Eli Keszler The NY-based percussionist talks navigating cities, compressing time, and his new music on Shelter Press

Photo: Dan Allegretto

Eli Keszler speaks like a true urbanist. His subject is New York City, the seat of the Empire State, a 500-year-old melting pot and enduring symbol of global commerce and culture. NYC is the USA’s contribution to the international register of vertical metropoles; its dense quarters are constantly spewing forth new ideas for what a city and its residents could achieve. A dedicated wanderer, Keszler is a careful voyeur and custodian of the city’s growth. His latest album, Stadium — a harmonically rich departure from his previously dense, scattered percussion work — was recorded in collaboration with the city as an experience, with Keszler aiming to truly wander and therefore capture the essence of his home neighborhood in the East Village.

Keszler’s New York is a dynamic city that’s seemingly in the throes of perpetual reinvention. Across Manhattan, The High Line park re-engineers the West Side line, a strip of elevated Amtrak line that used to connect the Manhattan Meatpacking District to Albany via the Hudson Line. The park simulates the passage of the train through the guts of buildings and over major streets. It terminates at the Whitney Museum of American Art, a building constructed with postmodern proportions that undulate like a vertical bell curve, with the largest room on the fourth floor. On the eighth is Kevin Beasley’s first gallery installation: one room contains a cotton gin motor that runs while the museum is open, completely sealed and soundproofed in plastic. Strategically-placed microphones enclosed inside the transparent cage transport various drones of the motor in another room, where they are broadcast in surround sound and even into the floor, creating an immersive experience of a body within a machine. Keszler performed in this second room on January 26, lending his signature accelerating drum work to the unpredictable, unbroken throb of Beasley’s ghostly drone machine.

The composer, percussionist, and artist is not unfamiliar with interdisciplinary collaboration in the heart of the metropolis: past site-specific works include attaching triggered cables to the Manhattan Bridge in order to collaborate with the bridge itself; installing long strands of piano wire in downtown Boston; and performing to the sound of a passing train on a roof in Haggerston, Northumberland. Keszler’s poise and concentration are the focus of these performances: he is alone on stage, using gestures and digital augmentation to “ride” through his compositions.

Ahead of his new EP Empire — available this week through Shelter Press — and upcoming tour of North America and Europe (full dates below), Tiny Mix Tapes caught up with Keszler as he was listening to music in his apartment. Like the multidimensional, elastic structures he describes in his compositions, the conversation moved freely between musical and urban topics, observing and interacting with the cities of the world and their myriad set pieces, and attempting to sort this information into meaningful packets.

Let’s talk about the physicality of you playing the drums.

Well, I’m not an electronic musician. I make music with my body. I’m a very tactile person, I’m a very athletic person. I have to move, otherwise I’ll go crazy. I get asked a lot if I get tired, but honestly, I’ve been practicing and working on my playing for so many years, so sure I get kind of sore, but I’m fine. I just did three concerts at the Whitney, and I was sore the next day, but I didn’t feel it while I was playing. Obviously I need to take care of my body when I’m not playing; I have to live like an athlete, more or less. It’s a very tactile existence. I feel very lucky to do something where I get to use my body and my mind. I feel like we’re increasingly entering a world where it’s an either/or thing. There’s very few professions that allow you to do both. I’m really committed to that one-to-one experience of making music. But I’ve learned a lot from working with electronics and from people who use electronics, and my ear has been completely changed by something like Max/MSP. It’s such an invaluable tool to learn about probabilities and learn how to hear probabilities in your mind. Because we have this idea with musical performance, because we’re connected to notation, that material needs to be fixed. The thing I got the most from Max was thinking: you know, maybe I could add this note 70% of the time, and it increases from 1 to 70% of the time over the course of three minutes. That’s a totally different way of thinking about musical form.

Do you ever find in your pursuit of a tactile approach that you are pushing and pulling against physical constraints and limits? Less getting tired, more just… you’re biological.

Sure, I make plenty of mistakes, and I’ve learned to use mistakes. Maybe that’s something that comes from improvising. Sure, I’m limited by my technique. I’m also just limited by physics. You want something to happen on your instrument; you hear something in your head, and you find out it’s impossible. So, you’re interfacing with the limits of a resonant body. Especially if you’re trying to achieve unconventional sounds, I often don’t know if it’s possible until I try. So I definitely feel limited by that; I definitely feel limited by the equipment I have on hand. If I want a certain tone, and it’s just not possible — that’s the endless challenge and interest of it. It would be pretty stale if you achieved what you wanted at all times. There would be nothing to do.

You use certain objects to modify and augment your drum kit. Has that changed over time?

Definitely, it’s been additive. I’ve added things, designed and invented a few mounts that help me. They didn’t exist, and I had to build them myself. I continue to develop new pieces of equipment, new mutes; I work a lot with different types of muting on the drums. I have a variety of materials I use for that. It’s an ongoing project — as the music changes and the people I play with change, it becomes apparent that there’s no way forward but to add this or that. If I was a teacher, telling a drummer to follow my lead, I would say that certain techniques that I use make no sense, would be completely irrational. But in the context of the music, it’s the only technique that’s appropriate or the only sound that’s the absolute right sound. At this point in my life, I would say that I’m more of a percussionist than a drummer. And in [Oneohtrix Point Never’s band], I end up changing sticks and pieces of equipment constantly, sometimes 10 or 12 times in the course of a 4-minute song. It just requires very specific colors for different sections. That’s more the way of a classical percussionist than a drummer.

I’m pretty excited that your album Stadium and upcoming EP Empire are [released] on Shelter Press. I’m a big fan of theirs.

They’re great people.

How did you get to working with them?

Oh, I don’t know. We’ve been in similar circles for quite a few years now. We’ve been in touch for awhile, and it made sense to work together on these records. It’s been a total pleasure.

Did you have them in mind? Because, to me, it seemed like these two records had a lot more musical elements than the things you were doing in the past that you might have released, say, on PAN.

I didn’t have [Shelter Press] in mind when I started writing the music, but I have expanded my thinking, or opened myself up expressively, with my music — being comfortable with my own decision and my own taste or philosophy with my music. It just kind of happened; I guess when you do that, things become more complicated in a way. They may become similar, but that might make it more complicated, you know?

That process of opening yourself up… were you listening to different music or trying to incorporate more into your sound?

I’ve always listened to a really wide variety of music. I think I just started to draw connections or figure out exactly what I was interested in and what I wasn’t, weaving in what I found important in what I’ve developed and left out the nonsense. When you realize that you’ve been thinking dogmatically, you know it can be painful to realize that — you know it’s a huge problem in general with our culture. But when you realize that, it can be kind of painful, how much can be stripped away, and maybe you’re left with something musical. That’s been some of the process, just opening up to what I really want to do and erasing everything that seems cultish. When I find myself engaging in cultish thinking, I get kind of disturbed and start backtracking — or really, checking myself. As soon as that happens, it feels like anything is possible.

“Cult-ish” thinking is an interesting term for it. It immediately makes me think of manifestos, futurism, attaching oneself to an ideology. Do you have any examples of things you were trying to pull away from your composition or performance?

I think I was really committed to a complete stripping away of melody, and harmony, in any conventional sense, for years. And I started to realize that this wasn’t something I felt very strongly about. There were certain things that remain from that experimental world-way of thinking about music, like expansive sense of rhythm or a “coloristic,” melodic rhythm, which is pretty much nonexistence in a lot of pop music. But certain other things didn’t matter to me, and I was just pretending or taking for granted the idea that there can’t be genre reference, or harmonic or melodic material. So I really started reflecting on what I was listening to. And working with Oneohtrix Point Never, with Dan and with Laurel Halo and all these people, it quickly became clear that the world is much faster if you let it be. So I just decided to let it be, in the last four years or so.

Yeah, I did notice some chords, even some melodies…

Yeah, there’s a lot of harmony. A lot of harmony, a lot of very specific tonalities and modulations — things that are more conventional. But again, to me, that’s just me being honest. I don’t have any position or feeling either way about it, so there’s no reason to pretend that I do.

Yeah, even more so on Empire I noticed it. Did you play all of the instruments aside from percussion yourself?

On Empire, I play everything on the record. On Stadium, there are other musicians on it. A lot of the keyboards are instruments that I’ve built. Some are actual physical instruments, some are software instruments — I’m able to do a lot of it live now with this sensory percussion software I’m using, which translates gestures and sound on the drum set directly into a way of triggering and working with samples. I’m able to do quite a bit live, and some of Stadium and Empire are live triggered. Quite a bit of it actually is live with some preparation, and then I often spend time listening and imagining how I can expand the music or move it into different directions in my home studio.

I watched the video performance of you doing Stadium in New York, and then I was thinking about the one you did in the UK for NTS, where you had the train sounds in the background. That, to me, seems like a pretty stark contrast in the way you’ve approached live performance.

Yeah, it’s completely changed what’s possible. The software — something I’ve been dreaming of for years — it’s finally come to life, and it’s great. It makes a lot of concepts with the drums, and what’s possible with percussion, very translatable into a digital domain or across a physical plane into an electronic one.

It’s interesting, because I sometimes hear electronic musicians, especially ones with a background in performance, worry about how to make loops and triggers, something that can be “performed,” whereas with you, it seems like you have a kind of spaceship cockpit. You’ve got everything within arms reach. Did you very consciously decide that it will be just you on stage?

For this particular tour around this record, I did it solo. I’ve written music for ensembles, for classical music and groups of friends. I’m not at all attached to doing it solo; ideally, I would like to have people on stage. I do like the analogy of a spaceship, in terms of what the setup is like. I’m able to configure… I’ve been describing it as a landscape. There’s a variety of directions it can go, and there’s an aspect of responsiveness where I’m responding directly to what’s coming back to me. So, even if I’m working with material that’s to some degree predetermined, it’s emerging in a surprising way. It allows me to navigate these pieces. Every time I’ve done this live show, the pieces emerge in a different way; they’re not these fixed objects. It’s a completely integrated system, and I’m almost riding on top of it. I’m sort of like surfing on top of this system I’ve built, so it’s really rewarding and interesting. It doesn’t feel static at all.

Talking about responsiveness, to me, that kind of recalls improvisation. I wanted to ask to what degree that plays a role in your composition and performance?

I love a lot of musicians and music that stems from an improvised music ethos, or a philosophy, or a social space. I have a very expansive definition of what improvisation means, and I’m pretty skeptical of the “accepted” [definitions] — like the idea that an instrumentalist that meets with other people and plays without any preparation is “improvising” — I don’t necessarily buy that. I think people develop their own languages of playing and thinking about musical form. So, for me, one thing I know is true is it would be impossible for me to remake a piece again. Everything is too elastic and loose to be reassembled. It’s like building a castle out of popsicle sticks. The material is too chaotic and loose, and rubbery, complicated in a certain way, for it to go together again. I like to think of it as the magic of how it all goes together. I think that’s connected to improvising, which is like a kind of attitude about making music. Obviously I love improvising and I love playing with people who are committed to that tradition. I would say I’m more of a writer and composer, but I’m an instrumentalist; I play with my hands. I’m very informed by improvising; the philosophy of it has had a huge impact on the way I think about making music and my outlook towards what is necessary to make a good piece of music. I’m not precious about materials or equipment. And that comes from the attitude that if you give me a fork, I could do something that would be musically interesting. I think there’s an improviser’s attitude… someone like Morton Feldman, in that he’s feeling his way through writing, which I would say is what improvising is.

It sounds like you’re forming your own… philosophy? I don’t want to use that word, but— your own approach to composing that fits within all the different elements you want to incorporate. You spoke about elasticity, which makes a lot of sense to me, especially when I think about your installations, which seem like a network of objects working together.

I think that, naturally across the different ways that I work, there are a lot of connections and overlapping concepts. A lot of it has to do with layering of textures and of small gestures that form into masses. The idea of a rhythm turning into a pitch by acceleration is really fascinating, and I’ve been obsessed with it for years. But also I’m very interested in the world in general, and I try to stay open to what is happening, staying very involved in what is going on rather than getting too caught up in my own theories. Although I do have a very specific way of making music that I’ve been cultivating for years. I have a very specific outlook and philosophy of making music, but as I’ve opened up my music to more what I’m listening to and experience, I’ve found the ideas have more meaning when they butt heads or interact with the world versus themselves, which is where I think a lot of experimental work can trip itself up in a way. Muses talking to each other instead of something that would find its way into a pop context. When it does, it’s such a magical thing, because it’s an aberration and an anomaly.

Do you find that having the buildings and infrastructure and chaos of the city is necessary to inform your process?

I live in Manhattan; I’m very into living in New York; I love it here. I feel very connected to the city, and I’m a big walker. I love to look around and see what is happening. A lot of Stadium was formed through that process of basically listening and walking around. I almost view that as the perfect format for listening to it, as a way of navigating a city. I think about my music as being extremely connected to cities. I’m fascinated by the chaos of cities and the complexity that comes with that, both the beautiful and the very serious parts that don’t work. I try to let both of things happen at the same time. All the music I’m making is to let very conventional ideas of beauty butt heads with extreme dirtiness and chaos. I find that to be the most honest and perfect state of music, for me.

As you walk, do you have a kind of method or plan with how you approach it, or do you just try to soak things in and let them come to you?

I’m letting things just happen. I’m trying to truly wander, actually. But life takes you places and you have to go places, but I try to take advantage of my time, and walk as much as I can, and avoid the trains, and let that soak in. I also spend a lot of time on tour, and I have days off or hours off, and I have five hours to walk around Vienna or something. I take advantage of that, and I always try to find something in it. That’s the most creative space for me, when I’m wandering.

Are there any particular places in New York City, where, when you discovered it — not necessarily in terms of sight — but on a level that made it a very important landmark, I guess you could say?

I mean, the East Village where I live now. It’s a pretty miraculous thing that I’m over here, because it’s the neighborhood that I got to know the best when I first started hanging out in New York, and it feels kind of serendipitous that I’m here. Tompkins Square park is an amazing place, and I spend a lot of time there. There are so many places. The whole city is basically under constant construction, but going to DUMBO for the first time and doing research for the Manhattan Bridge installation was really exciting: walking over the bridges, listening and being around that level of noise. It’s a huge city, and I’m still discovering things.

When I went to London, there were construction sites everywhere. It was this crazy juxtaposition of very historic buildings with towers of glass being sandwiched in between, wherever they could fit.

Mmhm, well, you have Katz’s Deli, which is now being encased in two glass condos. It seems to me that every city in the world that I visit, people say the same thing more or less: that this is happening. The younger generations have decided not to leave the city, so you have very wealthy people that have decided they want to live in cities, and you have a complete redone concept of what that would mean. At the same time, with something like Stadium, I envision a lot of glass condos when I listen to it. It’s not a nostalgic or vintage attempt at the city. There is a very chaotic, marketplace feeling. I find it very beautiful, the combination of clear glass and destroyed buildings next to each other. It’s very intense. There are a lot of things you can say about it. But that’s very central to my thinking right now: what that could mean and how would you convey that in sound.

Because when you do your installations, it’s not just you performing; you’re using the space physically as well.

I work very directly with architecture in my installations. I start with some general idea but a very open plan going into these spaces. And I try to figure out what would be interesting after going to visit them. I love finding corners of spaces that are underused and misused, and I love figuring out ways to incorporate them, to physically encourage people to walk across spaces or areas of buildings that are considered neglected or useless. Or even condemned or something. That whole process has been fascinating.

It’s interesting you bring up neglect. One of things I find interesting is all the people who explore abandoned buildings…

Right, like Detroit porn.

Exactly, in Memphis it’s fairly common. We have a lot of mid-century, empty brick warehouses and stuff like that. The purpose of the building is almost lost when it’s empty, and then when you compare that to these new buildings that seem to have a very idealized vision of transparency, you can see exactly what people are doing inside of them. Do you think you could ever have an installation that fits within the hyper-transparent, modern space versus what you’ve been doing in the past?

I think I could, definitely. Like I said, I’m so responsive to the space, it wouldn’t be the same thing. I would respond very differently. These new condo spaces are fascinating. I’m horrified by them, but it’s a completely different way of inhabiting a city. Like, the new very high-end ones actually have a car lift that go directly up to your apartment. A couple of them have schools, grocery stores inside of them. It’s kind of like a JG Ballard High-Rise scenario, where people don’t really have to interact at all with the city they live. Which, you know, who am I to judge how people live? But it seems odd. It’s kind of a gated community inside of a city. But if someone asked me to do something inside one of these buildings, I would figure it out. There are a lot of possibilities to look at them in unusual ways. The one I find the most odd is one opening up in the Lower East Side; it’s called the Rollins, for Sonny Rollins. It’s right against the Williamsburg Bridge. He famously practiced for two years under the Williamsburg Bridge before returning with this completely different sound, and I kind of joke around that he’s one of these great geniuses of the 20th century, and your reward in the 21st century is you get a condo named after you. There are so many things about these buildings that are fascinating and terrifying; it seems like an ideal place to do something, because it’s so loaded and complicated from the start.

We have one of those “spaceship” buildings in the city here. It’s a school, there are condos — you could basically never leave. It used to be a big Sears factory, so it’s millions of square feet. But if you’re not going to demolish something like that, how are you going to fit it adequately so that the building suits a modern context? Because, back then, it was storing furniture, you know. Now that stuff happens at the outskirts of cities, and in the center everything is very light and digital.

An instrument I used a lot on Stadium that I built — I would take field recordings and filter them, and map short strikes from the city recordings and create these complex layers of empty city spaces. I love the idea. Stockhausen talked a lot about the idea of speeding up Beethoven’s symphonies so that they last one second, so I love the idea that through these sampler instruments you can make a sort of swarm out of an entire landscape that lasts one second. So you’re walking through this landscape in one second…

That’s a very interesting idea, though. You spread out a waveform and pick a slice out of that — that’s if you’re stretching it. But if you’re compressing it, you can traverse the entire space in a tiny fraction of the time.

It’s a Gestalt reading of the space; it takes a single moment. Dan Lopatin and I talk a lot about this idea of compression: compressing music, compressing information, compressing data. Through my playing, I like to compress so many hits, so many textures on the drums, so it forms a kind of sustain and the drums take on the role of a singing voice or a kind of singing texture. I like to layer that with these massive spaces that are compressed into this single gesture, or even mapped on the drums. And then you have a physical gesture from an acoustic instrument triggering a massive city space. There are all these ways of layering time in non-linear ways. I think that is kind of the essence of our experience these days; it’s a barrage of information. But how do you turn that barrage into something that conveys something understandable. I think that’s what you were asking about musicality. That’s what I’m doing: trying to take my ideas and make them more understandable, more approachable.

On a larger level, I think it’s a huge question. Because we have incredible amounts of day, and we’re still trying to figure out ways they can be organized or broken down into meaningful packets. I think, even in music, we have that — it’s a cliche these days — it’s almost impossible to keep up with it.

Oh yeah, it’s impossible. But nor should you try.

Eli Keszler tour dates:

02.15.18 - Chicago, IL - Pitchfork Midwinter #
02.21.18 - Boston, MA - Anderson Auditorium, School of the Museum of Fine Arts
02.23.18 - Montreal, Canada - Mutek, Phi Center
02.28.18 - Fort Worth, TX - Fort Worth Modern Art Museum %
03.06.18 - Amsterdam, NL - Muziekgebouw
03.08.18 - London, UK - The Roundhouse #
03.09.18 - Brussels, Belgium - Performatik, the Brussels Biennale of Performance Art
03.16.18 - Brooklyn, NY - Murmrr Ballroom &
03.29.18 - Braga, Portugal - Gnration
03.30.18 - The Hague, Netherlands - Rewire Festival
04.26.18 - Malmo, Sweden - Intonal Festival
05.01.18 - London, UK - Kings Place
06.05.18 - Philadelphia, PA - PhilaMOCA

# with Oneohtrix Point Never
% Nate Boyce
& Carl Stone

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