Interview – “Exploring the Divine: Unveiling the Mystical Journey of ‘Evensong’ with Composer Kevin Keller”

by the partae

Your latest album, Evensong, seems to be a departure from your previous work, incorporating vocal music and drawing inspiration from Early Christian concepts. What led you to explore this new direction?

“Evensong” came to me in a vision. One day in October 2021, I was suddenly struck with the idea of incorporating songs by Hildegard of Bingen into a tapestry of string, piano, and synthesizers. All at once, the title and concept of the album were clear to me, and from that day forward, I was laser-focused on realizing this vision. I can’t really say where this album came from. Perhaps it was divine intervention, as the album felt like it landed in my lap, fully formed.

Could you share some insights into your creative process when incorporating the plainchant melodies of Hildegard of Bingen into your compositions for Evensong?

Although the theme and concept of “Evensong” was always clear to me, this ended up being the most challenging album I’ve ever made. My creative process was very slow, taking me a full year of experimenting with different sonic combinations and sounds before arriving at the one that felt right. Once I had just the right approach, the album came together fairly quickly. While composing the music, I was using existing recordings of the different chants and placing them into my demo tracks. Once everything was flowing, I then had to transcribe the vocal parts into traditional sheet music so that we could record the vocals in the studio.

The concept of Evensong takes listeners on a journey through various stages of life, from conception to beyond death. How did you approach translating these themes musically?

Very slowly and carefully! Once I decided to use the Church modes as my guide, things became a lot easier. It was a happy coincidence that the first Hildegard chant I adapted was “Favus distillans”, which talks about the virgin Ursula waiting to embrace God. I took this as a metaphor for conception, and the image of an ovum floating in the Fallopian tubes waiting to be fertilized. This image led to the sounds you hear on “Evensong 1”. The album then proceeded from there, moving through the different stages of life, using an ascending pattern through the Church modes as the guide.

You’ve been composing music for nearly three decades now. How has your approach to music evolved over the years, and how does Evensong reflect this evolution?

Well actually, I’ve been composing for over 40 years, and recording albums for 30 years. My approach to music has always come from a place of improvisation and experimentation, while exploring the mysteries of life and death. Each album has explored a different theme or idea: memory, death, mysticism, grief, loss. While the sounds and instruments differ from one album to the next, there is always a common thread that weaves through the entire catalog.

Can you elaborate on the significance of the church modes and their influence on the different tracks in Evensong? How did you use these modes to convey the emotions and narratives of each stage of life?

The Church modes were the key to how this story unfolds. Since I had chosen “Favus distillans” as the opening chant, and this chant is written in Phrygian mode, the subsequent chapters of the story were influenced by the modes that follow Phrygian. So, “Evensong 2” has a very mystical and magical feel to it because it’s in Lydian mode, while “Evensong 3” is more uplifting and childlike because it’s in Mixolydian. Those two tracks are about early childhood, and the sense of play and wonder that we all have at that age. Those two modes really helped express those emotions. And this was also the case with Aeolian (Evensong 4), Ionian (Evensong 6), and Dorian mode (Evensong 7). I decided to end the album with the same mode that I began with (Phrygian), since it felt right to close the circle and take the listener back to the beginning of the journey.

The combination of classical textures and modern timbres in Evensong creates a unique sonic landscape. How did you strike a balance between tradition and innovation in your production process?

This has always been a big mystery to me! When I’m working, I find myself in “the zone” and I don’t really remember how the music is made. I am always searching for new sounds and textures, and in this case, I combined those new sounds with the traditional sounds of voices and strings. Much of it was created intuitively, and I was often very surprised by the outcome. “Evensong 3”, in particular, was a huge surprise to me, because the Hildegard song that I used (“Columba aspexit”) ended up fitting perfectly into that percolating synthesizer music. It was an experiment that simply worked.

The album’s fifth track, “Evensong 5,” is described as the most intense. What inspired the intensity of this particular piece, and how does it contribute to the overall narrative arc of the album?

“Evensong 5” deals with the conflict and struggles of adulthood, as well as the uncertainty we all face. It was a challenging piece to compose. It is expressing that crisis point in our lives between childhood and old age. It’s the turning point of the album, just as it is the turning point in our life’s journey.

What role do the four female voices play in Evensong, and how did you approach integrating them into the compositions?

The voices are the main characters in the story. They are like the narrators, guiding you through the journey. As such, it was more about integrating the music into the vocals, rather than the other way around. The voices and the text were the focal points around which the music grew and developed. 

Your music has often been described as deeply contemplative. How do you cultivate this sense of contemplation in your compositions, particularly in Evensong?

I think that it grows out of my own contemplations. I put myself completely into my work, and my music is a direct reflection of what’s going on for me as I compose it. It’s a very personal creative process. Since I am a fairly solitary person who spends a lot of time outdoors contemplating life’s mysteries, this comes through naturally in the music that I create.

Can you tell us more about the plainchant melody you wrote in homage to Hildegard’s style for the album’s finale? 

For “Evensong 8”, I found an Anglican prayer for the end of the day, and this became the text. I composed an original plainchant in Phrygian mode to express the words and the images in the text. That melody came to me intuitively. It wasn’t something that I spent a great deal of time on. Much like the rest of the album, “Evensong 8” felt like it arrived in my studio fully formed

As a composer based in New York, how does the city’s vibrant music scene influence your work and artistic vision?

I find myself being more influenced by the art and architecture of New York City. I regularly visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and other art museums and galleries around the City, and this inspires me a great deal. I don’t attend that many music events, surprisingly. I sort of live in my own little bubble!

Looking ahead, what do you hope listeners will take away from Evensong, and what can they expect from your future projects?

I hope that people are inspired by “Evensong”, and that the music accompanies them on their own life’s journey. The same goes for my future albums. I never know where the journey will take me next.

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