Eli Keszler: On Sonic Redistribution and Cracking Open a Corbusier
Interviewed by Karisa Senavitis
A kind of situational percussionist, Eli Keszler’s scores and projects respond to acoustic spaces by altering our sense of time. His work has appeared at Lincoln Center, Victoria & Albert Museum, and The Walker Art Center. Keszler has collaborated with musicians Oneohtrix Point Never, Oliver Coates, and Laurel Halo; and is working on a yet –to-be-revealed project with author, László Krasznahorkai.
We met in Tompkins Square Park during preparations for October – when Shelter Press releases his ninth solo record /Stadium/ on the 12th and his instrument/installation for wandering/listening, called “Dead Interval,” debuts for OPUS in Columbia, MD the very next day.
Karisa: The description for “Dead Interval” says piano wires connect to a circle of trees with recorded voices transmitted through the wires and fragmented through speakers. And it will be at Symphony Woods for this one night event where you’ll also perform with the installation. Have you been to the site?
Eli: I went to the site a few weeks ago. It’s a public grounds with fairly tall trees. A very open space; not densely wooded or anything. I decided on building out a network of wires connecting different trees together and running audio through the wires… sending recorded voice through the wires. So you’re going to hear resonated, distorted voices in a way. It’s going to be sounding through the harmonics of the string. It’s going to be amplified and there will be speakers dispersed throughout the space so (the sound is) going to be quite present.
K: And the voices are reading the line, “For whom are you singing? Man is deaf” from /The Hatred of Music/ by Pascal Quignard. It sounds like a fascinating book. Can you tell me about your connection to this text?
E: It’s an incredible book. It’s written by a French curator of Baroque and Renaissance music festivals. He’s kind of like a philosopher, and he’s written many books on ancient music and traditional European music. He stopped curating festivals and started to form this dislike of music. The Hatred of Music is a series of short pieces about the relationship between violence and music — from the instruments and the way they are crafted out of a lot of pain, using animal parts — to how music is used for war and the contemporary world. He has a lot of contempt for the contemporary world. I thought it was really interesting and beautifully written. Almost poetry. Each anecdote in it feels like it couldn’t be true, but then you look it up and there is historical precedent for all of these amazing stories of violence in music.
K: Are you coming to terms with the violence of your medium?
E: I think I’ve always thought music was pretty violent. I recognize that (Quignard’s) position — in a certain way — is very stodgy, and I see major problems in his thinking. But I think everything he’s saying has a grain of truth in it. So it’s something I’ve been reflecting on a lot and the text is not just about music, it’s about listening, and the ability to hear each other speak, to hear each other’s positions in the world. I found that super fascinating given everything that’s going on. Not as a cry of “please won’t you listen” as if I have something to say that other people don’t, but just generally that no one seems to be listening to each other and it’s causing complete chaos.
K: I’ve heard you love chaos.
E: I’ve been accused of that in the past. But how do you not love chaos? There are chaotic patterns everywhere. It’s very beautiful. But I think part of listening, actually, is finding order in that chaos, that challenge is fundamental. Like if you hear someone saying something that sounds out of control and insane and you have no way of relating to it — to just create a wall — you’re not allowing anything in and have no way to develop.
With this piece we’re sending fragments of this text through the wire, connecting these trees in a this bucolic natural environment, and the sounds will be quite metallic and industrial. I’m hoping there will be this interesting kind of back and forth between the kind of metallic quality of what you’re hearing and the kind of wooded, ‘natural’,_ idyllic space.
Some of the lines are going to be 600 ft. long — so it covers a lot of the grounds. One of the things that’s really nice about working with wire and why I keep using it as a type of installation is you can really build out these spaces and encourage people to walk across vast terrains. I’m putting some wires almost at the highway. Because I love the idea of getting people to walk away from the festival and kind of go to the ends, which people probably wouldn’t do if there wasn’t some sort of guide.
K: Will it be a different kind of sonic experience at the edge of the grounds?
E: Yeah, definitely there will be echoes from across. It’s going to be very different depending on where you are.
K: Do you see any connection or important difference between your project and the work of avant-composer Alvin Lucier?
E: Alvin Lucier is a hero. His work is amazing. But I think they’re really different. Lucier’s reduces music down to these very specific acoustic phenomena. “Music on a Long Thin Wire” for instance is about the relationship with electromagnetic fields and how they interact with wire. He does all types of experiments with the most reductive forms of musical content. And for me, my use of wire has more to do with the social. It’s about distribution, distribution of sound. Like we were talking before about skating and how it uses places where design has failed and activates them in a different and unintended way. I want to get spaces used in ways they weren’t meant to be used and have encounters with sounds in places where they aren’t necessarily expect, to compress and expand music at the same time.
K: Can you speak to the name of your piece: Dead Interval?
E: The piece is built around this idea of the breakdown of listening — listening across places or between people. I like the idea of these silences — like a dead interval — a deep empty space. The whole piece in a way is looking at the breakdown of listening. I keep coming back to ways of listening and how they’ve changed so much.
K: How do you think the way we listen has changed? Do you have an example?
E: When I was a kid, if you bought a piece of music from the store you would have maybe heard something on the radio or maybe you just knew the band or whatever and you’d just buy it, and if you didn’t like it you had already invested in it and so you would listen repeatedly to it. Because first of all if you have limited resources you couldn’t buy thousands of CDs. You’d buy one, one a month or something. So you’d listen to it repeatedly and maybe over time you’d actually learn to like it. Maybe it wasn’t the music it was you. And that’s happened with so much music that at first I didn’t like and then over time, upon listening to it more, you learn to find all sorts of meaning and beauty in it. And alternatively if you listen to something that you don’t like and you keep listening to it, you discover what’s wrong with it.
That’s a huge change in the way people listen to music. Now if people don’t like something they never listen to it again. It’s just gone. I actually think that’s a huge loss. I think you can apply that same model to a lot of things that are happening — if you don’t like certain information you just switch the channel and then you have the automation of those channels being cultivated for your niche. So then, yeah, go back to the title of the piece, there are all of these communication gaps, these dead intervals. It’s these empty spaces where there has to be new ways of cultivating (listening to things we don’t like).
K: To take changes in music distribution and formats and find the relation to our current political landscape is a pretty huge leap but really resonates with me.
E: This is a huge problem. I see this in myself too. I’m very skeptical of the way politics are used in art — especially in contemporary art. I think the role should be to question and propose things, and people need to feel like they can sort things out.
K: What other projects do you have on the horizon?
E: I’m doing a lot of shows with Oneohtrix Point Never and solo shows in Europe and Japan. I kind of oscillate between working in art spaces and music venues. And in the last couple of years the two areas of working have merged in a really nice way where I’ve been able to perform in a kind of wide range of contexts.
I have a record coming out, /Stadium/ (on Shelter Press) the day before OPUS.
K: Can you tell me about the record?
E: I did an installation a couple years ago at the Carpenter Center, Harvard’s contemporary art space designed by Le Corbusier. I was working with James Hoff, a visual artist who I collaborate with quite a bit, and we were looking for ways to mount speakers in the space. It’s an historic building, so there are really strict regulations. We were kind of struggling. Then I looked at the ceiling and I saw these gratings and I asked the building manager if they were speakers because they kind of looked like a PA system. She said she didn’t know. So we did research and consulted a student that was doing a PhD on the building and it turns out there’s an unused sound system embedded in the building. It’s original. So we figured out where the wires terminated for the speakers in one of the administrative offices and cut a hole in the side. We took these old cloth-bound cables and connected them to an amplifier. We sent sound through it and it was a perfect 15 channel sound system, in stereo. So we did this whole piece using the speakers.
That was a real epiphany for me. Because for years I’d been doing this work around architectural spaces and putting things in them and playing around with buildings in different ways but then this was actually discovering something inside the building and using that as basis for work.
When it came time to make this new record I was interested in recording and discovering things inside of city spaces and different buildings. Throughout all the traveling that I did last year I collected this diary of recordings from lots of different spaces like the Boston City Hall boiler room where I collected machine sounds and these pachinko arcades in Tokyo. These sounds act as a frame for music and I was building pieces around these landscape recordings. I laid out these sorts of beds of sounds and freely wrote music around it. I started to take these recordings that were quite long and squashing them, speeding them up to incredible speeds so they could be mapped to instruments. Then it became these recordings of buildings layered and collaged over each other so you have this smearing of spaces. And that’s the record. It’s using these different environments as ways of building really complex pieces of music.
K: I remember something the architect John Hejduk said about how architecture is a vessel for sound or something like that. That architects are designing for sound.
E: Right, I think that’s true and it’s something I think a lot about. It so often is the last part that seems to be considered. And it’s really shameful. I think it can cause a lot of incredible psychological issues with people. They don’t realize they’re going crazy basically because a certain frequency is getting reinforced in a room and they’re hearing it over and over again and it’s like a direct line into their nervous system.
I’m very inspired by my surroundings and influenced by my surroundings so it’s a very natural way for me to work to build site-specific pieces. And for music I make site-specific music.
I took a long break from making records, like 5 years off, until streaming became ubiquitous and I saw people with ear buds and using music as a way of navigating spaces. That was a huge change that got me interested. For a little while it was a bit unclear what the role of recorded music was. And as soon as people were navigating the world through their headphones then I was like, ok, now I know what I’m recording music for, it’s for this. I mean walking is a huge part of my life I spend a lot of my free time wandering. So much of the creative experience of making music takes place walking and thinking about what I’m working on.
K: I’m thinking about Dead Interval and how you’re causing people to walk and wander just to listen to it. So it’s all relating. You’re also an artist in a graphic sense as well. Do you see this piece as a drawing?
E: I studied composition in school, I studied notation, and I got really into both writing scores and also the process of kind of notating my thoughts. The score writing led me to drawing and then drawing in space. So when I had this idea to start working in spaces it was pretty easy and quick for me to ask for a map of the space and then I’d start drawing on it. And the design, coming from a composer’s background, was a temporal process. So people are walking here and this happens or it’ll be this kind of space and then as it changes as people move… you know what I mean?
K: Do you have a drawing for Dead Intervals?
E: Yeah I do, it’s very simple. The curators at Wilddogs made these beautiful maps of the site where every single tree is documented. And I drew directly on it. It’s gorgeous and it was very useful for me to have a map of every tree.