Cognitive dissonance: Kynan Robinson finds musical ideas in the works of Cormac McCarthy

This is a transcript of an interview I did for Extempore Magazine

At the Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival in 2011, we heard Collider at 303, with compositions inspired by the works of Haruki Murakami. In those pieces Collider—led by Kynan Robinson and Adam Simmons—echoed aspects of Murakami’s work in the music. When we heard about the forthcoming concert of music that draws on Kynan’s reading of Cormac McCarthy, we wanted to find out more.

Miriam Zolin: When you talk about writing music in response to Cormac McCarthy’s writing, should people expect to hear some sort of narrative in the music that’s equivalent to what they might find in Cormac McCarthy’s books?

Kynan Robinson: No not really. It’s an interesting little place where I find myself. I did something similar when I was writing for The Escalators and looking at David Lynch. I didn’t do this deliberately. I’d started writing some music and I’d found that the music was heading in a particular direction. I re-watched Twin Peaks and found that the atmosphere that he was trying to create was similar to what I was trying to create.  So then I made a deliberate decision to look at theoretical concepts behind Lynch’s work. I looked at a lot of Lynch’s conceptual ideas and then I related that to The Escalators and created a whole body of work. It was not a deliberate decision to do this; I fell into that place.

At the moment in education there’s a call for creativity in all schools. But the call for creativity is coming more from a workplace angle which means it’s really a call for innovation. There’s not a good understanding of what creativity means.  I’ve done a lot of work on this, as an educator myself, trying to unpack it for other educators. The development of a creative thought is an extensive process for your brain to go through and it requires certain conditions. What your brain is actually doing is moving into a place of cognitive dissonance, a place of confusion. It is trying to leap from one level of understanding to the next. To do that it has to confuse itself and then it has to come out of that confusion into a place of equilibrium. [laughs] That’s a really dumbed down version of the idea! Ideas of cognitive dissonance and divergent thinking practices are things that I’m interested in.

If you apply that to what I did with his project, for about a year and a half or two years, I have had an idea in my head and I couldn’t kind of get what the idea was. I was reading Cormac McCarthy a lot, just reading, without a purpose, and I kept going back there and reading it again and again. I was also listening and re-listening to certain composers I hadn’t listened to for years. People like Messiaen and Morton Feldman, and others. What my brain was trying to do was reach out to find answers. Over the space of a year and a half, the answer was forming until ‘bang’ it popped up with an ‘idea’ — this series of works I’m writing. That’s the link into Cormac McCarthy’s work. My brain was sitting in a place of confusion; I was looking for some of those philosophical answers, those large life concepts and those sorts of ideas. The writings of Cormac McCarthy were hitting into the same place all the time and so my brain was just naturally pulled to it. I don’t know why I kept reading it. Actually this is what everybody does all the time. You don’t know why you keep going to these places but your brain is searching desperately for some sort of equilibrium; a release from the state of confusion it’s entered into.

MZ: And often what you’re looking for is something you can’t consciously articulate anyway…

KR: That is absolutely correct. You can’t articulate it because that’s what divergent thinking and cognitive dissonance are all about. You don’t know what you’re looking for. In terms of education – and I know I’m getting off track here – if you start pushing this into education systems, you need to encourage broad spaces where students are allowed to enter into places of confusion. You need to encourage confusion as a source of creativity.

MZ: And then you have to try and justify it by measuring the benefits of cognitive dissonance, which could be interesting!

KR: [laughs] Yes, it wouldn’t measure too well using standardised testing methods for literacy and numeracy which is what gets measured in our current system.

But back to the thing about Cormac McCarthy – I was looking for a whole bunch of answers, related to a lot of different things and not just about the music I was writing. I started to recognise the concepts he is talking about and to enter into the philosophies and the atmosphere his writing creates. His philosophy and the atmosphere he creates are also relevant to a lot of other things in my life. This music that I’m writing is deeply personal. I’m at a stage in my life with my career and compositions where I’m ready to compose music that makes significant personal statements. Up until this now, I would have had a bunch of musical ideas and whip them up quickly, composing really fast, banging out an album and moving onto the next project. I think that’s what you have to do as a younger person. But I’ve been doing this for a fair while now and it feels like I’m ready to deal with some of those larger life concepts. McCarthy’s writing is full of ideas about the fragility of life and the nonsense in the notion of the sanctity of life. He talks about the beauty and the ugliness in the same moment and also talks quite heavily on a supernatural and spiritual level. These are ideas that I’ve been thinking about for a long time but never been ready to deal with from an artistic sense myself.

MZ: Is this what you were referring on your blog, to when you talked about ideas you’d been grappling with for a decade and a half?

KR: Yeah, concepts of spirituality and those kinds of ideas. I was raised as a missionary child in Bangladesh. It’s an extreme environment and an extreme framework to place upon a child.  So once that’s happened you’re always dealing with those of ideas and you fight through them and those really strong – Christian I guess – overlays. As a young man you fight against them and get rid of some of them out of your life, or you try to, but they are always in there. Once a framework is established within a human being it’s very difficult to break. It’s taken me a long time to not fight it any more and to try to learn how to deal with it and be prepared to deal with it with my art.

MZ: A couple of times you’ve mentioned the word atmosphere in the same sentence as philosophy. When you’re undergoing this process of being open to the information that your brain seeks in its attempt to find equilibrium, how much of that is about the atmosphere and how much is about the words and the text that then just leaks into the music.

KR: If you’re talking about the rhythms of the language, not so much. When I talk to people about the fact that I’m doing this Cormac McCarthy thing and I use words like ‘sparseness’ to describe his writing, they’ll say ‘are you joking? His writing is so full, it’s packed!’ which is true, in terms of sentence structure. There is an incredible amount of detail that he writes in… but the overall feeling becomes sparser and sparser…

MZ: There is quite a bit of space in his work…

KR: Yes, space, and I guess the rhythms of the words in that way are really affecting me. You know, you probably got me on this one. Maybe I have done that.

McCarthy comes from a particular geographical location which is not what I am referencing either. He really places his writing in that space of ‘America’ which I guess also references artists like Morton Feldman who place their music in that vastness of America. For me it’s not about the geography. It’s more about the way he writes all that incredible detail about pretty much nothing – like how to saddle a horse up. It leaves you with a sense of sparseness.

MZ: [laughs] We’ll let you know how it goes, when we hear the music.

KR: Yes, please do! And interesting too, is that he really does have a heavy religious overtone to his writing and that’s something I’m trying to grapple with in my own life. And then it starts linking in to other things.  I also started to look at composers I hadn’t looked at for ages. Like Messiaen. Everything he wrote was about spirituality. I’m drawing on some of the techniques he uses, but more so his dedication to compose about areas of his life which were personally meaningful and things he was searching after.

As far as narrative goes, his writing is definitely linear, but it’s … it just is what it is. The Border Trilogy and those books – they do sort of follow a story. But Blood Meridian is just about that search… the bleakness of it all and also the madness of it all, but within the bleakness there is also this incredible beauty. Those concepts, like the sanctity of life, I really got from him. In our modern times we view life as the most precious thing. He writes in that mode of ‘life can be nothing’.

You can imagine about the times he was writing. Those ideas of humans being so important were not as prevalent. If someone annoyed you, you could just shoot his head off, and that wouldn’t have had the same huge consequences as it would today. Back then it was just another step in the path. It really shook me around and woke me up to this concept when I was reading him. We have this concept of the sanctity of life across the board and maybe it’s a nonsense. He’s an interesting one. He talks about the nothingness of life but at the same time talks about the intense beauty, so it’s all wrapped in together.

MZ: People say that he’s bleak, but perhaps he simply acknowledges the harshness of a reality which we cocoon ourselves from. Perhaps his writing simply goes right there and looks it in the face.

KR: That’s exactly what I got from it too, which is what I’m trying to deal with.  These are big concepts to deal with. I’m close to 40 now and as composer, I feel like I’m ready to deal with those conceptually larger  subject matters. If you’d asked me about 25 years ago to write about issues of spirituality I would have had a different outlook on it – probably a very immature outlook. Yet the seeds were sown by then and they’ve been …

MZ: …festering?

KR: Yes, festering. And that’s what the creative act is all about

MZ: You have a really busy life – how do you create a space where you are able to think deeply about these big issues?

KR: I think they just create their own spaces. I seem to apply this to almost everything I do. When you’re talking about the creative act, everything I do revolves around trying to find some kind of answer. It’s not like I have to sit down and start meditating.

MZ: So you don’t set aside a time each day or week… saying ‘on Saturday mornings between 9:00 and 11:00 I’ll think about these big issues’…?

KR: [laughs] No, for me it’s like a constant search, a constant attempt to be in that space to push my brain as fast and as hard as it can all the time in all sorts of different areas to find whatever the next thing is that I’m trying to create.

MZ: Are you changing as part of the process?

KR: Yes definitely, and I really don’t feel like I want to waste time doing projects I’m not interested in any more. And I guess my compositional style is changing too. It’s going back to a more ‘composer as dictator’ style!

MZ: What does that mean?

KR: Well, you know the composer in the olden days was a fascist dictator and whatever he wrote was what the musician had to do… basically the musicians bowed down to his compositions. And then I came through the free jazz thing about 15 – 20 years ago where you try to break down that political structure; where you’re taking the power away from the composer and handing it to the musicians. Improvising is all about that. But even in that context it’s a very difficult thing to do to break down those political structures because egos get involved on stage. As I’m getting older I’m seeking to take all of that power back as a composer. My music is going to be about my statements and even though I work with improvising musicians, there are still going to be a lot of controls put down on the actual improvising. Not allowing any sense that the musicians can just take it and run with it. This is not about that. Everything in this music has to be about the concept I’m trying to create; everything must bow down to the idea. I tell the musicians, ‘I can’t give you control so when you are improvising – and there is improvising in the music – it must be within these structures.’  I just find myself leaning back towards that model of composing.

MZ: How hard is it to find musicians who will work with you in that way?

KR: It’s very easy because improvising musicians like challenges. I did it a lot harder with The Escalators than I am doing it with this band.  With The Escalators, I set up rule structures and everything had to bow down to these rule structures; nobody was allowed to break the rules. It was an interesting process but improvising musicians are generally up for interesting processes. With this one it is not so strict but there is an understanding of what the music is trying to do. I’m not going to hand over to a crazy wild sax solo that potentially over a 10 minute solo will detract from what the whole of the piece is actually about.

MZ: So the idea is paramount?

KR: Yes, you’re serving the idea. You’re not just playing a bunch of songs. Jazz often operates in that way, where the song is just some sort of framework which will allow the musician to go wherever they want with it. That’s what I mean in terms of my personal style. If I’ve done all this work mentally to try and get to this place where I’m ready to write this music, then I need to have musicians who are supportive of that and who understand it.

MZ: Tell me about the band.

KR: The band is one of the best I’ve worked with. It’s a very interesting combination of instruments and personalities. It’s very rare that you get to play with saxophone, trombone, viola, violin, bass and drums. But also the musicians in this band come from a very dedicated approach to sound. We’re spending a lot of work on things like tuning, which hardly ever happens in the jazz format! It comes from Andrea who plays violin and Jason who plays viola – they play in the state orchestras and the MSO – it comes from their approach because they really want to get that stuff right. It is a lot of attention placed on small detail which is just fantastic. It’s a real pleasure to work in that environment. So concepts of time are really talked through; everybody’s different interpretation of what time is and finding a common time, everybody’s interpretation of tuning and finding a common tuning. Once you start working at that level of detail it’s really refreshing. It’s a really fantastic band.

We’ve just recorded a session at the ABC and that’s going to come out next year I hope. It’s always good with a band to go through a series of gigs and recordings. This band is a band of composers. Every time we do a concert and at least one of the band members writes for it.

MZ: Adam Simmons is writing for this one too, I think?

KR: Yes, Adam is writing for the first set of music and he’s basing his compositions around Dr Seuss. He’s going into it in an interesting way. It will be an interesting show for this concert, with two of us composing significant works, based around the literature idea, which just happened, out of nowhere. You saw the concert where I’d written some works based around the writing of Haruki Murakami and he had done some work on some Russian literature and we didn’t even talk about it. When we realised what we’d done – both responding to different literary works, we thought, ‘well that’s really weird!’

MZ: So it happened without you thinking about it?

KR: It happened really organically but now we’re actually going to focus on it. We thought, ‘well if it’s happening naturally, there must be a reason for it’.

Want to hear this music live?

Monday 12 December
Doors open at 7 for a 7.30 start
45 Flinders Lane Melbourne City

Ticket presales available : (03) 9662 9966

Collider is

Kynan Robinson – trombone
Adam Simmons – tenor saxophone
Ronnie Ferrella – drums
Anita Hustas – bass
Jason Bunn – viola
Andrea Keeble – violin




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