When it comes to creative genius, Roland Kayn, born in Reutlingen (Germany) in 1933, might be the most unjustly neglected figure in contemporary music. From 1952 to 1955 he studied organ and composition at Stuttgart’s Staatliche Hochschule fur Musik, as well as scientific theory at the Technische Hochschule, undertaking further composition and analysis studies in Berlin with Boris Blacher and Josef Rufer from 1956 to 1958. In that year he won the Best Foreign Work prize at the Kairazuwa Festival in Tokyo, and further awards followed in Italy in 1962 and 1964 for his orchestral compositions Vectors I and Schwingungen. Kayn’s discovery of electroacoustic sound synthesis occurred in 1953 at the mythic Westdeutscher Rundfunk Studios in Cologne, and by 1959 he’d had firsthand experience of studio work in Warsaw, Munich, Milan, Brussels and Utrecht. He freelanced in various radio stations from 1959 to 1963, when he was nominated director of New Music at Hamburg’s Norddeutscher Rundfunk. In 1964 he was one of the co-founders, with Aldo Clementi and Franco Evangelisti, of the Gruppo Internazionale Nuova Consonanza, one of the first European ensembles mixing improvisation and live electronics, and in 1967 organised a simultaneous concert of works by 13 composers that included electronic, concrete, electro-instrumental, computer and cybernetic music, an event that reached its definitive form in Hamburg in 1970. In Bonn in 1975 he staged an ambitious project in which performance, music, and computer workshops took place several locations at the same time, and the following year promoted a series of simultaneous non-stop shows in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum based on the theme “From Carillon to Computer”, during the course of which debates, seminars and computer-assisted electroacoustic music performances were held. Since 1970 Kayn has been based in the Netherlands, playing an active role of the cultural department of Amsterdam’s Goethe Institute, developing artistic initiatives and important concerts of contemporary music.
From his student days onwards, Roland Kayn was always more influenced by data processing theory than by the work of fellow composers (no surprise then that the shock generated by his composition Aggregate in 1959 led to his being declared persona non grata by the so-called avant-garde establishment), and began using the term “cybernetics” to define his own music, in which complex networks of electronic devices follow the composer’s instructions in the form of a system of signals and commands. Words such as “harmony”, “melody” and “rhythm” no longer apply; the idea that a musical work should be defined in minute detail by its composer is anathema to Kayn, who insists that cybernetic music should be self-regulating, leaving behind both the narrative element and the psycho/emotional minutiae usually associated with the notions of “composer” and “art”. Even the person behind the system cannot predict the final outcome, since the processes have no real epicentre, and each sound is of equal weight and importance in relation to the others. “Music is sound, and sound is self-sufficient,” Kayn declares emphatically.
Kayn’s vinyl releases from the 70s and the 80s are now hard to find; a few remaining copies (if still available) can be ordered at http://www.kayn.nl, the composer’s official Website, now curated by his daughter Ilse-Emily. Any of the fantastic cybernetic marathons such as Simultan (COL 1473), Infra (COL 1478) Makro (COL 1477) and Projekte (COL 1474), each a 3/4-LP box set on Colosseum, are worth the price of asking. Fortunately, Kayn’s later music and a representative selection of the early material have been released by the composer on his own RRR label and are still available. I can recommend the ten fabulous Electronic Symphonies, which occupied Kayn between 1966 and 1999, a must for any serious new music freak, but if forced to pick just one record of Roland Kayn’s music that will change your life, there’s no doubt it’d be Tektra (1980). Originally released as a 6LP set by Colosseum (COL 1479), and successively reissued as a 4CD set by Barooni (BAR 016), Tektra – its name derives from the initials of its six movements Tanar, Etoral, Khyra, Tarego, Rhenit, Amarun – is Kayn’s most important and imposing creation. Wholeness and nothingness, full and void, it’s nothing less than a fundamental leap forward in the evolution of the human ear – and yet it’s still more or less unknown.
Tanar‘s obscure swirling clouds of subterranean gases prepare the journey into what was once called “harmony”, now a fluorescent pathway of interchanging tonalities leading to an oasis of “static unquietness”. The next port of call, Etoral, is a waterfall cascading into a mountain lake whose spiralling ebbs and flows close the door on the world outside, leaving the body at rest, floating free way above the sound. Khyra‘s first movement is a sort of mutated chorale of infinitely varying timbres, from the vocal to the metallic, from disintegrating strings to extreme synthesis, an incessant pursuit of power and pure sonic ecstasy. It’s an organism that expresses itself through a series of unclassifiable manifestations, similar to those coming from a body subjected to various scientific tests, but which still aspires to a distant idea of serenity; vital wires are in tension and repeatedly solicited by the acousmatic spirits, but they’re far from snapping. The transition to the second movement superimposes additional vocal forms and extremely fluid strings, shifting like sand in a giant hourglass shaped by deep electronic drones. Moving events are caught in multicoloured flashes, fleeting visions of the supernatural – the music’s emotional content is very high and its beauty quite simply without equal. In the third section, chaos and indeterminacy attempt to impose their own peculiar intelligence in the guise of powerfully whirling shapes, colours and volumes that precipitate the listener into a veritable state of anxiety, until the return of more archaic orchestral designs allows the breathing to slow enough to attempt to comprehend what’s going on. Sounds descend slowly like suns setting, or plunge to earth like meteorites – the experience is unprecedented, and yet frustratingly inscrutable. Tarego begins with the system almost in full stop mode, an immobile frequency tormenting silence for a full 14 minutes with barely perceptible dynamic variations. Tarego II is even more static, but oriented towards a complex tranquillity: an underground river fed by hundreds of invisible streams. The processes at work in Tarego III, undoubtedly one of the high points in Kayn’s oeuvre, are perfectly developed and aurally coherent, but stubbornly refuse to reveal the mystery of their genesis. The meteors return in form of slow glissandi, a spectacular concrete/abstract/infinite transaction that comes to fruition in the 24 minutes of Rhenit, music so deep it sounds literally painful. Sounds recalling out-of-phase throat singing whirl around our head as we try to join this moving communion with imaginary creatures of superior intelligence. But to no avail; it’s like trying to keep your eyes open and stare at the sun, except Rhenit‘s light cures blindness instead of causing it. There’s nothing to be done other than abandon yourself to the music, and when it’s over, remain totally alone, incapable of communicating the experience. Amarun‘s two movements present us with a kind of unstable stasis, where the vocal component still dominates but is surrounded by extremely long sounds originating in strings or brass (though, as always, this is pure supposition given the frequency filtering that renders the whole edifice obfuscated and scarcely definable to the ears). The eternal path winds on, and one has the impression of having walked but a little way along it, a journey full of information and sensations nevertheless. Amarun II‘s edgy intensity not only paves the way for future works, the Electronic Symphonies among them, but also predates today’s electronic music – by many years. As we approach the end of Amarun – and of Tektra as a whole – the waters begin to settle. The unconscious still yearns for something more but catches no more than a glimpse of distant worlds; we’re gliding at high altitude propelled forward by a powerful wind, which is nothing more than the very life force we will carry with us on our future explorations and discoveries. By then Roland Kayn will be far behind us, with that cynical yet good-natured half-smile, as if he was wondering how long it will take the rest of the world to fully comprehend his work. With Tektra, Kayn has fast-forwarded music another half century, lonely, unsung, immortal.