Orsolya Kaincz on how the audience listens to electronic improvisational music and how she listens to her fellow musicians; on the human voice, on educating the senses, on the crossing of musical worlds. SHAPE+ interview series..
Orsolya Kaincz is a well-known figure in the Hungarian free improvisational scene, playing various instruments, objects, and electronic devices. She has performed in several formations, including the Kamon Kardamom trio with Bálint Bolcsó and Gida Labus. She also writes electroacoustic and conceptual pieces. As an organizer, she is one of the team members of the Transparent Sound New Music Festival. The interview was conducted in the framework of the UH Fest and SHAPE+ residency program, where she collaborated with Esteban de la Torre (Hungary) and Ursula Sereghy (Czechia) over several days; the result was presented on 23 April at Lumen Café, Budapest.
You have written a text for the piece you made for The Listening Biennial, and I would like to use this as a starting point. You ask questions about whether we listen to music differently when we know the process that led to what is being played – for example, whether it is improvised or composed, or whether it is music that uses chance events. But you end up not answering these questions.
Indeed, because we are looking for answers in practice. For example, at the Kamon Kardamom concerts – where all three of us play electronics – we have experienced the added value for the audience of being able to associate a sound with a gesture or a musician. For example, Bálint uses controllers where a single larger gesture produces a sound, and the audience seems to like that – it has added value compared to just turning a knob, even though it might have the same audible result. I’ve recently started using a modular synthesizer, which is typically an instrument where it’s not necessarily visually detectable if you change a parameter or even start a larger process. The question for me is whether this is relevant. It’s also interesting to ask whether during the concert, the audience is focused on the music or speculating about “which sound is being made by which musician” – which we often can’t discern ourselves in the dense and complex process.
The original premise, of course, leads back to what music is, a concept that was deconstructed decades ago. Today’s music scene is extremely diverse, with music being produced from a wide range of cultural backgrounds, technical apparatus, and concepts, which can be alienating, especially for someone who is not an experienced listener. That is why I think it is a nice concept that the Transparent Sound New Music Festival presents landmark works of the historical avant-garde alongside the latest contemporary pieces, and that there is a short introduction about the context, the structure of the pieces, or even specifically what the composer’s intentions were behind what we hear. This education is important, especially because these kinds of new music pieces assume an advanced listener.
I experiment a lot with this kind of transparency, whether in conceptual works, improvisation or as an organizer. Is the process and the concept transparent to the audience, or is the listener only confronted with the audible result, and left entirely to his or her own interpretation and reception?
You often improvise with other people. In this context, when you listen to what they are playing, how do these questions arise?
In that situation, how the sound is created is irrelevant to me. In fact, the concept with Kamon Kardamom is that we don’t plan anything in advance, and we don’t communicate with each other in any other way than through sounds. It’s a very strong, focused state: I have to pay attention to the sound the three of us are building and also to the layer that I’m adding to that. I must decide whether to join the collective sound, or to stay out of it and just listen, or to take control and lead the others into a radically different direction. Nothing is planned in advance; everything is decided in the moment. It is a state of deep concentration in which only the present moment exists. The focus on the sound of the present moment determines everything, which is a beautiful experience. For this reason, I particularly like improvisation, but recently I have started to develop an interest in compositions and research-based conceptual music projects, or even guided compositions.
What’s behind this new interest of yours: did you miss working with compositions as a musician, or was it the theoretical interest that led you to do so?
Initially, it was theoretical interest. I’ve had this need for a long time, but now I feel I have the time, and I have more definite ideas and like-minded partners. With improvisation, you make decisions in the moment, you react to others, and you are lucky if a musical form and structure emerge from that, but it is mostly in hindsight that you realize whether it has happened. On the other hand, improvisation for me is an emotional process and I’m interested in a more conscious, even conceptual approach and in elaborate, subtle structures. A good transition can be working with graphic scores, which gives a kind of framework but also allows the performer a lot of freedom.
You often use the human voice as part of your improvisation: in your concert with Anna Makay, on Kamon Kardamom’s second album with Ida Bö, etc. How different is this situation, how different is your approach?
The presence of the human voice is always very strong. Not only because of its emotional charge, but also because it brings language and conceptual thinking into the music. It is also a very rich sound in itself. I like a pure human voice without any sound effects because it can be beautifully juxtaposed with electronics. I often use human voices in a fragmented, textural way, removed from the linguistic meaning. There are many different ways of approaching language in musical projects. In a new collaboration, for example, we will be working with an essay where the human voice will be a bit flatter in its aural aspect, almost a reading. What is interesting, however, is the way the text is embedded in a musical context and then deconstructed as a whole, both on the level of meaning and musical components.
Whereas an electronic musical texture usually has no intrinsic meaning but can be given meaning in the music, with the human voice it is the other way round: we attribute meaning in the first place, which the performer can possibly disassemble – e.g. what Ida Bö does through repetition.
I agree. It’s much easier to attach a feeling, a meaning to the human voice, which is then very exciting to change by putting it in a different context, pairing it with something, or even transforming the voice itself. The fact that it is much easier to make associations with the human voice also has a disadvantage: it can be too direct. The beauty of music is precisely that it is something beyond language, beyond the meanings defined by our immediate concepts, and into this the human voice reintroduces conceptual, linguistic thinking and communication. That is why it is exciting to separate them, or to break down language, so that music can remain beyond concepts and not be interpreted by linguistic means.
You also have a radio show called Exit. How does that relate to your other musical activities?
Exit is a purely musical show with a similar aim to the concerts I organize with Transparent Sound Festival, i.e. to explore the intersections between contemporary academic music and the subculture of underground music. I feel the two worlds are very separate: one is an institutionalized structure and a way of thinking with an academic background, the other is an autonomous scene organized on the grassroots level. At the same time, there are many aesthetic and conceptual similarities in the compositions or the improvisations. I am deeply interested in both scenes. This is why I consider the Transparent Sound Festival so important because they push the boundaries of academic music while also being open to grassroots initiatives. In any case, there is plenty of room for both the audience and the artists to come closer together.
So Exit has an educational character, as do the family programs of Transparent Voice, obviously in a different way.
Yes, although education can close people’s minds as well as open them to new experiences. The educational process is basically there in every field from gastronomy to the fine arts: you have to contextualize (historically too), you have to gain experience, and knowledge and train your senses to be able to take in the essence of something in an increasingly sophisticated way. But because the encounter with music is very direct and has a strong emotional impact, it is easier for people to think that what they understand at this level is a valid interpretation. For example, with visual art, it is more common to get a reaction like “I don’t understand this, but it’s interesting, I’d like to understand it better.” With music, people are very quick to say that it’s this or that, and they dismiss the experience with a simplistic impression rather than going further in their understanding.
I feel that Kamon Kardamom could be a good introduction to the world of improvisation. Perhaps because there is a sense of playfulness in the recordings; there are even some funny parts on the last album.
It probably feels playful because you hear a lot of recordings with different moods and dynamics. The tracks you hear on the records are snippets cut from 40-minute-long recordings. We do a lot of rehearsing and playing together, and then we pick out what works as a ‘track’. Because we change our instruments a lot, we’re constantly experimenting, and of course we’re in a different mood each time we play, the albums are multi-layered, or as you say, playful. But our musical thinking does not work in four condensed minutes. I consider improvisation as a living thing, so it’s completely different to make music for an album. So, it’s kind of an interesting situation with Kamon Kardamom.
Your fellow musician Ursula Sereghy also brought pop music elements to your joint SHAPE+ residency with Esteban de la Torre. Was that a challenge for you?
Well, yes, it was a challenge, it was a way of working that was a bit further away from me. At the end of 2022, I decided that I wanted to do residency programs in the coming year, so it was nice to be asked on 2nd January to do this one. Although it was not what I had previously imagined, it was an exciting situation. I think it is important that artists are given the tools, space, attention, and freedom to work. We got that here. As there were three of us and we had to create a collective performance, we had to develop a way of working, a language that everyone could think in. This process gave us the opportunity to learn and gain new experiences together.
Interview by Andras Ronai, originally appeared on mmn-mag.hu