Eli Keszler: Interview
“What is the object really, if all you know is the documentation of it?”
What should’ve been a simple interview regarding the release of his wonderful, recent collection of installations and compositions, Catching Net, turned into a four-week-long game of email tag, including several false starts and spanning several countries (on Eli’s end), and several rooms (on mine). With much gratitude for Eli’s perseverance throughout it all, here are the results of our conversation.
As your Cold Pin installations are well documented, could you discuss the significance of recording them? Do you think extracting the sounds from the installation is problematic to the experience of it? Or does it simply render one’s experience more precise?
I wouldn’t say it makes it more precise, because recordings are always a distortion of a real situation, and especially so if you are dealing with acoustic sound. I’ve always been interested in where the emotion or energy from documentation comes from; what is the object really, if all you know is the documentation of it? This is especially important in music today, where we talk of ‘loving’ someone’s music but maybe all we know is a recording of it, for instance. Not to mention the replacing of the objects like LPs with digital information, taking this de-materialization one step further. They are getting increasingly more important to me. In the case of an installation, there is no way to document it perfectly outside of itself. That’s actually the appeal of it. So to me, I have no issues with recording it, showing it as it can be shown and letting it explain itself through this distortion. Sometimes the separation can even be more interesting than the original object. When you then think of the fact that the piece is both a stand-alone installation and part of an ensemble performance, what it ‘is’ gets even more distorted.
There were these massive pipes that were hanging along the top of the space, which we wrapped strings around. They acted as extremely powerful amplifiers, and made a really intense screaming tone when each string was struck.
How do you compose scores in conjunction with Cold Pin? Perhaps I’m wrong, but the sounds created by Cold Pin seem somewhat arbitrary, if not totally randomized. Regardless, it’s clear that it’s not being “played” in any conventional sense, and I’m curious how you work with your installation.
I let the two forms stack over and on top of each other. It’s almost more similar in someways to directing, since it essentially is about plotting material in a space that’s designed. So much of what happens has to do with its environment, and in music it seems that this idea is often neglected. I’m really interested in the process of story boarding that’s used in film, and in many ways the ensemble direction has been similar to this, though, in the case of Catching Net, I did write a full, note-for-note score for the string quartet. The difference is that the installation is reordering its own material, taking small chunks of pattern and reworking them over and over again, not allowing any sense of normal development. Music always develops like this, even if it tries not to. When you stack the two on top you are left with something that isn’t really music or installation, but functions in some sort of other space.
In particular, Catching Net compiles recordings from both the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts and Shreveport installations. Was there any particular reason you chose that space in Boston?
The Boston Center For The Arts was staging a two-week gallery event in which they were using the Cyclorama, and giving it to artists to work with. If you’ve ever been in there, or know about the scale and history of the place, it’s pretty exciting to get a chance to work in there. The sound is just massive in the space – really amazing. I learned very quickly about the importance of the spacing of the installation, and the timing of the attacks… How much the architecture directly impacts the material that you project at it.
Was there any significance to the outdoor space chosen in Shreveport?
Again, in Shreveport the space was so fantastic and huge that I really got to utilize scale in a way I hadn’t before. Some of the strings were over 200 feet long, which meant that you could hear a sound that you couldn’t see the end of. The strings were so long that they’d blur out into the background – this was very exciting, and made me think of things in a very different way. You essentially had, in addition to this, a two-tier reverberation body inside the purification basins so you would hear sounds decay multiple times. The exciting thing about this project is all of the variables that each piece brings. Each one is inherently so different; that’s what keeps me going on them.
How have you gauged the response of both participants and onlookers alike through the last two years?
It’s been drastically varied. One thing that to me is very exciting about these projects is the fact that it takes me out of a specific social world. I can’t even begin to describe how different the types of people and organizations have been that are interested in staging these types of projects; experimental music people, new music, art galleries, museums, public events, etc. Basically, each one has an idea about where my interests sit, and the reality may be very different than they expect, since I am interested in an array of things that often don’t obviously overlap. I find this really exciting. People in general have been mostly really enthusiastic – spending a good amount of time checking it out, hearing the piece develop and morph, and getting into the details of it.
So much of what happens has to do with its environment, and in music it seems that this idea is often neglected.
You’ve recently taken Cold Pin to Utrecht. Could you talk a little bit about that?
It was great to get the piece in a museum and to have a fantastic set-up to work with on the project. There were these massive pipes that were hanging along the top of the space, which we wrapped strings around. They acted as extremely powerful amplifiers, and made a really intense screaming tone when each string was struck. It was really exciting and gave me some ideas for new pieces. The nice thing about slowly working through a project, and working on a series, is you can get really deep into the possibilities and see all the nuances of an idea, no matter how simple it is.
You also recently performed at the Battery Townsley as part of the Sound Wave festival. Like the Cyclorama, the battery in the Marin Headlands has a fascinating history. What did it mean for you to be a part of transforming that space?
The space was amazing, essentially it’s laid out like a huge tube that opened up into a circular space overlooking the Pacific Coast. Really fantastic. The material was interesting because the wind was so powerful that the strings were very active even without them being struck by any object. Again, the environment of the piece dictated so much [of] what would happen within the piece. I’m interested in letting the pieces freely overlap with the location. I always think of the space that I’m working in, and I’m really aware of how much the history and culture around a space affects the piece, but if it is strong one way or the other, the interesting part is letting them clash and seeing how they sit. It always says something, and since the pieces are both visual and sonic, they sometimes respond to different elements within the history of the place at once.
Are you working on any new installations?
I’m working on a bunch of new projects, using new systems and some different techniques. I like to work and change very gradually and slowly with each project that I do. This way I can really get deep into ideas from my end. I’m working on a new system that works using rotating discs with a dot notation I’ve been developing. It transfers direct information from my scores to a mechanical system. This also allows for a dynamic situation that deals with overlapping cycles, having multiple points of convergence, but never remaining static in the way that patterns might form. Also a new record, some ensemble scores, some more visual projects, and an exhibition in the spring.