Courtesy of the artist
Eli Keszler's Cold Pin installation at the Boston Center for the Arts' Cyclorama in February.
Eli Keszler's Cold Pin installation at the Boston Center for the Arts' Cyclorama in February. Courtesy of the artist
Composer and percussionist Eli Keszler doesn't know when to stop. There's a relentlessly spattering energy to his boundary-less compositions, which span but never settle on free jazz, noise, industrial, punk, modern composition, drone or whatever sound achieves what seems to be Keszler's M.O.: "density." If anything, Keszler's constantly moving works are everything and nothing at once, energized by space and the lack thereof. That's what makes Cold Pin, in particular, worth deconstructing.
Listen: Eli Keszler, 'Cold Pin I'
Originally conceived as a sound installation, Cold Pin uses a series of 14 piano wires of varying lengths with motorized arms that scrape, hit and vibrate the strings, all of which are connected by micro-controllers.
The first installation (and the audio source of this album's recording) was held this past February at the Boston Center for the Arts' Cyclorama, a curved dome that usually houses an 1884 in-the-round painting of the Battle of Gettysburg. By itself, the installation is a deep study of patience and decay, with the longest piano wires rattling the air around you. But with an ensemble of his peers playing a composition around the composition, which can be heard on this new LP, there are suddenly questions of who or what is playing whom. Dig deeper, and the very recording of such a specific space is suspect, the acoustics and atmosphere locked into the grooves of a spinning record.
When I called Keszler to talk about those questions, the New York City (via Boston) artist was putting the finishing touches on a version of Cold Pin in Shreveport, La. For just one night, those piano wires — some 200 feet long — stretched from the top of an abandoned water tower to an empty water basin. I can only imagine the deep, meditative drones that the audience experienced. And maybe I'll never get to witness that same moment, but at least Cold Pin will return April 19, 2012, at the Roulette in Brookyln, N.Y., for the MATA Festival. We also talked about his latest record with Red Horse, the almost industrial-punk duo with sound-sculpture-maker Steve Pyne.
NPR: What was the inspiration behind the original installation of Cold Pin?
EK: Well, it's sort of a complicated story. I was working a lot with Red Horse, and Red Horse was using some simple motor setups and some more complicated ones. I got the opportunity through the BCA [Boston Center for the Arts] to do some work, and I was thinking for a long time about figuring out how to mechanically control strings so that in my solo playing I can have more sound without relying on electronics. I like to work with raw material, like simple sounds, primitive or very old sounds; sounds that won't get dated in any way. I was thinking of ways I could use strings or acoustic material without using pedals or pre-recordings, so the live aspects appealed to me.
[I was] also thinking about ways of increasing the amount of density that I use in my music, which I was trying to figure out ways to create more sound in smaller amounts of spaces, sort of break into new textures, and this was a way to do it. And then I figured I should use an ensemble with it, and it opened up a whole new body of pieces.
NPR: Are those motors attached to the strings sequenced in any certain way? Is this a stand-alone composition?
EK: Yeah, it is. I use a little box I made that has a micro-controller with LED lights. It helps me figure out space, because when you're working with strings, you have the attack and then you have the decay, and a lot of times the decay, with long strings, is more interesting than the attack. It gives me an idea of the ordering. And then what I did was I had it running with a number generator that reorders the piece. So it's not a loop; it regenerates itself.
NPR: You create beautiful graphic scores that create these sublime sounds like on Oxtirn, but I'm not so sure there's a visual way to represent a score for the LP version of Cold Pin, graphic or otherwise. The musicians seem to be reacting to the installation as it happens. Do you consider this to be an improvisation? Is it kind of a forced composition, or is this a blurring of lines?
EK: Well, I think that, for me, I have a lot of issues with the term "improvisation." I mean, I think a lot of the great improvisers — the people you think of being great improvisers — they may object to being labeled composers, but in a certain sense they are. Like if you look at someone like Han Bennink — he refers to himself as "instant composition" — or Ornette Coleman, or Cecil Taylor, or any of these people; they have such a clear style, they may not work off of score and play things exactly so, but you can really picture what they're going to sound like, just like you could a piece by [Anton] Webern or a rock band, or anything that works with more like written music.
When I'm working with Ashley [Paul] and Greg Kelley and Geoff Mullin and Reuben [Son] and Benny [Nelson] in this particular case, it would be a shame to give them nothing but written music, because Greg Kelley is so wonderful on the trumpet. Why would I want to tell him how to play, exactly? I can give him a framework like, "Here we're going to have high pitches, and I want it to be intense, and then we're going to make these clusters of fluttering sounds here, and then it's going to get really quiet." I do definitely think about composition, and I'm always thinking about arranging, but I don't want to limit musicians when I don't have to.
On top of it, Cold Pin, when you're playing with an installation, it does frame what you're playing. No matter what you do, you're playing within it, and if you fight it, it pushes it into this sort of linear motion. And then automatically because it's this thing that's not stopping, it pulls you back. So in that sense, you can't possibly completely improvise in it, because it's like a frame for it; it frames everything that's happening.
NPR: When I used to have time to do nerdy things like trade live bootlegs online, I came across a Brian Eno installation that he did for some museum, and it just had these incredible bass tones. But I always got the sense that I was missing something. Can sound installations ever be properly recorded?
EK: No, I don't think so. That's what's so great about them. I mean, recordings have lost so much meaning. Everything is so over-documented, you know? There are very few things that just exist in a space and you have to go. I mean, there are, but that's why they're so special. And recordings now, no matter how you consume them, it's like you can just get them immediately. I think that that's why I like it so much, because it can't get properly documented. We've taken like thousands of pictures of this [installation] already. It really takes a lot of work to [capture them in a way] that you feel is remotely close to the energy of the piece. And that's what, for me, it's all about; you walk into a room, and whether it's performing or installation, it's this environment you can push and pull people as you want in time, whether it's slowly moving or whether it's really linear. So, no, I don't think so. I don't think there is a way, but that's what I like about it.
NPR: How important is the space to that sound? How much does it shape the build of an installation?
EK: The shape is huge, because you have to think about it, especially with decay. I always try to think about — I'm in a really tall building and I'm performing or installing something, something gets hit, and it's got this energy to it, and if you don't take into account the physical energy of sound, you're left with nothing. The greatest performers in the world will perform in the wrong room, and the room will take away from it or add to it. And with installation, I'm definitely thinking about it.
When, for example, the Cold Pin installation was in this place called the Cyclorama, which is this historic building that was built at the turn of the century to house like a massive cyclorama painting, every time something was hit, it was just this huge sound. Initially, when I walked in, I tried to leave a lot of space, but I heard it and I immediately was like, "There's way too much activity here; I need to pull this back a lot," because I want the room to speak for itself.
NPR: So where does the recorded version of Cold Pin fit into that narrative? Because you have the installation that's very much tied to a place, but you have this recording of an ensemble playing with or to or framed around this installation. Where is the connection or the disconnection there?
EK: Well, I think that question is what I'm sort of trying to look at: Where is the connection there? I have a lot of issues with music, generally, just as a whole. And I have a lot of issues with parts of installation, as well. So for me, [this is] raising that very question: What is the distance? For me, it's both. I imagined it both as a part of an ensemble and as a part of a composition. I wrote it aware of what the musicians were going to play, and then aware that it was a gallery piece that people would walk in and experience.
I've worked a lot and thought a lot about moving; about the way music moves, and the way time flows in sound, and I've always wanted to find this middle space between left-to-right movement and vertical space. This is like right where I want things to sit. As far as this issue of documenting it — how does it fit in with this live experience and recorded experience? — I think a lot about what [Theodor] Adorno wrote about recordings when he was first writing about Beethoven and the radio symphony and all that, how you think you experience a symphony because you turn on the radio, and it's like, "This isn't the piece." The piece is to be experienced as it was intended.
NPR: Now, with Red Horse — and correct me if I'm wrong — but I get the sense that there's no composition involved; that it's noise and it's not. What exactly is Red Horse?
EK: That's a good question. [Laughs.] I decided early on that I was not going to touch electronics. The only electronics I'm interested in is amplification, and I don't see that changing. And Steve [Pyne] comes from a guitar background, he feels the same way; we just want raw materials like strings, metal, springs, motors, physical things. And so if you want to call it noise, I might take issue with it a bit because we're not using any — there's no distortion, there's none of that. It's all real sounds. It's just that there's a density of material that relates to that, the same attitude that a great noise record would have or something.
As far as it being composed, honestly, it's extremely composed. Generally, Red Horse is so dictated by the setup, a lot of the rehearsal time would be us meeting at Steve's house with paper, notating setup. It's composed in the sense that the sections are controlled, that the sense of time is controlled, but that the exact material is open and we like it that way. But, no, it's not a "free" group.
NPR: There's a common frenetic energy to much of your music. There are very few spaces in which to breathe. Is this intentional? Do you find solace in this constant sound?
EK: I can't stop. That's just the way I am as a person. I just wake up and I'm going. The music reflects that. I grew up seriously studying the drums, started going to avant-garde shows in Boston and noise shows and all this stuff, and I started seeing all these guys playing with distortion pedals and getting this incredibly dense sound using electronics. And I was like, "I love the density and intensity of this music." I respond to it, but I want to work with acoustic materials. I want to work with my sounds that I like.
So I stumbled on the crotales, which allowed me to sustain pitches with incredible volume with no amplification — that became part of what I do. And then I started getting into modern, contemporary classical and some classic stuff like Xenakis, and Feldman, and Lachenmann, and Scelsi, and some older stuff as well, and then Nancarrow with mechanical music and all these people were dealing with a certain type of sonic density. And my idea with the drums was, "Well, how can I get that kind of density, but with individual attacks? How can I get a sense of slow-moving sound built of little tiny fragments?" And my approach was to create that kind of density of sound with tiny little hits, tiny little attacks, and then using sustained sounds to frame those. And that sort of became the basis of the sort of sonic world that I'm interested in, and I find myself obsessed with it.
I find it interesting that people describe what I'm doing, or friends of mine have said, "It's really dark-sounding. It's dark." And I definitely have a real critical side of me that can get into darker things and critical ideas and get into cynicism, but honestly I don't hear it that way; I hear it as energized. And it's interesting to me that you strike a string and it vibrates and it just sits there and it's vibrating and that space is scary to people. It like reminds them of a horror movie; it reminds them of a horror soundtrack or something. But it's just space. Space is scary to people, acoustic space. And when it's filled with sounds and it's all acoustic and dirty and real like that, not effected with synthesizers or anything, it can be a little bit — it can feel frenetic. And that's okay because, honestly, I hear my music as having humor in it, too. It's just using these sounds that are associated with fear. But they're only scary because they're just in the real world, you know?