I’ve lived with Roland Kayns A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound since mid-October. I’ve discussed it at length with friends and family. I’ve spoken to work colleagues, brought it up meetings, and beamed about it to the guy that gave me a trim at the barbers.
In the 30-odd years I’ve been listening to music, I honestly can’t remember a time where a piece of music has had such a deep impact on me. I suppose, in a way, the whole process of listening to music (and by extension, writing about it), comes from a desire to help frame a piece of music. Did I like it? Does this sound like something others may like? What other artists does it call to mind, and ultimately, how does the experience make me feel?
When it comes to A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound, all I know is that this weird black box has me in its tractor beam. Beyond the continual revisiting, my ability to process this gargantuan piece of music, or file any sort of meaningful observations, is still developing.
One massive element is its length—an incredible 13 hours and 44 minutes. That’s longer than the entire discography of The Beatles (whose studio albums only clock in at 8 hours and 10 minutes). That’s a serious chunk of time and commitment. I opted to spread my first listen through the 22 movements over 3 days. The shortest is under 19 minutes, but half of the tracks stretch way beyond 40 minutes.
Roland Kayn made the piece in 2009, and unfortunately passed away in 2011. Last year, Helsinki label Frozen Reeds spotlighted the glorious Julius Eastman, and this new release aims to reposition the frequently overlooked Kayn as a similarly pivotal and remarkable musician.
With music of this proportion, there’s certainly time to think about what you are hearing. The music is electronic, gleaned from a modular synth and constructed in a way the composer never really expanded upon. However, shots online of Kayn’s setup seem to be fairly standard (well, as standard as these things ever look) until you notice the vast maze of cables connecting ports to ports—this really is the switchboard at the center of the universe.
It also has to be said that Robert Beatty has done a wonderful job visualizing this work with the packaging. Beatty’s book from last year, Floodgate Companion, had me drooling over weirdly developed glyphs, strange new letterforms and brands from other worlds. The weird anti-gravity of the black-and-gold embossed box, and the interconnecting circuitry of the 16 CD sleeves and 16 CD faces furthers the idea this is some four-dimensional engine. The package feels like a map, an instruction manual, and a graphic score at once, and that only reconfirms the totally alien experience within. A lump of moonrock sitting on my shelf would feel more earthly.
The actual sound itself has a bizarre mirage-like quality, which seems to shape-shift depending on how you listen, on the stereo, the computer, your headphones. There is foreground and background, sometimes it’s fairly constant, and sometimes it stops and starts. Occasionally there seems to be obliterated fragments of other sounds, bells and other colors. There is no sense of rhythm or pulse, just ever-shifting vast clouds of steel wool. One aspect I’m pretty sure about it that the sounds all feel like they are somehow moving quickly. A sense that everything is spinning and hurtling, where 33 rpm can suddenly become 78.
This sense of movement and rotation leads you back to one of the only earthbound bones Kayn throws the listener—the title itself — A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound. Is this, in fact, some vast model of chaos and calm? A conceptual drawing? If this is a representation of our patch in the galaxy, a soundtracked journey through the black, the dust, and the pockets of light of the Milky Way, it certainly projects space as the extremity of human familiarity.
For much of his career, Kayn talked about and made cyberkinetic music, which he constructed by setting up parameters and limitations on the technology he used to make sound. While he never revealed his actual working methods, it’s clear we’re in a zone where instruments are tumbling around in dialogue with themselves. Perhaps the pieces function is to serve up the entire vocabulary, arranging all the elements and documenting all the possibilities the approach opens up. Or at least, best showcase the methodology?
The movement titles don’t exactly shed any substantial clues either, despite a long session on Google. Hatho, Arasa, Somitoh, Ilay, Naaps, Rosonic and chums all seem to be little more than co-ordinates to the movements’ particular characteristics.
Of course, all of this still might sound cold, and potentially even someone’s idea of torture. A friend recently described it as how he’d imagine feeling after 20 espressos. Another said it was a great soundtrack to his Halloween weekend. In all my continuous listening, I’ve found very few extended pockets of anything I’d describe as “beautiful” in any traditional sense.
What’s totally bizarre is that despite this, the duration somehow makes the experience so much more enrichening. Perhaps if we were discussing some short edit that lasted 70 minutes, I’d find harder to stomach. Listening to three or four hours or more, the overall effect has, on many occasions, left me feeling inexplicably elated.
Roland Kayn’s A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound is one of the most alien, extreme, and totally “out there” recordings I’ve ever wrapped my ears round.
Which brings me full circle: what is the point of listening to (and writing about) music? It always boils down to engaging with ideas inherent in the music. That can mean dancing, air guitars, the soundtrack to a journey, or the creation of a mood or environment. The constant is allowing yourself to be open.
This work is definitely not for everyone, but for those with adventurous ears, setting aside at least 14 hours of your life to exist a while with this music is more than worthy of consideration.
It joins a very small group of special listening experiences I’ve had, and by light years, it’s my distinct, microscopic, and wholly earth-based pleasure to announce it as my Album of 2017.
Available from frozen reeds
Review orginally appeared in Brown Noise Unit December 2017