Kevin Parks

[Live] Joe Foster, Kevin Parks, Ryu Hankil at Dotolim in Seoul, South Korea (April 27th, 2018)



By: Jared Redmond


The dotolim (닻올림) series has been a mainstay of the small but active experimental improvisation scene in Seoul for a good decade. Last Friday’s excellent concert brought together three legends of that local scene, heavy hitters with years of Korea- and internationally-based work behind them: Ryu Hankil, Kevin Parks, and Joe Foster. Ryu Hankil is a household name among experimental music aesthetes in Korea. His large body of work extends from glitchy electro-pop (as early-2000s project Daytripper) to hardware- and object-based free improvisation and digital noise, and he performs perhaps more often in Europe than he does in his home country. Kevin Parks is a composer as well as an improviser, currently teaching music at the Catholic University of Daegu, and Joe Foster, who has been based in Korea for at least 15 years, is well known as a free improviser of music ranging from the very harsh to the very weird (this is meant as a profound compliment).

Their trio improvisation was performed as two sets of about 40 minutes each. Both sets stayed away from harsher ’noise’ territory: although at times the sounds leaned toward the more extreme, that extremity always occurred as the result of the improvisation’s narrative, rather than as a brutality for its own sake. Throughout it all, a studious Ryu at his laptop provided a tasteful backdrop of digital glitches and drones which infrequently even intimated definite rhythm. From within that sonic landscape emerged the processed instrument, object, and hardware sounds of Foster and Parks. At times, the keyclicks of Ryu typing commands became a subtle musical addition unto themselves, his fingers announcing shifts in the underlying digital canvas.

For the first set, Parks spent a lot of time with his electric guitar, carefully working a radically detuned low string to create e-bow drones. Foster took on a decidedly ‘motivic’ approach, using amplified tuning forks and extended techniques on his trumpet periodically, as recurring fragments which created a sense of unity within the stream-of-consciousness flow of sound. In the second set, these motivic impulses found their outlet through Foster’s intermittent striking of claves. Parks complimented the dry and ritualistic sounds with smoother, more atmospheric sounds of his own: amplified and reverberated springs and metal objects which rumbled, creaked, and groaned.

Highlights of the acoustically-generated sounds: Foster’s amplified and processed music box, which when cranked forward or backward yielded either sounds of slow, twisted bells, or foreboding mechanical rattles. And from Parks: ball bearings of various sizes dropped into amplified metal bowls, as great stones into the abyss. In general, the chamber music skills of all three musicians were apparent, although Parks was especially noticeable, his head leaning toward the other performers to carefully sense the right moment to chime in or bow out. In only one moment was the natural flow of the music rather unnaturally stopped and re-started, as if a collective sense of when the improvisation had ‘finished’ had not been equally felt by all three players. But such moments are their own risk and reward in such music: a byproduct of the mental electricity – for the musicians as well as the audience – of never knowing quite what will come next.

Kevin Parks / Vanessa Rossetto - Severe Liberties (ErstAEU)

Purchase Severe Liberties here

The pairing of Kevin Parks and Vanessa Rossetto may, at first, seem odd. Parks seems largely interested in pure portrayals of improvisation—his collaborations with Joe Foster and Alice Hui-Sheng Chang are comprised of untouched recordings and his live performances don't show signs of prior preparation. Rossetto, on the other hand, would primarily consider herself a composer. And since the release of Dogs in English Porcelain, her records have been the result of meticulous assemblage. What makes Severe Liberties so satisfying, then, is how these two elements—composition and improvisation—come together so harmoniously.

As Matthew Revert noted in Surround, Rossetto's music is interesting because her "source material is often gathered from improvised experimentation" but "is made to exist within a compositional framework." On her solo releases, field recordings are frequently juxtaposed with instrumentation or one another. This consequent reframing highlights, or perhaps imbues, certain emotional qualities to the sounds we hear. Furthermore, the musical qualities of these sounds are explored, and there's a spirit of randomness to them, even if they're coming from pre-programmed machines like those in "348315" and "Whole Stories".

Parks, then, seems like a perfect counterpart to Rossetto because of how talented he is as an improviser. Acts Have Consequences, for example, sounds like a carefully coordinated record. There's a precise balance in dynamics between both Parks and Foster and it's surprising that each track is completely improvised and unedited. That Acts Have Consequences sounds just as thoughtfully constructed as Parks' record with Hong Chulki and Jin Sangtae, an album that was mixed and edited, only further attests to his abilities.

The combination of these two artists leaves us with Severe Liberties, an album whose title refers to the numerous edits that were made with the source material—hours of improvised recordings taken in Vanessa's home. And as the record starts, it makes that idea known to the listener with the sound of contact microphone-derived sounds bouncing across both channels. As Revert's fantastic cover art portrays, Severe Liberties is a record about exploring domestic spaces. It's about our homes and the familiarity of it both as a place and a feeling. And with three tracks that range between 14 and 22 minutes, we're able to get a feel for this space. As is characteristic of previous albums from both Parks and Rossetto, these long-form pieces allow for an involved engagement with these tracks and get a sense of their unfolding narratives.

There are a lot of sounds we hear across these 53 minutes—zippers, the stacking of dishware, processed electronics that sound like fireworks—but it's all so purposefully considered. Take "the details of the anecdote": early in the track, Vanessa walks around and we hear floorboards and doors creak. She eventually turns on a faucet and water begins to funnel down the drain. A high-pitched tone then appears, and because it's so noticeable, it naturally draws our ears back to the running water. And in that moment, we're able to compare both sounds and acknowledge and appreciate the inconsistent rhythm of the water's movement. A softer electronic hum soon appears underneath to assuage the previous tone and the piece moves forward. This sort of methodology permeates Severe Liberties and is exactly what makes it so captivating: there's a constant redirecting of our ears—across field recordings and instrumentation, timbres and rhythms, melody and silence—and it feels like a tour of the house, perhaps not lineally in space or time, but in mood.

Despite the variety of sounds that exist inside Severe Liberties, a few seem especially significant. One of those is the use of voices. While Rossetto has incorporated vocalizing before, and even used her own voice to provide a meta-narrative in Whole Stories, what's here seems especially candid and naturally presented. About three minutes into "seeing as little as possible", we hear her casually talking with someone who is presumably an acquaintance. It's a short exchange, and it's obfuscated by a bit of noise, but it feels all the more personal because of it. The attention isn't drawn towards the conversation. Instead, it's just another sound in the mix, another element that brings up a familiarity of home—the short but polite conversations we have with neighbors. And at the end of "they sit", we hear Rossetto ask Parks, "are you getting tired?" It's humorously positioned, as Parks gets cut off and the following track abruptly starts, but it also provides a glimmer of humanness to the piece. It's safe to say that the human voice would provide such a feeling regardless of what it said, but it's also the genuineness of the question here, and the sound of a weary Parks replying "yea" that makes it so effective. Home is, after all, our place of rest and where we should feel cared for.

Even more emotional is Kevin Parks' guitar. It's often used here alongside contact microphones to create different textures but what really stands out is Parks' decision to incorporate highly melodic instrumentation. These passages appear about halfway through each track and when they arrive, dominate the mood of the piece entirely; it's a sharp contrast with how all the rest of the sounds on the album function. And consequently, it's why these sparse guitar chords and melodies feel more potent than when they appeared on Acts Have Consequences. Nevertheless, Parks' guitar feels wholly appropriate, essentially contributing to the nostalgic atmosphere and tone that the album often evokes.

Perhaps the most interesting element on Severe Liberties, though, is silence. There are four extended periods in which we hear absolutely nothing and they each function in multiple ways. For one, they provide a nice flow to the album; their presence is a building of momentum through repose. At the same time, their placement in each track also allows for the sounds that precede and follow them to be all the more effective. Most compelling, however, is how they allow for us as listeners to fill in the space with the sounds of our own home. It becomes a participatory event, which naturally makes the record all the more intimate.

There are numerous reasons as to why this record is such an accomplishment but it ultimately comes down to how beautifully these artists' styles converge. They're both incredibly talented, of course, but the natural merging of styles on Severe Liberties goes beyond that; it's because both Parks and Rossetto were willing to accommodate their own ideas for a greater whole. Various aspects of Severe Liberties sound characteristically Parks or Rossetto-esque but the final product is something unlike anything in either artists' discographies. And for that reason alone, Severe Liberties is worth hearing. Fortunately, it's a success in many other ways as well.