Kaj Duncan David, who lives in Berlin, was born in Randers but raised abroad. © Anders Bigum

Man among the machines

Ever since he was a teenager, Kaj Duncan David’s music has been intimately linked with software and machines. His next major work will use artificial intelligence as both a method and a subject.
– interview with Kaj Duncan David

Kaj Duncan David’s next major work will be inspired by Stanisław Lem’s novel Golem XIV (1981), in which a military-grade computer gains such levels of intelligence that it supersedes the project it has been assigned and begins to question the motives of the US generals who built it. But what sounds like a dystopian nightmare is actually tale of moral redemption: rather than turning on its human creators, the machine, Golem, points out the futility of war. ‘What’s so interesting about it,’ says David, ‘is the way in which Lem dissipates our fears about technology.’

David was born in 1988 in Randers but raised in Turkey and the UK, returning to Denmark for his studies at the Danish Institute of Electronic Music in Aarhus with Simon Steen-Andersen. His creative language is almost wholly electronic, with technology old and new allowing him to hard-wire lighting into his works and ensure light effects spring from the same impulses as sounds. His music is digitally realized, much of it harvested or fine-tuned from algorithmic processes or computer-driven loops and layering.

‘When I look at my own life, I see that a lot of important things happened by accident or by mistake’

If the idea of artificial intelligence superseding human intelligence is, as Golem XIV suggests, an inevitable and progressive stage in the history of the planet (‘there are plenty of people who say it’s bollocks,’ cautions David) the implications for artists are more locally troubling. Might composers of all disciplines and hues find themselves in the crosshairs of a digital behemoth determined to do them out of a job? When computers are intelligent enough to plot foolproof military strategies before deciding such a pursuit is illogical, they are surely intelligent enough to create the sort of logic-driven music written by composers from Bach to Aphex Twin to Kaj Duncan David?  

What computers don’t understand
Not so fast. For six months in 2012, David worked as a research assistant at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver where academics were feeding intelligent computers endless MIDI files in an attempt to push them into composing rule-based music on their own that was indistinguishable from the models provided, written by real-life human composers. ‘The way I see it, the music the computers produced represented an averaging-out of everything they had taken in. They were enacting nothing more than an averaging process,’ says David. ‘It’s a cliché that human creativity is illogical. But it’s only some degree of cultural awareness that tells you when to break this rule or that rule. That’s the one thing computers don’t understand. And when I look at my own life, I see that a lot of important things happened by accident or by mistake.’

‘It’s only some degree of cultural awareness that tells you when to break this rule or that rule’

Logical illogic – or vice versa, depending which way you look at it – has been a subject of interest for composers and artists throughout history. A particular realization of it was seen in David’s most significant work to date, the 90-minute ‘centrifugal operetta-solo’ (according to his website) or ‘composed artist talk’ (his own description in person) Up Close and Personal, created in 2018 with director Troels Primdahl for the Münchener Biennale. In this piece, which will be seen next year at Spor Festival in Aarhus, a character played by the countertenor Daniel Gloger begins to talk about his life in what we believe is his own apartment, before ‘the room starts to play more and more with him’. David’s own brand of musicalized light begins to yank Gloger’s character from subject to subject, from banality to profundity, as he eventually drifts towards complete dissolution.

‘A lot of the criticism after the performance was like, “is this music theatre?” But I’m not particularly interested in that,’ says David. ‘It’s as composed as a piece of music is: if you consider that in a film you have diegetic and non-diegetic music, it was similar here in that sometimes there is music coming from the loudspeakers that creates an atmosphere around the character, sometimes he is singing and sometimes the music is the room itself. That was one way in which it was a new experience for me: the way the room was treated as an instrument but had a theatrical element with a live performer too.’

Daniel Gloger. © Smailovic
Daniel Gloger i »Up Close and Personal« ved Münchener Biennale 2018. © Smailovic

Light music
I meet Kaj Duncan David at the Nordic Music Days in Helsinki in early November, a few hours before he performs his solo work Relay (2015). In this piece for laptop and three light bulbs, the amplified sounds of the electro-magnetic switches that turn the light bulbs on and off are looped into polyrhythmic textures or, eventually, played more straight in the resemblance of a techno track. The parallel illumination of the lights themselves shows us the music spatially, not least as various forms of David’s own shadow are thrown around the performance space (in this case, the large main auditorium at Bio Rex on Mannerheimintie). ‘I didn’t realize at first that the lights would create such amazing shadows, I just thought people would be looking at the lights themselves,’ says David of the piece, which he has been performing in various versions for the past three years.

Relay sets out clearly enough David’s quest to create multi-sensory experiences in which music and light are not seen as separate entities but interdependent, born of a mutual source. All but one of the works he has written since his time in Aarhus – which followed undergraduate studies at Goldsmiths College in London but preceded his studies with Manos Tsangaris at the Hochschule für Musik in Dresden – include elements of light production. ‘I studied music, I’m a composer, I work with music software and I perform in a time-based medium, so the way I use the lights becomes musical, if you see what I mean,’ he says.

‘I work with music software and I perform in a time-based medium, so the way I use the lights becomes musical’

That use of light has purified David’s musical voice. ‘My pieces tend to be extremely reduced in terms of musical material; at first that was a necessity, in order to reach a point where the light and sound were on a similar level. If you have extremely complex music, then the light can be extremely complex as well, but I was interested in reducing it down to a situation in which a simple sound is played and the light goes on, and when the sound stops the light goes out.’

The process he describes is set out clearly in Relay. But surely the erratic, 90-minute personal breakdown of Up Close and Personal meant David was far less in control of form? ‘Well, I think the form in Up Close is actually very clear, because there is a very brutal formal principle which is that the character is interrupted, and he has to spring from one energy level to another. It’s a hard cut between two different and distinct worlds, in that he is more and more being controlled from the outside.’

Layers of artificial intelligence
Which brings us back to Stanisław Lem. ‘I have become quite excited by the idea, in an intellectual sense,’ says David of the speculative realist notion that capitalism will crumble under the influence of intelligent machines, leading the way to a bright new dawn in which humanity can concern itself only with that which the computers aren’t interested in handling – art, expression, creativity perhaps. But it’s inconceivable that David would be a composer without software. ‘I have made music more or less in the same way since I was 15, when I bought my first computer,’ he says. ‘Rhythmic patterns tend to be intuitive and it’s quite timeline based. I like to listen again and again and remove things until the timing is just right. I’ve never written anything using rhythmic patterns written straight onto paper.’

‘My pieces tend to be extremely reduced in terms of musical material’

In his 2018 release Kjam, a subordinate computer does the legwork, superimposing, in different configurations, layers of sounds recorded by David and his collaborator Assaf Gidron at the Stockhausen Studio in the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. Over a period of eight years, David and Gidron auditioned the countless hours of material that resulted and remixed it into a distilled series of seven broad, deep, recessed musical canvasses spanning 48 minutes. ‘Yes, it was a process of purification,’ he says, with the implication that only human ears could have got near the levels of sensitivity with which the seven tracks resound.

David dismisses any attempt to align that process of distillation with a certain trend in Nordic music right now. But he has opinions on the music of others, and indeed he used to voice them in Seismograf (‘I haven’t read [those reviews] in a long time’). ‘There is a certain fieriness that gets put into you as a composition student at Darmstadt and so on,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot of testosterone and it tends to emerge in talking nastily about music you don’t like, which I don’t appreciate even though I was probably doing it when I was studying.’

On the contrary, he believes that his fellow Nordic composers ‘stand out’ at gatherings like Darmstadt and Donaueschingen. ‘There is a lot of really good music coming out of Denmark and the Nordic countries and Simon [Steen-Andersen] is really at the forefront of that.’ How would he describe it in aesthetic terms? ‘More pluralism, more openness, more use of multimedia. I would say it’s an approach that isn’t burdened by tradition, as you might get in Germany or France.’

Serving something bigger
The same might be said of David himself. ‘I don’t actually have a very good knowledge of Danish or British classical music history,’ he says. ‘If I’m honest, I might listen to one piece of contemporary classical music at home a month. I fell into the contemporary scene because I found the whole idea of “composing” music, as you learn to do at school, quite fascinating. But one point of difference in the electronic music scene is that we don’t have the same level of discourse surrounding it; there isn’t shared language with which to discuss it, which of course comes with advantages and disadvantages.’ 

Up next, just before the Golem project for Scenatet, David is working with his choreographer partner on a new solo piece born out of residencies in France and Belgium. ‘It relates to the multi-sensorial experience that I’m more and more interested in,’ he says. ‘I don’t like the word Gesamtkunstwerk, but this immersive evening-filling performance which is more like a film or a theatre piece really interests me.’

‘One point of difference in the electronic music scene is that [...] there isn’t shared language with which to discuss it, which of course comes with advantages and disadvantages’

The difference, as with Up Close and Personal, is the participation of another performer. ‘A lot of it is about processing her voice and creating textures that accompany her, so creating music that serves a bigger thing rather than being the big thing in itself.’ And how is that? ‘Sometimes very frustrating. And not because of ego, but more because it’s quite a brutal process – like film composing – in which you have to be prepared to throw good material away when it doesn’t work. But I am really enjoying it.’