Part Three: Eli Keszler vs. Keith Fullerton Whitman

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Left: Eli Keszler; Right: Keith Fullerton Whitman

Eli Keszler and Keith Fullerton Whitman put out a really cool split LP with NNA Tapes earlier this year. Both of these gentlemen are high-grade experimental musicians, working within analog and digital frameworks to not only create new sounds but to change the ideas of what exists as music and what could be music. Keith became known in the '90s as a maker of what in that time was called IDM under the name Hrvatski. However, he stopped assuming this moniker, and making dance music at all, instead moving on to taking apart modular synthesizers in ever more adventurous ways. Eli Keszler could be referred to as a “sound artist”, a delighfully unspecific term. But it makes sense – he creates entire installations of sounds that are capable of playing themselves, including two recent fascinating ones: “Collecting Basin“, in which piano wire is strung to the top of a water tower in Louisiana and struck by micro-electronics to create a present tone, and “Cold Pin“, in which an assortment of wire and electronics are strung, arranged, and programmed in a gallery in Boston. Both of these men are interested in the role of the musician in music, and in Eli's forms, he is a ghost or a shadow, not really present.

We asked Eli and Keith to interview each other, because we had an inkling that beyond being slapped together on two sides of vinyl, they might also have an interesting amount of dialogue in the current state of experimentalism and also the specifics of each other's work. However, we might not have estimated that they would have quite so much to say; for your reading comfort, and for ours, we have split this interview into three parts. Part one is here and part two is here. If you would like to download a PDF of this interview for posterity, you can do that here. Please enjoy part three, where Eli and Keith talk about Eli's new installation and their format preferences.

Keith Fullerton Whitman: Excellent. So about the Eyebeam piece: this is another installation and ensemble work?

Eli Keszler: I'm doing a large ensemble piece, a pretty big group of 9 people or so. I'm writing a large score for it, and I'm basically working on a program, thats going to reorder the installation based on a sort of 'score' using a drawing of mine that'll be flexible. There are going to be two installations essentially stacked on top of each other. One will cause the drawing patterns to move which will trigger the other, which will trigger the first part. Basically a massive circling system. I'm doing a score to go along with it for the group. Stacking everything on top of each other. They'll be a website with a audio/visual feed of the piece as well that shows this whole process, though removed.

The score itself is being changed by the installation in real time? How do you implement that? And is this your first time working with graphic scores?

It's both like this and the opposite, the installation score is a flexible system, so its changing the installation – but the installation is changing the installation. The musicians performance, is in it or out of it. It is graphic in a sense, but in another way, I think of it as just being a notation form I'm developing for the installation because it is it's own system. It's not abstract really, like you think of a graphic score as being interpretive, it's very precise. In a certain way.

Fantastic; this makes perfect sense given your background in visual art, design, screen-printing, and so on. That's a great marriage of divergent interests into a single piece. And the idea of a non-interpretive graphic score is also very appealing. Do you stress a very specific visual language to the performers?

Right now it's very simple. The performers will be playing off of a detailed score. I'm trying to keep it as basic as possible to achieve the results and idea. I'm really interested in putting all of this together that I've been working on. So the score will be a very precise and detailed piece, and at the same time – almost a folio, in addition to a website. Luckily my friend Andrew Fenlon who runs this wild website called Scanner Jammer is helping me, he has been very patient in dealing with a lot of the technical stuff around this. But there are a lot of sections. So there are a ton of variations. I'm thinking a lot about the visual presence of the piece. About this idea, what we were talking about before – the way data shifts forms and takes on so much different meaning, when it's just code it is what it is. But when you add the strings, and space, it takes on this engulfing quality. When you add an ensemble to it, and then on top of it, this circular system using the internet- it turns into this very complex situation, which is what I'm after. But again, for me I'm just trying to picture it and imagine what it will feel like..that's all it is really, the technical part is just a means for me.

What struck me the most when watching the cold pin group perform at the BCA was that the installation was, for all intents & purposes, just another “member” of the group. Another layer of sound performing by its own interpretation and aesthetics. . . albeit one that was working in spectral ranges not covered by the musicians. In the Eyebeam piece, is the installation still working below and above what the musicians are providing?

That's how I thought of it, I thought of it as the architecture for the piece. It's to frame the performance, you can put something in it, or leave it out. You get into a very interesting space between vertical time like a sculpture or installation, and horizontal musical time. In this new piece I was thinking of adding a third type of time to the equation, which is a completely multi-directional temporal sense, this is what digital technology allows to me, and trying to stack all three. At Eyebeam I'm going to be using a more vertical structure in the space, so the strings will be going across the space and all the way into the ceiling over lapping quite a bit. I'm also using these wooden resonators that will have dryer percussive tones, which will be placed around the room, the piece will have a little bit more rhythmic attack to it.

But still, with that massive room sound that makes spaces like the BCA and Eyebeam so appealing, right? I mean, it's a treat to hear any kind of music played in spaces like that. It's such a natural “enhancer” to have a large resonant space just calling and responding with what's happening, sonically.

Exactly. And you really are just bringing out what's all ready there – bringing out the architecture. Can I ask one other thing?


I'm sure you've thought about this a lot. I'm wondering about you and your brother and the connection between your work. You run one of the best places in the world to pick up records – LP's and CD's, etc. And he is deep in the world of advanced digital music technology. Do you see your work in conflict? Do you feel uneasy about digital music in that way? [Ed. note: Brian Whitman is the co-founder of the Echo Nest, a company that has built an API used by, amongst others, pre-programmed radio stations and other musical applications, often combined with Spotify. Keith himself runs a distro called Mimaroglu, which is highly recommended.]

I think at first, after he started the Echo Nest, he got tired of repeatedly hearing my. . . perhaps myopic interpretation of what the “digital music” trains of thought were doing to the perceived “excitement” of listening to music. But, if anything, over the past five years I've changed my own perceptions, vastly. I'm still, very much, as I'm sure you are too, committed to a physical issue of music that's about more than just the signal. There are so many ways to cleverly wrap your music in extra context and/or associated visual cues via physical editions that become mere afterthoughts when everything is experienced through Spotify. But ultimately making all music available to anyone, then designing systems that quickly and elegantly allow for personal refinement of taste and/or aesthetic, are both fantastic things. Now that it's no longer about expensive hardware and elite delivery mechanisms, I'm fine with all of it. Computers are cheap, phones are virtually free. it took me 15-20 years of frequenting record shops to go from Faith No More to John Zorn to Mauricio Kagel to Fluxus to La Monte Young to Eliane Radigue. Now that often happens in an afternoon of requisite Googling. I literally can't see how that's a bad thing.

I agree with you. It's very complicated but I think thats true. This is probably my problem, but I can't for the life of me, really internalize any digital music I have. I have Spotify, I use it all the time. But for whatever reason, it might be something deeply trained into me, but I need to put in the CD or play the record to engage with the music. This must not be true for everyone.

I'll keep making records available to people that, like myself, PREFER them. But I'll never ask someone to purchase a CD or LP that has literally no way to play it or any interest in setting up a stereo at home. Which, of course, I recommend that EVERYONE does at some point in their life, if only to, as you say, internalize their relationships with music. I haven't traveled with a pair of headphones in 10 years; I don't listen to music to kill time on the bus, or on the airplane. Disposable rom-com's, maybe, but I kind of put most music on too high a pedestal for it to be a passive activity. Of course I only feel this way as I've had the resources to set up a nice stereo in a nice sounding room, on which I listen to records roughly 8-10 hours a day, every day. If I didn't have that 20-minute cycle of walking across the room to flip over the record, i'd have succumbed to deep vein thrombosis a long time ago…

It is great that anyone in the world can check out any music they want. It will lead to incredible things.

Agreed, absolutely. It's already happening. I have very informed conversations with 18 and 19 year old undergrads at concerts about music on a regular basis. If I knew half of what they've absorbed when I was their age… I'd probably be listening to different music now.

It's pretty nuts, I wonder though how it's different in certain ways. I wonder how much music one can really know? I think a lot about what you take in and what you don't. I think I've taken in so little in a certain way. Little fragments of this and that, but the big things – they come from obsessions. And I have a few of those. I wonder if people still are obsessed with a single song. Just the act of rewinding or, picking the track on a record leads to obsessive behavior. I think this used to be a good thing. Maybe it's not useful anymore. Spotify, by nature discourages this. But that's ok, maybe that whole idea of exclusion is a thing that is over with, and people can put it all in now.

Did you enjoy this series? Then you would be well advised to do some exploring. Keith Fullerton Whitman is performing Friday at 285 Kent with Pete Swanson and others and Eli Keszler is part of a group show and installation at Eyebeam in Manhattan on June 7. Both have other tour dates on their web sites as well.