Ethereal II

For their 2018 album, Kevin Kastning and Sándor Szabó enlist the sounds of percussionist Balász Major and the net result is Ethereal II. The second in a series of albums featuring Kastning and Szabó that began earlier in 2018 with the release of Ethereal I, this second Ethereal album is just as dazzling sounding, if not better, than the first. The addition of Balász on drums and percussion completes the sonic structure and also echoes the Kastning / Major CD release of Kismaros from mid 2018. The prolific nature of Kevin Kastning, as both a guitarist and composer notwithstanding, serves to underscore the brilliant fretboard moves in play on Ethereal II. Recorded both in Kastning’s Boston-area Traumworld studios and in Sándor Szabó’s studio in Hungary, Ethereal II merges Kastning’s unique 36-string Double Contraguitar, his 30-string Contra-Alto guitar as well as his acoustic piano with Sándor’s processed electric guitars. The crafty guitar work and musical insight of these groundbreaking artists reaches new levels of sonic intrigue, while the drums and percussion of Balász completes the wide-ranging musical imagination depicted on Ethereal II. Guitar purists may question the ultra spontaneity and avant-garde nature of Kastning and Szabó’s music, yet there’s no denying the expertise with which these two unique musicians execute their performances on Ethereal II as well as on various other projects and recordings they’ve recorded and released on Kastning’s Greydisc label—a fine American label following in the footsteps of other avant-garde outlets such as the Germany based ECM label. Like ECM, Greydisc offers the listener a range of boldly executed, and sonically rewarding releases that combine high levels of improvised music with a definite flair for the unusual. One of the finest Greydisc CD releases to date, Ethereal II sets yet another high standard of musical dialogue from the skillful trio of Kastning, Szabó and Major. / / presents an interview with
Kevin Kastning, Sándor Szabó and Balázs Major

: How is Ethereal II an extension of the Ethereal I album which was released early in 2018? Would you say the new album moves forward or in different directions from Ethereal I in both sound and scope and how does the addition of Balázs Major on drums and percussion alter the sound?

Kevin Kastning: It is indeed a continuation. Ethereal II is different in a few ways. Sándor is playing electric guitar with processing. Balázs is playing full drum kit on most tracks, and this is the first time we’ve recorded together with him on kit. And I am on piano on a couple of pieces. Additionally, it has been six years since our last trio record, and in that time we’ve all continued to grow and evolve as artists.

Sándor Szabó: From my part the extension happened in two fields, musically and in sound. The records I make are not only an act to make the music, but also to create art in its sound. This means that I do not only record, mix and master the music but I illustrate the instruments in the stereo space and make them more expressing. I noticed that the modern music with a few exceptions is not so demanding in creating real stereo experience, they do not use the space in its depth how I do it. Though the Ethereal series is especially dedicated to this concept, adding Balázs Major to this project, the illustration became even more detailed and accentual. With his playing we have one more dimension on the Ethereal II in sound and in music, as well.

Balázs Major: I hope that with my presence I managed to influence the Ethereal II, which is kind of continuation of the previous album. In my former Greydisc albums I played hand percussion, but this is the first album where I play a full drum set. My aim was to support the Ethereal concept, with a new playing style, which completely differs from trendy drumming can be heard in similar music. For me the drum is a whole orchestra, a huge potential for creating colors, moods, tensions. All the elements of my drum set are tonally tuned.

mwe3: The liner notes of Ethereal II mentions that the album was recorded late 2017 and early 2018 in both Hungary and in Massachusetts. Can you tell us which tracks were recorded in both locations and did recording in one location change in both Europe and the O.S. change the sound or vision of the particular track? Balázs said that he recorded his parts in a “remote” way. Is that the way Ethereal II was made?

Kevin Kastning: Yes, we tried tracking this one remotely, and I think it turned out quite well. So much so that we’ll be doing more work in this manner. I think we’d all prefer to be in the same studio at the same time and tracking live together, but when you live in different countries, that’s not always possible. Tracking remotely is a very effective alternative. It enables us to continue our recording work even if we are not in the same country and in the same studio.

Sándor Szabó: Well, the method of building the music was very similar as on the Ethereal I. We had prerecorded tracks mostly from Kevin in his studio in Massachusetts and then I composed and overdubbed further layers in my studio in Hungary. As for the drum and percussion recording, they made in Hungary in a concert hall and both Kevin and I overdubbed our layers on it. So I can answer to you that all the tracks made both in Hungary and Massachusetts. This recording was made in a 21st Century way in a “remote” way, due to the internet. We sent the high resolution sound files to each other via internet.

Balázs Major: For me the great challenge was to start to build a piece with my playing which means that the drum was recorded first. I had to imagine a composition and to play a drum part. This method is quite unusual, because my drum part was not composed in advance. I had some ideas and I formed them into an improvised texture. I did not get musical instruction as in the previous recordings. I had a total freedom, which is very inspiring but I missed Sandor’s and Kevin’s presence. The fact that the drum was recorded separately did not change the sound. Sandor did a great job with mixing and mastering.

mwe3: Do you feel that the albums you’ve released on Greydisc are gaining you more popularity among the more open-minded progressive music fans and can you contrast that with your further inroads in the neoclassical, jazz and also the avant-garde world?

Kevin Kastning: Most of the albums of mine from the past 7 or 8 years are always reviewed by Progression Magazine, which is the biggest progressive music magazine of which I know. That may be expanding my and our music a bit in the prog community. As for the other genres you mention, my work is played on jazz and classical radio programs. In fact, All About Jazz magazine did a nice article on me last week. Sometimes not fitting into a single genre can be helpful.

Sándor Szabó: Well, I personally do not think in popularity. I just do not care, I mean it is not in the first place in my preferences. Of course it is a good thing if the number of our fans is increasing with every release. We do not follow trends, we just play what we feel and hear inside. This is already far enough to be in contrast with the neoclassical, jazz and also the avant-garde world. We do not necessarily want to be different of others. Even we do not intend to do something new. It comes by itself by our attitude how we think and feel about music.

mwe3: How did your 2018 European tour influence each of your compositional and performance styles and do you find different levels of acceptance of your music among audiences in both the O.S. and Europe, or rather specifically in Hungary? What are the chances of other tour dates in North America?

Kevin Kastning: I don’t think a single tour impacts my compositional approach. For me, a tour is more of a vehicle for sharing your compositional approach. The acceptance of European audiences is always amazing to me. My music is more well-received there than in the US. North American tours are tricky, as I don’t know many US agents. I would be open to a North American tour if the circumstances were right, but currently there are no plans for it.

Sándor Szabó: We have a well-tried attitude how we start to play and record music. The tour helps to be more in focus and to get closer to each other mentally. We have an inexplicable chemistry so playing and creating on concert or recording is so easy and natural.
As for acceptance, the Hungarian audience is very sensitive and educated, they are interested in a lot of things. This attitude comes from our very old and rich music heritage. In the western part of Europe the acceptance starts to go to the trends which are very strong and it is difficult to resist to them from the part of the listeners. About the chances of tour dates in the US I think the music scene is industrialized so much by agents and agencies that such a special project cannot get enough attention because our music cannot attract large audience. This is the first and most important economical parameter and our music cannot fulfill this. Our music wants to be art and never wanted to be a consumer product. Nonetheless I experienced that the US audience would be happy to hear this kind of music, though not in industrial scale, but it cannot happen because the distribution of concerts happen through profit oriented agents and agencies.

mwe3: Does Sándor’s guitar work with Kevin draw further comparisons to the albums Kevin has recorded with Mark Wingfield? Sounds like they’re equally appealing to fans of your musical styles.

Kevin Kastning: I think Sándor’s work on electric guitar would appeal to anyone who likes Mark Wingfield’s work. I’ve not heard or read of anyone making direct comparisons; while they are both on electric guitars, I think the similarities end there. Both artists have their own unique identity.

Sándor Szabó: I think there are common elements in sound because Mark Wingfield is a very great sound engineer, and our concept meets in several point. We regularly have very nice discussions and learn from each other, while both of us has the own specific style. Musically we have also a great chemistry. We toured and recorded together in 2017 in Hungary. With Kevin, Mark and Balázs we create a nice artist family and musically we are compatible with each other on recordings. We all are fans of each other, so it is easy to work.

Balázs Major: Sándor and Mark are kindred spirits, but they are different, they have different approach for playing the instruments and creating their voices. I would not compare them, but both of them are fantastic personalities in their music.

mwe3: Going back even to the Becoming album you made back in 2013, you have expanded on your sound, going from purely acoustic to using electric guitars and piano as well. What directions or other changes in your music are you considering moving forward both as a duo and trio and as individual recording artists?

Kevin Kastning: At present, I’m not considering anything in the way of other instruments in our music. However, I am only here to serve the music, so if other instruments are required to achieve a specific goal or an album’s direction, then I suspect we’ll move to those instruments. I can’t speak for Sándor or Balázs, but that is how I see it. I am always open to whatever is required by the music, but I don’t always know in advance what that will be.

Sándor Szabó: We do not plan too much in advance. We know that the life brings new things and we just let the process go by its own. Of course we made kind of “bucket list” like lute/acoustic guitar recordings, East/West project, etc, but somehow the life wanted to make the Ethereal project first. Since the Becoming album so many things happened. After 15 years I started to play electric guitars and using processing, because it is also a part of me. For me it is a fantastic field to experiment and create. After I showed my very first electric album the Echolocation I from 1998 to Kevin, he always asked me why we do not do something similar together. First I resisted mixing acoustic things with electric, but Kevin convinced me and now I am astonished on myself, how big fan I have been in blending electric and acoustic sounds.

mwe3: It seems like you are immersed in the nature of the “ethereal”, calling both albums Ethereal I and now II and there’s even three tracks called “Ethereality”, I, II and III. How does the term ethereal impact your music, especially as there’s two words connected, ether and reality? What can you tell us about the three “Ethereality” tracks on the album? Are they connected in some ways or are they each different?

Kevin Kastning: The Ethereal album series project is based on Sándor being on electric guitars. By titling this album series as “Ethereal,” it denotes that this is an electric project with Sándor on electric, and not our usual acoustic works. The Ethereality series of pieces are different; yet have a connecting thread, much like movements in a symphony. The terminology doesn’t impact the music. The music exists on its own, before titles are determined; the music always comes first. When the music is completed, then I try to find titles that fit the new music.

Sándor Szabó: Well, in Greydisc releases Kevin is responsible for giving titles to the tracks. Though my Echolocation serial is identical conceptually with the Ethereal project, we wanted another expressing title. The music sounds ethereal, its inner “message”, and the mood is ethereal, so the title could not be any other than Ethereal. This is a long term project because the possibilities are endless and we have enough ideas to extend it more in the future. So by now the Ethereal serial is more than only album titles, it is a comprehensive concept for creating music and sound.

Balázs Major: When Kevin asked me to take part on the next Ethereal album first I did not know how I could add something into the Ethereal project. Of course I had some references, like the Ethereal I and the Echolocation albums. Sándor pushed me to gather all my courage to play and sound in a way which is not typical. The Ethereal can remind the listeners to some ambient music, but in that style the drum is quite neglected or in the background. Finally my conception started to form in my head: Given two guitar players, who sometimes seems to arrive from another galaxy and this was my leading thought. My aim was to create a musically coequal partnership. After I heard the full compositions I was completely amazed by the result in sound and musically, too.

mwe3: The tracks “Portals I” and “Portals II” are also quite intriguing. There’s a sense of linear movement that differs from the other tracks and it really combines some great moods. What can you add about those two cuts?

Kevin Kastning: Balázs is on world hand percussion on Portals I. And then moves to full drum kit for Portals II. I think Sándor’s parts propel these pieces forward and provide that linearity you describe. Balázs brings a lot of energy and movement to both pieces as well.

Balázs Major: I definitely wanted to create something unusual which inspires Sándor and Kevin, which give more space for their compositional approach.

mwe3: Speaking of guitars, Kevin’s 17-string Hybrid Extended Classical guitar was not featured on album yet? How do you feel that 17-string Hybrid Extended Classical guitar will further change the sounds in the future?

Kevin Kastning: The 17-string is different from any other of my instruments in that it is a double-course instrument, but each course consists of a classical (nylon) string and a steel string; hence the ‘hybrid’ nomenclature in its name. So the instrument blends two entirely different guitar voices; to my knowledge this has never been done. Its voice didn’t fit into the Ethereal II recording session directions, but it could be on another Ethereal series album in the future. So far, the only record on which it has appeared is my solo record from earlier this year 17/66. I did use it on some recording sessions with Mark Wingfield in August of this year. I also used it on a live radio performance in New York City in August for WNYC and WFMU. And it will find its way onto my solo albums going forward. It is really a fantastic instrument and a new voice for sure.

mwe3: How about any comparisons between Ethereal II and the latest duo album, Kismaros with both Kevin and Balázs? You were also speaking about another album with this trio and the addition of yet another electric guitar player, Roland Heidrich. Is that album also planned for release at some point?

Kevin Kastning: After the spring 2018 European Tour, we were in the studio for a few days, and recorded some new trio material. We also recorded some material with Roland in a quartet format, and it’s very likely that the material from all these sessions will be released in the coming years. I’m not sure I can make any direct comparisons between Kismaros and anything else. Kismaros is in its own category for various reasons.

Sándor Szabó: The Kismaros was born in a live recording situation. No overdubs, no editing. It just happened and recorded. It is a natural recording, no electronic soundscapes and effects used. If you hear similarity it is the ethereal quality of the music they play. This means that a music can be ethereal not only by its sound but also by the mood and emotions conveyed in the music through the player’s musical personality. Yes, we made a quartet recording where the excellent Hungarian electric guitar player Roland Heidrich took part. This is a very special valuable recording. We still have some work on it but as much as I know it is planned to release in the future.

Balázs Major: I also hope that the trio and quartet recordings will be released in the future. The quartet recording is very interesting, its elegant minimalism makes it so special. Kismaros and Ethereal II are very different music, I would not compare them.

mwe3: Seems like Greydisc is well on the way to becoming an artistic dynasty of 21st century innovative / avant-garde instrumental music. How do you see the label developing so far and with a hopefully long recording cycle ahead of you, how do you see the label’s future and can you also shed some light on other possible artistic directions you plan on taking your music in the future?

Kevin Kastning: Thank you for saying so. One thing I see in the direction of the label is more album releases every year; both on CD and digital downloads. As for future artistic directions, I can’t say. For example, three years ago I never would have thought of any of the Ethereal series; in fact, those are really Sándor’s concept. Artistic directions change and grow and expand over time; often unpredictably. Or at least I hope they do; I never want to be trapped in one artistic place.

Sándor Szabó: Not much new labels can show up so rich and artistically valuable releases as the Greydisc did in the last 10 years. The Greydisc goes to a special direction which cannot be described in simple words. This small independent label does not follow trend, it produces artistic value independently of what happens in the music field. As an artist I am very proud to be a partner of the Greydisc. The Greydisc is still quite young to say that it created a new genre, but it already created a new sound and I believe that in some years this label will be significant in the innovative, creative instrumental music.