Interview with Udo Kasemets
Time Trip to Hale-Bopp… and Back
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #97, 29 March 1997. Kalvos and Damian on the road in Toronto at the composer’s home. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:33:20–1:34:20].
Udo Kasemets (1919, Tallinn) is an Estonian-born Canadian composer of orchestral, chamber, vocal, piano, and electroacoustic works that have been performed around the world, and was one of the first to adopt the methods of John Cage. He studied at the Tallinn Conservatory and the Akademie der Musik in Stuttgart. In 1950 he attended the Kranichstein Institut für neue Musik in Darmstadt and was exposed to teachings by Ernst Krenek, Hermann Scherchen and Edgard Varèse. During the 1950s, he was active in Toronto and Hamilton as a composer, conductor, lecturer, pianist, teacher, and writer. In 1962–63, he organized Toronto’s first new music series, Men, Minds and Music and in 1968 he planned and directed the first Toronto Festival of Arts and Technology, SightSoundSystems. For Kasemets, the most significant influences have come from diverse sources, including composers, inventors, thinkers, visual artists, and writers. The Chinese book I Ching played a major role in the structuring of most of his late works. [The Living Composers Project, 2007]
[Kalvos] The Kalvos & Damian New Music Bazaar has had a wonderful lunch, seated at the table of Udo Kasemets. Welcome to the show.
[Udo Kasemets] Glad to be on the show.
[K] We were talking over lunch, and it was very exciting, so we decided to take a little break from our usual format, which is to sit down with the composer and say, “Well, tell us about your music, tell us about this piece, tell us about this piece, and tell us what we’re going to hear.” I think that we could hear a little bit about who you are, and a little bit about your music, but then let’s just move into your point of view on the music scene today, the progress of music recently and some of the rather startling opinions that you’ve given us over lunch.
Startling opinions? Well, I’m just trying to observe what’s going on. What I think is terribly needed today is that we think about anything that we do in the context of what is happening generally. I mean, for a number of years we had this luxury that we could live our musical lives, our art lives, our poetic lives, in little cubbyholes and happily do our things. Well, I don’t like the word “globalization” at the present moment because it’s used as a cliché for all the bad things too, that are going on. So much has changed in our culture, in all cultures (and culture in a broader sense) that we need to reevaluate what has been, and particularly what is really happening right now.
What is that? Particularly in the musical world, things have… you mentioned earlier that things are individual, in a way at least it didn’t seem that they were, in the past, especially since the middle of this century.
Well look at what happened in the middle of the century. I mentioned in our conversation earlier too, there is this tremendous change that took place, both during the Second World War and particularly, well of course, for the younger generations, the fact that the bomb changed human culture, and I mean culture again in the broader sense totally… we started to live under a completely different attitude, different fear, different preparations for life.
Along with that horror thing, a whole slew of other technological innovations happened; we travelled into space. That again, changed the whole outlook about what planet is about, what life is about, because we were able to see it from a distance, I mean the images that we had back at that time. I remember people said “It’s just not true.” [Laughter] And lots of people have still haven’t actually caught up, some people say they want a “flat” concept, because that’s how we experience it, it is still just what we see around us. So we have to take a completely new outlook about what is happening with the big whole… okay, I’ll switch a little bit and tell my latest favourite observation.
You know, lately, there has been quite a bit of new interest, and new information has come about with how our brain works, and what is going on in the brain. So, in a folksy, simple way, I’ve been thinking that we live simultaneously in these three dimensions: past, present, and future. The past is all our memory: all experiences that have accumulated over the years are in our brain, in the fabulous circuitries that exist in our brain. Some of them fade away because they are kind of useless, but others stay there, and suddenly memories come back from the far, far, far past by one stimulus or another. So we always carry the total memory with us, of this past, and each individual has an absolutely different past from any other individual. Even twin brothers and sisters have different pasts, because they have gone their own different ways, and learn different things all the time.
And the future is our imagination, based on the information that we’ve gathered in the past, and then we make certain kinds of abstractions about what could be done, what is there, and this all happens now. Now is the only time where we exist. The past and future are with us now. Now, my past and future is with me in my own way, yours is in your own way. There may be some experiences and information that we have both accumulated over the years, our educational systems, our readings, our listening, they bring all kinds of common things to our lives, and so there is something we can share about it. But still, we all live with our own past and future.
The other parallel with the same thing is the question of the universe. At one time I was very interested in the thinking of Buckminster Fuller, and spent some time studying, doing artwork about his work. He had a lovely definition of the universe, I mean, many definitions. He always revised and added others, but one was that the universe is the accumulated knowledge of all humanity of all times. That is, when you come to think about it, really what the universe is. That means we (humanity) knew at some time that it was only something in the solar system, and even thinking that the earth was the centre, and so on. Then, the physical universe has opened up, and we go to the Big Bang, and still wonder what happens then at the other end, whether it expands or contracts, or becomes a black hole or whatever is going on with universe. But that is all scientists, thinkers, teachers, have sort of put together over the years, a general thought about the universe, a general concept, and it is in millions of books and encyclopedias, CD-ROMs, and whatever.
Every one of us carries our own universe, because our universe is all that we know. I mean, humanity has a total knowledge, but we have our own limited knowledge about the universe, and some people for them it is flat, and some others have in their imagination something about beginnings and endings, the black holes, and the Big Bangs and these kinds of things. But just thinking about it is different universes that walk around, the 50 billion universes that walk around by themselves, and have their own views about whatever is happening, whatever they know is happening, wherever they are. As we are totally aware, some people know only their immediate environment, and some have vaster imaginations.
That’s where we operate, and that is now, because we have come to the end of the 20th century, and all kinds of things have opened up to us. We have this kind of awareness of the totality of past and future and present, and the total universe, if you want to say that, and then there are the individuals — the individual concepts and understandings about it. And it may be for the first time, in our time. I mean, it’s not just “today’s great insight,” but in the past half-century, we have come to understand more and think more in these terms. At once, part of the whole has the same image of the whole. That means our own universes (our individual universes) have the same image as the total universe of everybody. It’s a complete understanding of things as they are. Now, you got a lecture. [Laughter]
Okay [Laughter]. If you’ll reflect on how that affects the diversity of composition today… not only the diversity of composition, but you have some thoughts about this current generation at the end of the 20th century of students, and their approaches. Some of the things that you said, though, they sound neither global nor universal.
If an artist works in — and I use the same metaphor all the time — his or her own universe, then that universe can be, and is, of different scope. I mean, we have folk singers or country singers, whose musical universe has a certain kind of a bubble in which they operate and work, and do big things. Then there are others, who carry on the load of the whole history of western art music, from Greece to being versed in media and computers, and they try to find a place in history, to place themselves into the flow of history, and compare things there.
So we are in this magnificent universe right now, where really there is no one way of speaking about any subject, really, because on the planet we talk so many different languages, and in the languages there are dialects, and within the dialects there are also specialties. I mean, the farmer talks about something and uses words that well, I for one, have never heard and would never understand. And then I start talking about fractals in music, and the farmer doesn’t understand me. So, that’s normal and natural, and also within our own community of music makers, that we go in different ways, and everyone makes different music. It is normal and natural.
Now, there are people who try to plug in to some kind of common denominator. It’s easy to do it when we are working in a particular limited area, say for example people who work in country music or jazz, they can expand it this way, that way. But when we deal with issues like concert music, then the things become very problematic, because do we, and some do, try to relate to the continuity, what has been going on in concert music when they first were done, in the Houses of Esterházy’s and whoever these people were, and then with different revolutions became public events, and the public started to attend and so forth. Then they became sort of social events, where people go to concerts, and moreover, all these developments were when we didn’t have any recording systems and the ability to sort of bring music by mechanical means into one’s home. We had to go out to concerts and enjoy music in a live setting.
This whole scene has been changed tremendously by the fact that human beings invented the long playing record, now compact disc, and other means, and therefore the musical scene has changed. The question that the people who, for instance, write symphonic music, have to ask is what purpose do they have? Do they fit into a particular tradition, and is this tradition still alive? And these are questions that sort of pop up when you are dealing with these things, or you don’t ask them and you make work that may not have any real purpose. Now, does art have to have purpose? Cage used something [Laughter], talked about “purposeful purposelessness,” and these kinds of things. So, there we are.
Let’s, for a moment, focus on you, and why and how you compose? And who your audience is, to whom you’re speaking, and with what language you’re speaking?
[Pause] Silence. [UK, K laughter] I think very seriously about audience. I remember in the 60s at one time it became kind of fashionable to say, “To hell with audiences, we do our thing.” No, I believe very much in communication, but I know that at the present time, communication is difficult, just because of what I tried to sum up in a few words about the diversity of our universes, and the wholeness also, of the universes and all technologies and whatever are going on. So, you ask how I compose, let’s try to think how, what the foundations are on which I operate. I have to go back again to my memory bank, and to my history.
Don’t misunderstand, or I hope your audience won’t misunderstand the word [laughter], but I was born again. In the 1960s, I discovered the music and art of J.C., John Cage. That was a total illumination, and made me completely change all that I had learned. At that time, I was a very competent composer writing what was called the twelve-tone music, and for all kinds of tradition ensembles, from chamber music to symphony and whatever. Reading Cage, and becoming in contact right away with his music and his personality and all that, I just had to reassess everything. The understanding I got was that music is not only that one system that we had developed over the centuries and arrived at in our century, and also the masters of this century, the Schoenbergs and Stravinskys and whoever were writing. But that music is only one system among those many, many systems that make up the whole universe. I mean, I didn’t think about the universe in the way I think about it now, but music has its own connections and logic, so has mathematics, so has astronomy, so have linguistics, and all these systems exist as human concepts. And they all are related, just by the fact that they exist, they have come into being as the operation of the human mind, in a certain sense. The collective human mind has manifested in one direction, in another direction.
What impressed me very much in Cage was that he was using I Ching for composition, and what people call chance operations. But, I Ching is a system, a very logical mathematical system, which actually builds a tremendous relationship with binary mathematics. It’s one and the same, only it is like speaking a different language about the same thing. [Gottfried] Leibniz discovered the parallels between these, and then we discovered later on that DNA is based again on the same system. So the mathematics of these things come together, and you can look anywhere.
When you start making music, because tonal systems have lived out their life, we have to deal with pure sound we have come to understand that the essence of music is sound, as it is sound in time, sound in space, sound produced by all kinds of different bodies, starting from human beings to complex electronic circuitry and all kinds of instruments in between, and so on. So that is the basic material. Now, when we want to put these materials into some kind of a context, I personally have found fascination in looking at some other systems, say for instance the systems of the alphabet and the system of music, and looking then for certain parallels.
Or a better example, say, in some earlier work I was dealing with some astronomical questions, and the different celestial bodies. They are a certain distance from us, that means the light travels from them to us a certain time, so we can understand different kinds of parameters when we look at the sky. There are different intensities of light and all kinds of things, and they are all measurable quantities that astronomers have measured. In music, about sound, we have also measurable quantities. So that means you have to draw parallels between those particular systems, these quantities that are measurable, and the complete systems of those quantities, and then sort of equate one to another. Just like when we look at the night sky, all we see are dots there, and human beings over the centuries have drawn all kinds of images, of horses, of scales, of virgins and whatever, and have called them constellations. They’ve put them on maps, on two-dimensional maps, and we know damn well that it is not only a three-dimensional universe out there, but they’re also four-dimensional because time comes into being, with light traveling and all these kinds of things. But yet we draw a map of the sky.
So, I can draw also a musical map of the sky, taking the measurements of the distances and the measurements of the light intensities and whatever, and translate them into durations, pitches, and whatever it is, and organize them just like the sky is on a visual map, I’ll put that into an acoustical map. It’s a metaphor, it’s a poem, but it’s establishing a kind of relationship between two realities. I don’t pretend for one second that anybody who is listening to one of these pieces of music will hear anything that resembles the sky or anything like that. But, to paraphrase John Cage, in some of his writings he says that this is not expressing ideas, but it is about ideas, or brought into being by ideas. And that’s here too, that it is all being transformed from one state into another, or translated, if you want to use that word.
And the other system that I started to mention is again, I’ve been playing very seriously with alphabetical systems, and poetic systems, taking poets’ writings, and then sort of make parallels between say, the alphabet and the sonic arrangement. In one particular work that I just presented last week, I’m using a series of harmonics which are representative of vowels, and using the distances between the vowels, that have say between ‘a’ and ‘e’, there are ‘b’ ‘c’ and ‘d’. So we’re between the first and third harmonics (using odd harmonics there), and here I have to fit in three bodies of sound that represent these consonants. Then, between ‘e’ and ‘i’ there is a shorter distance in the harmonic system, and so on, and again I fit in the consonants that exist between there, and so forth.
I make a real parallel system between the alphabet and the keyboard on the piano, and it is a very logical parallel that I have built, it has a musical logic in it. The alphabet has its own logic, and these two logics together play a role, and then we have phonetics, and they have their own systems, again, and you translate the phonetic elements to the letters, and they give different qualities. I mean, a letter can be spelled like ‘s’ and can be pronounced as an unvoiced consonant ‘ssss’ or there can be ‘zzzz’, and these different phonetic qualities, again, have their own logic and their own system, and I build music out of these things and so forth, and so forth, and so forth. So, now, I give you the opening, what I do [Laughter].
We were talking about the bridge before. How do we build the bridge to the audience, whose experience may include only what you call the “modern folk musics”? How do you let them into your music in a way that is other than intellectually descriptive? You provide them with a sort of a mapping to sound, do you have a musical push behind all of the activities that somehow is the same kind of musical push behind the other musics that people listen to, so that they can reach into yours?
Well, like with all sorts of musics (some are different, those I put together today), this is I think one of our problems in our musical lives, that people try to think “about the audience.” Who is the audience? Audience, again, is about the 10, or 100, or 1000 people, who have their own universes, their own past, future and present, and their own experience about what they have learned, or what they expect from music and so on. Every one of those individuals in the so-called “audience” is an absolutely different person. I never think about an audience as a homogeneous body. I think when I’m performing, I’m performing for every one, making a connection with some right away and with others something develops, and then you find a very surprising communication with a certain… I have no great promise, because my audiences are very small anyway [Laughter], so I can do this one-to-one communication quite easily.
The second thing is that when I’m talking about these kinds of works that combine, say, poetry and words to music, then that particular poetry’s part of the whole thing. Even if it is a purely instrumental music, like one of the recent works that I performed, again, last Sunday. It was a set of 80 piano pieces of 80 Flowers of Louis Zukofsky, who has this set of poems that he wrote at the end of his life, about 80 different flowers. It’s pure instrumental music, but at the same time, it has grown out of these systems of alphabets and phonetics and whatever, and the structure of the poems. Therefore, to present this music, the presence of the poetry is just as important as making the music.
Last year when we presented it for the first time, we had a studio setup where all the 80 poems were on the wall, 80 flower images were on the wall, 80 scores were on the wall, and live flowers were in the room too, and then I played them one by one. So we established that, because the piece was about the 80 Flowers poems, that was the artwork in its own right. When you sit down and listen to these pieces and you don’t know what they are about, you get a very different impression. People who have listened will listen to it as a kind of music, with their own expectation, with their own universe, and sure, they are also individual music pieces in their own right. But when you ask “how do I present it for an audience”… I definitely want to present them together with the poetry. I mean, I may do it some day just reading the individual poem and then playing it, reading and playing. The music is not descriptive of the flowers, neither are the poems descriptive of them. They are fabulous poems in their own right, with a very neat structure. Every poem is eight lines, and every line has five words, about going through all these 80 flowers. Very compact and very dense, in their way.
You sound like a great believer in live performance.
Yes. To immediately support what you people are doing, I’m a strong believer in all kinds of technological… either recording or presentation, what you are doing with radio programs, and so on. But, not radio programs as… well, unfortunately our beleaguered CBC is doing all the time, broadcasting concerts and pretending that they are concerts. You hear even the bells ringing at the beginning, that people go into the audience, I mean, they don’t serve, they don’t have a bar [laughter], you have to go into your own fridge for that. But this kind of thing, they pretend that the concert is there, the announcer is talking about how the audience is, and that’s absurd, because radio is a beautiful medium, and it’s a marvelously alive medium.
Coming back again to Marshall McLuhan, who was talking about the “cold and hot media,” and radio has this marvelous quality about it, that you have to use your imagination about what is going on. You have to fill what you hear with your ideas, I mean, even about the face of the performer or the announcer. It has always been funny that I have my ideas about these announcers here, and then I go to a live broadcast concert, and this announcer comes out and looks completely different from what I had imagined all the time. But radio is this kind of a medium, and therefore what you have to do is you have to make radio programs that are radio programs, that don’t pretend to be anything else. They are virtually live radio programs, I mean yes, they can be tape, but it means that you have created for every radio program, a radio program. Not a tape of something that belongs in a completely different environment.
And it’s the same thing about recording. I’ve nothing against recording, but the recording has to be made with the understanding that it is a recording. Just like you make art books, they can be art books of reproductions, and that is what millions of CDs are about. They are art books that are reproductions of the performances, but they are not performances, real performances, because every time you put it on, it comes off exactly the same time, whereas in a live performance, every time something changes, and all that. But, they are useful, just like art books, because you don’t have all the Rauschenberg and Duchamp works available, or you can’t go to those shows. You get the information, you think, “Oh, that’s a beautiful universe, and I want to see,” and next time you go and see the real thing, you think, “Oh, well, that is how it really looks.” Like you should go to a concert and hear, “Oh, that’s how Eroica sounds,” not like all these recordings to which you listened, it’s the real thing. The same thing, then, where you also have art books that are artworks as books. Everything that has gone into it as an idea, it is a visual work, it is maybe also a literary work, its paper is important, its binding is important, and so on. So, you make also CDs and recordings of that kind, that is really a work of art in its own right. It is not a reproduction of anything else.
Mind you, electronic music, electroacoustic music, whatever you want to call it, is one medium that actually suits very well, and I just wish that people would think always of the whole package, what it is. That is that you make a certain work, a certain electroacoustic work, including those too, and certain performance works with certain editings, you make them, yes, for the recording. That is a work of art in itself. It is unique, and it is like a print of a certain kind. I wish that our technology wouldn’t be so corporation-run, that it could have runs of CDs that are only a hundred, or fifty, or something like that. That they are the artworks, given out that collectors could have them, but it’s always the whole shebang or nothing.
Well, in terms of your futurist view, we were talking earlier about the possibilities of using the Internet. There’s that one option there, where the artist can present musical works and artworks of various kinds to not only a worldwide audience, but in ways that they change, and can be represented and remounted very easily, from home.
Yes, hopefully, because it is an advanced technology, and people who deal with it understand a little bit more about what the medium is about than people who came just into the recording business. Because in the ordinary recording business, it was recording and sort of “saving it” for the future, whereas people who deal with the website, they are aware of the liveness of that particular medium. Everything can be changed, nothing is cast in stone, there is a dynamic of the medium in itself. I’m sure they already are, and yes, there are all kinds of things where the commercial people like Bill Gates and so on get their own museums put on the Internet, and pretend that they have done a great cultural service. That’s just in the same vein as these recordings of CBC broadcasts of concerts, that are totally out of the real reality… “real reality.” [Laughter] What is the word, the other reality… Virtual reality, yeah!
Well, have you considered doing a virtual composition?
No, because I haven’t… later you’ll see, you can look in my studio, and see my computer. It is like myself, an antique. [K, UK laughter] One of a kind, that is not available. So personally, I’ve not been able to get up to the technology of the day. In my lifetime, I mean, even the conventional recording things, while I’ve naturally learned some of the very basic things, I’ve deliberately, from early times on, kept my hands away from getting into the technology myself. I always rely on people who are good at it, and are willing to collaborate and work in audio. I was fortunate, because I was teaching for a number of years at the Ontario College of Art, and we had a sound lab there, and I could cultivate students who, on one hand, learned the technology extremely well, and at the same time had open minds and the willingness to do collaborative work, and those kinds of things.
So, the mini version of that would be, say, when John Cage worked with David Tudor, building his electronic circuitries for him, and I had also helpers who did whatever I needed to be done technologically. Just for the simple reason, that if you start, in limited circumstances, playing around with technology and learn and learn and learn, that you get sucked into that one thing that you know. Of course, by the time you have learned it, the technology has changed and all kinds of advances are there, and you are sitting there like a dodo with your old thing that you know. This way, I’ve been able to think, “Oh, I want to do this,” and then go to these knowledgeable people and they say, “No, it cannot be done.” [Laughter] And mostly, they are the simplest things that I ask for. They are impossible [because] technology has also been geared to serve the corporate interests. You make a mass product that does all kinds of fast things, and can be sold for all kinds of business purposes, but when you want to do a very simple transition of certain kinds of things, that equipment doesn’t work. You have to have somebody put together a fresh new circuitry for these kinds of things. So anyway, that’s what my relationship with technology is.
There is one fellow here in Toronto who is working with the Internet, but he’s doing his own thing, and time is short and time is expensive, so of course, you don’t interfere when people are doing things. I’m interested in these kinds of things, of course, but at the present moment I haven’t had any opportunity. But someday again, things will become easily accessible, and I may do something.
You’ve been a participant in and as well a witness to probably one of the greatest eras of musical change. What’s coming up? What does the future hold?
Well, I started this conversation about the past and future, and the future is imagination. I’m really in no position to make any future forecasts, and I don’t think anybody really can, because the tremendous wave of change that is right now in all society, in all ways, is unpredictable. We have learned all about chaos theory and all that kind of thing, and there are more of these little butterfly wings that are flapping here and there that set all kinds of things into all kinds of dynamics. We really don’t know what culture will be. Right now, actually, at the present moment, we are in a real crisis situation, because of the total attitude that has gone completely into that marketplace situation.
We really don’t have, if you really come to think about even the society at large… our governments even are not any more governing, they are trying to cope with the money lenders, and therefore make their own budgets so that their credit ratings will be alright with the money lenders, and therefore they are not any more capable of really governing. The whole situation that has on one hand, the economy of the marketplace, so to say, and the globalization that has come into being has taken over so much, and is moving in a direction that will bring forth a collapse. The collapse of what, I don’t know, but it cannot… I mean, where will it go? If you think about all kinds of mergers, you think of the mergers of Warner Bros. and Disneys, television networks and the press, and whatever, they are merging. But they are not only merging in the sense of these communication and entertainment systems, they are also merged with cattle and beer, and whatever. So everything is sort of bulging and bulging and bulging, and something has to give, sooner or later. What, and how… [Laughter] there have to be wiser people who can forecast that, and I think that is one of the reasons why we are in this kind of trouble, because these dynamics can go for the time being, and build in all these directions.
But we cannot foresee what is going, and therefore coming back to your first question there, that we don’t really know what is going to happen in the future. The one thing that I know is that there will be a number of true artists in all fields, that humanity is dealing with art and humanistic culture, and will work through these difficult times, and will take stock, real honest stock, of what is, and not try to fit into that big trend, but do the thing again, what Pound and Marshall McLuhan were saying… they go out into the radar beams and probe what needs to be done. I come back to Buckminster Fuller, who once gave advice to a young man, a young student, who asked him, “What should I do with my life?” His answer was, “Figure out what needs to be done, and what you alone can do, and then do it.” And I thought that this is a very wise suggestion, and artists will do that. Always, the real true artists, they are doing that, because the true artists are pushing always at the limit.
There was recently, I don’t know where you were in Canada and whom you have interviewed, but there was one composer, conductor and organizer of festivals, who came out and we made a profound pronouncement of the fact that “avant-garde is dead.” Avant-garde will never be dead, because there always will be an avant-garde of the people who are exploring that limits, and this is the fabulous thing about our time, that the limits are pushed in new directions. I mean, we talked earlier about the whole universe, and what we have come to know just in our century about the universe, and the limits there that we have at the present moment. We know going back to the Big Bang, but before that there must have been something too, and someday people will know that. Computers can figure out this and that now, but they are already building quantum computers, which will do simultaneously that which would take 300 years to do, or something like that.
So, in all areas they probe, and artists will also be probing in the new areas where we have never been before. Which are not necessarily even noticeable, and the people who have been probing these things may be recognized 50 or 100 years after they are dead. We have done this all the time, we have discovered people who were ahead of their time, and during their lifetimes they hardly got any attention, and afterwards had become sort of the leading lights of certain trends and directions where arts have been moving. So, that’s where the future will be, it will be in the hands of those people whose universes have a strong future feeling, that is whose imagination and ability to put it into a context, into the real context of the very much changing world.
Our guest today on the Kalvos & Damian New Music Bazaar, Udo Kasemets. Um, if Disney called you, [Laughter] if the organization called you and said, “Would you write something for our next animated feature,” what would you say to them?
Udo Kasemets, thank you very much for joining us today on the Kalvos & Damian New Music Bazaar.
You’re most welcome.