions for various projects. Sometimes they were full blown pieces of music, sometimes a title for a piece or a texture, other times it was a synchronistic event that pointed towards something I needed to focus on. I suppose you could consider this a form of hypnagogic divination but I always thought of it more as fishing in the unconscious.
PL: How do you balance these unconscious or ‘imaginal’ elements with the use of technology in the composition process? Would you say that you reach a ‘flow’ state in which technology is transcended in a way that still allows your creative imagination to continue unimpeded by the medium?
KC: That was always a difficult polarity to balance. But I had to separate them into a two-stage compositional process — if it wasn’t an improvisation. The first stage is what I call pre-composition which is primarily comprised of research (reading and meditation) and generates lots of notes, follow-up research, sound descriptions, mind maps and flowcharts. This part focuses on stirring up the imaginal, the unconscious and seeing patterns. After my notes are collected I use them as a starting point. Sometimes I follow them like a schematic or road map, other times they are just places to start exploring.
PL: While working on a piece do you ever experience anything you do not expect, such as the spontaneous arousal of imaginative imagery, strong emotions or unexpected urges? (NB: This question was aimed at teasing out what sort of ‘sacramental encounter’ Kim was pursuing in his music.) Do you pursue internal imagery, or are you more interested in the possibility of a via negativa or ego-loss?
KC: When I test a meditation piece that uses binaural beats I’d sometimes have CEV’s (closed eye visuals) of intricate fractal-like mandala patterns but no real strong emotions or urges. When I’m in that space there is a nourishing effect, I also find it a good time to dump unneeded things into the abyss.
It’s difficult to point to any specific desired goal of meditation i.e., its effect on the creative process. Once you define it it’s gone. So I just leave it alone, have no expectations, no goals, just “chop wood and carry water” as they say in Buddhism.
As for ego-loss that is the biggest hoodwink in many spiritual disciplines. Your ego is an integral part of your learning experience on the material plane i.e., it is your main teacher — the goal is to not let ego dominate all situations. It’s like the saying: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If all you know how to use is your ego then all situations look as if they need resolution with this single tool. There are many other tools to use, most importantly in the creative process, yet we are never taught how to use them or even that they exist.
That being said, ego is something I’ve come to see a lot of in most types of music today. The mechanisms of modern music have come to resemble social media more and more. But that’s different discussion altogether.
PL: What would you hope your audience experiences? Do you see them sharing in the same internal experiences that you have as a composer? Or is it something more subtle, like creating an environment for a diversity of inner experiences?
KC: I read a very influential book back in the 80’s by Umberto Eco called The Open Work. It examines creation as unfinished work which is left up to the percipients to finish by drawing upon their inner experiences and imagination. I don’t set any explicit goals, intention or meaning to my work. I build an atmosphere and hope that the percipients wander around unguided and explore their imaginations.
This also brings to mind a wonderful paper (attached here) by Gernot Bohme: Atmosphere as a Fundamental Concept of a New Aesthetics. This has been a central method of working for me ever since I produced The Black Field with the Thessalonians in the mid 80’s. I recorded the band (comprised of electro-acoustic improvisors) in two separate sessions on a 16-track recorder. In order to save money on multi-track tape I stacked the two sessions one on top of the other (e.g. session 1 on tracks 1-8, session 2 on tracks 9-16). When I listened to playback late one evening I had left random faders up on the mixing board. So both “fields” played together and this revealed unexpected patterns, intensity flows and juxtapositions in the 16 tracks of sound, which I called The Black Field. Which could also be a way of describing ones unconscious.
PL: Do you ever feel your creative process is led by something beyond yourself – such as the your own unconscious, a collective unconscious, spirit, etc?
KC: Yes very much so. From a very early age I’ve maintained an open conduit into my unconscious. This provided some difficulty for me as a kid but at some point I managed to learn how to use it as a tool. A child comes into this world swimming in their unconscious then later on school and society teaches them to swim to dry land. Rudolf Steiner created the Waldorf Schools to deal with this very phenomenon, i.e, to bring a child naturally to a place where they could still swim but exist on dry land too. I think this mad push to train kids to program computers and be science geeks should be balanced with teaching them to listen for songs in the wind and spot animals in the clouds.
An artist has a responsibility to tap into things much greater than herself, to bring things into this world that can serve as artefacts from the supernal realm and that stimulate that part of people they no longer have a direct connection with.
Sadly, we live in an era of dollar/pound store culture consisting of cheaply made, disposable goods, simulacra that gets tossed aside and winds up on an ever-growing “trash heap.” This trash heap winds up essentially seeping into the collective unconscious and serves to generate more trash culture. And so it goes…