Roland Kayn was a composer who pushed his music to the furthest extremes he could reach while doing his best to remove himself as completely as possible from the work. Kayn composed what he called “cybernetic music,” building elaborate electronics to generate systems that would respond in unplanned-for ways. He would build the basic system and turn it on, letting it self-regulate with no more human input. As Massimo Ricci described it, he was “leaving behind both the narrative element and the psycho/emotional minutiae usually associated with the notions of ‘composer’ and ‘art.’ ” “Music is sound, and sound is self-sufficient,” Kayn once said.

How does a composer evolve to the point where he is interested in sound and music but no longer interested in traditional ideas such as harmony, rhythm, or melody? Why does a composer want to remove himself as completely as possible from his composition? Kayn’s life was a direct response to his interest in using information theory as the basis for his expansion of classical music into the realm of the electronic.

Born in Reutlingen, Germany in 1933, Kayn started his music studies after World War II. Speaking of his early years to Mark van de Voort, he described how “in my home there was always music playing. My father played piano, violin, cello, and harmonium, and of course there was the radio.” His Orchestral Piece No. 1 “Metanoia” and Chamber Concerto for six solo wind instruments and percussion were written in 1951, though by the end of the decade he would disown all of his work prior to 1955.

In 1952 Kayn began his studies at Stuttgart’s Staatliche Hochschule für Musik where he remained until 1955, focusing on composition, piano, and organ. Perhaps more important to his long-term development as a composer, Kayn also studied at the Technische Hochschule, where he was part of a group centered around Max Bense, a philosopher working to combine the new ideas of the information age with what Thomas Patteson, in The Time of Roland Kayn’s Cybernetic Music, called the “intellectual bloodstream” of Europe.  

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Bense curated exhibitions dedicated to computer art, concrete poetry, and other artistic forms, and believed that “the improbability of aesthetic states can be produced mechanically through a methodical combination of planning and chance.” The idea that one can logically plan for unpredictability was a foundational idea for Kayn, one expressed extensively through his music.

Kayn was first introduced to electronic composition in 1953 at the Westdeutscher Rundfunk Studios in Cologne. Throughout the 1950s, he explored the possibilities of electronics while continuing to compose for acoustic instruments, and by the end of the decade, he’d spent time working in most of the major electronic studios across Europe. He began work on “Impulse,” his first major electronic work, while living in Rome. “It is very simple in its construction—it’s a tone mix from different sine tones, a kind of sound bundle, and that collection of sounds is put together just like a triad with other sounds of the same distance,” he told van der Voort. “These collapse and new sounds appear.”

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1964 saw the founding of the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza. Il Gruppo was formed by the composer Franco Evangelisiti and others interested in exploring avant-garde ideas through improvisation. Its aesthetic was somewhere between free improvisation, jazz, modern classical music, and electronic music. Improvisation—especially the randomness that can occur within a group of improvisers—was a key element in Kayn’s development as a composer. In the liner notes to Kayn’s “Tektra,” Frans von Rossum wrote that “investigation and contemplation of the basic material concerns of information theory, electronics and improvisation led him to the concept of cybernetic music, the essence of which is completely opposed to the fundamental principles of Western music.” But unable to integrate his cybernetic methods with the the group’s improvisatory framework, Kayn left Il Gruppo in 1968 to focus primarily on acoustic and electronic cybernetic music that drew heavily from his interest in information theory, composition, electronics, and improvisation.

For Kayn, there was a distinct opposition between computer music and cybernetic music. Computer music was an extension of the role traditionally played by the composer, who dictated all aspects of the music, using a computer programming language instead of a traditionally notated score. Cybernetic music on the other hand wasn’t a way to produce predetermined sounds, but a way to generate entirely new content that occurs in unexpected ways. Patteson suggested that for Kayn, cybernetic music was “nothing less than a new stage in the development of electroacoustic art.” As Kayn himself said, it was intended as “a generative process in which existing sound materials are fed back upon themselves in order to create deviations from that which came before.” The more material fed into a piece, the less predictable the output.

Moving to Holland in 1970 enabled Kayn to start working in the studios at the Institute for Sonology in Utrecht, where he continued to explore his cybernetic systems, generating many of his best known electronic works including “Simultan” (1970-72), a “cybernetic-electronic project for 1-5 rooms,” “Monades” (1971), and the lengthy “Tektra” (1980-82), originally released as a six-record box set, later reissued on four compact discs, with a runtime of nearly five hours. These pieces are much weirder than most of the contemporaneous electronic music coming out of Europe at the time. Less analytical than other composers, the works scream and howl in a primal way, digging deep into the collective psyche of the post-War Continent. Kayn described his working life at the Institute for Sonology to van de Voort: “Every summer holiday, when there were no students, I could work there. The studio was empty for six weeks. Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Christmas—those were my working days. This method I maintained from 1970-1993.”

Over time, Kayn’s music evolved into compositions which lasted for hours and hours. “A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound,” which is being released on the Frozen Reeds label for the first time at the end of October, runs to almost 14 hours.

Sonically, much of the material for “Milky Way” dates from the early 1980s. The piece in its current form was assembled by Kayn in 2009, two years before his death. The audio was painstakingly restored by Jim O’Rourke over the course of six weeks. Reached via email, O’Rourke recalled his introduction to, and fascination with, Kayn’s work:

I first heard Mr. Kayn’s work around 28 years ago. . . . Immediately “Tektra” and “Infra” in particular became almost like a goal to me, it was so close to what I heard in my head as the music I wanted to hear/make, that its refusal to really give up how it is made continuously challenged me. The scope and freedom it had from being tied to a lot of the forms and gestures that most electronic/electro-acoustic work did was truly an inspiration to me.

O’Rourke touches on two of the most important points about Kayn’s music: “Its refusal to really give up how it is made,” and its difference from previous forms of electronic music. Even if one had the right equipment and had a perfect schematic of one of Kayn’s systems, it would be nearly impossible to recreate the events that lead to its creation. These pieces were performed exactly once, in the studio when they were recorded—though it almost feels like the piece wasn’t performed, but captured the way one would catch a wild beast.

I often explained this work using the image of stones thrown into water,” Kayn told van de Voort, “certain wave movements occur, and if you throw four stones at certain intervals, you will see very complex intersections. As a kind of photographer, you take those intersections and you use them again. The resulting sounds drive other events, and then with a switch, a controller or a mixing desk, you can make an entire piece.

“A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound” is a monumental work by any standard. Its total length is 13 hours and 43 minutes spread across 22 movements, presented in the physical form of 16 compact discs in a rectangular box. The longest movement is almost 57 minutes, with the shortest clocking in at just over 18. Most are individual, but “Qyrials” has two parts and “Ecerit” has three. The names feel synthetic—in the tradition of how Kayn named the earlier piece “Tektra,” a made-up word that somehow sounds like it belongs to human history.

“Milky Way” is wild and strange, sounding like the dreams of the Star Child from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” or perhaps the nightmares of William Gibson’s Wintermute construct. Perhaps it’s what Saturn sounded like as Cassini plunged towards it. The music feels deeply organic, a living being grown from the seeds of Kayn’s cybernetic system. Frans van Rossum described Kayn’s music as “a continually changing resonating structure…an artifice which he constructs and sets in motion, but once he has done this, it is left to move through space, without outside interference, according to its own internal laws.”

When the electronic cybernetic composition “Scanning” was finally premiered in 2005, its 10 and a half hour run time was split across two evenings. “Milky Way” has never been performed in public. It’s almost hard to imagine sitting through the full thing in one long play back. Being able to take one’s time with piece makes it much more approachable, though the intensity of one long performance would probably be something you’d remember for the rest of your life.

Kayn continued writing both acoustic and electronic cybernetic music for the rest of his life, but getting it performed was always another matter. In the interview with van de Voort, included in the “Milky Way” box set, Kayn compared that struggle to releasing albums directly through his own label, Reiger-records-reeks:

It has become meaningless to write orchestra scores, even though they are still so refined.

I was working on the “Diagonal-Sinfonie” (1998) for large orchestra. The work does not contain any static sounds, but the sounds all move in a diagonal direction. Finally I put the work aside. To bring a piece like this to life, one has to deal with copies and publishers, you have to find a conductor, and a sympathetic artistic director in the orchestral management. So you have eight to nine agencies that should follow each other —that doesn’t really work anymore. Certainly, if you look at the resonance you get when you release CDs, it’s a different story. CDs can be sent to any country of the world right away, so everyone can listen, whether or not you find the work a revelation. The music is soon among the people.