Interview accompanying the
Jason Kahn / Philip Julian CD
Interviewed by John Macedo
How did the collaboration arise?
I met Phil for the first time in December 2008 when I played at Cafe Oto in London.
I'd written to him before about a release of his on the Homophoni net label which I'd liked
We stayed in touch and then I released Jason's collaboration with Francisco Meirino
"Music For An Empty Cinema" on my Authorised Version label . We thought Jason tour the
UK in February 2012 would be a nice opportunity to try and record an improvised session.
How did you approach the collaboration?
There wasn't really any major discussion beforehand. We know each other's work and
it seemed like it could be an interesting situation.
I think the idea was to just go into the studio and record. We would then have this pool
of material to work with. After the first take in the studio, however, it became clear to both
of us that the improvisations would pretty much stand on their own, and that these
recordings wouldn't necessarily have to be used as basis material for further composition.
I'm interested to know what it means to you to release a recording of a 'live
improvisation', like this one. Something that was only existed in a particular time and
space, and is created out of momentary occurrences and interactions, is captured and
presented as a fixed work. I guess it touches on certain notions of purity and faithfulness
to the 'original' performance vs. the freedom of the studio. What are you thoughts on this
In general, I prefer to leave things as-they-happened but there's no hard and fast rules
really. There is a theory that releasing improvised works is rather pointless as they only
truly exist in-the-moment but I'm interested in documentation, particularly of situations
containing unique events.
The documentation of a "live" improvisation—music performed spontaneously before an
audience—is an object: a representation of an event. It is in no means meant to be a way
of replacing the actual experience of having been witness to this event. For me the whole
component of space is so important to a musical event—and this is totally divorced from
the fixed work. I'm not saying one is better than the other, only that they are fundamentally
different in nature, and the idea of being "faithful" is a bit misguided, in my opinion. As soon
as you record this performance you are being "unfaithful," for the only way to experience
this event was to be there—anything else is an abstraction. I do find it especially
interesting to have experienced a musical performance in person and then to re-
experience it later in the form of a recording. I'm fascinated by the space of memory and
how this impinges on the fixed work, and how the fixed work in turn forces us to re-
interpret our memories of the event. Or it could even be that the recording has been re-
worked in some way, this creates a whole new set of loci to perceive the original
performance from. I feel the documentation of a performance is an open system with many
different possible outcomes. A puristic approach presents an unnecessary limitation to the
many directions a fixed work could go in.
What for both of you are the important aspects of collaboration that you can't achieveperforming or composing solo? Why collaborate at all?
Collaborating with other people forces me to think in a different way. I can fall into little
"safe" areas and comfort zones quite quickly if I work solely on my own. Having to work
quickly in an improvised context, with or against someone else’s decisions, always forces
me into a different way of thinking. I always come away from these situations with a new
set of ideas and fresh perspectives.
When I play with another person what they are doing inevitably pushes me in other
directions than if I were only playing alone. This leads me to new performative and sonic
discoveries which I wouldn't have been able to achieve by myself. I also really appreciate
the social aspect of collaboration. Music is so much more than just being about sound for
me, whether we perform before an audience or together in a studio there is always a social
component which steers the music in another direction. On top of all this, in this age of the
internet where so many people now seem to collaborate by trading sound files over
servers, I feel it is really important to keep face-to-face collaboration alive—taking the
effort to meet someone and spend time with them adds a depth to collaboration which for
me can't be replaced by other ways of working together. I get asked from time to time
about collaborating with people over the internet but this just doesn't interest me at all—
the whole social component is missing.
What would you say are both your biggest non-musical influences and inspiration?
Certain concepts, ideas, or experiences that made an impact on you?
I've always had an admiration for recordings that manage to sidestep anything remotely
connected to traditional musical forms and remain interesting in some way. I think
anything that presented a "why not?" or DIY attitude, be it in art, film, music or literature
was pretty key early on. Slightly hand in hand with this attitude was the idea of creation
via destruction which was a fascinating concept. You're taught early on not to break things
as a child, so it comes as a bit of a surprise later that the broken version could well be far
more interesting that what you started with.
In general, I derive a lot of inspiration from environmental sound. I'm interested in
observing the aleatory nature of environmental sound events and thinking how I can re-
contextualize this in the space of a musical work, be it a composition or collaboration.
Sometimes the greatest music I can imagine occurs just outside the door to my house.
It's interesting that you mention influence from real world sound events, Jason. Because
I feel both your works do touch on that uncanny, ambiguous area between acoustic sound
and electronic sound. It kind of boils sound down to pure movement and colours. Other
composers have mentioned nature as the highest influence (Cage, Messiaen, Ligeti etc) of
art etc. Why do you think this is?
I think if you're involved in the creation of music or sound in some way that you perhaps
start to listen to things differently, and the sheer wealth of detail and the complex structures
present in "everyday sounds" can't help but act as an influence. I'd be slightly sceptical of
anyone who said it wasn't present in their work in some way.
What I've noticed over the years is that a musical practice can really sensitize one to
sound in general—so much so that when I leave the house I am hearing everything in a"musical" manner. Which means for me, I'm imparting some kind of musical order, if only
on a very meta-level, to seemingly random sound events in the environment. Perhaps
without all my musical training and listening and thinking about sound and music these
environmental sounds wouldn't sound "musical" to me at all. But after all these years, I
can't imagine how I would perceive these sounds otherwise. I think that at this point I am
always literally hearing "music," wherever I go.
The other thing to mention here is architecture and naturally occurring structures. I
often find that a particularly interesting or unusual building can act as a starting point or a
kind of physical score for a piece of music... it's shape, size in relation to its surroundings,
the construction details or lack of and so on can all be recontextualised for a piece of
I'd like to talk to you about improvisation, as it's an important part of both of your
creative processes. The act of free improvisation is a chaotic system of sorts. There can
be feedback between the players that is sensitive and can go in any direction. I think this
chaos or non-linearity is evident on multiple levels of each of yours work and in this
collaboration. What interests you about the performance dynamic of improvisation?
I think the intuitive aspect of improvisation is one of its components which interests me
most—the unspoken formation of a piece of music. And my hope is to be surprised –
whether pleased or irritated—by the process. I'm especially glad when the process puts
me in a situation which I find difficult to navigate in, where I have to create a way into the
music happening. If the musical dialogue becomes too easy I tend to miss some of the
rigor involved in moving between the different layers of material involved: sound,
perception of the these sounds and their exchange, the social component of collaborating
with another person(s), the relationship to my instrument, etc—just to name a few.
For me, it's the subtleties of the exchange and the fact that rarely are two situations the
same. The most rewarding for me are where the players treat each situation on its own
merits. I've played with people who seemingly have a very fixed mindset - "I never do this,
or I always do this". The best situations are always a free exchange of some sort. It
doesn't have to be comfortable; it can be combative but it needs to be in the moment,
based on events rather than trying to fit into someone else's fixed/closed system.
Chaotic dynamics and feedback is also present in the way you patch your modular
synthesizers. The synthesizers kind of develop an autonomy and mind of their own. What
interests you about working with electronics in this way? How important is this uncertainty
or lack of control to you as performers?
By emphasizing the chaotic in my instrumentation I'm able to add another layer of
unpredictability to the process of improvising. This random factor can push the work to
unexpected turns and place the players in a position of instability where they have to rely
less on learned procedures and techniques and find new ways to navigate a situation
which will not always react according to intuitive or conscious attempts to form the music.
Using the synthesiser as a completely interlinked system, rather than an A-to-B set of
connected parts, each with one purpose, opens up a completely new set of sounds and
ways of controlling them (or not). You have to accept a certain percentage lack of control.
In this way, I always think of it as adding another player. So, an instrument that answersback occasionally and can throw you into some unexpected areas. It goes some way
towards forcing you to accept that there are no inherently "bad" sounds, it's what you do
with them once they've arisen that counts.
Without adding this extra level of uncertainty I often find the music can slip into a
"comfort zone", where perhaps the performers concentrate too much on making "good
music" (i.e., a musical outcome which on the surface might satisfy standard expectations
from listeners in terms of form, dialog, excitement, tension, etc) as opposed to focusing on
the practice of working together through a process which is constantly shifting and where
the very act of Improvising is actual material of this exchange—not the sound, which I feel
is just one of many means of investigating the act of improvisation.
You both mentioned 'good' and 'bad' sounds/music (in inverted commas), I'm always
interested in hearing where artists' rules of good/bad or right/wrong lie. For example, a
classically trained musicians' rules are going to be very different to free improvisers'. I
guess it touches on one's own creative belief system, prejudices, and notions of
perfection, failure, expectation, acceptance etc. How do you feel about this kind of binary
thinking when it comes to your own practice and music/art in general?
I find it difficult to think in these terms, unless I'm feeling really lazy and don't want to
take the trouble to express myself in a more rigorous fashion! Words are just place holders
for multiple meanings, and the more meanings a word might have then the less valuable it
becomes in actually conveying any information—in communication theory parlance: no
signal, lots of noise. So, "bad," as opposed to what? This just doesn't mean anything, in
my opinion. As soon as we pull words like this out of the hat we should be ready to do a lot
of explaining—perhaps much more than if we had started with a sensible attempt to say
what we meant in the first place! In the question above I answer with a reference to "good
music", but only in the context of what many people—according to my experience as a
musician—might regard as "good music." I don't ascribe to this definition, of course.
For me, it differs depending on the context; for example within improvisation and
specifically where you're working with a chaotic or unstable system you have to accept that
some sounds that you would remove from a composition could well be present. Therefore
it becomes necessary to understand the system well enough to be able to remodel
continuously and make an instinctively "bad sound" interesting in some way. There are no
rules to this and it rather falls to a personal intuitive grasp of the material and what sits well
at a given moment. This is not to say that binary thinking in a musical context can never
work, but I think it suits naturally with composition rather than improvisation.
What role for both of you does the audience or listener play in a performance of
It sounds a bit of a cliché but I don't tend to give too much thought to audience
experience. It's nigh on impossible with improvisation anyway; no guarantees of a
successful outcome for performer or audience. Hopefully the process is interesting for all
concerned. When it works, it's unique and exhilarating but it's a pretty fragile situation all
Like Phil, I guess that I'm not actively trying to create any experience for listeners—I'm
more concentrating on the challenges at hand by working with another person in the
context of an unstable system, and my hopes are that by being witness to this exchange
listeners will also experience the surprise (or boredom, or whatever arises) of the
musicians. In fact, the listeners are participating in this as well: without their presence the
music could not unfold as it does. Their presence lends a completely different energy to
the situation and puts the performers in a different space than if they were playing privately
somewhere. I sense the presence of the other players and of the audience. I feel the
energy in the room—be it that of expectation, disinterest, hostility, etc. I feel the music
simultaneously being guided by my actions and re-actions but also being torn from my grip
by factors beyond my control: how the other player reacts, how the acoutsical space
reacts, how the audience reacts, how the unpredictability of my own instrumentation
inserts its presence in the proceedings.
Both of you perform live and compose studio works. Is there a relationship between
your recorded work and live work? What is the interplay between these two mediums for
For me, there is always an overlap in practically all my creative practices, be it writing,
composing, performing, installations or graphical design. Often playing live creates a
situation where I can discover new sounds, new playing strategies, new ways of listening.
And I take these experiences with me when I sit down to compose a new piece, be this on
paper or on computer. The live experience directly informs any other work I do. Likewise,
composing—thinking about forms and structures, the placement of sounds, etc—will allow
me to approach an improvisation in a more rigorous way. Before I even start to perform
I've already worked through many considerations pertaining to composition which I might
also—either consciously or intuitively—apply to a spontaneous piece of music.
I went for quite a few years working on composed pieces in a fairly tightly controlled
way. Lots of edits and small sections combined to make a final piece. These days, I don't
find this a particularly satisfying way to work. I need to be able to work more quickly in
order to keep the results fresh and interesting... Some of the earlier work has most of any
spontaneity edited out of it. So there's much more of a crossover now between improvised
and composed works than a few years ago. I prefer to work with a small number of
improvised takes which can then be left as-is or edited into a a longer piece.
In your own works and in this collaboration you seem to strike an interesting balance
between freedom and control. What does musical freedom and control mean to both of
It represents a fairly difficult balancing act, more often than not. Some situations only
really require one or the other and I'd be the first to admit to enjoying (possibly a little too
much) the visceral thrills of going hell-for-leather with disregard to "control" as such. Most
of the time however, the best results are in finding that balance point between freedom and
Musical freedom would mean for me being open to whatever happens in a collaboration.
When one frees oneself from any preconceived notions or expectations, then the work
enters a space where the only walls are our imagination. Prejudice and taboo only serve to
inhibit our creative impulses. Control means paradoxically for me "out of control," which is
to say moving out of and beyond the notion of control. For we are only in control when we
can deal with a situation that slips from our grip, especially as this situation often yields the
most interesting results. If I were to try to control everything in the generally accepted
sense of the word I would be stifling many possible outcomes to a collaboration—and the
more possible outcomes the richer the work. I don't think we should be afraid of being "out
of control." In fact, I don't think we should think in these terms at all: the whole idea of
control should just be sidestepped. We can move away from these concepts and enter a
boundless space where ideas and feelings become the determinate factors.