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Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

Blasts of Silence

By Marc Weidenbaum

A subdued chord, and a subsequent quiet. A hovering drone, followed by a compelling absence of sound. Filaments & Voids is the title that Kenneth Kirschner gave to this collection of his music, four pieces composed and recorded, true to their titles, between September 11, 1996, and June 10, 2008. And true to its title, Filaments & Voids is comprised predominantly by one or the other, by carefully constructed audio of lingering delicacy or by singular silences of ambiguous depth.

Kirschner explains that the title of the album is of cosmological provenance. The term, he says, refers to the “largest-scale structures of the universe.” Though the relative spatial dimensions are not directly correlative, the music heard on the album is, like the night sky, a broad and dark space inhabited by dispersed and luminous materials. And as in the night sky, there are patterns. The constellations of Kirschner’s music follow a pattern as perceptible as Orion’s belt: a motif repeats, interspersed with framing silences. That mode serves as the foundation for three of the album’s four pieces. The sounds that bookend Kirschner’s blasts of silence are a pure breed of composition, artfully sculptured nuggets of sonic effluence suspended in air. Kirschner asks the listener to consider each on its own merits, as well as in sequence, each sound sharing the proceeding timeline with a measure of soundlessness.

Over the course of the album’s nearly two and a half hours, he focuses the listener’s attention on the silence inherent in his sounds, and the sound implicit in the silences. Take, for example, the longest work on Filaments & Voids, “March 16, 2006,” which is built from recorded piano. The piece is dedicated to the late neuroscientist James H. “Jimmy” Schwartz, who employed Kirschner for many years, and whose affection for classical music suggested the piano as source material. The short, plaintive riffs are heard against a grainy backdrop, a weather-beaten timbre fitting for a requiem. Kirschner achieved this effect by re-recording the music onto his iPod via an inexpensive microphone. The result is a piano caught amid the presumed silence of real life, an anarchic silence set in contrast with the digital blankness that arrives at each splice, sometimes quite abruptly. Each repeat of the piano reveals it to be subtly transformed by Kirschner’s technology. The effect is as if the silence is slowly eating away at the music.

The broad, organic silences of “March 16, 2006” contrast with those of both “October 19, 2006” and “September 11, 1996.” The former is a sequence of synthesized, prayer-bowl-like sounds that play against the silence, from which they emerge and into which they fade again. The latter leaves the expected calm at a tantalizing distance — an intimated silence, rather than the other work’s cushioning one. Only one of the four pieces doesn’t bear the telltale signs of silence, “June 10, 2008.” It is, instead, a glistening marvel, built, Kirschner explains, from impossible string instruments modeled in a software package. While the work travels its entire 20 minutes without the pregnant pauses that distinguish the majority of Filaments & Voids, the knowledge that these strings reverberated originally in the artificial space of a computer’s processor provides yet another vantage on the whole concept of silence — a digital silence, the studio as virtual clean room.

It’s necessary at this juncture to say something about the striking photo that accompanies Kirschner’s album. The image was, like those on many 12k releases, shot by the label’s founder, Taylor Deupree. Kirschner says that when Deupree first showed him the image — that stark white room like one of Robert Ryman’s white canvases folded into a cube — he immediately put dibs on it to lend a pictorial reference for his music. Kirschner’s affinity is obvious; the barren space on which Deupree trained his lens embodies absence. It’s a bleak room, lacking evidence of human presence, reduced to texture, bleached by the sun.

However, much like the prescient title of one of Kirschner’s compositions included here, the photo carries unforeseen resonance. Shortly before the release of Filaments & Voids, the apartment where Kirschner lived in New York City was destroyed as a result of a fire, and along with it some of the equipment on which this album had been recorded. I first saw Deupree’s photo prior to the fire. After Kirschner informed us of this loss, I found it impossible to again look at the image as simply architectural or beautiful; henceforth, the image has demanded that I consider what had previously been in that room. Before the fire, the image looked to me like a peaceful if desolate place, a kind of secular ruins. But after the fire, I can’t help but ponder what it had contained, what furnishings and lives had inhabited it, what events had transpired there. Much like the silences that abound in Kirschner’s music, the room is no longer empty to me — what it contains is a chilling, indefinite absence.

More on the release at 12k.com.

Visit Kirschner at kennethkirschner.com.
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