2018, New England guitar conceptualist and Greydisc label founder,
Kevin Kastning traveled to Hungary for his first solo tour in
Europe. Kastning’s affiliation with Hungarian musician and guitarist
/ composer Sándor Szabó is world renowned, as the duo have
recorded several albums together, including two albums with fellow
Hungarian composer and percussionist Balázs Major. For the
2018 CD release of Kismaros, Kastning joins
forces with Balázs for their first duo record together, and the
results provide one of the best album releases yet on the Greydisc
label. What started out as one track featuring Kevin and Balázs,
turned into a complete album thanks in part to Kismaros
producer Sándor Szabó, who astutely captured the duo and encouraged
them to keep recording after the first track was completed. Such
sonic spontaneity is rare but not uncommon in the freeform
improvisational world of first class musicians such as Kastning and
Major. In his commentary on Kevin Kastning’s web site, Sándor Szabó
the Kismaros sessions to music that guitarist Egberto
Gismonti and percussionist Nana Vasconcelos played during their
1980’s tour of Hungary. That heightened sense of guitar
extrapolations mixing with magical percussion can be heard and
appreciated on Kismaros. Commenting on the Kismaros
sessions, producer Sándor once again recalls, “What I heard on
the album is again what I heard that morning: original, exotic,
exciting, seducing, spiritual music. For me this is a new music;
another reference which proves that there are still endless
possibilities in a guitar/percussion duo to explore. I am very glad
to be part of this kind of creation." The intriguing Kismaros
album cover art perfectly captures the ethereal and magical sense of
the music on the CD. Fans of Kasting’s more recent albums—as well as
the 2013 CD release of Becoming, featuring Kevin recording
with Balázs and Sándor—will note that the entire album was played by
Kastning’s famous 30-string Contra-Alto guitar and the myriad of
percussion instruments played by Balázs. A creative and visceral
listening experience, Kismaros is improvisational guitar /
percussion music at its finest.
mwe3.com presents an interview with
Kevin Kastning and Balázs Major
The Kismaros Interview
You always have such interesting titles for your albums. On
reflection, what was it about the Hungarian town of Kismaros that
inspired the Kismaros album and can you shed some light on
your recent 2018 European tour and how many shows and what material
was performed live on that tour? What was the reaction this time
from those attending the shows? I imagine Kevin must be something of
a unique attraction in Hungary, an American musician coming from the
Boston area with those exotic guitars.
Kevin Kastning: Kismaros is a small village located on the
banks of the Danube river in Hungary. It's very peaceful, and has a
palpable sense of history and the presence of those who have passed
on. Because the album was recorded in the Kismaros concert hall, I
wanted to assign an album title that would also serve as a location
on a map, to illustrate the recording location. And also to pay
tribute to the town and its people. I wanted to try to allude to
some sense of the overall atmosphere of mystery and time that I felt
The tour had a concert in Kismaros, and the mayor came to the
concert and caught up to me afterwards. He is a big fan it turns
out, and was very welcoming. I felt like a very welcome guest in
Kismaros, and that added to using the town name as the album title.
For the 2018 tour, I used the 30-string Contra-Alto guitar. It was a
solo tour, but I played one duet piece each night with Sándor Szabo,
which was wonderful. The concerts were sold-out, and the audiences
were very receptive and appreciative.
Balázs Major: We had a very successful concert in Kismaros,
and then we had a two-day recording session. This small town is
situated in the Danube curve and has a strong natural vibe. Driving
to the recording spot the traveler can see a lot of beauty, which
inspires not only a musician, but also it makes one wonder and
contemplate. So, Sándor probably chose this place to record not by
accident. That place made an influence also on me and on my playing.
Listening back to the recording, it recalls those moods and visual
mwe3: What was Kevin’s overall impression of Hungary on this
tour and what other lasting memories do you have of performing and
recording there and traveling in the country this time? How was the
climate or weather like in Hungary in mid May?
Kastning: I always love being in Hungary and touring there.
Everyone is incredibly warm and welcoming. The Hungarians are a
fantastic people; very sweet. The weather was like late spring; in
the upper 70s/low 80s.
mwe3: What were some of the challenges involved in recording
with only one guitar, in this case, the 30 string Contra-Alto guitar
on the Kismaros album? How did the 30-string guitar shape the
final sound of the album and were there challenges in traveling on a
long journey with that guitar?
Kevin Kastning: This is the first time I've tracked a full
album using only one instrument. It is a big challenge. Using the
30-string was the right choice; it has the Alto side, the
Contraguitar side, and both sides have fretless regions. I used the
30 for the tour, and it is one of my very favorite instruments ever.
As for how it shaped the final sound of the album, it was half of
the instruments you hear on the record, so that is a pretty big
impact. For the air travel part of the tour, I bought a seat on the
plane for the guitar. So it was never checked through baggage, and
it and I both had a safe trip.
Balázs Major: It is always a challenge to me to play together
with never-heard instruments. Kevin’s guitars are real magic
instruments, though I knew their voice from his CDs, but in a live
situation they effect in a different way. His 30-string guitar with
his playing inspired me very strongly.
mwe3: On the web, Balázs spoke about recording an
album with Kevin, Roland Heidrich and Sándor Szabó. What was the
chemistry like between the four of you? I ask this considering that
Roland engineered Kismaros and Sándor produced the album. Was
any other recording done in Hungary this time and are there any
other plans to record with Sándor and Balázs as well as Roland again
in the future?
Kastning: We tracked new material for two albums as a trio
consisting of Balázs, Sándor, and me. We tracked new material for a
quartet album with Roland. Both Sándor and Roland were using
electric guitars, but in very different ways. The quartet recordings
were very full, like a band. The trio recordings are very different
than our two previous trio records in that Sándor was using electric
guitars and heavy processing and effects, along with guzheng. So
these albums will be released over the coming years. The chemistry
was quite good all around. I have a spiritual connection with both
Sándor and Balázs. Whenever I am playing with either of them, the
music takes over; it is as if we all have this almost psychic
connection or system of unspoken communication. Roland is a strong
and original musician whom I’ve known for several years, so it was
good to work with him as well.
Balázs Major: Sándor is a determinative artist in my life, we
are tied-in by an almost 41-year friendship and creation in duo and
different formations. We played countless concerts and made a lot of
recordings, albums together. Roland is an excellent young guitar
player Sándor’s ex –student, we have also a 10-year long friendship
and musical collaboration in trios, and in his new quartet. Kevin
also belongs to my best friends; we played and recorded a lot, so we
have a strong chemistry when playing. I would say it is very easy to
play with these guys. We see the world very similarly and our
attitude for the music is the same.
We made two Greydisc albums with Kevin and Sándor: Triptych
and Becoming. Last year we started to work in a special
“remote” way; I recorded drum tracks and later Kevin and Sándor
played overdubs on them, and this recording will be Ethereal II,
which will be released in the early autumn of 2018. This album is
special to me because I play not only hand percussion, but also a
full drum set. Though my name mostly appears in formations where I
play hand percussion, I am a jazz drummer.
Balázs describes Kismaros as being enigmatic and
nature-related. In what ways would you say the Kismaros album
has a nature-related sensibilities and would you say the CD cover
art backs up those themes? What can you tell us about the CD cover
art by László Hutton and also the interesting looking photo on the
inside of the album?
Kevin Kastning: Speaking for myself, I’d say all of my
records are nature-related, as I find nature to be a strong source
of renewal and of art. Kismaros is no exception. The cover
art is by László Hutton, a Hungarian photographic artist. László has
done a few of my previous album covers; I admire his work. For
Kismaros, I wanted something for the cover that had an essence
of Hungary. I had recorded this album with Balázs, a Hungarian
artist, and the album was recorded in Hungary. I wanted Hungarian
art on the cover to show proper tribute and how indebted I felt to
the Hungarian people, as well as to illustrate the connection of the
music to Hungary itself. The photo is of a nature preserve in
Hungary that I visited on my first tour there several years ago. The
atmosphere of the photo fits with the mysterious nature of the
pieces on the record.
I did the photo in the gatefold. Those are totems in Kismaros, right
on the banks of the Danube river. I’d pass them every day on the way
to the concert hall, and they seemed to have a palpable presence to
them. Very historic, and they had the sense of being sentries,
sentinels, and keepers of the past. They exuded such a strong
presence that I wanted them to be a part of the Kismaros
album, as they were and are a part of the village of Kismaros.
Balázs Major: About the pictures taken by László Hutton it is
not much to say just enough to look at it and my imagination starts,
it is like as if I would live in them, the misty spots are the
mystery themselves, there are a lot of secrets behind them, just
like in the music.
mwe3: The sheer amount of percussion instruments Balázs plays
on Kismaros is quite impressive. What were some of percussion
instruments that were played on Kismaros especially as they
look rather intriguing including the bowl shaped instruments. Did
Balázs use the full range of his instruments on the new album? Did
some tracks require different percussion instrumentation?
Kevin Kastning: I think Balázs was changing cymbals for each
piece, which is great. I love cymbals, and he has some beautiful
ones, as you can hear on the record.
Major: The special hand-percussion I use are a sort of clay
drums. They have a few thousand of years of history. They originate
from Nigeria and their actual name is UDU. In my percussion set they
become even more special because they are combined with several
different sounding cymbals, and they together create a very special
set which is not typical in the modern music. They provide a
completely different approach and sound in rhythm. I use a lot of
cymbals, but somehow I use those types of cymbals, which are not
preferred by other players, so my whole set is like something from
another planet. They fit perfectly to Kevin’s music and sound. I
like experimenting with them and I often make my own drum sticks. I
like to use unusual combinations. I use maybe 50-60 different sticks
which I change during playing and this is why the sound is very rich
and changing all the time. I did not use all my percussion on the
recording only the most special and extreme sounding ones.
mwe3: What was involved in mic-ing the instruments during the
Kismaros recording session? Did microphone placement affect
the sound of the album sound and how did you balance the low
frequencies of the percussion with the guitar sounds? I noticed some
unusually low or sub frequencies on this album... Was a special
balance of sound created to capture everything with the microphones,
so not to get too high or too low a frequency in the recorded sound?
Kevin Kastning: The 30-string has some very low sub-bass
frequencies; its range goes lower than a bass, so it can create some
recording challenges. My recording setup for Kismaros was
different than my usual studio setup. For the Kismaros
recordings, I used my K&K stereo pickup system, along with a matched
stereo pair of Shure KSM-141 microphones. Sándor did all the mixing
and mastering, so the balance to which you refer was accomplished by
Sándor in the mixing phase. Roland Heidrich was the recording
engineer for the sessions, and he did a truly remarkable job on
Major: When I record drums or percussion, Roland or Sándor is my
sound engineer. They both have a great assortment of microphones.
This time we used Sándor’s DPA 4011 matched pair for percussion.
Sándor has a simple but very effective concept for recording which
can be described in one sentence: “The less microphones, the less
problems and the cleanest sound.” I trust them because I never
heard myself in such a high quality as how Roland and Sándor can
capture the sound of my instruments. My udus have real sub-harmonic
range. When I got my larger udu, it was very unusual to hear that
extra deep range but after a while it became an indispensable
element of my sound.
A regular sound engineer would cut this range, but we keep it. Our
music is sparse and has space for everything. Our recordings have
been utilized for testing the frequency range of HIFI systems. I
used extra high range cymbals, but Sándor found a way how to capture
all my set with only a stereo pair of microphone without EQ or
cutting any ranges. We do not use EQ for the percussion. The EQ is
actually done by the microphone itself, and by the proper position,
this is why in the mixing process there is no extra EQ.
mwe3: Being that the album features tracks called “Kismaros
I” through “Kismaros VII”, how do the album pieces vary and compare
with each other. Were the tracks edited in some way during the
sessions or was the session recorded in one continuous recording
with editing and track selection done afterwards? Did the producer
give any instructions or feedback during the recording and how much
editing or sonic manipulation was done post-recording?
Kevin Kastning: The album was recorded in a single session
one morning. The pieces on the album are in the same order as they
were recorded. I asked Balázs early that morning if he’d mind
tracking a duo piece with me; he said sure, so we did. At the
conclusion of that piece, which is “Kismaros I” on the album, Sándor
insisted that we record an entire album right there, right then.
Which we did; the directions were determined by Balázs and I.
Balázs Major: As much as I know Sándor, as a producer and
mixing engineer told me that he left everything in its original
state. Hi did not cut out parts, and also the sequence of the songs
were the same as how we played them. I could say it is an almost
untouched recording in this aspect. Sándor helped us during the
session and actually he encouraged us to record this duo album. He
was listening to the recording on his headphone during the entire
session and he had some ideas to me to change the combination of
cymbals, because I used some new ones which he did not hear before
and we experimented with them. Knowing Sándor’s acoustic recording
concept, he is very demanding in microphones and he always spends
enough time to choose the right acoustic place to record. He uses
sound manipulating devices, only if there is no other way to make
the proper sound. On the Kismaros album he used only a
high-end reverb for the entire mix.
How do you compare Kismaros with the other albums on Greydisc
that also feature Kevin with both Sándor and Balázs? What other
Greydisc albums is Balázs playing on and was the last time you all
recorded together on the 2013 Becoming album? Can you
compare, perhaps offer a sonic reflection, of Kismaros with
Becoming? What other albums has Balázs recorded on or
released over the past few years?
Kevin Kastning: Kismaros is quite different to the
extent that it doesn’t compare to our previous trio records. We do
have a new trio record being released later this year entitled
Ethereal II. This is the second entry in the new Ethereal
series. While it is still a trio record, it too is so different from
the previous trio records that a comparison is not possible.
Balázs Major: Each album is different, it is not worth to
compare them because they were made in different periods of our
artist life in different circumstances and instruments. As for
myself in the last few years I recorded with Michael Manring, Ralf
Gauck, Claus Boesser Ferrari, Alf Wilhelm Lundberg with Sándor as a
constant partner. Some recordings were live concerts and some
overdubs in studio.
The Asymmetry album is an overdub creation. Sándor
experimented with Michael Manring’s prerecorded tracks. He
overdubbed on them. Later he showed me the result and asked me to
play some overdubbed percussion. That is a very special album, but
it was not economical to print real CDs, so Asymmetry is only
a digital download album released by Greydisc. That is a pity that
online magazines do not review digital albums. We started to work on
the Ethereal series which is a long-term project and as such
it is challenging to me as a percussion player because this series
has a special concept to show that “there is life behind the
grooves”. You can imagine as a percussion player I am not
against the grooves, but it is really very obvious that the music
world is going to a uniformed “groovy” direction. The Ethereal
series is a kind of fresh oasis with its sparseness and soulfulness
to show beauty in the music which in other situations could have
been obscured by the dense and loud grooves.
mwe3: What other plans do you have for 2018 as far as new
Greydisc releases, upcoming recording and live performing in the
Kevin Kastning: Upcoming Greydisc releases are Ethereal II,
the new trio recording with Sándor and Balázs. My next solo record
is in the can, and will be released in late 2018. In 2019, there are
albums slated for release; most of those are already in the can. I
am in the studio with Mark Wingfield in August this year for our
next one, and then in September I am in the studio with Carl
Clements for our new one. I have a concert or two with Carl later in
2018, and Wingfield and I are doing a live radio performance for
WNYC in New York City on August 13th, 2018. I also have an upcoming
recording project with Estonian composer/guitarist Robert Jurjendal,
and I’m looking forward to that.
Balázs Major: In 2018 I will have quite a lot concerts with a
band called BOGA and we planned some overdub recordings with Sándor
for further Echolocation and Ethereal projects.