Within the recent work of Danish/Berlin-based composer Kaj Duncan David, minimal and binary interactions between sound and light are often explored clinically, yet playfully, under a magnifying glass.
Working predominantly within performative music, multimedia, and light, yet hailing from a background in electronic music, Kaj Duncan David offers a fresh take on the relationships between acoustic sound, electronic sound and performance, particularly in the ever-amorphous and expanding 'new music' sphere.
Michael Brailey spoke to Kaj Duncan David at HOME in Manchester the day after his performance of 'Relay' at Vitalija Glovackyte's We Are For A While LP launch, and the day before the UK premiere performance of his kaleidoscopic work 'Computer Music' at VIRTUALLYREALITY003. The pair discussed education, the relationship between sound and light, compositional restraint, laptop music, Kanye West and more.
[MB] When did you start writing music?
[KDD] I’ve always played music, ever since I can remember. I went to a Steiner School where you start playing music in Class 1, or start singing in Kindergarten, so music was something I was always doing. I was never really interested in composition until I was playing in bands, writing music together with my friends. I never wrote a track and then came to rehearsals, we always liked jamming things out and writing together. I got really tired of that as we never got anywhere; we spent more time smoking weed than we did making music. Then, I sold my guitar and bought a computer just before sixth form, which was when I started recording my own tracks. In sixth form, I studied music technology, so from about fifteen I was making electronic music. I tried to make Drum ’n Bass and Trance (I was really into Trance), and I made little Pop things, too. I never made a project that was really good, I just liked trying my hands at whatever.
[MB] Going on from that, where did you study, and how has education shaped what you’ve done from those early years?
[KDD] So I studied classical music at Goldsmiths University, where the music department was really ‘open’. You could basically tailor your own degree from all the courses that were on offer. Goldsmiths is a really amazing place; there are loads of critical, theoretical, philosophical studies, so I hardly studied classical music before the 1940s. I remember going into a seminar in my first year and the lecturer playing Xenakis, and that kinda blew my mind. I didn’t really like it, I remember. Also, in my second and third years, I was hanging out and playing with some PhD students, which really opened my mind to certain things. I was hardly composing at all, though. I was improvising, learning how to use MaxMSP and making electronic music, just no composition on paper.
[MB] Goldsmiths seems like a real hub for a lot of things. I know that James Blake and the early PC Music crew came out of that institution.
[KDD] Yeah, it’s a really interesting place. There's an great philosophy and cultural studies scene. A lot of the contemporary philosophers associated with Speculative Realism and Accelerationism are teaching there. After Goldsmiths, I went to Aarhus, to study with Simon Steen-Andersen.
[MB] You mentioned just before we started recording that you went there to study electronic music.
[KDD] Yeah, I started a Masters straight after my Bachelors at Goldsmiths, but it was a bit of a joke as the modules were exactly the same modules that I’d done as part of my Bachelor, so I said “no thanks” to that and left. I then took a year off and met someone who told me to check out the Danish Institut of Electronic Music in Aarhus, so I applied for that, got in and moved to Denmark. There, I met Simon Steen-Andersen by chance, who was teaching the composition students, and after that, I was hardly working within the electronic music department, working much more with the composers. I started making music for performers in different forms, usually with MaxMSP, and Simon really encouraged my more crazy experiments. I wanted to be able to write music for ensembles and traditional settings, as I thought that was more exciting, but Simon was always more excited about my hybrid projects, and pushed me to pursue that sort of thing. Also, I took a research assistantship in Vancouver for half a year during my Masters, looking at generative music. Then, I took a second masters in Music Theatre with Manos Tsangaris and Franz Martin Olbrisch at the Hochschule für Musik in Dresden.
[MB] How was that helpful after what you had learnt from Simon Steen-Andersen and your time in Aarhus and Vancouver? What did studying in Dresden make you focus on?
[KDD] Well, I’d started writing some pieces involving light while I studied with Simon, and Simon said that you should go and study in Germany and study with Manos Tsangaris, who also works with light, albeit in a very lo-fi way. Manos isn’t super into one-on-one teaching, but what he does is bring all his students together for about three days, and makes us all write whacky music in groups in a very short amount of time with limited resources. He also taught me to be flexible and to learn to work in different situations and under different constraints, and his energy - he’s in his 60s and has a lot more to give than a lot of people - was really inspiring.
[MB] Last night, at Vitalija [Glovackyte]’s album launch for We Are For A While, I saw you perform Relay, a solo set for three lightbulbs and amplified relay box. It was a totally amazing thing to behold. Could you say a bit about how the piece works, and where your inspiration came from?
[KDD] A relay is an electromagnetic switch, which uses a small amount of electricity to send current through a coil which then closes or opens a magnet… it’s basically a safe way to switch between huge amounts of electricity. The switch itself makes a sound every time the magnet opens and closes. Using Arduino, I built a relay box for an ensemble piece to turn the music stand lights on and off. Afterwards, Simon [Steen-Andersen] said that I should have amplified the box as the switches made a nice sound. A few years later, I was invited to do a performance somewhere, and I didn’t know what to do. I remembered that I had this box, so I put together this performance of music for three lightbulbs. The piece basically comprises of rhythmical loops, patterns that are interesting not only in how they sound, but also visually, in the way the lights turn on and off. There are microphones on the box which go into Ableton Live, where I process the sound with various resonators and more erratic, wonky stuff.
[MB] How much of the piece is fixed? There are a lot of fast patterns which I’m sure you wouldn’t be able to manually control.
[KDD] There are a series of pre-recorded loops which I improvise with, sections where I manually control the lights, and I have some idea of the structure in my head as the piece goes on. Essentially, the piece can be different each time it’s played. Last night, I did a totally new version; I have played the piece quite a lot over the last year, always with the same structure, so I wanted to start doing something different.
[MB] A lot of your music is really minimal, so where does your interest in restraint come from? Do you think of it as ‘restraint’?
[KDD] I do, it’s something I think about a lot. A lot of my pieces start with a technical setup. For example, in ‘Relay’, the set-up is a box that switches lights on and off, and the when the switches switch on or off, they make a sound. I try and see how far I can go… there are several interesting patterns you can make with the lights, millions of permutations, and I’m usually interested in exploring those permutations. Last night you said I should put in a kick drum…
[MB] Yeah, the piece felt like it was heading towards that territory…
[KDD] But I sort of feel like that would be compromising the purity of the set-up.
[MB] I do remember one moment in the piece where there were a few bassy sounds. I presume that they were drawn from processing the sound of the relay box, just like the rest of the piece, but that bit felt sonically quite far removed. I guess I just wanted more of it.
[KDD] Yeah, there is definitely a lack of bass in that piece. I have added one in before, but it didn’t feel right last night, as the space was pretty boomy. One of my projects for the next few years is to develop that piece… it’s gonna be much grander. I think the restraint comes from some sort of respect for the set-up, and if I then start putting other sounds in, I’m like “How does that relate to the set-up I started with?”, so I start feeling quite dirty. It means that a lot of my music is very reduced.
"Everybody has a computer nowadays,
a smartphone, even. The world is very saturated with media; I think it reflects our contemporary condition when people are making music immediately with whatever they
have at their fingertips"
- Kaj Duncan David
that more people are consciously integrating into their practice? If so, why?
[MB] One thing I can’t ignore in your music is the intrinsic relationship between sound and light, which was the reason I wanted to get something of yours performed in VIRTUALLYREALITY003, themed around sound and light itself. I wondered where your interests in incorporating light came from?
[KDD] I can’t really remember… I had written a couple of pieces with video to start with, but I then made this piece called ‘Sound And Vision’, which is for six laptops and six musicians performing from scores displayed on computer screens, which are also used as light sources. I think that was the first time I wrote something involving light. I think I just thought it was cool and was excited about the effect. I really like clubs and lights, and quite often I’m bored when there are performers just sitting on a stage. I think, actually, it was a reaction against the lack of consideration given to how things look on a stage in new music concerts, and yet when you go to a massive rock or pop gig, the lights are completely synchronised with the music. I don’t know if you’ve seen Radiohead live, but when I saw them, they had the most amazing light set-up, where everything is perfectly synchronised with what they were playing; it was kinda mind-blowing. So yeah, I don’t really know where it came from, I just did it because I could.
[MB] Fair enough! Do you think the performance of new music is becoming more and more important to composers, and something that more people are consciously integrating into their practice? If so, why?
[KDD] I think it definitely is. Jennifer Walshe wrote this manifesto called ‘The New Discipline’, about how composers are bringing themselves into performing and how performers have a body so why not thematise that in their performances. This whole contemporary mindset is upturning the Romantic idea that musicians are just vessels for the music, Music being some sort of absolute thing which exists for itself, the musicians essentially invisible - I’ve never been into that. I think there is a definite shift occurring.
[MB] Why do you think it’s so important now?
[KDD] I think one of the important things is that it’s easy, it’s possible. Everybody has a computer nowadays, a smartphone, even. The world is very saturated with media; I think it reflects our contemporary condition when people are making music immediately with whatever they have at their fingertips. I don’t know if there’s a deeper reason than that. Also, I kinda think we have a 'duty' to do that as artists. I’ve never understood that fetishisation of 19th Century bourgeois culture, which classical music is essentially. Fair enough, that’s fine, I probably fetishise a load of other things in my life, but I’ve a computer in my bag and I use it everyday, so I use that to make my music. I'm not sure if that is a fetishisation or not...
[MB] Could you talk a bit about ‘Computer Music’, the piece we’re performing tomorrow night at VIRTUALLYREALITY003?
[KD] As I said, the first piece I can remember writing with light was ‘Sound And Vision’, for six instrumentalists and laptops. Computer Music kind of builds upon that. Instead of a traditional score, the musicians see a graphic cueing system which almost resembles the computer game Pong. It tells the musicians when to depress certain keys, and when they depress a key, sound is made and the screen illuminates, illuminating the musicians as well. It’s called ‘Computer Music’ because…
[MB] Because it does what it says on the tin.
[KDD] Yeah. It’s also a reference to the genre of computer music.
[MB] That was something I wanted to touch upon, because laptops are widely considered to be very un-performative. If you’re playing a violin, for example, a loud sound is produced by a large gesture which the audience can empathise with, but with a laptop, the smallest of gestures can trigger any form of sound. How do you think your music for laptops sits within that established world?
[KDD] This whole area of thinking was one of the main topics that came up in conversation when I was studying at the Institut of Electronic Music in Denmark, amongst the students in particular. We always discussed the lack of performativity in electronic music. There were some people trying to get past that by doing really performative performances of Dubstep, dancing around, or not using a computer at all. I always thought the conversation was quite boring, actually, but it inspired these pieces a lot. The performers in ‘Sound and Vision’ and ‘Computer Music’ are more or less motionless, or completely motionless. Some people have asked me if they are actually doing anything, or if they are just sat there, and if I am commenting on laptop performance. I don’t have a yes or no answer to that. I think sitting motionless behind a laptop is just as performative as playing the violin, where there’s this clear gestural relationship. You hit the nail on the head, let’s just say that.
[MB] Great! Additionally, this piece has been performed a number of times, by Aksiom in 2014 in Oslo, and by SCENATET at Spor in Aarhus and in New York a few weeks ago…
[KDD] They also did it in Iceland recently.
[MB] Oh, nice! Has the piece changed whilst you’ve been working with the ensembles, or in between?
[KDD] The original ‘Computer Music’ that I wrote for Aksiom is a totally different piece to how it is now. They played instruments, and there was live video as well. The structure of the piece was basically the same, in the sense that there was this white light which moved to more colourful light at the end, but yeah, the piece was very, very, very different. In my mind, it was disastrous, so I threw it in the bin, but still liked the title ‘Computer Music’ so totally reinvented the piece for SCENATET.
[MB] Do you often revise pieces?
[KDD] Always. I think I’ve only ever written one or two pieces which I’ve thought were good enough first-time to go without revision. Ninety-percent of everything I’ve done has been completely re-written or has had slight changes made to it.
[MB] Why does writing for performers and laptops appeal so much to you? Is it the aestethically minimal, visual restraint of it that appeals, or is it the technologically concerned baggage that laptops carry with them, or something else?
[KDD] At the beginning, I think I just thought it was a cool idea, and it worked. With ‘Sound and Vision’, I thought the laptops were really effective, and other people said the same, which inspired me to try and push it further. I wrote a piece for solo snare drum and video, ‘Piece for Snare Drum and Audiovisual Feedback’, which uses screen light (as well as the inbuilt laptop webcam), and I made a solo laptop piece which I used to perform, and then I made ‘Computer Music’. I think there are a lot of musical possibilities in the set-up itself that are really effective, and it’s quite simple to do. The pieces suggest many things, and the audience can read into it what they want. People have said various different things… a critic who saw the piece in New Work said it was very humorous and reminded him of The Office, as in the TV show. I don't get that connection, to be honest... I try to leave things open when I write a piece, as I’m not a big fan of being told what to think, or pieces that are overtly political - I tend to feel a bit manipulated by them.
[MB] However, not everything you’ve made falls under this bracket of ‘sound and light’. For me, the thing which stands out in all your music is your control of pacing, which was something I spoke to you about last night. I wanted to ask how you control pacing in your music and if it’s something you’re actively concerned with, or if it just happens to come out that way?
[KDD] I’m really glad you say that, because it’s something which I aspire to. I normally make my music in Logic or Ableton, building it up like an electronic track. I listen to it again and again, moving the sounds about until it’s well paced. I also work really quickly and intuitively, so it’s all done by ear, following my gut. The one or two times that I’ve attempted to compose in other ways, like imagining it all in my head like the ’archetypal composer’ should - which is all just bullshit, by the way - the music has failed.
[MB] For me, coming from that background of writing electronic music, having that interface of time visually in front of you really helps to manage pacing, but I haven’t made the link between that interface and a physical score until recently.
[KDD] Well, when I showed Simon the initial Max patch for ‘Sound & Vision’, a sort-of visual description of what would be going on with black squares turning white, representing the laptops, he commented on how I’d done the piece off-grid, outside of any metrical or notational structure at all, which is more-or-less how I’ve always made pieces. There’s normally no consideration of metre at the beginning - it’s only when I notate the piece that I think about if it’s in 4/4.
[MB] It’s really interesting that someone who has gone through composition tutoring has come out without adopting the score-first approach to writing music. Do you think that comes from the education that you experienced at Goldsmiths, Aarhus and Dresden?
[KDD] Without a doubt. Actually, after my first Masters, I had this idea that I wanted to study orchestration, which I’d never done. I spent a year on a traditional composition Bachelor, doing ‘ear-training’ and learning about the instruments, but I quickly got lazy and couldn’t be bothered, so gave up on it. It seemed pointless because I had already found a way that works for me. Maybe that was the problem… I’m too lazy to learn all that new stuff now! Saying that, all of my teachers that I’ve had have seen the score only as a way to get somewhere. I haven’t been brought up in an environment where people fetishise the score. I think the score is really important - that is if you need one in the first place - but it can also just be a scribble on a piece of paper. If that gets a good result, then who cares?
"You have to experience these pieces live. Sonically and visually, they are very reduced and there’s very little material; it’s when you have the sound and the light together, relating to one another, that something really interesting is created"
- Kaj Duncan David
[MB] In recorded electronic music, the idea of a ‘score’ obviously makes no sense. I wanted to touch upon the work you’ve done as AND REA on the label SM-LL. How does that tie in with your wider compositional practice?
[KDD] Actually, I made that release by mistake while I was working on ‘Computer Music’. It was kind of a byproduct of the creative process. I was on a residency in Sweden trying to make the synth sound for ’Computer Music’, and at one point, I just turned on the arpeggiator and this really nice sound came out. I spent a week working on that rather than on ‘Computer Music’. AND REA is a project I want to develop a lot, but I haven’t found the time yet. I was speaking to Laurie [Tompkins from record label Slip] yesterday about how I’ve been really excited to go to concerts and see live music, and I’ve been really interested in music that’s hard to document or release. One of my projects has been making pieces which you have to experience live, because they incorporate visual elements or spatial elements or whatever. Nevertheless, in the next few years, I’m going to be working on releasing some music that’s purely electronic.
[MB] I wondered why the separation between AND REA and Kaj Duncan David?
[KDD] My name is Danish but it's quite unusual now in Denmark, as it’s the sort of name that my grandfather would have had. There’s a Danish kids TV show called ‘Kaj og Andrea’, and when I first moved to Denmark and said my name in a funny accent because I didn’t speak perfect Danish, people usually laughed at me and starting singing the theme song from ‘Kaj og Andrea’. I chose the name because of that. I wanted to separate the pieces that you experience live and the pieces you experience as a recording, but I’m not sure if it works or not, or if it’s necessary.
[MB] I was going to ask if you’d considered a release as Kaj Duncan David, rather than as AND REA. Do you think that would that work as a kind of 2D flattening of your existing work, removing the visual elements?
[KDD] I’m not sure. I’ve made one solo guitar piece which I really like, ‘451’, which a friend of mine [Jakob Bangsø] asked me to write for him. We’ve recorded it, and it’s
coming out on a release of his soon with a few other pieces from other composers. I don’t think that most of the pieces I’ve written would work at all without the visual aspect. They’re already really hard to video document - I’m quite embarrassed about my quality of video documentation online, [laughs] - but I think when you take away the light, half of the piece is missing. You have to experience these pieces live. Sonically and visually, they are very reduced and there’s very little material; it’s when you have the sound and the light together, relating to one another, that something really interesting is created. Taking one away would make the pieces fall flat.
[MB] That was my initial thought, as well. Whilst we’re talking about recorded music, I know you have a real love of dance music. Could you talk about your relationship with techno and other genres?
[KDD] I really like dance music, and I really like going out to clubs. When I was a teenager, I was really into psytrance, and drum 'n bass, and breakbeat, too. I don't .
think I could make functional music for the club, or be a DJ who makes people dance for five hours. You have to be really dedicated to DJing to do that - it’s not just putting on really good tracks, you have to keep people going for a long time. Plus, when I make music, I don’t get inspired to follow some sort of formula, as in build-up, break, drop, or whatever. Even though I’d love to sit down and make some techno bangers, every time I’d try, it would just come out as something weird. Since I’ve moved to Berlin, there’s obviously a huge club scene, but there’s also a huge ‘adventurous’ experimental electronic scene, if you can call it that. I get really excited by people like Oneohtrix Point Never, who aren’t doing dance music per se, but are playing in clubs.
[MB] Do you have any favourite artists across that dance music and experimental electronic music spectrum?
[KDD] I have loads of favourite artists, but couldn’t list them. Recently, I started a list of top five albums…
[MB] Oh, it’s so hard, isn’t it?!
[KDD] Yeah. At the moment I’ve only got Future Sound of London’s album ‘Lifeforms’, which I love. I’ve always liked Autechre, I think they’re incredible, both compositionally and the sounds they produce.
[MB] Autechre played Manchester really recently but I missed the show. Lee Gamble was supporting, as well.
[KDD] Oh wow! Yeah I love Lee Gamble’s music, it’s really, really nice. Recently, I’ve discovered Ben Vida… For a long time, I wasn’t really curious about releases, but in recent times… to be honest, ever since I got Spotify, it has changed my music listening habits. I now listen to shitloads of stuff, and have started researching labels and buy quite a lot of records of weird electronic stuff. I follow Shelter Press, the label that release a lot of Ben Vida’s stuff, PAN… There’s an incredible amount of really good music being made across the board, also in the pop music world. I had a few weeks where I just listened to Kanye West all day long on repeat.
[MB] What specifically?
[KDD] The last two albums, ‘Yeezus’ and ‘The Life of Pablo’.
[MB] I hate ‘The Life of Pablo’.
[MB] Yeah, I think it’s pointlessly long and some of it is so weak. He’s also not saying anything remotely interesting, and a lot of it is really sub-standard across the board. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great moments, but I just wasn’t won over. I do love ‘Yeezus’ though, I think that’s a masterwork.
[KDD] OK, well I disagree with you wholeheartedly. I think ‘The Life of Pablo’ is a work of genius. The way he cuts between stuff seemingly at random, the way he jumps from one thing to another, and the way he mashes all sorts of sounds and styles together is fantastic. The pacing of it is also mind-blowing. Also, the way people rave about how he’s a mental self-obsessed lunatic, which may or may not be the case... I think he reflects on this in a really honest way. He’s just talking about life in Manhattan, hanging out in Tribeca, having money problems. I think it’s full of humour, and I love his lyrics, even though they’re not incredibly deep like Kendrick Lamar’s, for example, who is another genius.
[MB] The best thing about the album for me, was the roll-out and release. I thought the changing of tracks on streaming platforms once they had been released was game-changing, and the multiple scribbled-out and edited tracklists were the perfect way to fuck with his fans. Additionally, the fact that there was no physical release for an album from one of the biggest artists in the world was really important to me. I know Kanye talked about the naked, booklet-less physical release for Yeezus being like an open casket to CDs, which were beginning to die out. I thought that was really nice. Anyway… are there any visual artists you’re inspired by? I imagine that someone like Ryoji Ikeda would appeal to you.
[KDD] Yeah, I quite like what he does. I wouldn't say I'm a fan, though. It’s all a bit clinical, and I’m not totally into the pristine, Raster-Noton scene. I do think they illustrate a point I was making earlier about restraint, a sort of conceptual purity. I'm really into film, however, and I read a lot. You've put me on the spot. I don't know if I'm consciously influenced by anything from the visual world. I do go to galleries sometimes.
[MB] I also wanted to ask what’s next for you? Have you got any interesting projects coming up that you can say anything about?
[KDD] I plan to develop or combine ‘Relay’ and AND REA into one live performance which I can conquer the world with. That’s one of my most important projects right now, as I want to play live a lot more. Apart from that, I have quite a few pieces in the works. I’m fortunate to have three premieres this year, two with Ensemble Mosaik from Berlin, a music-theatre project and some miniature pieces that are going in between other pieces in a bigger programme of theirs, and I’m writing an additional piece for four EWIs and light, which I’m really excited about.
[KDD] It’s a commission from a Swiss saxophone ensemble, and it’s kind of daunting as I have a lot of work to do. The EWI is a kind of horrible, yet fantastic instrument. Next year, I’m doing a piece for Munich Biennale, which is really exciting but it’s all a bit top-secret at the moment. I’m also writing a piece for SCENATET for 2019, so I have my hands full for the next couple of years. It’s a nice situation to be in.
[MB] What would be your dream scenario or commission that would allow you to push what you are doing further?
[KDD] My dream scenario would be to split my time fifty-fifty between making electronic music which I perform live and release as recorded music, and making pieces for ensembles. I’d also like to make music for dance. Somehow juggling the two would be the dream.
Kaj Duncan David's 'Computer Music' performed at VIRTUALLYREALITY003 @ RNCM. Performers (from left to right): Anna Disley-Simpson, Carmel Smickersgill, Michael Cutting, Dave Bainbridge, Callum Coomber, Izzy Williams, MICHAELBRAILEY.