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Interview with Phil Kline

The Twelfth Root of Boom

Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #219, 31 July 1999. In the WGDR studio. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:31:55–1:55:00].

Phil Kline is a unique artist whose work employs music in many mediums and contexts, ranging from experimental electronics, performance art and sound installations to songs, choral, theater and chamber music. His earliest compositions grew out of his work as a solo performance artist and often used boombox tape players as a medium. The walking sound sculpture Unsilent Night debuted in Greenwich Village in 1992, morphed into an annual event and in 2007 was presented in 26 cities around the world. Recent works include the song cycles Zippo Songs and Fear and Loathing, as well as the music theater piece Locus Solus and a full-length choral Mass, John the Revelator. His music is available on the Cantaloupe label.

[Kalvos] Hi, Phil Kline, welcome!

Phil Kline
Phil Kline. Photo © Kalvos & Damian.

[Paul Kline] Hello.

[K] Hey, you’re on vacation and then we put you to work.

[PK] Well, that’s okay. It was sort of a trip coming up here.

[K] Well, we haven’t given any clue as to your background, and why you do this sort of stuff. Why don’t you give us the capsule history of Phil Kline. First of all I should say that we played stuff from your Glow In The Dark CD on the show several times, we’ve played Premonition a couple of times, 96 Tears a couple of times, The Holy City of Ashtabula we’ve played. So people have heard your stuff already, and it’s absolutely fascinating and remarkable. How did you come up with the ideas, what’s your background in terms of your creation of music?

[PK] Hmm. That means I’m going to have to figure out how I come around to doing that stuff.

[K] Yeah, you have a few seconds to make it up.

[PK] Um, very roundabout, actually. I had an interest of music from fairly early on, but it wasn’t particularly fostered or encouraged in my family, whatever. Even by the time I went to college I was writing short stories, poetry, stuff like that. I was a pretty good rock guitar player, and I think I really wanted to be a composer. Even then, I’d already been playing with tape recorders, probably since, well, I got my first one when I was 10 or 11 years old. I would cut the tape up and put it back together again and stuff like that, but it just never occurred to me that I was composing.

[K] You mean nobody ever told you that you were composing.

[PK] That’s right.

[K] Would that have intimidated you?

[PK] I don’t know. I was just having fun, you know, it was really cool. I had two of these little tape recorders that were a little bigger than shoe-boxes and played those little 3” reels.

[K] Those little reels. I had one of these little tiny ones with 3” reels on them. They had no capstone, the take up reel dragged the tape through, so that as the batteries changed power and you played the tape with a different reel, you know, sometimes you’d [imitating tape speed changes] get a little of that and afterward you’d…

[PK] Yeah, and I remember recording Stars and Strips Forever and playing it back on two of them, and then onto a third one while playing the record again, so you know I was sort of phasing them and building them up, doing all that stuff, but it just wasn’t something I, I don’t know, didn’t…

[K] You were kind of a sampling acousmatician and didn’t know it!

[PK] Yeah, absolutely. Somehow it was years later, after I came to New York to go to school, and I was a classical music DJ for a while, then I got back into the rock ’n roll thing. This was in the days of the “no-wave, new-wave”… we are all wearing black and playing “art rock”! Sometime after that, I literally went out and bought 12 of these boomboxes all at once at J&R Music World one afternoon, and just started doing this idea I’d been thinking about for years and years and years, which is what would happen if you massed very large numbers of tape loops in a live situation. When did they invent boomboxes? Mid-80s, something like that. That made this much more possible, with the little condenser microphones, and actually, they’re just much better machines than those old shoe-boxes. I tried that stuff with the shoe-boxes 15 years ago and it just didn’t sound enough like anything to be worth it. Whereas now, there was an immediately noticeable difference, it was sort of like I could tell I had some kind of life in the test-tube, whatever it was. Something was growing! I mean it was feedback and distortion and it was growing, but it sounded beautiful.

[K] Well, we’re going to hear some stuff shortly, something from the recordings and some live stuff. What’s a good intro, we should play something so that you can teach us what we have to do… we should play something now. Should we play Premonition now, to get people into the feel?

[PK] Sure.

[K] From the Glow In The Dark CD, this is a great one. You have to find this CD, because you will not realize what is possible to do by re-thinking masses of sound, until you’ve heard this CD. Here it is, for 25 tape players, this is Premonition by Phil Kline.

We listen to Premonition by Phil Kline [0:36:20–0:41:40].

[K] Phil is going to do a live performance of Bachman's Warbler, and what do you use to perform that?

[PK] Okay, I’ve got 12 mashing boomboxes, each are which are loaded with a blank, 30-second endless loop, and a variety of harmonicas. I start off with two harmonicas, which actually for this particular piece, happen to be one in A minor and one in G major, alternating between the two of them. As the piece moves along, basically what I do is I have a steady breath pattern, I start going into the first machine, and then as soon as I’m done with that, I start playing it back and playing the same pattern with the playback into the next machine, and just spilling over and over and over again until we hopefully build up a nice, slow, feedback spiral, which at some point if you’re very careful you can get the spiral to move back and forth nice and slowly like a nice, gentle, you know, Waikiki type of wave, easy to ride, then at some point it turns into Waimea Bay, it’s usually about the time you get to the end of the first row, or when you’re into the second one. Certainly by the middle of the second row, you cannot possibly hold the waves together anymore and they just start crashing all around you. Then you start improvising. That’s really how it goes. The first part is planned, but then you sort of take a step into the wilderness.

This was the very first piece I did when I first got all the boomboxes. My idea had a lot to do with admiration for both Brian Eno and Steve Reich, but I was sort of following that Reichian line of Come out to Show Them, and It’s Gonna Rain, but at the same time, I saw the potential to do it live in real-time, because as much as I love tapes, I don’t really like playing with pre-recorded tapes. Mixing the two is uncomfortable to me. I was really interested in the idea that you could sort of make this system and do it live. So, when I set them up in my room, the first thing I was thinking is “I need a sound source.” I just happened to pick up a Marine Band harmonica and started playing, and that’s what led me to write this piece.

[K] Well, we’ll get out of your way, and it’s a big way to get out of, so… [Laughter]

[PK] Look out!

[K] …so we'll get out here, and we’ll just watch you work. Shame we’re not on video.

We listen to a live performance of Bachman’s Warbler by Phil Kline [0:44:00–1:03:40].

[Damian] So it is possible to drive a boombox totally insane. We have certifiably mad boomboxes, 12 of them.

[K] [Laughter] Absolutely.

[PK] [Coughing]

[K] Wow, you’re still inhaling the dust from the old harmonicas.

[PK] I forgot to… yeah, you gotta air them out for… It’s like hyperventilating in an old attic when you’re playing an old harmonica.

[K] God! I’m sure for the listeners, listening to this, rather than seeing it. I mean, seeing it is an incredible dance, it’s a choreography beyond belief to see you moving from one machine to the other.

[PK] You get exercise.

[K] Really. Now, on the other hand, I had to close my eyes at times and put the headphones on, so I couldn’t experience what was happening in the room, to see in my mind’s ears what was different about it, and it was an incredibly different experience that way. The seeing of it almost says, “Ooh, this is so exciting just to see.” And then you forget that the listening part of it is so powerful, and it really, really is. We would certainly like to invite anyone to give a call here briefly, it’s 802-454-7762. We’re not going to be able to put you on the air, but we’ll certainly ferry your calls to Phil Kline, who is having a well-deserved drink of water.

[PK] [Laughter]

[K] When did you first do that piece as a performance piece, in front of a group?

[PK] A friend of mine started a performance series at a little bar on Avenue B called Mona’s, and he had a nice little weekend performance and poetry series, and he asked me to do something for it, and I said, “Yes.” And then I thought, “Well, that’s great Phil, except you don’t really have an act.” And that was sort of what pushed me over the edge. This was in 1990, I think. I went and bought the boomboxes, and a couple months later when it was time for the gig, I performed a sort of prototype of this piece.

[K] Well, this is an act, it absolutely has a visual component that’s so strong, it’s just a kick to watch. Listeners should really imagine, we have two tables that are roughly eight feet long each, that are at 90-degree angles to each other, and there are six compact boomboxes about 15–16 inches long, maybe six inches high, four to five inches deep. Each stereo, and so we have six of them lined up on one table, six on the other. Phil is behind the boxes, and as he’s playing into the microphones and switching the buttons, he then dances to the next machine, and then when he gets to the end of this 90-degree row of 12 boomboxes, he skips back to the beginning to begin the next part of the loop, of the wave of sound. It really is that wave of sound. Then, at one point you reverse direction and then skip some boxes, and pretty soon you had filled out the wave in kind of a solid sound, and that’s when you started to bring it down. It really is a sight as a well as a sound.

[PK] [Laughter, catching breath, pauses] Yeah, uh… That was really organic, I wasn’t thinking of how it looked when I first did it. Although I guess by the time I got to performing it in public, I realized this is really going to look… I think I just thought it was going to look mac. It hadn’t occurred to me that it would actually look beautiful, that people would actually say, “Oh wow,” you know, whatever. It’s just, I don’t think anyone mentioned davening, but people did mention yoga. Well, you sort of become, especially when you’re ready to start the piece, you have to sort of get yourself in sync with that loop. And in most of these live pieces, it’s breathing. So you have to get yourself into a breathing cycle, and it’s funny because this is actually a 30-second loop, so that’s in and out twice, so it’s like seven and a half seconds, seven and a half, seven and a half, seven and a half. The ones I do that are 20 seconds are easier, because it’s only a 10-second cycle I’m filling instead of a 15-second. The 15-seconds, you really have to reach and get to the bottom of your lungs.

[K] It’s a 20-minute piece and you were non-stop, not only moving, but also breathing into the harmonica. And you had to produce the sound, again this is a very visual aspect of it that our listeners would be interested in. You were actually sweeping across the microphone inputs of the boomboxes.

[PK] Right, the microphone doesn’t move, so I have to.

[K] So you lean into it. It’s almost a kind of Tai Chi motion, that you’re looping across the front of the boombox with this harmonica. And then, your hands are totally un-Tai Chi-like, you’re mad on the buttons to make everything work right, and then you suddenly return to that almost contemplative, swing of the body as you move across the boombox as you dance to the next one.

[D] Have you used different lengths of cassettes in this piece, in terms of 20-second, 30-second, 60-second…

[PK] With the harmonica pieces, the 30-second has been my favourite. I’ve tried the 20’s. Actually, come to think of it, the very first time I ever performed I was using a one-minute loop. So that made for a really state, long piece.

Phil Kline loading up tape recorders
Phil Kline loading up tape recorders and other equipment after the interview and performance on Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar. Photo © Kalvos & Damian.

[D] But I mean, with different times in different boomboxes.

[PK] Oh, no. I’ve never done that. That would create such chaos instantaneously that it would… it just didn’t appeal. It would definitely do something. It’s interesting though, when I buy new boxes of loops. When I used to buy them they’d be very uniform and lately, I won’t mention the brand, but when I buy them, it’ll be 20 seconds, the next one will be 21 seconds, the next one 19 and a half, and it just ruins it. You know, I have to actually go through many of them and measure them, because you want them to fit together to start with.

[K] What’s up next, do you want to play a cut from something recorded so you can take a breather?

[PK] Yeah, sure, something from the album or I can give you that chamber piece, if you want.

[K] Yeah, that’s a different take, give us a little background on that and then we’ll go to it.

[PK] Okay, this is a piece I wrote for the Bang on a Can All-Stars. This premiered in ’97, and is on a forth-coming record. It was premiered a year and a half ago, and will be released on a label to be named later, later this year.

[K] Okay, great. And this is called…

[PK] Exquisite Corpses.

[K] And why “Exquisite Corpses?” Is it based on the game?

[PK] It wasn’t originally. When I started writing, I started writing sections and then piecing them together. But, a thing I like to do when I’m playing with MIDI, is I’ll start to put, you know, little ostinati together, little riffs together, and I’ll fill the palette up like I did with the boomboxes, and then when I’m done the way of linking to the next would be to take, say, not the primary idea, but like, idea number seven, extract that and build a new piece on that. Then, when you put them end-to-end, they seem to fit together, but you’re not quite sure how. That’s sort of how I wrote this piece, and I was also thinking of dead people when I wrote it, which is a whole other story, but yeah, the piece sort of folds section to section. I didn’t intend it that way, but once it got going it just sort of happened.

[K] Well, let’s let you take a breather here in Studio A while we reorganize, and in the meantime, we’ll be back in about 12 minutes. Here’s Phil Kline’s new piece, Exquisite Corpses.

We listen to Exquisite Corpses by Phil Kline, played by the Bang on a Can All-Stars [1:12:10–1:23:30].

[K] We’re back live in the studio with Phil Kline. And now, a special… [fake deep radio voice] A Kalvos & Damian special event! Damian will join Phil Kline in a piece which will be worked out on the spot here. You have the rules, you have the structure, you have the idea, so let’s have a little background on it, then we’ll hear it.

[PK] Well, we’ve got a 20-second loop, so I guess just choose your sounds, and… you know how to operate the controls?

[D] Well, sure. But, we have a name, first, for it.

[K] Ah yes, here it is: Dante’s Infurniture. A new piece, by Phil Kline, with Damian!

We listen to a live performance of Dante’s Infurniture by Phil Kline, with Damian [1:24:25–1:32:45].

[K] You had a lot of infurniture in that.

[D] Yeah, well, it’s not as easy as one might think.

[K] Ah, ha, so I suspected…

[PK] It looks like any idiot could do it, but…

[D] No, there was a lot of coordination involved, and then there’s also the problem of getting one’s mustache caught in the harmonica. [General laughter]

[K] Wow. While you’re turning the knobs there, tell us what’s coming up next in your performances, or where you’re headed?

[PK] I’ve got a couple things coming up in the fall: I’m both producing and performing a show at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, which is along with some of my composer buddies in New York. Me, Annie Gosfield, Nick Didkovsky, Eve Beglarian, Judy Dunaway, David First, those are the names that immediately sprang to mind.

[K] Yeah, well, about half of those folks have been on our show, I’m glad to say.

[PK] We’re all doing covers of our favourite bad tunes! That’s the concept, it’s a program called “There’s Nothing Wrong With Your Radio,” and I know Eve Beglarian has already said that’s he’s going to cover Barry White. And I think Nick is going to do Smoke in the Water, but he might have been kidding. I hope he’s not kidding.

[K] And who’s doing Engelbert Humperdink?

[PK] I don’t know, maybe that’ll be me. Uh, then I’ve got a couple large outdoor performances. On October 30th, the day after the anniversary of the stock market crash, I’m doing a piece for a large number of boomboxes at the New York Stock Exchange! It’s called Crash! That’ll be outdoors. And I’m doing another outdoor piece, I do one every Christmas in the village. We start in Washington Square and go over to Tompkins Square.

[D] When you say, “starts in Washington Square,” that’s a mobile piece?

[PK] Yeah, we all start the boomboxes simultaneously and then start walkin’. The same thing with the one on Wall Street. That will be an initial public offering in public disobedience there.

[D] Yeah, do you have to get permits to bravely boombox?

[PK] If I asked for a permit, it would certainly be denied, so I just do it.

[K] What’s it like performing in Rudy’s town?

[PK] Actually no one’s bothered me. The streets are cleaner, and… [Laughter] No, it’s never really been an issue in New York. I’d say I get about an equal number of people who come by and go, “Hey man, what’s this?” and then somebody usually says, “Oh, it’s art.” And they go, “Oh, okay,” and they walk away.

[K] Oh, that’ll make everybody walk away if you say it’s art. [Laughter]

[PK] Some people join, and you know we get hassled — heckled is more like it —, usually by a street person who just starts, I don’t know…

[K] Sermonizing.

[PK] Yeah, usually nothing angry, but sort of semi-disruptive in a good-natured kind of way. We had a guy do that last year, joined us for about a block. So, yeah, that’s one thing about New York, is that these people have seen a lot. Most people just walk by, look at it for a second, make no expression at all, they just keep walking. “I don’t know, it’s just a boombox.”

[K] Well, we don’t have the opportunity to play it today, but we’re going to catch up a little bit more on your stuff next time. We’re going to play again, the piece from Alternative Schubertiade. You did mention it briefly before. Give us a little rundown on that piece. We’re listening to it in the background right now, by the way, it’s 96 Tears. So give us a little bit about 96 Tears, a little bit about Franz

[PK] Franz in the Underworld!

[K] That’s what it was, right.

[PK] 96 Tears doesn’t have any boomboxes in it, it’s just an instrumental piece. I was going a little bit for turning the people into… well, the musicians as tape loops. There’s a fair amount when you’re doing these piece, you have to start to think like a loop, like you’re playing some game show, and the assignment is “what would a loop do,” but with 96 Tears, the musicians sort of have a “row” to play, if you want to call it that. But the instructions are, first of all I tell them to play at an undefined, but very slow, tempo, and I tell them, “Look at your eighth notes. Imagine that each of those eighth notes has an on and off switch. Start with them all turned off, except one. Whatever your tempo is, that many beats of silence. Then play that one note.” Then five more measures of silence, whatever that measure is. Then, after a time or two, add another note. Keep doing that, then when we get to the point where you’re playing all of your notes, you can add one neighbour note of your choosing. Then you can start to bend notes, so they have these sort of plastic instructions.

[K] Well you’d get such a rich piece from that.

[PK] Well, you get to the point where, you just sort of raise your hands just slightly and they somehow sort of get just… you know. It’s amazing how they follow you. You begin to read each other’s minds. Like, “Oh, I think he’s just gone into phase two, so now I will stay out.” And especially when you get into the note-bending, it becomes this communal sort of, everybody’s going [wavering] “Ooowoowooowoo…” So you’re telling everybody, “Don’t pay attention to everybody else. Don’t pay attention to anybody else at all.” But you know that they will. Because they’re human beings, and they cannot help but be drawn into what other people are doing. So I don’t tell them that part! If you told them that part it would ruin it! [Laughter] Never tell them that what they’ve done was good, either, because they’ll make a pre-decision about what to do next time. You want them to be as random as you can get, and that’s only so much.

Oh, and the Schubert piece. That was something I’d wanted to do for a long time, was get a bunch of downtown people together, and do pieces based on Schubert.

[K] Was that your idea?

[PK] Yeah. I produced that show. Schubert’s one of my favourite people in the whole universe who ever existed.

[D] He was always avant-garde, ahead of his time a little bit.

[PK] Not only, but it’s a more personal thing. There’s something about Schubert’s music. You know, and I love Bach, I love Beethoven, I love Stravinsky, but there’s something about Schubert that touches you in this very elemental, even heart-rending way, as a friend, as a friend in need. He was obviously a very needy person emotionally, and it comes through in the music. In his own lifetime, they had these Schubert evenings, you know, Schubertia, and I just thought it’d be really cool to get some people together and I started asking people, and we just did it.

I guess that was what, two years ago, and then Joey Dalton at CRI, when he heard I was talking about putting a show together, he said, “Oh, could CRI sponsor it?” I said that’d be cool, and then he suggested doing the record, so that’s how that happened. It was real, sort of, Andy Hardy type of, “Hey, we got some costumes in the barn,” you know, we all produced those pieces in our own homes. Those were all done in our home studies on our Macintoshes, we basically just brought the thing in. The record companies will say, “Okay, you can do it, but not for next time!”

And yeah, my piece was just a total fancy, I just took the trill from the last piano sonata, this ominous, disturbing, bass trill in that piece that seems to symbolize some kind of a crack in the beauty of existence, behind which there’s something really disturbing. And I just took that crack as the opening to go down there.

[K] Well, let’s play out 96 Tears and by the time that’s done, we can play Franz in the Underworld.

We listen to the rest of 96 Tears by Phil Kline [1:41:50–1:45:55].

[K] That’s an absolutely wonderful CD, you really have to go out and get this one, this is called Glow in the Dark, it’s on CRI, and I’ll tell you, you will never dream the same once you’ve heard this CD. There are a couple of recordings that you and I have real, sort of, interesting reactions to. One of them is certainly Paul Ruders and some of his orchestral music, they’re very dense and such.

Phil’s setting up for us the Urtext version of Franz in the Underworld. The one on the Alternative Schubertiade recording is actually done in MIDI, is that correct?

[PK] Uh, yeah, it’s more or less playing straight out of the computer in about six channels.

[K] And this is, instead, your Urtext version as it were, the really accurate…

[D] Your typical 12-boombox version.

[K] Yes, the one that, in 200 years, when the musicologists are working very hard to reconstruct the original instrument, an original recording of Franz in the Underworld.

[PK] They’ll have time, too, because all boomboxes are not alike.

[D] Where, after your performances in October, what are your long-term plans? Do you aspire to the Presidency, or anything as bizarre as that?

[PK] Uh, nothing other than to try to just, you know, to be able to be doing music, one sort or another. I like my boomboxes and I like writing for them, but I also like writing for human musicians as well. Actually, there are a number of things I’m involved in, I’ve been writing some music for films and television, and…

[D] Oh, so that would be your day job?

[PK] …doing some writing. Yeah, that’s my current day job.

[D] Wow.

[PK] It’s okay.

[D] What do you mean? It pays money, you’re doing music…

[PK] Well, that’s the thing, yeah.

[K] Doing music and getting paid, oh, no…

[PK] Doing slightly reprehensible music, but getting paid for it.

[D] And “slightly reprehensible” royalties.

[PK] [Groans] I’m sorry, I should have… There are pieces on both sides of these tapes, I gotta make sure I don’t put them in upside-down. I think we’re almost there.

[K] Well, while you’re getting the last of the buttons pushed, Phil Kline, thanks really, really, very much for coming up from your vacation to join us on The Bazaar. It’s still a scene, folks, for those of you who have come in late to the show. We have 12 boomboxes that Phil Kline is performing with here, and he’s about to play Franz in the Underworld.

[PK] We’ll just see if this works.

We listen to a live performance of Franz in the Underworld by Phil Kline [1:50:30–1:55:00].

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