acoustic guitar artist, composer
Reviews of Returning
Sándor Szabó/Kevin Kastning: Returning, 2010
The new Szabó / Kastning CD is out, thank God, and it's another gem in a line of duet releases carrying on the best of the old ECM 'Dark Period' wherein masters like (and one cannot, trust me, help, as I have done repeatedly, mentioning these giants when reviewing S/K) Abercrombie, Towner, Connors, Rypdal, and sundry others cloaked the world in pensive grey miasmas and lurking mystery, a vale of fascinatingly threnodic landscapes and existential-nihilistic ponderings. Returning is composed entirely of two interlocking, circling, pondering guitars, brooding presences roaming benighted landscapes, this time extending beyond the customary baritone axes invented by Kastning into new territory: the 12-string alto guitar, likewise created by same. The result, as ever, is darkly beautiful to a fault.
I've had the pleasure of reviewing several of their releases in past years, here in FAME and elsewhere, and Returning is just as its name infers, a pathway back into the unique territories Szabó and Kastning perpetually create: spare, foggy, articulate, and literary a la modernist chamber-jazz-Goth, broad meditative milieus of arcane mysteries. One is seduced into a Stygian purgatory at the very outset, cascading chords and lurking follow-lines everywhere, pinging harmonics, closely tracked rondos, mutations and the far borders of the moors, lonely vales, and wuthering heights. Some cuts, such as Engleschriet, get elegantly crazy, patchworks of energy and activity skewed up from the earth, down from fragmented skies, before resolving into fitful propriety. Then Over the Hills, the Clouds Seem so Distant settles into vaporous prosody, pastorality set within a Montana skyscape or the steppes and tundra of distant climes.
If I say that one need not start with this particular disc at all, don't take that to be a curious statement but instead highest praise, as every cut and every release is the match and mode of every other, 100% steeped in consummate artistry. These guys have, individually and as a duo, received accolades around the world from fans and critics alike...not to mention the luthiers who craft new instruments to facilitate such high-flown creativity, woodworking gents who do not extend their talents and put aside their workloads for just anyone. Nonetheless, if you're new to Szabó & Kastning, start here, because it really indeed does not matter: you'll be picking up the rest of the catalogue soon enough.
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
"I am very angry when I hear from people that the music should be understood. This is a rude manipulation of people and a dirty mystification of the Music and as such it is a shame. And imagine the people believe it, and they are just kept far from the music. In very young age it would be very necessary to teach the children to FEEL the music not to understand. There is nothing to understand in the music. It is from another world and the real organic nature of the music cannot be understood. Of course, you can learn decades of different human-made music theories, but that does not take us closer why and how a certain chord creates a certain mood and feeling in the human soul. The music is at our disposal and we should contact it by feeling. There is no any other way."
~ Sándor Szabó
Are the musical conversations between you and Kevin Kastning a "Returning" or restoration of improvisation to "classical" music?"
To answer to this we should know what the improvisation is, what the purpose of the Universe/Creator with the improvisation in the life of the human being. And also the answer is long. First of all the music is the only direct passage between the invisible and the visible world and reality. That is why we can be in constant and direct contact with the Source. By now I know that the music is not a human invention. It exists independently of us, like the physical acoustic laws, etc., and they are valid without our existence. We are just capable of perceiving these things — The same with the music. We are capable of perceiving the music.
When a good musician is REALLY improvising, he/she never thinks on what to do. In those moments the improviser acts as a biological interface, in a special state of consciousness, like a receiver in order to lift over the music from another reality. It is kind of transmission, or translation. The Returning is symbolic for me because we return to the Source of ALL THE MUSICS. For musicians like we are with Kevin, we have to learn first of all how to be such a sensitive receiver to bring up the music from the Source, much rather than practicing things that are already played here by others.
I think a big and whole restoration would be necessary in the last 200 year's of classical music. Why? Because it concentrates only the composed music, and the performers are not trained to be improvisers but only to interpret. The bigot academism is a big handicap and somehow it would be necessary to set free the classical/academic music of this rigid attitude. The so-called jazz is not always real improvisation. Since it is taught in schools, it became kind of game for the brain. That is why we have more and more such musicians who are able to make real time variations of pre-learnt and pre-practiced music phrases (parts). These musicians have excellent rational intelligence, but almost no spiritual intelligence. The real improviser should have mostly spiritual intelligence. This cannot be obtained in jazz schools.
So now there is a big gap and distance between the real improvisers and the classical musicians. In the age of Bach, the improvisation was absolutely natural. A decent musician could improvise a fugue with 3 or more voices any time. I can also say that we feel a big distance from the contemporary jazz musicians, because they stuck into a very rigid stylistic, esthetic system, they want to play CERTAIN style of music in a CERTAIN way. This makes them compromised with themselves and with the music itself.
So with Kevin we just recalled something of that ancient attitude. In our present world the materialism dominates in the life of the people. In these times the world "soul" is very often meaningless for people, just because they grown up in a materialistic world. They have never used their spiritual intelligence and that is why it is extremely difficult to give validity to such music which comes directly from the Soul. We just do this.
Bach, Beethoven, Paganini, and most likely all composers of the common practice period were known as master improvisers. Had there been recordings of those improvisations available, do you think "classical" music would have developed to include improvisation throughout the years?
You can see that the world of classical music is divided into casts, like player, composer and conductor. The player acts like a slave, the conductor is mostly the star, and the composer is always is in the background. Actually the composer is the receiver of the music, even if it is not a real time improviser. The improvisation and composing are absolutely a practical thing, which means that if it is not done, it does not exist. There are educated modern composers, and they have never tried to improvise — not even a children's song. To be a sensitive composer or improviser, you have to do it constantly. So I clearly see that without such genius improvisers as Bach, Bartok and others today's classical music would be very primitive, rigid. I think that our musical world needs a new genre of improvised music which comes directly from the Source. Of course, there are so called free jazz musicians who are actually simple noisemakers, they try to express their untalentedness and frustration in a loud way, I speak about not of them.
"The fabric of existence weaves itself whole. You cannot set art off in a corner and hope for it to have vitality, reality, and substance. There can be nothing exclusive about substantial art. It comes directly out of the heart of the experience of life and thinking about life and living life." ~ Charles Ives
<!--[if !supportEmptyParas]--> Do the songs you play in dialogue with Kevin Kastning come "directly out of the heart of the experience of life and thinking about life and living life?"
Well, as I told you we are simple organic interfaces, with sensitive receivers and we are influenced of all the mental, physical, etc. circumstances in our life. When we play together the music is just being lifted over from the deeper reality, and we also work as a filter, because we are exposed to the above-mentioned influences. In this way the music we "create" is very personal of both parts. That is why it is very intimate because the listener can see and feel our soul directly.
“I never even thought about whether or not they understand what I'm doing . . . the emotional reaction is all that matters as long as there's some feeling of communication, it isn't necessary that it be understood.” ~ John Coltrane
"We think by feeling, what is there to know?" ~ Theodore Roethke from the poem "The Waking"
What do you hope a listener will understand about your music?
John Coltrane was a genius improviser and huge MIND. He managed to see behind the "curtain."
Of course I know this quote from the age of my 20's and it was always a thought to me, which was a guide in approaching the music. I am very angry when I hear from people that the music should be understood. This is a rude manipulation of people and a dirty mystification of the Music and as such it is a shame. And imagine the people believe it, and they are just kept far from the music. In very young age it would be very necessary to teach the children to FEEL the music not to understand. There is nothing to understand in the music. It is from another world and the real organic nature of the music cannot be understood. Of course, you can learn decades of different human-made music theories, but that does not take us closer why and how a certain chord creates a certain mood and feeling in the human soul. The music is at our disposal and we should contact it by feeling. There is no any other way.
What do the songs on "Returning" cause you to feel?
It is like you have children and meet them every day. You recognize them always but they radiate different feelings every time for you. I do not care about the titles of the songs. They are only for identification. I do not really like very direct, concrete titles because they can determinate the feeling of the listener. I like very abstract or neutral titles, not to be deviated from the clear feeling.
"I am a religious Russian Orthodox person and I understand ‘religion’ in the literal meaning of the word, as ‘re-ligio’, that is to say the restoration of connections, the restoration of the ‘legato’ of life. There is no more serious task for music than this." ~ Sofia Gubaidulina
Is your music on "Returning" an attempt at a restoration of the 'legato" of life?
I also knew this quote, but in my case I think that we should recover and restore the sacral quality of the music. For this we have to get direct contact with the Source, and then if we have the contact we do not have to do anything because the music is already sacred. This sacred attitude and quality is missing from the industrially made very materialistic music productions, even from the contemporary jazz. There are only a few players who do the music in a sacred way. In this point of view, yes the Returning is an attempt of the "legato" of life.
How has your collaboration with a young Berklee School of Music graduate on guitar changed your understanding of music?
To be honest, the fact that someone is a graduated musician from Berklee School of Music means nothing to me. It of course does not mean that I would not respect that knowledge that can be learn there. My problem is that they do not teach anything in the Berklee about human nature, about how to get to such a state of consciousness where the Source opens up for an improviser. There are such talents like Kevin, who attended the Berkley and he was aware of this, and nobody could wash out his mind, and now he is for me the most revolutionary American improviser. I am completely frustrated about the jazz guitar world. Nothing happens, it is a standing water, it became materialistic. There are several new talents, with brilliant new approaches in this filed but in these day they do not have chance to emerge from the unknownness.
By Dan Bilawsky
Returning is a rare album that is remarkable for its instruments as well as its instrumentalists. Guitarist Kevin Kastning brings some of his inventions, including the 12-string extended baritone guitar and 12-string alto guitar, into play once again, on this fourth duo disc with guitarist Sándor Szabó.
If you view life as a journey, this could be your soundtrack.
I was intrigued by this record because it features two guitars invented by Kevin Kastning. Additionally, the simple cover design and unassuming but evocative title, Returning, made me interested in trying to understand this music. I’m not sure I accomplished the understanding part, but it was beautiful journey. I wish I knew more about guitar history so I could truly see how Kastning’s 12-string alto and 12-string extended baritone guitars have expanded the guitar sound. The instruments certainly sound exquisite on this CD. This is due to the talent of both guitarists and the recording ethic of Greydisc Records.
These are new instruments, to a degree, and with their twenty-four plus strings Kevin Kastning and Sandor Szabo have forged a mythical world of sound. It begins, appropriately, with “Point of Entry” which creates the contemplative setting of the whole CD. The rest of the songs are like a tour of this world. For example, the second song is “Returning to a place we’ve never been,” which, to me, suggests familiarity blended with singularity and maybe a little mysticism – or just mystery. It’s a a subdued song, unfolding slowly like a hidden path. “Fourth Pleochroism” made me do research on that term. It refers to minerals and the colors they reflect depending on the angle from which they are observed. They can reflect up to three colors if I understood the information correctly. So, this made this title even more appealing. This world of the guitarists creation is beyond the normal boundaries of guitar.
The intelligence behind some of the titling is as appealing to me as the intelligence of the music. And I probably didn’t grasp the title’s meanings much more than the music’s. The music itself is incredibly rich. The sound is like a blend of classical Spanish guitar and Middle Eastern rhythms, if that makes sense. Kastning has composed many other works, too, and from what little I’ve read of him I’d say he brings the story to the music. These songs all blended into a single story, a single composition, not just individual songs that highlight virtuosity or something. Szabo seems to imbue the music with a deep meaning, a mystery, and listeners will desire to hear this music more and more.
Their guitars dance perfectly together just as intimated in “In daunsigne.” This is apparently a reference to T.S. Eliot’s work (who simply referenced an earlier work) and carries the theme of conjunction. Marriage partners dancing. Teamwork. It’s all on display here. You can’t listen to this CD without thinking about later and trying to make sense of it all. I haven’t done it justice, to be sure. It’s a beautiful piece of art, a fascinating journey, an exploration of the power of guitar.
SÁNDOR SZABÓ AND KEVIN KASTNING
MWE3: Tell us something about each of your musical backgrounds and how long you’ve been playing guitar and any other instruments as well.
Sandor: I started studying classical guitar at age 13 and then I tried all the possible styles, rock, folk, jazz. Then my attention turned to the real improvised music, and I also began to compose. In the meantime I started to search for the eastern music and I went deeper into the contemporary classical music also. By now all these influences determined what and how I play now. From the beginning I play many different kinds of acoustic guitars, nylon and steel strings, 10,12,16 strings, fretless 8 and 24 string double neck koboz, baritone 6 and 12 strings.
Kevin: I began playing trumpet and piano when I was 7. I wrote my first pieces that same year, too, using piano. To this day, I still compose on piano; never on guitar. I added French horn when I was about 10; the school orchestra needed a French horn, and I love learning new instruments, so I volunteered right away. I started playing guitar when I was 11 or 12. So by then I could read music from playing trumpet, French horn, and piano. I also play mandolin and bass. Since about 2002, I’ve been an artist endorser for Santa Cruz Guitars, and Richard Hoover (owner/founder of SCGC) has been incredibly supportive. They have built three instruments I’ve basically invented: the 6-string extended baritone, the 12-string extended baritone, and the 12-string alto guitar. Some of the other guitars I play are fretless acoustic 6-string and also classical guitar; as well as standard acoustic 6- and 12-string. My main instruments are the three KK series from Santa Cruz. I’m working now with a very gifted luthier in Montana named Daniel Roberts. Dan was at Santa Cruz when the two KK series baritones were built; he had a big hand in both of those. He’s building another of my inventions called the Contraguitar. It will be a 14-string instrument with a wider range than anything else.
MWE3: How did you two guitarists meet and what would you say was the initial chemistry that led to your first recordings?
Sandor: Things never happen by chance. A few years ago I was searching for baritone guitar makers, and I found Kevin Kastning as an endorser of the Santa Cruz baritone guitars. When I listened to his samples on his website, I thought that I found the most modern American guitar player, who seemed to me as if he came from another planet. Then when I toured in the States and Canada, I visited Kevin, and at once we started to record. The chemistry was obvious and so strong. When we started to play freely, he reacted and responded in the music in a way that no other guitar player would. The improvisation with him sounded as structured composition. It was refreshing to improvise with someone who never used any jazz cliches.
Kevin: In 2006, I received an email from Sandor. I had heard of him, and knew who he was. He started by asking some questions about the Santa Cruz KK baritones. We exchanged some of our albums, and found that we had much in common both artistically and personally. It wasn’t long until Sandor asked if I’d do an album with him. I wasn’t looking for a new duet partner or collaborator, but I knew that something special would come of this. So I said yes. On our first studio session together, we recorded the album “Resonance” in a single day. We both knew we had a connection unlike any either of us had experienced. During a break in the recording sessions on that first day, Sandor now asked if I’d do an album per year with him. By then, I knew we had to!
MWE3: Tell us about your new CD, Returning, when and where it was recorded, some information on the way the album was recorded and how it reflects your overall musicianship and/or guitar style.
Sandor: With Returning, we symbolically wanted to return to the Source of All The Music, and we wanted to show that the music still has the ritual and sacred power if it is played properly. We think that there are many kinds of ways to improvise. We have chosen the most difficult, when we just lift over the music from another reality. When we play it is a ready and complete music, nothing more to do with it. This means of course a lot of responsibility from the player. We never experiment, because in the Source the music is waiting for to be reborn in and via the human soul and it just manifests as a ready music on the instrument.
Kevin: The compositions on Returning are more extended than the pieces on our previous album; not just in compositional duration, but more extended in emotional depth, harmonic complexities, and even structural form. One person wrote to me, and said they hear the pieces on Returning as darker than the other records. I wouldn’t refute that; I think that kind of depth and intensity can come across as dark.
MWE3: How would you compare the sound of Returning to your earlier CD releases including Parabola, Parallel Crossings and the Resonance albums? Can you describe the evolution in the sound and/or development of musical ideas between the different recordings?
Sandor: Each album sounds a little different. However, we created a typical sound which can be heard on all the albums. The difference is much rather in the guitars and the tunings we played and used. We are also different every time, so even if we do not want to change anything, things changes and that can be heard.
Kevin: As far as sonics, recording and mixing, are concerned, I think all our albums sound very good. I don’t know that the recorded sound, the quality of the recordings, has changed all that much. The evolution of the musical ideas, as you put it so nicely, certainly has. Sometimes I think of our records as steps on a staircase; each album is the next higher step. The communication between each other, as well as with the Source, is ever evolving and becoming deeper. And is something I’m always pursuing.
MWE3: How did recording the Returning album with 24bit/96k resolution impact the overall sound quality and can you describe the special steps that were taken in the mixing and mastering stages?
Sandor: We recorded the albums in Kevin’s studio in a high resolution hard disc recorder, using the possible highest quality mics and preamps. The mix was done in my studio in Hungary also on devices of the possible highest level. As for my recording concept I have a very simple concept for recording acoustic guitar. I use mics in stereo setup with Jecklin Disc. I try to find the only one position which gives me the guitar real sound. I never record a guitar with only one mic, it sounds if you had only one ear.
Kevin: Sandor and I divide up the work like this: I am the recording engineer, and he is the mixing and mastering engineer. Everything was recorded using Millennia microphone preamps, and a combination of Gefell and Neumann microphones. I have a stereo mic pair on each instrument, and put up a stereo pair as overheads, so we end up with a 6-track master. My studio is a good sounding acoustic space, and that comes across in the recording; you’re not just hearing the equipment. Tracking at 24/96 results in a much more detailed and three-dimensional soundscape for sure. Sandor’s studio in Hungary is very high-end; just excellent. Of course, having great gear doesn’t matter if you don’t have the ears and know how to make an ideal mix. Sandor’s mixes are wonderful, he’s got amazing ears and many years of studio experience, and it shows. The only effect allowed on our recordings is in the mix, we use the Bricasti M7 reverb unit. It is like having Boston Symphony Hall in a box; everything just breathes and comes to life with it. So with the careful mic selection and placements, the high-res tracking in a great room all with the magic of the M7, it makes for a very good sounding recording to say the least. I think the depth and breadth of the sonics and recording quality of Returning is palpably deep.
MWE3: The artwork on all four albums is very impressive. What kind of effect were you going for regarding the artwork and packaging on the CD releases?
Kevin: Thanks, Robert. I didn’t do any of the artwork or album design on any of them. I will usually start by sharing my thoughts with Sandor as to the kind of album cover I’m “hearing,” based on the pieces for the album, and we’ll discuss what we’re both hearing. We are always in agreement on this.
MWE3: Tell us something about the guitars featured on the Returning album, adding in something about any special guitar set ups, strings and pedals or recording effects. Were the same guitars featured on the earlier album releases too?
Sandor: On Returning I used a Lance McCollum 12 string baritone guitar with different tunings. I use John Pearse strings. I never use effects, I am a really purist acoustic guitar player. On amplified concerts the only effect is a high level reverb unit.
Kevin: The main instrument for me on Returning is my Santa Cruz DKK-12 Extended 12-string Baritone. No special setups, but plenty of special tunings. I used my own intervallic tunings on the entire album, and that is very freeing; these tunings allow for harmonic depth and expression which just is not possible with standard tunings. I can grasp textures and create entire harmonic environments and establish densities which are otherwise unattainable. There are no standard tunings used at all on the entire record. I also used my Santa Cruz KK series Extended 6-string baritone in low E tuning on a couple of pieces, and my alto 12-string guitar on a couple of pieces. Everything else is the DKK-12, that is currently my favorite instrument.
MWE3: Can you mention some of your musical influences, favorite guitarists and most influential albums?
Sandor: Earlier I mentioned my music influences. Until my 30’s I had favourite guitar players, but from that somehow I felt listening to others will affect my playing in a bad way. I wanted to play in my style, so from that point the favourit players became much rather kind of handicap for me. Of course I follow what happens in the world, but my path leads to different direction. One thing is sure, that I was deeply influenced by John McLaughlin when I was 20-25, then Ralph Towner and Egberto Gismonti. After my 30’s I just wanted to hear MUSIC, composers like Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, Arvo Part, Schonberg, Berg, Wagner, Debussi, etc. Now I much rather interested in music than guitar playing, which means that I am first of all a musician, and only then a guitar player. Some albums are still my favourites from my early years, like Between Nothingness and Eternity, Apocalipse, from the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the Batik from Ralph Towner and those two duo albums with John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner in duo. Yes, those two albums were my reference duo guitar albums for long time. Since I know the Kastning/Siegfried duo albums, the reference has shifted quite a lot. These albums are not famous at all but genius. It was a big mistake always from my part when I wanted to find the best musics only from the famous players. The deepest musicians are unknown. All the famous guitar players became millionaires, and they seem to have lost their real honest contact with the music because they are part of an industry and as such they are not free anymore. They cannot renew themselves anymore. Of course I respect them a lot, they did a lot to the world of the guitar.
Kevin: My father was a musician, and when I was growing up, there were always just piles of records around, everything from country and western to jazz to classical. I would listen to his records for hours and hours every day before I started playing an instrument. From playing in school orchestras, I developed a deep love of classical music. I don’t recall being all that impacted by guitarist; my heroes were always composers. It is not an overstatement to say that the work of Bela Bartok changed my life. Other heavy influences are composers such as Gesualdo, Ockeghem, Bach, Beethoven; especially his late-period string quartets, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Elliott Carter, Charles Ives, Schnittke, Shostakovich…. It is quite a long list! I can’t really point to specific albums which had an impact, but I can point to a few works which did: Bartok’s string quartets, Alban Berg’s 1935 Violin Concerto, Elliott Carter’s string quartets, and Beethoven’s late-period quartets. For me, Bartok’s quartets were like the Rosetta stone and an artistic GPS rolled into one. I also cannot underestimate the deep impact of the works of Carlo Gesualdo.
MWE3: What are your current and upcoming plans regarding your recordings, new recording sessions and upcoming tours and performances?
Sandor: Well, we have two more unreleased recordings with Kevin, a duo and a trio together with Balázs Major on percussion. I am quite scheduled now, here in Europe there is a decreasing interest for the music that I created as a result of my Hungarian music researches. This project is called Modern Hungarian Maqams. ( www.hunmaqam.hu) I just returned from a 9 concert Estonian tour. People liked a lot the ancient Hungarian instrumental music that I recalled 2000 years later. Upcoming tours will be in Hungary , Mexico and Germany in the autumn. We work on making European concerts with Kevin, however in this time it is extremely difficult to find promoters for such a deep music.
Kevin: As Sandor said, we have two more albums completed; the first of those will be out in 2011. It will be a very special record; it was recorded during the 2009 European tour. It was recorded on location in a church in a tiny village in Hungary, in the shadow of a castle which dates from the 9th century. We also have two other album projects in the works together; each will be very, very different from what we’ve done so far. Our next European tour. Siegfried and I have completed a new album which should be out late this year or early next year. I’m working on three solo albums; each very different. I am working on an album project with a wondrous reed player and composer named Carl Clements. I also compose for non-guitar settings; for example, I’ve got about four or five string quartets in the works right now, another piano sonata, various trio sonatas. I have two duo projects coming up with two wonderful artists; one from the UK and one from Canada. A bit too early to go into specifics, but keep an eye on my website!
MWE3: Can you tell us your web site and email contact info?
www.leahawkins.com (Lea is the artist that creates our album art and does all the album design work.)
by Music Web Express 3000