The Wire

News

Monumental late piece by composer Roland Kayn set for debut release

Ilse Kayn and Jim O'Rourke discuss A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound

A lost magnum opus of electronic music is set for its first ever release this autumn. A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound is a late work by the composer Roland Kayn – a former member of the groundbreaking Gruppo Di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, who went on to forge his own style of cybernetic music – which is one huge piece running to almost 14 hours and spanning tape music, musique concrète and electronic and electroacoustic sounds.

Kayn, who was born in Germany in 1933 and lived in the Netherlands from 1970 until his death in 2011, amassed a rich body of work over several decades of study and collaboration, which ranged across electronic sound exploration, live performance and philosophy. His early musical ideas were influenced by the information theory of philosopher Max Bense and the mathematical approach of composer and teacher Boris Blacher; he began working at the Studio for Electronic Music at Westdeutscher Rundfunk Studios in Cologne in 1953. In the mid-60s, he was one of the founders alongside Franco Evangelisti of Gruppo Di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, a group that also featured Ennio Morricone, and he played organ in that group’s groundbreaking mix of live electronics and improvisation.

Roland Kayn, 1958. Copyright LRKA (Lydia-und Roland Kayn Archive) Bussum

“At that time it was his longest composition, I think,” his daughter Ilse Kayn reports down the phone line from Holland. Her father, she recalls, moved to an old farm in eastern Groningen in 1999, which gave him the space to establish an extensive studio, archive and living space. The piece remained unreleased until now, she explains, as “I had to find my way through the bureaucratic jungle. I’m not bilingual so contracts in Italian, German and English are not always easy to understand.” The project finally got off the ground with the help of the Helsinki based archive specialists Frozen Reeds, whose last release was the acclaimed 2016 Julius Eastman set Femenine.

The task of audio restoration of this mammoth piece fell to longtime Kayn enthusiast Jim O'Rourke. “Kayn’s work has been paramount in my way of thinking about creating music with electronics, for sure,” he emails. “I have known his work from about 30 years ago when Christoph Heemann first introduced me to his music. At the time, the LPs were still available, and I actually bought them at a grocery store in Aachen, ha ha. I was in college at the time, so I started thinking of trying to go to the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht and became quite obsessed with composers who worked there, like Leo Kupper and later Jaap Vink, a good deal because of pictures included in the Kayn box sets.” He tells me about what he calls his own “lame attempts at Kayn-inspired music”, including “A Young Person’s Guide To Drowning”. “Ever since,” he says, “I have been a very vocal supporter and fan of Mr Kayn’s work.”

Ilse recalls that a Revox tape machine was one of Kayn’s main instruments during the composition of a piece. For O’Rourke, “these works are a little rougher both in construction and execution than his earlier works. I definitely want to retain that as much as possible while taking care of the problems that have surfaced from digital degradation… The original recordings were either recorded directly to DAT or ADAT, formats that deteriorate over time, so most of the work is finding the anomalies in the waveforms where data has been lost and interpolating the waveform from what remains.”

One of the remarkable things about A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound is its sheer length – it was conceived as a single piece running to almost 14 hours. “There have been huge scale works like this before, I am thinking of some of Gunner Møller Pedersen’s works for example,” muses O'Rourke. “But this does seem like it was Kayn’s ‘summing up’ of his work. At this point since I am working on it on a very microscopic level instead of a macro level, I am learning a lot about his work just by looking at the waveforms. I always knew phase relationship was a big part of how his pieces worked, but actually looking at it has been kind of eye opening.”

Ilse attempts to sum up her father’s idea of cybernetic music. "He would always explain it with throwing stones in the water,” she says. “You get those circles… it's about the crossings.” The 16 CD set will be released by Frozen Reeds in October, and is available for ordering at their site here.