Massachusetts based Kevin Kastning continues breaking new ground for the art of the guitar with his 2015 solo album, Otherworld. When I say breaking new ground, I don’t take that term very lightly as not many albums of solo acoustic guitar music feature a guitarist playing 36 string Double Contra-Alto guitar, 30 string Contra-Alto guitar, 15 string Extended Classical guitar, 12 string Soprano guitar and 6 string classical guitar—all on the same album. Not only that but Kevin is actually the inventor of many of these guitars and to say he’s masterful at coaxing the best sounds possible out of them would be an understatement. Kevin’s Greydisc music imprint has already established itself as one of the most highly regarded experimental music labels in the world today. Earlier releases featured albums with modern music masters like Mark Wingfield, Michael Manring, Carl Clements, Sandor Szabo and other collaborators, yet on Otherworld, the focus is solely on Kevin’s moody and atmospheric guitar work. Once again superbly recorded, Otherworld lives up to its name as the sound is dense and raveled, dark and insightful. Back in the day, Kevin studied with modern day guitar masters such as Pat Metheny, yet his music takes you to places Metheny has yet to visit. In some respects, Kevin’s music owes more to experimental music makers such as Phillip Glass and even Harry Partch, who experimented with musical timbres that people hadn’t even dreamed of yet. Yet, even with this air of otherworldly experimentalism, all 16 tracks on Otherworld are quite easy on the ears—Kevin’s picked notes flying out into the sonic atmosphere with unparalleled ease. It’s to his credit that he’s earned his reputation by working and recording with other guitarists and musicians yet, on Otherworld guitarist Kevin Kastning raises the bar for 21st century musical experimentalism as well as expanding the horizons for the art of the acoustic guitar. presents a new interview with

: What was your musical mission with Otherworld? It’s an interesting choice for a CD title but then again, wouldn’t you say that most of the Greydisc albums are quite “otherworldly”! What was the inspiration for Otherworld? Overall, the album is superb sounding.

KEVIN KASTNING: With Otherworld, I wanted to record solo works using the 30-string Contra-Alto guitar and the 36-string Double Contraguitar. That palette expanded a bit before I was done, but that was the original goal. The title came from a friend of mine. I had a title in mind, but I was talking with her one day and she said something to the effect that she thought my music was otherworldly. I thought that might make for a better album title than the one I had in mind. I ran it by Sandor (Szabo, producer for Otherworld), and he totally agreed. The title also alludes to the meaning that my solo work is another world for me; it is very different than working with collaborators. It's an entirely other mindset, approach, compositional criteria, emotions, and set of aesthetics.

mwe3: After recording 19 albums with collaborators, how does it feel recording as a solo artist? How different is recording solo compared to working with your musical partners and how do you balance out the sound to keep listeners focused solely on your sound and what other challenges did you face in writing and recording the new CD? Even though Otherworld is your first complete solo album, it really holds the listeners attention.

KEVIN KASTNING: The question of balance is interesting. I'm always concerned with and cognizant of balance, both when I'm working with someone else and in a solo setting. In solo, it is a different kind of balance. The 30-string and 36-string are just massive instruments; I feel like I'm in front of an orchestra when I'm behind the 36. So performing with these instruments in a solo setting... I don't know, I just let the instruments take over the space and the composition. In that setting, the balance is less about the instrument itself and more about the balance within a composition. You're correct, it is my first solo record, but I'm not new to solo performance and solo pieces. On the concerts I perform with some of my partners, like with Carl Clements or Mark Wingfield, I will often perform a solo piece. I'd wanted to do the solo project for quite a long time, but every time I had an instrument in the works, I'd want to wait to begin the solo recordings until I had it, as each instrument is more of a solo instrument, to my way of thinking, than the previous one. So this ongoing process delayed the recording by a few years. When the 36-string arrived, I knew I was ready to do the first solo recording.

mwe3: You play and record with 5 different guitars on Otherworld, including the 2015 15-string guitar. Is the 15 string the most recent guitar that you’ve added to your collection? Seems like you’ve added a new guitar, every year for the past 3 years, starting with the 30 string in 2013, then the 36 string Double Contra guitar in 2014 and in 2015, the 15 string guitar. Tell us about some of the defining sonic characteristics and tunings of the 15 string extended classical guitar.

KEVIN KASTNING: Yes, the 15-string is the newest, and Otherworld is its recording debut. While the Contraguitar tunings are based an octave below concert guitar tuning in the bass register, the tuning of the extended 15-string classical is based on standard guitar tuning. The 15 strings are arranged as 9 courses: six double-courses, and three single-courses. It's based on a classical guitar tuning of E, A, D, G, B, E. The additions are extended bass courses of B and F# below E, and one extended treble course of A above the high E course. All are double-courses except the low E, B, and F#, which are single-courses. I'd never heard of a double-course classical guitar, but of course lutes have double-courses, so the 15 tends to have a lute-ish quality in its voice. I love the sound of lute, but I have no interest in playing lute. But I wanted to have some lute texture in an instrument. Plus I feel really limited, almost nervously out-of-my-element on single-course instruments. I believe it was you that asked me several years ago if the 6-string guitar no longer had a place in my music, and at the time I wasn't sure how to answer that, but now I'd say yeah, I think you're right. The only 6-string I still use is the 6-string classical, but since the 15-string classical arrived I've hardly touched the 6. I did use it on two smaller-scale pieces on Otherworld because I wanted the contrast of that lighter texture juxtaposed against the massive densities, fabric, and textures of my other instruments. Wingfield once told me that he thinks my 6-string classical voice has a vulnerability about it. I think he's right, especially when heard within the context of my double-course and extended-range instruments.

mwe3: Interesting that Sandor Szabo was involved in the production of Otherworld. How did you work together and what did Sandor bring to Otherworld? What was involved with the production and mastering of Otherworld? How is Sandor doing these days in Hungary and what other musical projects is he involved with?

KEVIN KASTNING: Sandor was key in the completion of Otherworld. Otherworld was recorded at Studio Traumwald in Massachusetts, but mixed in Hungary. Sandor has a lovely recording studio in Hungary, and he did all the mixing and mastering of the record. He was also the producer for this project, which was an unspeakably tremendous help. By the time I was done with the solo recording sessions, I had over two hours of material. Sandor was very helpful in assisting me with making the final cut of which pieces to use for the record. We selected compositions that fit together and were interrelated; somewhat akin to movements in a symphony. I almost think of Otherworld as one huge composition in 16 parts instead of 16 separate pieces.

Sandor remains busy recording and touring; in fact, he is coming here next month and we'll be recording a couple of new albums together, along with doing a live concert and an on-air radio performance for WNYC in New York City.

mwe3: You recorded Otherworld in early 2015 and then again in July 2015. Why was there such a long gap in the recording process? The album was released in September 2015, so clearly most of it must have been completed recently. Also, being that a lot of the music was recorded during the winter of 2015, is that your favorite time of year to record?

KEVIN KASTNING: I began the recording sessions in January 2015. I had a couple of sessions in January, and then a couple more in February. In late February I got a horrible flu and it just laid me out for several weeks; I didn't do any recording or composing. Then in March, the 15-string arrived. I knew I wanted the 15 to be part of this record, so I put the recording sessions on hold while I became acclimated with it. The odd thing is that playing it felt very natural; I didn't really have to alter my technique very much at all. I use it in the cello position, as I do the 30- and 36-string. What really took me a while to get my head around was the voice of the 15. It was so unlike anything else that for a while I just couldn't grasp it. It was beautiful and I loved it, but it was an entirely new soundworld and I really had to learn how to exist in its world. Just being with that sound was amazing and almost terrifying. For the first three months, I didn't write anything using it; I was just trying to learn its voice. Slowly I began to learn its voice and colors and could start to conceive of how it would fit in with the 30 and 36. I started sketching out some pieces with it and for it. I scheduled some studio time in July, and over the course of two late-night recording sessions in July, I finished recording the pieces for what would become Otherworld. I'd say about half of the record was tracked during those two long night sessions in July; the other half was from the winter dates. Very astute of you to surmise that my favorite recording season is winter! I love composing and recording in winter. In fact, I've sketched out pieces for the next solo project and will begin the recording sessions for it in November.

mwe3: It’s a testament to your creative abilities that even the two tracks here featuring you playing the six string guitar, sound very full and rich. How do you compensate for the sound on the tracks with the six string guitars as most of the tracks have the 12, 15, 30 and/or 36 string guitars? Can the six string guitar still hold its own against those bigger sounding guitars? What other tunings do you like to use on the 6 string guitar?

KEVIN KASTNING: I always use standard concert E tuning for the 6-string classical. I've done some pieces using a dropped D tuning, but none of those are released. I don't think of the 6-string as holding its own against the other instruments; it's an entirely different voice off in its own place. It's a beautiful voice, but again, I feel so limited on single-course instruments anymore that I hardly ever utilize the 6-string. Of course it requires an entirely different approach and thinking and puts me in a different emotional place when I'm using it, and that's one of the things I do like about it, but after using it for even one piece, I can't wait to get back to the 15, 30, or 36.

mwe3: Tell us something else about the six string Cervantes Rodriguez Concert guitar? Interesting, it’s the only guitar on Otherworld not made by Emerald. Do you have other six string guitars that you like as well?

KEVIN KASTNING: It's a 2008 Alejandro Cervantes Rodriguez Concert model, made by Alejandro in California. Indian rosewood back and sides with a Westerd red cedar top. A pretty common tonewood combination for classicals. I must have played a couple of dozen classicals before I bought it. I kept coming back to it, as it had an incredibly balanced voice. I thought I wanted a spruce classical, as so many cedar classicals sound too dark to me, but this one had such a unique and balanced voice. It was ideal for what I wanted and I still love how it sounds. I had gotten to know Alejandro and we had discussed a different instrument a few years ago, but I decided against it as I really am quite happy with the voice of this one. Interesting observation that it's the only non-Emerald instrument on the record. That wasn't exactly intentional, as I had other tracks where I used the 16-string and 17-string Contraguitars made by Daniel Roberts, but when Sandor and I had made the final selections, those were the pieces that fit together the best and it turned out that they were the tracks wherein I was using the Emerald KK series instruments. To answer your question about any other 6-strings, I have a Santa Cruz model D that Dan Roberts and I designed together back in 1998 or '99. Wonderful instrument, but I think the last time I used it on a studio date was in 2004. I'm just not drawn to 6-strings anymore.

mwe3: Even though the six string is recorded quite well, clearly the 30 string guitars are amazing to hear in contrast. While recording, do you have any clear preferences between the 30 and the 36 string? I was just blown away by the full chiming sound of the 30 string Contra-Alto guitar, especially on track 15 on Otherworld, “No Abstraction Of Perhaps.”

KEVIN KASTNING: Thanks, Robert. I'll use the instrument that best fits the composition, but my real favorite is the 36-string. I could easily record an entire album only using that instrument. My second-favorite is the 30-string. Between the two of them, there are three different Contraguitar tunings, plus the alto tuning, so that provides for quite a full palette of colors and textures. The chiming sound to which you refer is probably the 12-string Alto side of the 30-string; the tuning I used on the record is based in fifths and is so bright and open.

mwe3: I'm so used to your sound that it's hard for to tell that some tracks were improvised as they sound very deliberate. How much of the music on Otherworld is improvised and how much is more composed? Can you give an example of what tracks on Otherworld were more predetermined as compared to tracks that were more pure improvisations? It sounds composed to my ears, just in a very different neoclassical style

KEVIN KASTNING: Before I started the recording sessions for this record, I had around 40 solo compositions sketched out specifically for this solo record. Each time I was in the studio and ready to record one of them, I'd end up going another way and improvising a piece instead. This process just took on a life of its own. By the time the recording sessions were complete, I'd not used any of the pieces I'd written. Every piece on Otherworld was entirely improvised in the recording studio.

mwe3: On the 12 string guitar, the sound is very harp-like and almost sounds more like harp than a guitar. Is that because of the tunings you use on the guitar. What makes your Emerald 12 string special?

KEVIN KASTNING: The 12-string I used on Otherworld is the only Emerald model I have that's not a Kevin Kastning Signature series. It's a model called the Amicus which is a stock instrument from Emerald. It has a very short scale length at 18 inches. It's tuned to D above concert E, so that makes it a seventh higher than standard tuning, and a full fourth higher than the Alto. It's been in the back of my mind for many years to design an octave 12-string; in other words, tuned to E one full octave above standard concert tuning. With all the other instrument designing projects, this was constantly delayed. Alistair at Emerald contacted me last winter and said he had an Amicus in the shop that wasn't spoken for, and he thought it would work well in my music, and was I interested? I said absolutely, send it over! With such a high-pitched tuning, it sounds to my ears much closer to a mandolin than a guitar with some almost harpsichord colors and textures. Because it's a fourth higher than the Alto, I call it the Soprano guitar on the album cover, which it is to my way of thinking and orchestrating. It's a great instrument, like all my Emerald instruments. Otherworld was also its recording debut, but it will certainly be pressed into service on other recording projects in the future.

mwe3: I was even thinking of you as being a 21st century version of Harry Partch in a way. I loved Partch back in the 1970s. I bought the Lp Petals Fell On Petaluma back in the mid 1970s. I make that comparison because you design your own instruments like Partch did and you both seem to thrive on the cutting edge of Avant Gard sound. I think Partch if he were alive today would think highly of your music and instruments.

KEVIN KASTNING: Thank you, Robert. I have long enjoyed Harry's work, too. I've read "Genesis Of A Music" a couple of times, and his microtonal work with guitars was entirely unique. I think this is an exciting time in the string instrument world; many guitarists and bassists are playing heavily modified multi-string instruments. It doesn't just expand the instruments and their ranges, but it expands the musical possibilities. I think it's great and I love hearing the music created with these.

mwe3: All the great sound architects of the 20th century Carlos, Berio, Partch, glass, etc they were known for using unique instruments and their legacy seem to thrive decades later. Where do you see your legacy leading in say ten years in 2025? Are you ahead of your time, not only as a guitar designer but as a musician / composer?

KEVIN KASTNING: I don't really think of myself as an instrument designer. I mean, I design the instruments I need to realize my music, but I don't know if they're of interest to anyone else. I guess I'm more of a defacto instrument designer than a professional instrument designer. Designing the instruments is like another part of the compositional and recording work; it has to happen in order for me to do my music. It's a daunting challenge to learn a new instrument and not everyone is interested in doing that. I find it exciting and an artistic boundary-expanding life experience. With each new instrument, I have to learn it, and in the process I learn not only the techniques for that instrument, but I find new artistic environments and compositional worlds which I'd never be able to access any other way. This is over and above the compositional requirements which originally necessitated the instruments in the first place; there are things with each instrument that I could have never conceived until I had that instrument. I can't predict the future, but 10 years from now I hope to be creating music that I can't even imagine right now. Which is kind of how it works for me: 10 years ago I couldn't have imagined the pieces on Otherworld. It's all a growth and learning process.

mwe3: Tell us something more about how your various Emerald guitars get designed. The guitar itself was your idea so how do you translate your ideas into the actual guitar? If so, what new developments are there on the Emerald guitars front? What guitars are new to the Otherworld album?

KEVIN KASTNING: Of the five instruments on Otherworld, the two making their recording debuts are the 15-string extended classical and the 12-string soprano guitar. As far as the design process, it's the same with Santa Cruz, Daniel Roberts Stringworks, and with Emerald. I'll start composing pieces which are impossible to realize or to exist because the instruments to perform the compositions just do not exist. Eventually I'll start thinking about what kind of instrument is required to realize these pieces. This involves elements like scale length, number of strings, tunings, registers and on and on. I'll work on this until I have a solid specification and design, then I'll contact Alistair and run it by him. The luthiers, both Dan and Alistair, have quite a lot to do with the design as well. For example, on the 30-string, I had the specs all completed, and then I asked Alistair about the body type he thought would work best. He'll make some suggestions and we'll come to a theoretical agreement on everything. Then he'll start doing some design drawings or mockups and we'll discuss those. Once we have a design sketch or a mockup, that will sometimes invoke some additional design issues. For example, on the 36-string, I wanted the necks at more of a V-angle instead of parallel. This located the string sets at the bridge closer to each other so that I can reach both sets of strings simultaneously with my right hand.

Currently, Alistair and I are in the design phase for the next KK Signature instrument, which may turn into two instruments. I can't say anything about it just yet, other than it will be more strings than the 36.

mwe3: what kind of picking techniques do you use on the new CD? Are you using your fingers or a pick mainly? (I don't remember if we discussed this area before Kevin or (can you compare playing with a pick or using your fingers in your right hand technique? Does it vary album to album?

KEVIN KASTNING: A few years ago, I swore off picks and began studying classical guitar technique rather seriously. I now use a classical right-hand technique all the time. Since I switched over to that, it doesn't vary album to album; it's just my right-hand technique now. For me, it brings more facility and polytonal possibilities than being limited to a pick. I also like the tonal colors available from using nails and fingers; it's a much wider range than is possible with a pick.

mwe3: Last year you were discussing the other upcoming CD titles on Greydisc, including other albums coming from you and Mark Wingfield, Sandor and Carl Clements as well. Are those albums near complete and in what order are you and Greydisc looking to release them?

KEVIN KASTNING: The upcoming records with Mark and Carl are both in the can and completed. The new one with Wingfield should be out in November 2015, and the new one with Carl will be out in January 2016. I have recording sessions scheduled with Sandor Szabo for October 2015 and December 2015. We have about four album projects in mind, and the first album from these sessions will be released in spring 2016. There is an album project in the works which is a trio of Sandor, Carl, and me; that will be out in 2016. I also have a couple of album projects scheduled with very well-known artists. Mike Metheny and I are discussing a duo album project and I've started sketching out some pieces for that. I think that will be a very special record; I've been such a fan of his work for many years. And work has begun on the next solo record, too.

mwe3: What are you most looking forward to in 2016? What other musical horizons and guitar explorations would like to explore next, both as a musician and composer as well as a guitar innovator and designer?

KEVIN KASTNING: Regarding instruments, I'm totally excited about the new one, or new ones, I'm working on with Alistair at Emerald. Those will once again expand what I'm able to compose and execute. I have a small US tour happening in December 2015 with Mark Wingfield and then he and I are in the studio for a couple of days to record our next album. In April 2016 I'm doing a European tour with Sandor, and when we're on tour, we always schedule a day or two for recording sessions; definitely looking forward to that. The first of the two new Emerald KK instruments may be completed in time for the tour; if so, I'll be using that one for the European tour and those recording dates. I'm certainly excited about the prospect of working with the new collaborators to which I alluded earlier. And of course, the next solo album. I hope to do one solo album per year, and am totally excited at that prospect. It feels like a whole new beginning for me.


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