Droning, Fast and Free:
An Interview with Eli Keszler
Multi-instrumentalist Eli Keszler is one of a coterie of exciting new Boston-based musicians whose music pushes the boundaries of noise, drones, improv, and electro-acoustic composition. Using a variety of percussion instruments, as well as guitar and electronics, Eli creates intense drones and fast, rhythmically complex pieces. In addition to his solo work, he currently plays in a number of ensembles including a new trio with keyboardist Anthony Coleman and reed-player/vocalist Ashley Paul, a duo with guitarist Geoff Mullen, and a longstanding partnership with fellow multi-instrumentalist Steve Pyne called Red Horse. He has a pair of CDs out on REL, both of which showcase his extraordinarily dynamic playing.
Eli will play a live set on Rare Frequency on May 31, 2007. Between a series of concerts in New York and Providence, Eli took some time to answer a few questions by email.
What is your background, musical and otherwise?
I grew up in Brookline. My father was an amazing musician who played guitar, violin, banjo, piano — just about everything. There were always tons of different instruments lying around which I would play. I tried a lot of different things but the drums were really the only one I could stick with. Brookline High School has an amazing music and art program which I had a really great experience at. I got a lot out of it and played in a few bands. My teacher Carolyn [Castellano], who is an amazing percussionist and teacher, got me going composing and dealing with different things. I began getting a lot of records from the library. I was always into Jamaican music but began checking out free jazz and some new music. I also had some older friends that I would go with to noise shows around town. I also listened to early blues, things like that, pretty much any type of interesting music I could get my hands on. I remember finding my dad’s copy of John Cage/David Tudor variations IV when I was in grade school which blew me away. Just that people made music like that really changed the way I thought of things.
Are there any artists who have particularly influenced you?
So many! But I guess to name a few, Ornette Coleman, Morton Feldman, Iannis Xenakis, Keiji Haino, Evan Parker, Stravinsky, Webern, Varese, Scelsi, Han Bennink. Also Howlin’ Wolf, The Skatalites, The Upsetters…so many things. I am always buying records and checking out different things. Some of my favorites I’ve gotten in the dollar bins.
You’ve been a student at the New England Conservatory —what are you studying there?
I actually just finished school, but I studied composition with Anthony Coleman and Jon Malia. I also studied with Ran Blake who I learned some piano from —he’s very important to me. Studying composition was amazing. It has been great beginning to realize things on paper and really beginning to hear them in my mind. Studying was really hard for me though —I’ve never really dealt well with school. I found it difficult to be creative at points, but overall I really developed while at NEC.
You seem to be especially active right now with your trio with Anthony Coleman and Ashley Paul, Red Horse, as well as your solo work — could you talk about your various current projects?
My group with Anthony and Ashley is really fun. It’s just starting up, but we are playing in New York on June 3rd at The Stone. Anthony does a lot of prepared piano and organ drone kind of stuff, and Ashley is a really amazing reedist; she sings too. Red Horse is an ongoing collaboration with Steve Pyne. Steve builds incredible set-ups using organ, feedback, and homemade instruments. It’s real loud droning stuff. We are working on a tape for Geoff Mullen’s Rare Youth label as well as a record which should be out sometime soon.
I just released a new solo record which I’m excited about called R.L.K. on REL. On my own I do a lot of bowed percussion, drums, guitar, electronics. Lately I’ve been working with contact mics and things like that.
Also, I’m always composing for ensembles. I wrote a 3-part piece for piano recently as well a piece for Saxophone and electronics which Ashley Paul performed. I’m working on finishing up another piece for viola, guitar, piano and percussion.
I’m curious about the process behind your recordings which involve percussion, guitar, and electronics—to what extent do you map things out in advance? Or do the pieces evolve out of improvisation?
Well, I sort of battled a lot—especially studying composition in a more academic environment—with these types of issues. Even though my teachers were extremely open-minded, I was taught many different routes to structure my music; but I’ve found for me it all stems from just hearing a texture in my mind and then trying to realize it. That defines what I’m doing more then anything else. I generally record hours and hours of tape before moving on to the next piece. But most of the time I have a conception of the sound of the piece before I do it. It’s a tough question though, I’m not really sure sometimes. I spend so long on each one that by the end I don’t really remember….
Do you have any other upcoming shows, recordings, installations?
I’m doing a duo with Geoff Mullen at AS220 on the 26th of May. I’m almost done with a record focused more on bowed percussion that should be done soon. My Red Horse projects I mentioned before, I just did a session in New York City of Anthony Coleman’s chamber music that will be released on New World Records. Ashley and I are going to be doing a duo record soon—we just played at Issue Project Room in New York.
Hopefully I will be able to assemble a chamber music record sometime next year—that’s sort of a dream though. Its very difficult to do on your own.
As for the installations, hopefully I will do more in the future. I did one a few months ago that ended up working out well. If another opportunity arose, I would love to do it.
On June 3, Eli Keszler will be performing at the Stone in NYC with Anthony Coleman and Ashley Paul. On June 8, he’ll be part of the back-up band (with trumpeter Greg Kelley and saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra) for Jandek at the Boston ICA.
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