Duologue: A conversation with Keith Kenniff

This edition of duologues features composer and multi-instrumentalist Keith Kenniff. The Pennsylvania native has been writing music since 2001, creating scores for film, television, and commercials while collectively releasing over 20 albums as Helios (ambient/electronic), part of Mint Julip (indie-pop & vocals) with wife Hollie, and Goldmund which has established Kenniff as one of the preeminent composers of minimal piano-based ambient music. Many fans would agree with Oscar, Grammy, BAFTA, & Golden Globe award-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto who referred to Kenniff’s work as “so, so, so beautiful”.

Keith was kind enough to take a few minutes to talk with us about his newest Goldmund record entitled ‘The Time It Takes‘, an album that Western Vinyl describes as a collection of aural polaroids that create a space in which to “unfold the sorrows of a troubling age and revel in the hope and beauty that follow thereafter.” It is, to be sure, some of his most affecting work that strikes an exquisite balance between restrained minimalism and emotive expression while touching on themes both profound an personal.

First of all, please tell us a little about the journey of making the new record. Did you have a clear vision for it right from the outset or did it take time to find your way to what it finally became?

I don’t think I’ve ever really approached a release intentionally, it just sort of happens. I keep recording and recording and all of the sudden things come together. Inevitably there’s a story or a theme woven in there which becomes evident only after everything coalesces.

The idea of the passage of time permeates the whole album, but to my ears the music seems very much to occupy a liminal space somewhere between a sense of loss and one of hope, leaving room for listeners to experience the music differently depending on the context they bring to it. Can you speak a little about how you developed these very personal themes through composition and sound?

If the music comes off as non-prescriptive I think that’s the intention. I think there’s a fine line between being too emotionally heavy-handed and being too vague and I’d like it to exist somewhere in the middle. My hope is that there’s an emotional connection but it’s maybe not apparent to the listener why.

 The textural elements that appear throughout the album are amazing. In that regard, “Rivulet”, “Memory Itself” and “The Valley in Between” especially come to mind. I am curious how you approach  tracks like that. Does it start with a melody that you build around? Or do the sonic elements suggest what the composition needs to be?

Typically it almost always starts with piano and then I build the textures around it. I’m careful to keep things very sparse and avoid the temptation to build or change things too much within the composition; not that it’s a bad thing inherently but I think piano is a very evocative instrument by itself and it’s easy to get too dramatic or sappy. Sometimes those additional textures help to temper the delicate tendencies of the piano and steer the song gently into another direction that the piano alone can’t accomplish.

Now some 15 years into it, what are your thoughts on how your music and your creative process have evolved since you first started Goldmund?

When I first started Goldmund it was in no way intentional. I studied formally as a percussionist and never thought I’d be releasing or performing on the piano, but I find Goldmund has become a way for me to mark time and to define and identify chapters in my life. I have purposely not focused on becoming a better piano player technically (although some things have gotten easier over the years), which allows me to try and see the piano as somewhat of a mysterious tool and maintain an inquisitive perspective, which I find inspiring.  

This interview takes place about six months into the spread of Covid-19 across the United States and as we have this conversation wildfires are raging across the western half of the country. How have the events of this tumultuous year have impacted you as an artist?

My work inherently has a solitary nature to it, because I don’t tour and have been working from home for over a decade, so I feel lucky that there was no functional change to that aspect and there were still scoring projects coming in, but homeschooling while working has been a challenge and some priorities and ways of working inevitably had to shift to accommodate that.

Of course, in addition to Goldmund, you have other projects like Helios and Mint Julep (with your wife Hollie) as well as scoring for TV, film & commercials. What’s it like juggling all that? Are you able to work on them in parallel or do you have to have compartmentalize creatively when working on a particular one?

The scoring work takes precedence as that’s my “day job” and I work largely in advertising with projects that involve very quick turnaround times, but when I do work on the personal projects, I tend to work on them all at once in little bits and pieces. Creatively they all feed into each other so it keeps the wheels spinning without getting bogged down with writer’s block. I’m able to shift modes as each project has a discernible difference in approach; Mint Julep involves another collaborator so there’s a different dynamic that comes along with my wife’s input, the scoring work involves input and notes from many other people typically, and Helios and Goldmund both have their respective little worlds in which they reside, so I can dip into them and manage to keep them all somewhat separate. It may sound a little crazy to have everything going on at once, but it keeps me focused and I’ve been doing that for 15 years so it feels normal to work that way.

Finally, any new projects in the works, Goldmund or otherwise, you’d like to tell us about?  

I have a new Mint Julep album that my wife and I are going to release early next year, a new Helios that will be out in the winter and finishing up either another Goldmund EP or LP. I also have a project for HBO that I recently finished and various other commercials/ads. 

The Time It Takes will be available from Western Vinyl beginning October 16, 2020 in a limited marigold orange vinyl LP edition as well as CD and digital download. The album was mastered by Taylor Deupree and features cover art photography by Mindia Gabadze.

Links:  Bandcamp  |  Artist’s website (Unseen Music)  | Western Vinyl

More By Goldmund

“Moderate” from ‘Occasus‘ (2018)

“A Word I Give (with Ryuichi Sakamoto)” from ‘Sometimes‘ (2015)

“Evelyn” from ‘The Malady of Elegance‘ (2008)