Before Napster was even an idea living in Shawn Fanning’s dorm room, composer Kenneth Kirschner saw something idealistic and beautiful in the notion of sending his music out into the world in a way that was freely accessible to everyone.
“I’m not telling you to copy other things,” Kirschner clarifies. “But I am telling you to pirate my music because I think it’s important.”
When you visit Kirschner’s über-minimalist single-page website, you get a clearer sense of how central this outlook is to his work. Since its launch in late 2002, new pieces have been posted upon completion (older works have also been added, rounding out the breadth of the catalog) and all are freely downloadable (as MP3s and, since 2010, FLACs). Each work carries a date in a hazy cornflower blue font as its sole identifier—it’s the date that the piece’s concept “crystalized” for Kirschner, a filing system that he characterizes as “a disaster that I love.” The track’s total running time is the only other detail listed. No program notes are offered, no composer bio included. Scroll all the way down the page past the last (which is to say the first) track, May 19, 1988, and you get the only information on the music’s creator on offer here: you can email him, follow him on twitter, or sign up for the mailing list.
The lack of explanatory material about his music on his website is quite intentional. Kirschner wants listeners to focus on the end result and is uninterested in seducing them with detailed notes about his compositional process because “if you don’t like what you’re hearing, the methods have already failed.”
Considering all he’s keeping under his hat, the fact that all the work is available at no cost suits Kirschner. “If you can download it freely, then you can take a risk with it,” he points out. “And I think, being an experimental composer, it’s about encouraging a listener to take risks.” This obviously begs some personal financial questions, and Kirschner is very forthcoming on this point, explaining that he works part-time in an unrelated field as a freelance copy editor. “I basically do just enough work to get by and support my music while giving myself the maximum amount of time and freedom. It’s a tricky balance, and there are definitely tradeoffs.”
To source the building blocks for his compositions, Kirschner works with live instrumentalists, coaching and recording sounds with them. He’s also comfortable enough at the piano to produce what he needs, and isn’t afraid to knock out some of his own percussion as well. Field recordings and sample libraries round out his sound palette. From there, it’s a process of improvisation and chance procedures to build up musical material, and then a lot of editing at a desk in his Brooklyn home until the final piece takes shape.
What electronic music gives you the ability to do is to obsessively edit everything. You have more control than you ever should have. And you can take chaos and take chance and take unexpected events and capture them and let them become an essential part of a composition. So you’re not composing intentionally a lot of the time, you’re reacting to what’s happening with the technology and what’s happening with the parameters that you’ve set up.
When that obsessive editing is complete, the file is posted to Kirschner’s website. A few record labels, including 12k, have put out collections of his work, though the CD covers often carry the printed suggestion that “this music may be freely copied.” While he does occasionally perform live, Kirschner is adamant that the recording is the work. He doesn’t create scores in the traditional sense, associating printed music with a certain anxiety. “I’ve always felt I had some very basic form of musical dyslexia,” he explains. “Notation was very intimidating to me. It was something I could never connect with and I could never have become a musician in any sort of serious sense if I had to go that path.”
Coming of age at a time when synthesizers and drum machines and four-track recorders were at hand, however, meant that he could create music in a way that worked for him and he wasn’t blocked by tools that he just couldn’t use.
I’ve always known this is what I wanted to do. I was fortunately very clear on this since I was twelve or thirteen: that I want to do this kind of music, I want to do it in a certain sort of way, present it in a certain way, distribute it in a certain way, have it philosophically structured in a certain way. And I’ve stuck to that program.
In many ways, Kirschner sees it all as a grand experiment in objectless, abstract music. “I think it’s a cool thing to try and see if it works.”
“And by ‘trying it’,” he concedes, his laugh filling the room, “I mean my entire life.”