Ethereal III


Guitar innovator Kevin Kastning may be best known for his modern approach to acoustic, ambient guitar instrumental music, yet he’s also gaining acclaim for his mesmerizing piano albums. That piano side of Kevin Kastning is best explored on Ethereal III, the 2019 album by Kevin and fellow guitarist Sándor Szabó. Compared to Piano I, the early 2019 album of solo piano music by Kevin, the May 2019 release of Ethereal III features Kevin’s acoustic piano enhanced by computerized orchestrations by Sándor. The computerized orchestral sounds by Sándor is a great way to frame Kevin’s experimental acoustic piano music. Eschewing the popular orchestral software, on Ethereal III, Sándor incorporates recorded samples from real string instruments, which weren’t modified. Even though these string sounds are sampled, the idea seems to get around the idea of assembling various violins, cellos and double bass played by live musicians in the same room. Commenting on the unique approach of the entire Ethereal series, and especially this third installment, Kevin explains, "When Sándor and I were discussing and formulating the concepts for the Ethereal album series, one thing upon which we both agreed was that each record in the series must be different than the others in the series. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves, and wanted the Ethereal series to be something apart and perhaps even partitioned off from our acoustic guitar duo works. This direction provided Sándor with the freedom to explore our music using electric guitar and placing its environment within the context of my acoustic environment. That alone set us off into an entirely new direction." Classical music purists may rebuff it at first, even though the modern day technology of editing samples into recordings is expedient and the net result, in this case, sounds quite excellent. Kevin and Sándor are true pioneers of the guitar world and on the release of Ethereal III, they also establish themselves as trendsetters in the world of 21st century recording technology. / presents an interview with
Kevin Kastning and Sándor Szabó
The Ethereal III interview

: With such a depth of experience between the two of you, did you seek to create Ethereal III as a 21st century crossover classical masterpiece? Although Ethereal II sounded very avant-garde and experimental in the best sense of the word, is Ethereal III the album to bring you to the attention of the serious classical music listener?

Kevin Kastning: Thank you for the kind words, Robert. I had nothing regarding classical crossover in mind when I proposed the concept to Sándor. I do not think in terms of categories of music or how to label a project. I can only follow where the music needs to go. I think Ethereal III was the next compositional level of evolution of some of the work on which Sándor and I have been working over the past couple of years in this series.

Sándor Szabó: To be honest we did not have intention to do some kind of dedicated music for the classical listeners. We do not think in styles as crossover or something. If we have a musical idea we try to find the devices to make it happen. Of course there was a compositional reason why we created the Ethereal III with this kind of sound. Both as a composer and guitar player I have always felt the limitations of the guitar. This might be one of the reasons why classical guitar occupies a lonely place within the classical music world. Not everyone can compose for guitar; only those who intimately know the limitations and possibilities of the instrument. Even if someone knows the guitar well, the instrument does not offer the necessary levels of polyphony and tonal ranges. Since the beginning of my career I have had my own compositional concept to create music. The guitar proved to be unsuitable to achieve them. This is why I started to use more strings, to use special tunings, etc., to extend the possibilities of the instrument. I tried to follow the way others compose for guitar; however, I encountered new obstacles. As a composer, I decided to suspend composing using only guitar. Instead, I wanted to compose in a different way to avoid the limitations of guitar. Ethereal III is my first attempt in composing for a chamber orchestra, and also the very first album where I do not play guitar and I appear only as a composer creating the orchestration behind Kevin Kastning’s piano pieces.

mwe3: In his Ethereal III liner notes, Sándor expressed the need to build upon and go beyond the guitar-centric based ideas that are featured on your earlier works. How and in what ways, melodically and harmonically, do the orchestral string sounds accentuate and enhance the piano-based ideas on Ethereal III? The album is truly an orchestral sounding masterpiece.

Kevin Kastning: Sándor articulated it very well, but I don’t see or hear our previous work as being guitar-centric, other than the fact that our guitar-family instruments were the vehicles for the realization of those compositions and settings. It’s all just compositions. In other words, I wouldn’t describe Mahler’s work as being orchestra-centric. He was a composer, and his compositions were orchestrally realized. It is the same for the work of Sándor and I.

Sándor Szabó: I cannot go into deep details of the compositional process but the main difference is that there was not a guitar in my hands when I composed. Some parts were in my head, some were written down on a manuscript, some parts were just born in front of the computer seeing the editor window of my ProTools. It was a very time consuming and complicated process. I used dozens of compositional tools to create special harmony textures which was impossible to create with a guitar in my hands. I had to open my ears and imagination and the music started to be born. I worked with in 4-5 melody voices to create canons, small fugue structures and the harmonies are only the consequences of this polyphony. As working materials I used exotic tonal scales, modern pentonal scales.

mwe3: Why was the decision made to only feature piano-based orchestrations on Ethereal III? Did you feel that Kevin’s piano was more suited towards the orchestrations Sándor had in mind to frame Kevin’s piano compared to the guitar-based compositions on your other albums? Will you be featuring the orchestrations more in the future on the guitar compositions as well? Will the orchestrations feature even different string combinations?

Kevin Kastning: When Sándor and I were discussing and formulating the concepts for the Ethereal album series, one thing upon which we both agreed was that each record in the series must be different than the others in the series. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves, and wanted the Ethereal series to be something apart and perhaps even partitioned off from our acoustic guitar duo works. This direction provided Sándor with the freedom to explore our music using electric guitar and placing its environment within the context of my acoustic environment. That alone set us off into an entirely new direction. Ethereal I and II were examples of this new direction. During the recording sessions of some of the early pieces for my record Piano I, Sándor asked me to compose and record a set of five short piano pieces using specific guidelines, which I did. I sent those pieces off to him, and totally forgot all about it. Then at one point on the 2018 European tour, Sándor played a recording for me; it was a piece for piano and cellos. I really liked it, and asked him who it was. He told me it was my set of five short piano pieces and his cello overdubbing. This made a very strong impression on me. A few months later when we were discussing the direction for Ethereal III, I suggested that I limit myself to all piano for the record. He agreed, and I started work on some new piano pieces. As I was recording the new pieces, I kept thinking about the piano and cello piece from the tour. It was a strong piece, and very different from anything we’d ever done. So I proposed to Sándor that instead of piano and electric guitar that this record be piano and orchestrations. It was a pretty bold move, and I didn’t know what Sándor would say. Fortunately, he liked the idea, and so we set off in that direction. Yes, we are planning to do some orchestrational recordings with me on my acoustic guitar family instruments. That will be a future entry in the Ethereal series for certain.

Sándor Szabó: I always loved Kevin’s piano pieces and one day I showed him a version where I added 4 cellos. It was possible, because Kevin composes sparse structures, which lets me compose and add further layers to it. After he heard it he suggested me to go ahead with this idea, so I started to compose on his piano pieces. Piano and string orchestra sounds beautifully together so I started to think in cellos, because it is my favorite string instrument and I see more sounding possibility in than it was achieved in the classical music so far. We are planning to combine cello orchestra with two guitars, so somewhere in the future we come out with a very special album.

mwe3: I wasn’t that familiar with the computerized orchestral software used in coloring music on the new album. Sándor said that the popular software he knew of wasn’t good enough. I must say that the orchestrations make this album a highly unusual though quite rewarding listening experience. Can you say something about the strings software that is featured on the album and how does it compare to other software as well as say how it would compare to using actual string instruments or even venerable string based instruments like the mellotron or chamberlain? I guess using real strings is impossible for this album but also true in most albums being released these days.

Sándor Szabó: Yes, the sound is unusual, mostly because I used 4-8 cellos, 1 violin and 2 double basses to create this sound. This setup is not typical at all in even in the contemporary classical music, so it cannot sound very familiar, but I wanted to do something unusual and this is why I used this instrument setup. I did not use computerized orchestral software. Maybe it is strange, but I have chosen a quite old method to build the music and the sound. I worked with a cello player and I recorded many hundreds of differently played notes as samples. These were recorded by microphones and I used those sound samples as sound files in my ProTools just like the recorded piano sounds. The cello sounds were not modified or optimized. To work with these samples demanded much more work and time, but the sound has been individually unique; for example, containing random sound elements naturally occurring in live playing. So all what you hear on the recording is played notes without using orchestral software. This can be a ridiculous working method for a professional composer who composes for example sound tracks for movie using developed orchestral software, but this made me different options. I pulled the notes each by each to the editor window because I wanted to avoid the options which are readily offered by orchestral software, and in this way I was guided only by my imagination. As a result my orchestration sounds more organic and less uniform than the software orchestration. Software is useful for working fast, but the sounding result is always the same, kind of sterile and digital.

mwe3: Can you tell us when the music on Ethereal III was recorded and how the project evolved from when Kevin recorded his tracks and when Sándor took the tracks and added the orchestral parts? What was discussed when the idea first came up to record an album of this scope and dimension? I know it’s nearly impossible for independent musicians to travel thousands of miles to record music and the internet has not only made that so much easier but advancements in the high tech world has also made the end results near fastidious in its pursuit of sonic perfection.

Kevin Kastning: It was recorded in December 2018. When we started on this project, we both thought it would be a very long-term project, possibly requiring a full year of composing and recording sessions. But after I recorded the first piano piece and sent it to Sándor, something happened. Something just took over and within a couple of weeks, all the piano pieces were completed. As I worked on the next piano piece, Sándor would be working on the previous one, so he was one piece behind me. It didn’t take him long at all to finish the orchestrations. So this massive recording project that we thought would be a full year was actually completed in about three weeks.

Sándor Szabó: How we collaborate with Kevin is not so typical. We send recorded parts to each other and we do overdubs to develop the pieces. We know and accept that the result can be very different what we imagined in the beginning, but we really like it. This working way has a special excitement of the unpredictable result which is great and inspiring. We started this kind of “remote working” because we live in different continents and economically it is impossible to make such a project only this way. This is the blessing of the internet.

mwe3: What do you think the reaction will be by not only long time fans of your music but also to classical radio stations and classical music review magazines and web sites? Do you feel that Ethereal III be accepted by 21st century classical music aficionados even more so than your earlier album releases and have you gotten any feedback on the album yet?

Kevin Kastning: The reviews and emails I’ve received from listeners thus far have been very positive, and it is receiving airplay in the US. I don’t know if the hardcore classical community will embrace it, but how a new record will be received is never a consideration for me. This music needed to happen, it needed to be; that was my only consideration. There is a sizable audience in the US that follows modern and contemporary classical music; perhaps Ethereal III will find a home with them going forward.

Sándor Szabó: I was not thinking in reactions, I just wanted to bring out this music of myself. The classical listeners… it seems to be very traditional for me in Hungary where I live, but I do not know how is it in the US. I guess it is similar. We would be outsiders in that circle, so we did not want to correspond to it. There is a small audience for modern classical and avant-garde music, they might like this music. I can also imagine listeners who like movie soundtracks they would probably like these special pieces.

mwe3: The Ethereal III song titles are very unusual sounding. Can you explain the meanings behind the song titles? Most people think of Latin as in Spanish but it’s mostly like ancient languages right?

Kevin Kastning: The titles for Ethereal III are all in Latin. Latin is a classical language, and dates back to the Roman republic in pre-BC times. I used it to obfuscate the meanings behind the titles, as I want the listener to find their own meanings, their own messages in the music and not rely upon or be influenced by preconceptions that could be imposed by compositional titles.

mwe3: The cover art of all your albums are great but Ethereal III is truly spectacular and the colors are great. Is there a story behind the cover art?

Kevin Kastning: The cover art of the Ethereal series were all done by Tim Paulvé, a French artist. Sándor and I both felt that Tim’s highly unique and individualistic work really fit the Ethereal series; the more electric aspect of the series. Specifically for Ethereal III, the main colors in the cover art are deep blue and purple. I felt that the two colors represented Sándor and I, and the way those two colors strand together is a good metaphor or analog of the compositions on this record, and how our two compositional halves melded into a singularity, culminating in something greater than the two individual halves.

mwe3: So will you follow up with Ethereal IV next time, maybe featuring the orchestrations with guitars and even percussion? What plans do you both have for 2019 as far as new recordings and how about future Greydisc albums being planned for 2019 and beyond?

Kevin Kastning: Ethereal IV is in the can, and will be released in 2020. It is different from any of the extant Ethereal series. It does not include orchestrations. For upcoming recordings in 2019, Mark Wingfield and I are in post-production with our next album. I will be in the studio this year with Carl Clements to work on our next projects. I’m also working on the next two solo albums; both of those will be pretty different from the previous solo works. There are also a few album projects planned with some new collaborators, so hopefully some surprises coming over the next year or two. Sándor and I are also mapping out our next two or three projects; both in the Ethereal series and in our long-running acoustic duo projects.

Sándor Szabó: As much as I know from the release plan of the Greydisc Records the Ethereal IV would be a special trio recording with electric and acoustic guitars, percussions and some oriental instruments.


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