Mark Wingfield and Kevin Kastning
Musical improvisation assumes countless forms—though nearly always within predetermined contexts. Jazz improvisers typically adhere to the currently agreed-upon vocabulary of their idiom, as do bluesmen, flamencos, country pickers, and baroque improvisers. Even the various forms of “free” improvisation, somewhat ironically, constitute genres.
When performing and recording together, Kevin Kastning and Mark Wingfield join a far-smaller group of adventurous souls who improvise without a contextual net. Each still brings his specific background, facility, and musical proclivities to the process, of course—but the context is created concurrently with the composition in real time.
“Although we may discuss the general approach leading up to a session, we essentially have no idea what we are going to play when the recording light goes on,” says Wingfield. “In one sense what we do is completely freeform, but in another sense it really isn’t. It’s about letting the music emerge, hearing or knowing what should happen next, and doing our utmost to facilitate that.”
Indeed, the duo’s music possesses an uncanny cohesion and compositional authority that may only partially be explained by the fact that the two are both highly accomplished jazz and classical composers as well as skilled improvisers.
Furthermore, while Kastning and Wingfield strive to transcend the limitations of conventional musical forms, they also strive to transcend the traditional limitations of their instruments.
In addition to nylon-string classical guitar, Kastning plays an ever-expanding array of unique acoustic stringed instruments that includes 12-string Extended Baritone guitar, Bass Baritone guitar, 12-string Alto guitar, 15-string Extended Classical guitar, 16- and 17-string Contraguitars, 30-string Contra-Soprano guitar, and 36-string Double Contraguitar (the latter two, double-neck, instruments are constructed of carbon fiber rather than wood). The custom instruments are tuned in a variety of ways, and each tuning is as singular as the instruments themselves.
Wingfield has foresworn conventional guitar amplifiers, effects pedals, and even pickups for a pair of Roland VG-88 V-Guitar Systems, combined with a laptop loaded with sophisticated software processors. His electric guitar is fitted with dual MIDI pickups, as well as a VMeter MIDI touch strip and a Sustainiac electromagnetic sustainer. Besides providing him with an expansive sonic palette, this system enables Wingfield to radically alter the ways in which he articulates notes and phrases, as well as to craft tones and timbres reminiscent of instruments such as horns and woodwinds, in addition more guitar-like sounds.
“Blending Mark’s unique electric guitar voices with my extended-range instruments and unorthodox tunings creates something very special,” says Kastning. “The resulting pieces just take on an organic life of their own.”
The spontaneous compositions on the duo’s fourth release, In Stories [Greydisc], as on its three previous recordings, are unique—and open-minded listeners who surrender to their subtle gravitational pull will find themselves entering hitherto unexplored realms of uncommon beauty and multidimensionality. Intricate and frequently sublime structures mysteriously appear and dissolve in the sonic ether like audible automatic writing, comprising shimmering harmonic clusters, dark pools of brooding dissonances, swirling eddies of polytonality, delicate microtonal wave fluctuations, and myriad other serendipitous confluences.
Apart from working together, Kastning and Wingfield are active on numerous additional musical fronts.
Kastning has collaborated with a bevy of innovative improvisers from acoustic guitarists Sándor Szabó and Siegfried to hyperbassist Michael Manring to saxophonist/flautist Carl Clements. His third album with Clements, the exquisite Watercolor Sky [Greydisc], was released last year. Wingfield has worked with an equally prestigious assortment of artists, including harpsichordist Jane Chapman, saxophonist Ian Ballamy, bassist Yaron Stavi, and drummer Asaf Sirkis. His latest release, the majestic Proof of Light [Moonjune], successfully revivifies the endangered corpus of jazz-rock fusion.
You both have various other musical involvements apart from your duo. Do you approach your projects together differently than the others?
Wingfield: Yes. I approach working with Kevin differently because the music we play together is entirely improvised and everything else I do involves planned and written elements such as melodies, chord progressions, and rhythmic structures. There may be a lot of improvisation, but it is taking place within a predetermined harmonic context and I know ahead of time which notes and structures I have available to improvise with.
Kastning: I approach every project I do differently. I try to sense what each one needs, and then to provide those things. That includes choosing specific instruments and tunings, and then selecting microphones and the overall studio setup based on those choices. All of my tunings are my own inventions and for any given session I might use as many as four different Contraguitar tunings, plus the octave Contra tuning, and the various Alto guitar tunings.
What do you get out of working with each other that you don’t get when working with others?
Wingfield: I would say brownies, mainly. Kevin’s brownie baking is unsurpassed, at least from a British point of view [laughs]. In all seriousness, though, there are several things about working with Kevin that are unique. First, he has created completely new sound worlds with his singular instruments and tunings and his extremely original harmonic vision and orchestral approach to them, as well as to the classical guitar.
Equally important is Kevin’s ability to improvise so fluently. He can change direction instantly and go wherever the music takes us. We’ll suddenly come across some new musical landscape and I’ll think, “Yes, I know this place,” and Kevin just seems to hear the same musical place and play what is needed for us to create it.
There’s a continuous to-and-fro form to our improvisation. I may lead the way for a few notes or phrases, with Kevin sensing where I’m going and painting the landscape, and then he will lead the way and I will follow him, embellishing what he is creating. At other times we both just begin playing something simultaneously. The process is a continually changing combination of these things.
You might say that we are composing together in the moment. We aren’t sitting there deciding what should come next, or trying to fit preconceived musical ideas into what we are playing, which never works, but rather sensing what the music wants us to play and doing that with as much fidelity as possible.
Kastning: Another way of putting it is that our goal is to serve the music while simultaneously staying out of its way. For example, if I’m playing a bass line that’s supporting the current direction of the piece, and consequently the piece is moving forward on its own, if I were to suddenly jump to some other musical idea that I thought I’d like to try, it may not be what the piece was asking for, and the whole thing could collapse. The process is much like a river meander that occurs organically in nature, in that the direction and path can’t be controlled. This transpersonal quality of the experience becomes evident when listening back to a recording for the first time, as much of what I hear isn’t anything that I remember playing.
As for what I get from working with Mark, each artist with whom I’ve been blessed to collaborate brings their own approach, voice, and direction—their soul and spirit—and there are musical situations that occur with Mark that don’t occur with anyone else.
For one thing, Mark takes mostly a single-line approach when working with me, rather than playing chords, which is unusual for a guitarist. That can be challenging in that I have to construct supporting structures under those lines, and interweave my own lines with his when required. He also creates lush soundscapes or sonic environments that can sometimes be unfamiliar and even disconcerting, which will force me to reach for new colors and shadings that I’d likely otherwise never discover.
Additionally, we have both composed extensively for classical settings such as orchestras and string quartets, so we naturally take more of a co-composer approach when improvising. We both have composer DNA coursing through us, and consequently we see everything we do through composer eyes, and we shape and build each improvised piece as a composition—albeit a real-time composition.
If the music comes from someplace else and you are trying to sense what it wants and get out of its way, how can you simultaneously shape and build each piece as a composition?
Wingfield: It feels like the music comes from somewhere else, though not in the sense of actually preexisting somewhere. And I am simultaneously getting out of the way and shaping it—but not shaping it in the normal conscious way. The compositional shaping is done by my unconscious. All that my conscious mind perceives is a feeling, a sense, or I hear notes I should play. I am putting to one side the part of me that wants to make something specific happen, the part that consciously thinks, plans, judges, censors, etc. Unless I get my thinking mind out of the way the process will be partially or completely blocked.
How do the ideas form? Who knows? That’s the mystery of improvisation and composition.
What is different playing with Kevin is that the composing part of my subconscious is as actively involved as the guitarist part. I am feeling and sensing as in other improvisational settings, only creating larger and more complete structures.
Kastning: For me, the music absolutely comes from somewhere else. But as I act as the conduit and allow it into this physical plane of existence, there is some shaping and molding of the piece. I am a human and quite imperfect, so as the music passes through me, my human imperfections make an imprint on it in the translation process. As much as I’d rather it was otherwise, this is the only way it can be. I shape and form it as it passes from wherever it exists, into our physical plane.
Another way of looking at it is that while I am listening to the music and sensing the development of the composition, I react, and that reaction has an impact on the composition, which I continually hear and sense, and then react to, creating what might be viewed as a contrapuntal feedback loop. That process continues organically, resulting in the composition.
And the process is very similar when I’m composing on paper. In one case I am composing in real time, and in the other I am not—but the primary difference is the media. One medium is manuscript paper and the other is tape.
Daniel Roberts Stringworks Kevin Kastning model C1 17-string Contraguitar (2010), Daniel Roberts Stringworks Kevin Kastning model C2 16-string Contraguitar (2011), Cervantes Rodriguez Concert classical guitar (2008), Emerald Kevin Kastning Signature model 36-string Double Contraguitar (2014), Emerald Kevin Kastning Signature model 30-string Contra-Alto guitar (2013), left to right. For additional information visit kevinkastning.com
In Stories is your fourth collaboration album. In what ways did making it differ from making your previous recordings in terms of both intent and execution?
Kastning: Each record has involved a different approach or direction. For example, for our 2013 release, Dark Sonatas, we acknowledged the impact of classical composer Elliott Carter, and that music was the densest and most angular we’ve yet recorded. For In Stories, we decided to take more of a melodic or lyrical approach, which was a radical diversion from our previous projects. We discussed what melodic and lyrical concepts meant to us, and how to be more cognizant of them.
What percentage of the improvised music you record do you feel meets your standard for release?
Wingfield: About 90 percent. From any given session there will be the occasional piece that we don’t feel worked as well as we’d like. Or, maybe it was good but covered similar ground as another piece in the session. We record three or four hours of material in each two-day session, however, so not everything we consider releasable from a session gets released right away. We choose the tracks that we feel work together well given the overall direction of a particular album.
Kastning: We think of our albums as single unified compositions containing various pieces, like movements in a symphony. The unreleased pieces aren’t better or worse than those that are released—they just may not fit into a specific album project.
Wingfield: The unused material will eventually be released. Since our first session in 2010, we have managed to arrange a session each year, and release an album from each one, which leaves at least one additional album’s worth of releasable music from each year. Should there be a year in which we are unable to record, we plan to release an album’s worth of material from those previous sessions. We may also release an album of “oddball” pieces that we really like, but that don’t necessarily fit into a given conceptual framework.
You mentioned that your backgrounds as composers result in your thinking compositionally while improvising. Can you elaborate on that?
Kastning: I may play a single note or a single chord, but that note or chord doesn’t exist in isolation. I’m always hearing it as it relates to or fits into an overall compositional structure, or how it might lead to a new direction within that structure.
There is also considerable overlap in Mark and I’s influences and we sometimes discuss particular composers for hours on end. So, if one of us makes a reference to, for instance, a particular composer’s harmonic concept or approach to orchestration, we know what the other is referring to. One example of this is the Elliott Carter influence throughout Dark Sonatas. And we also have a full album of unreleased material that was influenced by the work of composer Morton Feldman.
Wingfield: I agree that the fact that we both tend to think compositionally has a lot to do with why our improvisations work so well. And I agree about the classical influences, too, though the overlap extends to jazz and many other forms of music, as well, and that common language also connects our musical ideas while we are improvising. So, if one of us creates a musical idea or atmosphere, or we play something together that creates a new musical idea, we are likely to have a similar recognition and understanding of the meaning of that moment, because we will hear it within a similar musical context.
You both compose primarily on the piano. How does the way in which you conceptualize music on the piano relate to how you approach your other instruments?
Kastning: Yes, I nearly always use either an acoustic piano or a MIDI keyboard when composing, though occasionally I’ll sketch out compositions directly onto manuscript paper. Other than for some piano sonatas and a few other works involving piano, however, the music I compose using piano isn’t “piano” music. I use the piano primarily as a tool for writing, not for realization.
The harmonic field of the piano keyboard is dramatically different than that of the guitar fingerboard, which causes me to see the fingerboard very differently, and to utilize many chord voicings that aren’t the usual guitar-type voicings, but are instead coming from this different place of pianistic harmonic concepts, which is, of course, also the origin of many orchestral harmonic structures.
The exception is when composing solo works for either the 30-string or 36-string, which I do using those instruments. The 36-string, in particular, is a rather symphonic instrument to begin with, so composing music with a wide orchestral scope on it is not a problem. In fact, in many ways the 30-string is akin to a chamber orchestra, and the 36-string a full symphony orchestra. I’m also designing some new instruments that approach more of a Mahlerian scale of orchestral grasp.
Wingfield: Much the same is true for me. I tend to use the piano more often than the guitar when finding and exploring new harmonic territory. There is something about the sound of the piano that I find inspiring, and being able to sustain notes over the full register of the piano also allows me to hear things in a much bigger, more orchestral perspective. That said, I also compose using a computer by playing in lines on keyboard or guitar, or writing them in onscreen.
Also, when I compose on piano or a keyboard, if I am going to play a part on the guitar, I’ll attempt to voice the chords as closely to the piano voicings as possible, which will usually be different than standard guitar chord voicings. And when that isn’t physically possible, I’ll employ electronics as a way of building up chords from single notes. In fact, it’s largely composing on piano that has caused me to find ways of using electronics to extend the guitar’s chordal possibilities.
Patrck Eggle LA Plus with Roland GK-2 and Fishman TriplePlay hex pickups, Sustainiac, and VMeter controller. Roland VG-88 V-Guitar system and Roland FC-300 MIDI Foot Controller. MacBook Pro 2.7GHz/16GB SSD, running Apple MainStage 3. Typical MainStage effects setups: Waves NLS, Waves API 550B, Sinevibes Turbo, Lexicon PCM Reverb, Waves Neve V-EQ4, Logic Channel EQ, Slate Digital VBC, MeldaProduction MFreqShifter, and Sinevibes Circuit. For more information visit markwingfield.com
When designing new instruments or assembling new technologies, to what extent are you attempting to realize sounds that you already hear in your head, and to what extent are you hoping that the expanded capabilities will provide inspiration to discover and explore new sounds and musical possibilities that you hadn’t imagined previously?
Kastning: When designing or inventing new acoustic guitar-family instruments, I’m seeking vehicles to realize sounds and possibilities that I am hearing internally or pieces I’ve already composed, that can’t be realized using my current instruments. Of course, once I have a new instrument and I’ve begun learning how to play it, I’ll gradually discover things that could not have been foreseen prior to actually working with that instrument, and which always far exceed my original conceptions. At the same time, I will also discover inherent limitations that I hadn’t foreseen, and sometimes those limitations may inspire the creation of another new instrument.
One example of this is that while working with the 30-string, I began hearing something I call bitunal, which is using two different tunings simultaneously. There is a similar concept in 20th Century classical music called bitonality, where two key signatures or harmonic centers are utilized simultaneously in a single composition. With the 30-string, the 18-string Contraguitar side and the 12-string Alto guitar side were, of course, already in separate tunings—but to access them simultaneously as one single tuning—as a single instrument—was a new discovery, and that concept of bitunalism had an immediate and profound impact on my thinking, my harmonic concepts, my compositional approach, and more.
Prior to the 30-string, my primary instruments were the 16- and 17-string Contraguitars, and I began to hear and conceptualize this new bitunal approach not only as it applies to 18-string Contraguitar combined with 12-string Alto guitar, but also to two 18-string Contraguitars. I have many tunings that I use for Contraguitar, and the idea of using two of them simultaneously was quite a satori for me. That concept begat the 36-string Double Contraguitar, which is at present my main instrument.
Wingfield: I’m nearly always attempting to create sounds that I already hear in my head, rather than trying to create new sounds that may inspire me to do something in the future. Occasionally, I’ll accidentally hit upon an unexpected sound that really inspires me as I’m searching for something else—but I generally find it more fruitful to try and create new sounds based on what I hear in my head, which really mean something to me.
Mark, some of the sounds you craft are reminiscent of existing instruments such as flute, oboe, and trumpet—and your phrasing sometimes also reflects those instruments more so than guitar. To what extent are you deliberately attempting to emulate the sounds of other instruments, if at all?
Wingfield: It’s not that I want the guitar to sound like other real instruments. I want to retain the essential guitar-ness of the sound, but I would love to be able to bring in elements of the sounds of other instruments, such as the hard brassiness of a sax, the mellow breathiness of a flugelhorn, or the reediness of an oboe, and to change between them quickly and easily.
I’m already doing this to some extent, but I think technology will eventually allow much deeper manipulation and shaping of the guitar sound. The Roland VG System does restructure the sound in a deeper way than conventional effects allow, but it is still primarily oriented towards emulating different kinds of guitars.
Some software developers, however, are moving in interesting new directions. Sinevibes makes some really interesting wave-shaping plugins that have become a regular part of my setup, and I have a plugin from a French manufacturer called IRCAM that allows me to reshape sound on a deep level, separating it into noise and sinus components, and also allowing formant and other manipulations.
I would like to see some plugins that emulate resonant instrument bodies, such as woodwinds, brass, or strings. I can imagine, as just one example, a guitar sound that retains many properties of the guitar, but has the resonant body of a cello. I think this sort of thing may be just around the corner and I would be interested in working with a plugin company that wanted to explore this area.
As for non-guitar-like playing, that largely comes from the fact that at one point I stopped listening to guitar players and just listened to other instruments. It was difficult to do, because there are so many guitarists whose playing I love, but I found that listening to them filled my head with their sounds and ideas, making it difficult for me to hear my own.
Instead, I spent a lot of time attempting to emulate the playing of musicians such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Jan Garbarek. I was struck by just how dramatically they could change the tone of the notes they played, even within a single line. And I did the same with vocalists, including Indian classical singers, and even drummers.
Through trying to emulate these other instruments I discovered a lot of new things about tone, dynamics, phrasing, inflection, manipulating pitch, and moving form one note to the next—and eventually I began hearing them coming through the guitar.
Do you listen to guitarists now?
Wingfield: I will allow myself to briefly check out new guitar players if someone I know tells me I need to hear them. And I’ll listen at length to players whose approach is different enough from mine that I don’t think I’ll be influenced in an adverse way—Kevin and yourself being two good examples. And Ralph Towner and Jimi Hendrix are examples of two that I never felt the need to stop listening to because their approaches are far enough from what I do that I wasn’t worried about starting to play like them.
Kevin, are your custom instruments still “guitars,” and to what extent can standard guitar techniques be applied to playing them, as opposed to developing entirely new techniques?
Kastning: I don’t think of them as guitars. For example, I think of the 36-string as a Double Contraguitar [laughs]. There are a few standard guitar techniques that I am able to apply, but each instrument demands the development of new techniques, which in some cases lead to rethinking my approach to the instrument entirely. For instance, the 36-string and 30-string are fitted with cello endpins so that they may be played vertically in cello position—and this has proven so successful that the 16- and 17-string instruments are being modified with cello pins, as well.
One benefit of this has been to overcome what I call “the tyranny of the thumb.” I don’t always keep my left thumb behind the neck when playing the Contraguitars, because it isn’t possible when you have a 3 5/8-inch nut width. In fact, I often use my left thumb to play, as basically another left-hand finger. Adopting the cello position also impacted my vibrato so significantly that I had to completely abandon what I had been doing and start fresh.
Similarly, I’ve had to expand my classical right-hand technique to span both sets of strings on the 36-string and 30-string, so that I can play them simultaneously. Again, that’s an example of the bitunal concept. I’m also constantly finding fascinating new tapping and other two-handed techniques when playing those instruments that wouldn’t work when playing instruments made of wood rather than carbon fiber.
Kevin, do your custom instruments have “standard” tunings?
Kastning: The right neck of the 36-string always remains in octave tuning (B, E, A, D, low to high, with the B below bass register), but that’s the closest thing to a standard tuning. I’ve devised numerous alternative tunings for the left neck of the 36-string, and the other three Contraguitars. The Alto side of the 30-string and my 12-string Alto guitar are also both in different alto-register tunings.
Mark, how are your guitars tuned?
Wingfield: About six years ago I attended a Q&A with Allan Holdsworth, and when asked what advice he would give someone learning to play the guitar, he answered, “Tune in all fourths.” That’s something I had been thinking about doing for years, so once I had an empty stretch in my touring and recording schedule I tried it and within a day of retuning my brain was singing, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I never looked back.
I needed to relearn all my chord shapes, and that took some time—but it also gave me the opportunity to rethink my chord voicings, which was a good thing. In terms of scales, I could see the entire neck as one big homogeneous pattern instead of lots of different patterns that were just sort of similar, which opened up many new possibilities.
When recording, I presume that Mark’s rig goes direct. How do you capture the huge sonic range and complex characteristics of the acoustic instruments?
Kastning: Yes, Mark goes direct. For In Stories, he used two pairs of stereo inputs, one for a single VG-88 and the other for the laptop, which he used to process the VG-88.
The 36-string and 30-string both have dual sound holes, so by nature they are true stereo instruments. The goal is to capture that stereo image, and when you listen to the recordings you can hear the sound moving naturally between the left and right channels. They have custom K&K Sound pickup systems built in, which can handle the extreme registers of those instruments beautifully. The K&Ks are combined with two stereo pairs of microphones, so I’m utilizing six tracks of the mix.
For the top stereo pair of microphones I use Shure SM81 small-diaphragm condensers, which were not my first choice, but which sounded much better than the other mics I tried in that spot, including Microtech Gefell M295s, AKG C 451 Bs, vintage AKG C 460 Bs, and Shure KSM141s. On the bottom I use a pair of Shure KSM32s. The area below the bridge of the 36-string and 30-string instruments generates a surprising amount of energy and volume, and, again, I tried quite a few other mics before I settled on the KSM32s.
I use a stereo pair of Gefell M295s on the C1 and C2 Contraguitars, and a pair of Shure KSM141s on the classical.
All the microphones go into a Millennia Media HV-3D, 8-channel microphone preamp, which is in turn routed directly into my Tascam X-48MKII digital recorder.
Kevin, what’s that great reverb sound on your recordings?
Kastning: That’s a Bricasti Design M7, V2, modified by Bricasti’s Brian Zolner with some different caps that he thinks sound better than the production ones. It isn’t a reverb effect—it is reverb. Wingfield is always trying to trade me out of it, but he’d have better luck trying to trade me out of my lungs [laughs].
Is there a “spiritual” dimension to your music in terms of process and/or result?
Kastning: Absolutely, in terms of the process. I can only attempt to tell you how this works for me, but it goes back to what I previously stated about the process of real-time composing and providing the composition with what it needs when it’s required. The music comes from somewhere else, and to my way of thinking, it’s a spiritual realm and process. The listener must determine if there is a spiritual dimension in the result.
Wingfield: I would say that there is definitely a spiritual dimension, but I should define what the word “spiritual” means to me, as it obviously means very different things to different people. For example, many people associate the word with various aspects of religious belief, but I don’t have any sort of belief in a god or the supernatural.
For me, the word spiritual refers to things in life that have a deep meaning and which connect to something beyond the “self” as it is ordinarily understood. It also refers to transcendent emotional and mental states, and to a connection and deeper communication between people that we do not have another word for. Music can be the source of all of these things.
The experiences people can have while making or listening to music can be deeply profound and affecting or very subtle. They can traverse the entire gamut of human emotions, and also encompass imaginary realms unknown elsewhere. To me, these experiences are every bit as real and powerful as anything in the material world. In other words, the best experiences I get from playing and listening to music are synonymous with the word spiritual.
Describe what is occurring inside yourself both emotionally and intellectually when you are improvising, especially when things are going well.
Kastning: While improvising, I’m as focused as I can possibly be on what is happening around me musically. I don’t know that I would categorize much or any of it as intellectual, at least not in the moment of creation. My experience is more emotional, and spiritual, and in some cases even visual.
There are rare instances when recording or performing wherein, with my eyes closed, I can see a score. It’s as if the improvisation manifests itself instantly into an actual visual score that is unfolding in real-time as it is being performed. When that happens, I just follow the score, like sight-reading.
At other times, I visualize shapes and colors that I can’t see or access other than when improvising, and that kind of strong and unique visual imagery has a direct and visceral impact on the music. I’m not consciously attempting to conjure any of these visual elements, nor do I have any control over them. They simply exist on their own and manifest themselves as they will, and they are always based on and related to the music.
Wingfield: It’s as if I’m not really there, only the music is there. When I come back and am conscious of being in the room, it means I’ve lost focus. I sometimes see scenes in my mind while improvising, but essentially I’m experiencing the emotions and moods in the music and hearing what should be played to express them. I’m certainly not thinking about things.
In situations where I’m improvising over chord changes, I will need to look at the next chord and be conscious of which scales will fit with that—but that takes a fraction of a second and doesn’t need to interrupt the flow or require any real thinking. I guess you could say I’m experiencing a state of flow and of openness.
What is the source of music, particularly improvised music?
Kastning: The source of improvised music varies with each improvising musician. Of course there is a lifetime of learning your instrument, technique, artistic rules and concepts, etc., which all must be in place before you can improvise a single note. But, once those things are in place, what comes from that is what is inside you. And, for me, the source is spiritual. The music I create comes from someplace else, and, in fact, “I’m” not creating it. I’m providing an avenue for it to enter our plane of existence, but I am not creating it.
Wingfield: I don’t know the ultimate source. You spend years training your fingers and mind so that you can respond to the music, and then you forget all of that, let yourself become part of the music, and hope that your fingers can translate what you are experiencing in the moment. How that happens is a mystery to me.
At the same time, I think it’s true to say that almost anything anyone plays is based to one degree or another on things they’ve heard before—influences from other musicians, composers, and different types of music. It is the mysterious “scrambling” of those influences, as Wayne Shorter puts it, and how they recombine into new ideas.
Have you found that any specific approaches to lifestyle tend to enhance your connection with The Muse?
Kastning: For me the connection is always there. I just have to be still and let it come through—and it always does.
That said, there are various things I do to nurture it. Listening to lots and lots of music, for one. I also spend time outdoors—hiking, taking long walks on forest trails, and observing wildlife and elements of nature. That feeds me and causes growth as a person, a spiritual being, and palpably as an artist. And I’ve found visualization to be very helpful. For example, when away from my instruments I’ll often mentally focus on and envision things that I have been practicing, or something new I’m trying to learn.
Diet and exercise also have a very direct impact on my artistic concepts, precepts, sensing, and interpretation.
Wingfield: Like Kevin, I find that spending time in nature has a big effect on me as a musician and composer, as does walking in the city, though in a completely different way. I also like to sit in cafes in the city and compose on my laptop, as I find being surrounded by people, and trying to imagine what is going on in their lives, inspires new music. I lived in London for a long time, but five years ago I moved to the countryside and now live on a river overlooking a nature reserve. I tend to explore and develop new musical ideas at home, but I still often find myself going to a city to compose actual pieces.
I also try to open up creative connections between the conscious and unconscious mind. For example, I’ll try to play while falling asleep, as exploring that mental state where you are on the edge of sleep can generate some really interesting ideas. I’ll also do something you might call “half playing,” where I let the part of my brain that controls my fingers go as far as it wants without the restriction of making actual sounds. I’ll do this on whatever is at hand, such as the arm of a chair, not just moving my fingers, but exploring improvisations that are sort of half-heard in my mind. I find that this gives me access to areas within my mind that otherwise remain inaccessible, allowing new rhythmic structures and melodic sequences to emerge.
Your music is very visual. Are there any filmmakers or painters that you feel a particular resonance with either in terms of process or results?
Wingfield: I would agree that my music is often visual, at least for me. I frequently imagine scenes or places when I’m composing and sometimes when improvising, and I’ll try to describe the feelings those places give me using musical notes and sound. Sometimes the image is clear like a photograph or a film, and sometimes it’s abstract, more like a painting or a collage of overlaid images.
I love numerous painters and my music is influenced by all of them—but no more than it is by other areas of life and by my imagination. As for filmmakers, Stephen Poliakoff’s films resonate with me. They often deal with places and atmospheres and the people whose lives are linked with them. I also like a film by Louis Malle called Ascenseur pour l’échafaud that Miles Davis created music for. Miles and the other musicians improvised the music while watching the film, and it is a wonderful example of how music can express the feelings behind the images of lives, times, and atmospheres.
Kastning: There are a few filmmakers. Ingmar Bergman’s work often causes me to reassess some elements that seem so basic that I might not be able to verbalize them, such as how a particular shot is framed. This might translate into how I view a scene in nature, which might further translate into how I want to frame or harmonize a note in a line. I also have a real affinity for the work of Werner Herzog.
As for painters I resonate with, there are many, ranging from the French post-impressionists up to American and German abstract expressionists—and the work of some artists can cause me to physically hear music when I view it. In fact, the music on the next album that Mark and I plan to release was directly influenced by the work of 17th-century Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer. We actually had photos of the painting on which each piece was based up in front of us when playing, so we could keep an eye on them, much like following a score. And, of course, Mark and I both feel a strong affinity for the work of the Irish painter Ken Browne and the English photographer Chris Friel, whose work has graced our album covers.
And it is the same for some modern and contemporary architecture. It is all emotion, expression, communication, and creation, and each branch and genre of art has its own connecting threads. I want to keep all the doors and windows open to allow everything to come in.