“I’m very against the grain,” says 41-year-old violist and composer Eyvind Kang, sipping homemade soup in the sunny living room of the Wallingford home he shares with his wife and sometime collaborator, vocalist Jessika Kenney.
Certainly no one who knows Kang’s music would dispute that, especially if they saw Kang playing his “10th NADE” while rollerblading in a skirt at Bumbershoot in the mid-’90s — or heard his scary improvisational trio Chunky Wedgies.
But there is something quieter and calmer about Kang these days. His most recent high-profile Seattle appearance was a meditative, Zen-like piece of performance art called “Time Medicine” at the Frye Art Museum that, while in no way mainstream — musicians including Native American flutist and singer Paul Wagner played in different rooms and at one point played the music in reverse — felt a world away from his past as an “enfant terrible.” And while Kang can still create abrasive, cacophonous orchestral noises for large ensemble, he’s just as likely to be studying traditional music with a master in some remote part of the globe.
“I don’t think I’ve mellowed,” Kang says. “But I feel more rooted. That doesn’t take anything away from my process — to be polite and show respect to elders. But I still don’t feel obliged to accept rules.”
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Indeed, Kang, whom performance artist Laurie Anderson enthusiastically describes as “a brilliant, brilliant musician,” is still about subversion, but it’s more obvious now that he’s also building something. A Seattleite since 1991, Kang has played on more than 50 albums, toured with Anderson, Beck and Seattle guitarist Bill Frisell, and is known all over the world by pockets of like-minded souls, whether they play jazz, rock, electronic, experimental, folk, “world” or classical music.
Raised in Canada and Iceland, Kang, like so many of the Emerald City’s generative young artists, is an outlier, and a habitual traveler determined to find, through music, spiritual sustenance in a broken world. A voracious scholar who might mention Paracelsus in one breath and Prince in the next, Kang considers his project nothing less than the redefinition of music itself.
“He’s a real intellectual, the real thing,” says Seattle jazz trumpeter and composer Jim Knapp, whose compositions are the focus of the string ensemble Scrape, which Kang co-founded.
That Kang would have multicultural interests is no surprise. He was born in 1971 in Corvallis, Ore., to the now-prominent Icelandic-Canadian author, Kristjana Gunnars, who was then a student at Oregon State University. Kang moved the following year to Toronto, where his Korean-Canadian father, who would eventually work for the progressive New Democratic Party, pursued a Ph.D. His parents’ 1980 separation and their peripatetic careers took Kang on a childhood odyssey that included a stint in Regina (where he started Suzuki violin lessons at age 6), two years in Iceland, teenage time in Winnipeg and, finally, two years at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton.
“I always felt like I was trying to understand the place where we lived,” says Kang, “I felt like an immigrant.”
With his outsider’s perspective, it’s no wonder he was drawn to an indigenous point of view. Edward Said’s book “Orientalism,” among other texts, along with generous helpings of non-European music, eventually led Kang to see classical music as a sort of Western propaganda. Subsequent conversations in Yelm with Washington state Native American activist Janet McCloud, whose “fish-ins” led to the 1974 Boldt Decision that restored Indian treaty rights, reinforced this view.
“Where are we living?” asks Kang, whose gentle but steady speech has something of a Native American cadence about it. “What’s this place made out of? … It takes a long time to reconstruct, which is a process of decolonizing the mind.”
Remarkably, says Kang, African-American jazz musicians have managed to do exactly that.
“How could you recover Africa within a European instrument — the double bass?” he asks. “But they did it, intuitively.”
Kang came to Cornish College in 1991 to study jazz, after meeting Frisell in Edmonton. The great jazz violinist Michael White ultimately became Kang’s teacher. White made him see, says Kang, that music wasn’t about recordings but “people passing on culture.”
That holistic point of view has informed everything Kang has done since graduating in ’93. His work is astonishingly wide-ranging. Last year’s “A Narrow Garden” (Ipecac) featured 30 musicians playing songs inspired by the 11th-12th century troubadour poet Guilhem IX. Written on Vashon Island, the music includes sounds of nature and wooden flutes, pastoral passages for bassoon, Middle Eastern drums and scales, children’s voices, processional vocals and bells ringing, all of which evoke the feeling of a Sunday stroll through the Middle Ages.
Kang studied the Persian stringed instrument, the setar, with Hossein Omoumi (who taught at the University of Washington). “A Narrow Garden” reflects Kang’s discovery of the historical connections between European, Persian and Armenian poetic traditions of courtly love.
But the intellectual background isn’t essential to appreciating Kang’s music, which is keenly emotional, and, observes Frisell, eerily “alchemical.”
“He’s got this just incredible gift for immediately knowing what the center of the music is,” says the guitarist. “I’ve grown to count on him.”
Kang’s third instrumental focus after the viola and setar is an Indonesian plucked zither called the kecapi, which he studied in West Java, while Kenney worked with the late Sundanese vocal master Ibu Euis Komaria. The two recently collaborated on a haunting album, “The Face of the Earth” (Ideologic Organ), released on vinyl and featuring songs based on prayer, riddles and poems of romantic love, one by the 12th-13th century Persian poet and mystic, the Divan of Attar. Kang’s first album review ever in The New York Times described the disc as “gorgeous” and “serious, refined music.”
Kang has a seemingly insatiable appetite for musical knowledge. When he played in Anderson’s band for the world premiere of “Delusion,” in Vancouver, Canada, Anderson recalls that between rehearsals Kang would run back to his dressing room to practice.
“This is the picture of I have of him — running towards music — and loving it so much that he can’t bear to be away from it one second longer.”
Kang sees his quest as a lifelong conversation.
“It’s like math,” he says. “Somebody asks a question and the answer comes in 500 or 1,000 years. We’re still having a dialogue with Pythagoras — you know?”
The math connection isn’t coincidental. Kang’s piece at the Frye was a riff on the way composers traditionally divide time into neat time signatures — three-four, four-four, five-four, etc.
“My experience of time is that it’s not a linear experience at all,” says Kang. “Because it’s consciousness, experience, and the inner experience is mixed with the outer. Or memory. Or dreams.”
Kang originally thought to call the piece “time signature,” but when he pondered how fragmented and isolated people are, he decided what was really needed was “time medicine.”
“Once,” he recalls, “when I was taking leave of Janet McCloud’s place, I said, ‘Thank you … and she said, ‘For sharing time?’ Those are exactly the terms I’m working with now. Sharing time. I want to share time with musicians and with people that listen.”
Paul de Barros: email@example.com or 206-464-3247