Radio Remnants

Talking with Ken Field

Radio host of WMBR's (88.1 FM) The New Edge

8 August 2006

 

Ken Field is an active musician and recording artist whose credits include the highly acclaimed experimental music of Birdsongs of the Mesozoic and the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble. Ken is an accomplished composer, alto saxophonist, and flautist. He's also radio host for a captivating weekly radio show called The New Edge on MIT's radio station WMBR. On the New Edge Ken plays an eclectic mix of experimental music that never fails to challenge the musical imagination.

 Among Ken's handful of touring bands is Alto Reform School, a high-energy soul group fronted by two young women vocalists who can belt it out with the best. The band played a well attended set downstairs at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge this past Tuesday evening. I met up with Ken during the sound-check to talk with him about his ongoing radio show. Wearing a dark shirt decorated with pineapples and tropical drinks, khaki shorts, and dock shoes, a tanned, clean-cut, bespectacled Ken looked as if he was ready to embark on a cruise to the Bahamas. We sat in the back of the Lizard Lounge and I asked him about the New Edge, his own music, and his thoughts about radio in general.

 

 

GES: On the New Edge you play a lot of experimental instrumental music within the larger genres of world, jazz, contemporary classical, electronica and avant garde rock. A wide range of under the radar music has gained a lot of ground since I first heard the music on your show. Artists like Kaki King, the Dead Texan, Cul de Sac and others.

How do you find time to listen to all this wonderfully obscure music?

 

Ken: That's a really good question. I don't. Every week before my show I get to the station about two hours early. I go through a stack of CDs, mostly the stuff that's just come into the station. A lot of it comes directly to me.

 

GES: Is that from record labels you're familiar with?

 

Ken: It's a combination. I put my playlists together and post them to the web...I send out e-mails with my playlists. Part of the reason for that is because I know as a musician it's good. It's helpful for me as a musician to have somebody post my stuff on their radio show... to post the fact that they play my stuff so that not only is it played and people hear it but there's a sort of a secondary life having my name as a musician passed around... so I return the favor when I do my show by doing that. The other benefit for me is that people hear what kind of stuff I play and they might say hey I'm doing stuff that might fit in so I'll send my music out. Which is what I do for my own stuff. I look at playlists.

 

GES: For people not familiar with the show can you tell us a little about the music you introduce the show with every week? It's very hypnotic with all kinds of wind instruments harmonizing contrapuntally and ambient water sounds in the background. Can you tell us about the artist and how you discovered the recording?

 

Ken: Yes. Interesting CD. I was playing a gig, a little tour in France with Willie Alexander a few years back and we were staying with a friend of his, a guitarist named Gerard Hello, who I gave a copy of one of my own solo CDs to and he listened to it and said hey you might like Christian Vieussens, a woodwind player and gave me the CD. It's not something easy to find, in fact it's hard to find. But I love that CD, it's a beautiful CD. It's what I'm trying to do with the show [the New Edge]. I'm trying to play music that's first of all, mostly instrumental...for no good reason except that's mostly what I do with my own music... and that it's pushing boundaries in some way but it's not hard to listen to... creative...experimental...doing something new in some way...but a lot of times I find that music that's doing something new is very abrasive and aggressive...and I'm not afraid of aggressive music but I think for the show I'm trying to stay with stuff that's not "step on the tail of the cat" type of music...I also don't want to play music that's going to put you to sleep that doesn't have anything creative to say...

 

GES: What artists have you particularly admired or enjoyed recently?

 

Ken: There's a group I've been playing a lot on the show called the Gotan Project. They're Argentinian. They're based in Paris and Buenos Ares. It's a bunch of producers who bring musicians into the studio and they do a kind of tango meets electronica thing and it's very cool.

 

GES: So it's kind of Astor Piazzolla for the 21st century?

 

Ken: Yeah! What else...there's an oud player named Anour Brahem. He's on ECM, not too hard to find.

 

GES:  Analog radio is kind of the underdog nowadays. What was your impression of radio when you were a kid growing up?

 

Ken: Radio had a big-time influence on me as a kid. I grew up in New Jersey. Believe it or not my parents were sort of ahead of their time. When our television set broke they didn't bother repairing it. So I grew up not having a tv for the longest time. I would listen to the radio. I would come home from school and just go up to my room and listen to the radio. I'd write my own chart lists of the hit songs. It was in Jersey so they were New York stations. I have pretty good time as a musician, rhythmic time. I attribute it to that because all that music was rhythmically solid.

 

GES: What kind of stations were you listening to?

 

Ken: I was listening to pop stations. I was listening to WMCA...an AM station. This was back in the rock n'roll era. Later I listened to WNEW FM in New York, which was kind of underground. That's where I got my musical education from really. I played clarinet as a kid but not creatively. I learned about music and bands through the radio.

(he reflects)

Doing a show on the MIT station...it's a small station with a small reach...it is on the internet now so people can hear it but...I don't feel like what I'm doing is changing the world...I don't think I have a big impact on "breaking" an artist or that kind of thing...I'm doing it really because I like doing it...I'm not so much doing it because I want to be a media person or whatever...

 

 

GES: As a saxophonist and flautist what artists propelled you into new territory as far as creating and playing goes?

 

Ken: Actually I listened to King Crimson early on...the stuff in Court of the Crimson King...the clarinet stuff on there...beautiful stuff...I was thinking of doing a woodwind arrangement of that song. That pushed the envelope...that particular release absolutely pushed the envelope... it was going to places nobody had gone before. I listened to early Gato Barbieri, a South American tenor sax player. He's Argentinian...he was big on the jazz scene decades ago. He's since turned kind of light jazz and commercial. He started out being really intense. It was intense emotionally but not with a lot of notes and every note he played had a lot of significance.

 

GES: As a musician and recording artist involved in simultaneous projects that demand some traveling do you feel a certain commitment returning to WMBR every week to man the microphone on the show?

 

Ken: Yes. At times it's a burden. At times I've other things I should be practicing. It's like anything:  if you want to do something you've got to commit to doing it. I tend to over-commit. If I want to keep the show I need to be responsible about it.

 

GES: Do you feel that American freedom of expression is unique in relation to independent radio and college radio stations?

 

Ken: I think that independent radio, which nowadays is college radio for the most part, is unique in America. The consolidation of the radio industry is just scary. It really is scary for obvious reasons. Not only the less important aspects of fewer musicians getting their stuff heard...it's getting harder and harder...but in terms who controls the media. It's not good to have that controlled by just a few people in my opinion. College radio is not controlled by just a few people and is one of the few media outlets that isn't.

 

GES:  You're referring to the Clear Channel, FoxNews Corp, General Electric attempts at trying to take control of the media in America via the FCC.

 

Ken: Yes. I think no matter which side the people who own the big conglomerates are on they're on some side. They have some agenda, some perspective.

 

GES: Today you have satellite radio, the digital revolution, the ipod...how does that stack up in contrast to good old analog radio?

 

Ken: There are some really good cool things happening on XM and Sirius. There's a billion shows. There's a show that took some interest in my music and I'm thrilled. It gives my music some exposure and that's great. But they're not local radio. Local music has a lot harder time. Local radio has always been a kind of stepping stone. You can break into a larger region by being on a local radio station. From a musical point of view I think it's very bad to lose that initial stepping stone. It's as if suddenly there weren't any local music clubs and the artists are forced to go directly to the top.

 

GES: How did you end up doing radio?

 

Ken: I did radio a long time ago at Brown University when I was an undergraduate and I really loved doing it. I did a show early early in the morning, maybe 6 in the morning or earlier on Sundays...some slot nobody wanted.

 

GES: You had your own private air time.

 

Ken: Yeah! It was just like...you go in this room... you get to listen to music for a couple of hours...the best music...the music you love. You know you had this huge library of music. You bring in your own stuff but you get to use the library too. These days I don't think too many people, myself included, sit down, put on some music and just sit there and listen to it at home.

 

GES: People don't have the time?

 

 

Ken: You don't have much time. And the closest people come, I think, is in their car. They go on a long trip and listen to some music but...at home you're washing dishes, reading the paper, you're cleaning the house, you're checking e-mail, you're always doing something while you're listening to music...so doing a radio show is how you get to listen to music without doing anything else. Right?

 

GES: Sure, it sounds extreme but it must work like meditation. It puts you there at the source.

 

Ken: I have to remember why I'm doing it...which is partly so I can sit there and put on music that I really want to hear and listen to it and focus 99% of my attention to the music. So that's what attracted me to doing the radio show...and then I went for years and years without doing radio...I did my own music...

 

GES: Besides the band projects you're involved in you've also composed some pieces for Sesame Street over the years.

 

Ken: My wife is an animator. She has done a fair number of pieces for Sesame Street and she asked me to do music for them.

 

GES: Did you watch the show as a kid?

 

Ken: No. (laughs) I watch it as an adult. It's a great show.

 

GES: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us tonight Ken. We'll be listening to the New Edge on 88.1 WMBR on Tuesday afternoons from 2-4PM.

 

There will be several live performances of Ken's music and music from the repertoire of the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble in Japan next week.  He'll play on Mon 8/21 at the club Zabuzabu in Kyoto (with Hideyuki SHIMA on bass and Hiroshi MATSUDA on drums), and on Wed 8/23 at the Big Apple in Kobe (with SHIMA, MATSUDA, and Eiichiro ARASAKI on tenor sax). 

The Bridgman/Packer Dance piece Under the Skin, with Ken's original score for layered saxophones, drums, and bass, will be presented at City Center in NYC on October 5th & 6th at the annual "Fall for Dance" festival. This music will be released shortly on Innova Recordings.

You can read more about Ken at http://kenfield.org

Below is a playlist of the most recent New Edge show:

 

ARTIST

CD TITLE

LABEL

CUT

TITLE

 

 

 

 

 

Compagnie Christian Vieussens

Noche en Vela

CIRMA

3

Arc 96

(station ID, show intro)

 

 

 

 

Savina Yannatou & Primavera En

Sumiglia

ECM

14

Ela Ipne Ke Pare To

Sui Vesan

Merging With Brook

World Village

7

Merging With Brook

Daniel Patrick Quinn

...Ridin' The Stang

Suilven

7

Over and Over

(talk, station promo)

 

 

 

 

Arvo Prt

Da Pacem

Harmonia Mundi

2

Salve Regina

Kyle Gann

Long Night

Cold Blue

1

Long Night

(talk, station ID)

 

 

 

 

Kyle Gann

Cold Blue Night @ Redcat

Cold Blue

2

Sad

Jim Fox

Cold Blue Night @ Redcat

Cold Blue

15

Colorless Sky Became Fog

Marsen Jules

Les Fleurs

City Centre

8

Aeillet En Delta

Marc Leclair

Musique Pour 3 Femmes

Mutek

7

180e Jour

(talk, PSA)

 

 

 

 

Dan Barrio

This Physical World

Praxis Mundi

5

Weakness, Desire And Fading Be

Ben Goldberg

The Door, The Hat, The

Cryptogramopho

14

Untitled Last Track

Jorrit Dijkstra + John Hollenbeck

Sequence

Trytone

11

Micro Slope