Eyvind Kang: Continuity, Innovation, Liberation

January 2012, Vol. 28, No.1

Photo of Eyvind Kang by Bryce Davesne

By Schraepfer Harvey

We meet multi-instrumentalist, arranger and composer Eyvind Kang through his many recordings, contributions and collaborations – John Zorn, Mike Patton, Laurie Anderson, Skuli Sverrison, Secret Chiefs, Sun City Girls, Sun O))) – and a consistent touring roster with Bill Frisell over the last decade has given him the opportunity to explore his composing life. Since an early career endorsement from Zorn and label Tzadik – Kang has four releases there spanning 1996 to 2007 – the artist has continued a path of learning and exploration that’s evident on his recordings.

He makes those explorations with an ever-expanding list of collaborators: Shahzad Ismaily, Hans Teuber, Christian Asplund, Tucker Martine, Tari Nelson-Zagar, Timothy Young. On his most recent Ipecac Recordings release, The Narrow Garden, Kang directs thirty ensemble members in different configurations, exhibiting what’s quintessentially Kang, a mix of diverse instruments and timeless musical palettes from cultures around the globe.

I caught up with Kang by phone in December and ran into him at the Royal Room opening weekend, where he performed with Scrape. We covered a couple of his jazz influences – Ornette Coleman and early violinist Stuff Smith: “There’s a person that plays with guts.” We also talked about Kang’s time with Michael White, the former Bay Area violinist with a handful of Kang-recommended releases on Impulse! from the early 70s and a 1997 release with Bill Frisell, Motion Pictures. We also talked about his continuing explorations into music around the world and of his recent Artist Trust Arts Innovator Award, a $25,000 gift to two generative artists each year.

Here’s a statement from Artist Trust Executive Director Fidelma McGinn: “Thanks to The Dale and Leslie Chihuly Foundation’s support, Artist Trust’s Arts Innovator Award is open to Washington State artists of all disciplines who are originating new work, experimenting with new ideas and pushing the boundaries in their respective fields. The selection panelists felt that Eyvind stood out this year among an impressive group of high-caliber entries. They felt his unique approach to his musical composition deserved to be rewarded. He has had a great impact on the jazz scene on both a local and national level, and will undoubtedly have a bigger impact in years to come.”

Whatever you make of Kang’s impact on the jazz scene, the Artist Trust award is money and sanction from a local authority that has lent recent spunk to current Kang projects, like a recent collaboration with cellist Janel Leppin and pedal steel player Susan Alcorn and instrumentalist and vocalist Jessika Kenney, also Kang’s wife. “I was totally surprised,” he says. “It gave a lot of positive energy to things I couldn’t decide if I wanted to commit to … I was really lucky to get that.”

Kang’s innovation is his authentic and personal search, with a variety of musicians, often absent of commercial success or large-scale administrative support. In his career, he hasn’t waited for signs of approval. “I’m in a time warp, I think. I’m still doing the same thing,” he says. It’s that search that is the inspiration for generations to come.

He describes to me some of his teaching goals from his 2011 faculty experience at the Banff Centre: “I was trying to concentrate on creative approaches to technique.” He explains that creativity is pre-lingual and advises students not to get trapped. “It’s the minutia of what angle your finger is going on the string,” for example.

In a performance setting, the key is internally freeing yourself to a point where that awareness is so internalized that reactions of all kinds become accessible to you at an instant, as opposed to conventional or clichéd responses or responses that are simply built into your training or the way you practice or your body’s memory. It’s a discovery he’s made from travels and musical experiences around the world and with teachers Dr. N Rajam, in Mumbai, India, and Ustad Hossein ‘Omoumi, formerly of Seattle via Iran, now in California.

Since, minutia is paramount for Kang, and perhaps an unsurprising quest for a string player. Styles for violin are so diverse, yet the canon so limited for us here – jazz, bluegrass, Western classical, Irish. But, Kang says, “I have to deal with all the different cultures and traditions. Once you know, you can’t ignore it … that’s what bounces back to me as a composer.”

Coloring his compositions and releases over the last decade are diverse musical references. Kang points out, “I don’t think there’s different music; there’s different systems.” The West often turns to even temperament. “Viola and violin have freedom to play a lot of tunings, but we have to play with the piano,” Kang says, leaving a lot of unresolved technical issues.

Getting through those issues has become somewhat of a career study for the artist. Currently, he’s diving deeper into Persian systems with his wife Jessika Kenney. The couple lives on Vashon Island, and both have had fruitful musical enrichment from studies with mutual friend Ustad Hossein ‘Omoumi, Kenney as a long-time student.

Some of that influence, at least regarding music traditions older (yet relevant) than Western tradition, can be heard on The Narrow Garden. Opening track “Forest Sama’i,” for example, exhibits clear reference to forms of Ottoman Turkish song, and tracks “Nobis Natalis” and “Invisus Natalis” also have a sound pre-dating Western systems.

Kang’s penchant for the sounds of early music moves its way into much of his work. It’s the effect of Kang’s hours and dedication into his recorded works. “The bulk of my energy is going into the internal composing life, seeing what works and what’s complete shit,” Kang says.

He’s at home in the studio, glad to have the chance to listen and listen and create in that space, where technology allows a repetition in a controlled environment: “Recording then playback, it makes music possible for me ¬– to hear it.” He speaks of recording as a process of creating illusion. It’s also the place where Kang has found a chance to liberate himself and produce a prolific and particular oeuvre exploring his quest.

It’s also a place most comfortable for Kang because of his sensitivity to the nuance of his instrument and of his awareness of the possibilities of sound, were they not wrestling with dominant systems. For the strings, Kang says, “One has to deal with a lot of trauma from trying to recover one’s soul from the repetition,” from the canon, from the technique, from the assumptions one makes about music or relationships of sounds. And Kang’s explicit about it: “It’s time for more radical approaches to arts, to get past the internalized oppression.”

Because of systematic treatments and codification of music throughout the centuries, Kang sees that “you can’t even think of what you’re trying to think.” It’s a bit rhetorical, but it’s an important legacy of the ongoing journey in the musician’s life and exploration. The limits of a player’s language are the limits of their world. Kang wants us to hear all that’s available to us, on fretless and four-stringed instruments and even in worlds beyond music.

As an arts innovator, he’s a quiet revolutionary. Kang brings ancient and multi-cultural textures to the fore in his music and documents it. Through that exploration, he’s given permission to himself, and allowed listeners and musicians to give themselves permission to never stop exploring – sounds, relationships, cultures. When you listen, this becomes evident. Maybe it’s amazing that in the centuries of music making, this kind of permission is still an innovation; it is an innovation because it must continually be renewed. Congratulations to Kang and Artist Trust on a great award.

Earshot Jazz is a Seattle based nonprofit music, arts and service organization formed in 1984 to support jazz and increase awareness in the community.  Earshot Jazz publishes a monthly newsletter, presents creative music and educational programs, assists jazz artists, increases listenership, complements existing services and programs, and networks with the national and international jazz community.
©2012 Earshot Jazz, Seattle, Washington