How Playing Drums in Clubs Helped Eli Keszler Make His New Album
The experimental composer and installation artists's 'Last Signs of Speed' takes another long look at the way sound fills space.
All photos by Brendan Burdzinski.
Eli Keszler's work is all about spaces. The New York-based drummer and composer continually grapples with the interaction between sound and environment, transforming physical and virtual spaces through his performances, recordings, and installations. He's spent the last few years working primarily on the latter, documenting some of them—including, per the Berlin label PAN's website, "two large, empty water purification basins, which acted as an amplifier"—on his most recent album, 2012's Catching Net.
"One of the reasons I didn't make another record for a while [after Catching Net] was that I was trying to figure out what a record means to me," he explains over the phone from his Brooklyn home. "I started to imagine the record format as a kind of enclosed space, using the environment that listening creates to define a contained world that you can enter. I didn't want [my next record] to relate to something else. I wanted it to be like one of my installations, in that it's self-contained."
Keszler's evolving ideas were also influenced by a space relatively new to him: the dancefloor. He recently played some shows on the European club circuit, thanks to Bill Kouligas, whose Berlin-based PAN label released Catching Net. Using acoustic instruments in rooms with powerful sound systems changed how he thought about filling spaces with sound. "It started to affect and define my music," he recalls. "It connected to the roots of a lot of my installation projects."
Over four years after Catching Net, Keszler is finally ready to release a new solo album called Last Signs of Speed this month on Empty Editions (a stream of which is premiering in this piece). The spaces on this new release are both clearly defined and infinitely expansive. He made it by playing acoustic drums live, then adding some piano, some "textural recordings of rocks and wood," and some cello by Leila Bordrueil. The resulting 12 tracks combine the impulsiveness of free jazz (despite being fully composed over a three-year period), the vastness of chamber music, the tactile aura of musique concrete, and the dubby throb of dancefloor jams.
While making Last Signs of Speed, Keszler consciously colored outside of his own lines. Early on he made a list of ideas he had avoided before, and tried them all. "A lot of them I ended up using," he enthuses. "I wanted to look at my preconceived notions, some of which were unchallenged ideas that I don't even believe, so I don't even know why I was doing them." Examples include conventional time signatures, instruments taking traditional roles—"such as a bass acting as an anchor, or having a piano play melodic cells," Keszler explains—and amplification used to distort an acoustic space.
It's hard to blame Keszler for having entrenched ideas about music, since it's been part of his life since he was a child growing up in Boston. His mother was a professional dancer, and his father was a self-taught guitarist and fiddler who often traveled to Brazil for the Peace Corps, returning home with accordions, banjos, and a single string instrument called the berimbau.
Keszler gravitated towards drums because, as he puts it, "I was a pretty crazy kid. I had lots of energy, and it was the most athletic instrument." He discovered jazz and experimental music during his teen years, witnessing performances by legends such as John Coltrane Quartet drummer Elvin Jones. "That was just huge for me as a wake-up call," he says. "[I realized that] if I wanted to play on this level how much work I had to do, and so I started studying like crazy." That led him to enroll in the New England Conservatory, where he was mentored by avant-garde jazz veteran Anthony Coleman.
Keszler's academic experience was rewarding, but he's wary of its influence on his work. "I'm not trying to impress some make-believe academics that are in my head, but I am aware that some of my decisions come from a rigorous understanding of things," he says. "That doesn't make those decisions right or better. In fact, a lot of times I think the way music is taught has little to do with how it's experienced. And so this is a conversation that I always have with myself."
On Last Signs of Speed, that conversation produced music that feels impulsive and open to chance, despite being carefully planned. Keszler's polysyllabic drumming radiates into other sounds, sometimes shooting off quick sparks, elsewhere generating long, atmospheric tones. It's all direct and immediate due to the relative brevity of the tracks (most last less than five minutes), a new format for an artist whose previous records have often contained side-long pieces.
That brevity is perhaps another product of Keszler's club experiences, where getting to the point quickly is a priority. "I got exhausted with what I started to see as clichés of experimental music," Keszler explains. "The idea of the miniature doesn't really interest me so much; it's more about crystallizing ideas. What's the essence of this? Can I shave it down until it's as clear and pure and strong as possible?"
The compactness of the songs on Last Signs of Speed is reflected in their titles, which read like individual lines from a longer poem: "The next day, in the afternoon," "Is stage director," "Holes, parts missing." Keszler adapted them from Miserable Miracle, a book by Belgian poet Henri Michaux. Michaux crafted the phrases by taking mescaline, walking around outside, and jotting down his perceptions in a notebook.
"I don't think this is a drug-related record at all," Keszler quickly clarifies. "But there is a kind of connection that I started to see, where by defining these environmental parameters similar to what taking a drug does, the music could unfold. The idea is to leave room for the space to emerge for the listener. It's almost like an invitation rather than a composition."
Last Signs of Speed is indeed easy to enter. Its clarity allows the listener to focus on individual sounds and infer connections between them. Perhaps Keszler's affinity for spaciousness comes from his many collaborations. Over the course of his career, he has played with a wide range of experimental musicians, including minimalist pioneer Phill Niblock, guitar iconoclast Loren Connors, and sax legend Joe McPhee.
Such partnerships have been a learning process for Keszler, who found himself initially resistant. "I would get frustrated when my ideas would be distorted by other people," he admits. "At a certain point I started to enjoy that process as a way of doing things that I wouldn't do otherwise. I think that's the essence of collaboration: push ideas against each other. Often it results in something better, because you're both coming up with new adjustments."
Lately Keszler has joined frequently with Berlin-based sound artist (and renowned mastering engineer) Rashad Becker. Both occupy their own unique positions somewhere between clubs and art venues, between dance music and the avant-garde. The duo have played upwards of 50 gigs, but they have yet to record together. Keszler says this has helped them develop a shared language without locking their music into specific pieces.
When the pair performs, Keszler plays drums, and Becker works with electronics and processing (including manipulating Keszler's sounds in real time). "Electronic processing is something that I've shied away from, because I couldn't figure out a way for it to maintain a raw, natural feel," he explains. "But at this point, talking with Rashad and understanding what he's doing, I've realized that there are ways I can use that for my own work, and expand myself in different directions."
Keszler's next project will expand his installation skills. He's been commissioned to create art for Boston City Hall, a six-floor building in which each story houses a different part of the government. He plans to record sounds from the outside of the building, and stream them through wires intertwined inside. "There will be a collapsing of the exterior and interior, and this line between the public space and the governmental space will collapse too," he says. "I'm trying to expand the building without using any cement, basically."
It's yet another way that Keszler can make space a part of his art. That relationship seems to guide his entire approach to sound-making, even when it's not part of an installation. "I think music may be the only universally acknowledged alternative psychological space that everyone understands," he enthuses. "Ultimately it will always exist in a special place for me, and I think that's so beautiful and I don't want to mess with that, because I see that as power."
Marc Masters is a writer and he's on Twitter.