Eli Kezler on endless installations, raw composition, and the spatial limitations of large-scale art.
Like fellow percussionist/visual artists Walter de Maria and Brian Chippendale, there are many intertwining components to the work of Eli Keszler. As an installation artist, a virtuosic percussionist, and an accomplished draftsman, Eli has explored prevailing themes, such as the passing of time or the rawness and root of materiality. He does this kinetically—his installations churn and yawn like depowering machines, and yet his playing sounds too quick to be human. His pen on paper drawings are meticulously detailed with small laborious marks that collectively add up to singular, strange, hypnotic objects.
A week prior to this interview, I had visited Eli’s studio, a large white windowless room filled with sketches and diagrams for installation pieces that had somehow carbuncled into abstracted masses. Two test dummy installations were set up—one a wire installation, and another, automated mallets on boxes that sounded like sped-up morse code when activated. One of these—a massive lace of interwoven piano strings played upon by micro-controlled hammers—is currently up at the South London Gallery, and on August 22, Printed Matter will host a launch party for Eli’s first collection of drawings, Neum, at which he will perform a special percussion piece using crotales, bows, and sticks on snare and floor tom.
Michael Barron You’ve just put out your first book of drawings, Neum.
Eli Keszler That’s right—drawings, diagrams, and sketches.
MB Where did the title come from? Something you made up?
EK Neum is a variation of the word Neume, which was a medieval music notation, still used in plainchant. It essentially outlined the contours or a line and then evolved slowly toward the five-line staff system that we use now—its vagueness is what appealed to me about it.
MB So these pieces are a sort of notation?
EK If you think of notation as a sort of blueprint, I’d say so. They are all drafts and variations of this installation that’s up now at the South London Gallery. A lot of times when I’m working on an installation, I’ll be drawing both sketches that are directly going to relate to the installation itself along with diagrams that connect to some of the material—the patterns they’ll produce, for instance—as well as tons of drawing, prints and objects in general. It’s a good way for me to think through different ideas. It’s also maybe a sort of strange form of procrastination or something.
MB Or keeping time?
MB So Neum collects visual ideas you were developing prior to the installation?
MB You showed me some of these pieces when I visited your studio. They’re all pen and paper, with some silkscreened enamels and acrylics as well. You meticulously dot and line the paper one mark at at a time . . . we’re talking pretty small marks here. Are they always sketches for ideas you have, or do they kind of take a life of their own?
EK They do eventually get away from adhering to some sort of diagram. I set them up now to stand on their own, so they read as discrete objects. If I really break down ideas that are in the drawings I’m kind of shocked at how similar they are to the musical, soundoriented ideas. It’s conscious but it also just happens very naturally, that I find myself attracted to the same ideas, or the visual equivalent of something that I’m trying to do sonically.
MB Something that I noticed as a drummer myself is your attraction to create a large mass out of a lot of small points. Especially with percussion, you’re playing so many notes, at such short intervals, and they are all individual notes, but they blend together. You have a similar approach to your dot drawings—there’s so many individual dots that make up a large, singular construction.
EK That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m interested in—making these singular masses out of really tiny marks.
MB Almost like swarms.
EK It is swarm-like, and that’s how I think of it. It’s funny because I was interested in really slow music at the time I picked the drums back up—I’d taken a long break after finding that I had hit a wall—and I became interested in music that was very slow. I came to realize that the problem with the drumming wasn’t the actual drums, but that I wasn’t thinking about it in the right way. Then I discovered that if you play at such a fast rate with some preparations, you create a texture that doesn’t sound like what you’d expect—you get these swells of notes, these little shards of sound that turn into this huge whole. It takes on this because of it’s sort of concrete aggregate-like sound. It stacks and stacks upon itself. Through this I was able to make the drums function in a similar way to, say, a trumpet—to sustain.
MB You also compose pieces for string instruments and wire. But those scores seem to have a lot more space, more breathing room.
EK That’s true.
MB Do you think about these compositions in a completely different way from how you think about your visual art and percussive installations and performances?
EK Amost always, as in the book project, there are multiple components to each of these, so it’s rarely a performance or an installation—it’s generally a larger project with a variety of angles or entry points. Instruments tend to serve specific roles in my music. I hear each instrument and material differently even if they function similarly—like having the ability to sustain a note—and what I come to realize and explore is how the material of an instrument can hit the surface rather than the player.
There’s two types of visual projects I’m attracted to, and two types of sound I’m interested in exploring, and they’re both at extreme ends—things that are so fast that they sound slow and things that are so slow they seem fast. And the strings, naturally—the harmonics and the sustain that’s inherent to a string or a piano wire—fall into the category of a slow sound, though like anything, when you listen carefully to something slow it really is moving incredibly fast. Visually I find myself really attracted to pieces that are really minimal, or really reduced—minimal isn’t the right word—just really small in terms of the amount of information that’s given. I like the experience of knowing nothing and deciphering your own logic from a work. I like to force people to try to sort out what it might mean for themselves. That’s really appealing—to put people in that position. It’s like staring at a language for hours that you can’t understand or read.
MB It’s hard to connect with something when it’s blurring past you, or it’s never quite going to reach you. It’s a sort of asymptotic approach to art—you find yourself endlessly striving to comprehend it and the only way to do that is to construct your own connection.
EK It goes from being an idea, or conception, into something psychological or biographical. If you are watching someone move very quickly, like how I drum, it’s very physical and brutal in a lot of ways, it puts you in the position of the performer. If you see a huge piece of paper with thousands and thousands of little marks on it, you immediately put yourself in the position of the person making it, and you wonder how could they could do something like that. Why would they endure something like that? With drumming—if you’re playing with that much intensity, people put themselves in your shoes and wonder why I would play the way I do. I’ve been asked whether it hurts to play the way I do. That’s interesting to me.
MB Something else that comes to mind is duration—when you’re listening to music or you’re performing, you’re within the duration of that thing happening, but a drawing is a document of elapsed time: you’re never quite seeing the action. Your installations too, they just keep going.
EK Yeah, again it’s working with extremes. The installations are all piano wire strung up over the gallery, creating web-like patterns and structures, often based off of my drawings. I have hammers that are triggered via microcontrollers program that strike the wire at different intervals. I patch in algorithms or other simple structures and off they go. I don’t regard these as ambient in anyway. They are temporal forms. If you are in the space with them for a while, they begin to jump out at you and startle you—there is something assaulting about them, and that feeling comes from using time. The rawness of the sound brings this out as well.
It’s just another angle, another way of looking at time that’s different then the start and stop, narrative approach to music. I think of them as functioning within the framework of performance, drawing and score—with or without. I don’t limit them to being static forms—or working independently of these other elements.
MB And since these installations go off endlessly, they create a sort of atmosphere.
EK Sure, it’s another singular mass made by tiny marks.
MB And you perform with your installations too.
EK I got interested in working with installation by imagining it as a sort of a roundabout way of composing rather than telling musicians what to do precisely. I studied composition in conservatory. I worked with musicians to create these pieces, but then I had the idea to go about the composition process completely from the other end. I wanted to define the environment in which the music takes place, and through that I found that I could create behaviors in musicians. Certain things automatically happen. I was writing musical forms that tried to give the illusion of motion and momentum, but where, by the end of the composition, there wasn’t a sense that anything had really happened. There were tons of peaks and valleys and changes—different amounts of energy and force, dynamics and everything else, but without a clear arc where you could say the piece started here and went there. That’s actually a really difficult thing to do, because when you see an event it automatically takes on a dramatic form—it’s very natural and plays off our instincts. When you have an installation that really isn’t listening and is just spitting out sound at different points, it completely violates whatever structure you’re trying to create as a musician.
MB It’s almost like you are describing the disruption of narrative. You have this ensemble made entirely of machinations and machines don’t follow narrative, they just do their job. There is no narrative arc.
EK Exactly. It turns something social that’s responding to the dynamics of a room—or the dynamics of a person performing—into something that’s almost antisocial. Music is so social, it’s interesting to try and violate this.
MB As a musician, do you find it difficult not to get emotionally involved with the music that you’re playing—do you find yourself swept away at all by what you’re doing? I see you get into it while you’re playing—your “drum-face” comes out—is that you having a moment within the machine?
EK I don’t really know if that happens to me. I do get swept away by the physicality of what I’m doing. But if I try to talk too much after I play, I find that I really can’t—it’s some sort of different space. I also collaborate with a lot of musicians and when things click, that’s a really moving feeling, especially when you haven’t played with someone before.
MB You’ve had a bunch of remarkable collaborations with people like Christian Wolff, Tony Conrad, and Joe McPhee. How do those come about?
EK They just sort of happen. If it’s someone I really admire it’s such a treat to try to navigate what they’re doing with what I’m doing. And almost everybody that I look up to as a musician has such a strong style. They inevitably impose it on other players when they perform together, because their music’s very powerful.
MB Like a residue almost.
EK Exactly—they leave it everywhere. If you’re playing with someone as powerful a musician as Joe McPhee, you can’t—and this is a compliment—get away from his or her sound.
Then you have to figure out how to make this collaboration something special and separate from what they do.
MB I saw you perform at your recent Manhattan Bridge installation with So Percussion. This was one of your biggest installations, yeah?
EK Yeah, I had strung and stretched wire from the bike lane on the bridge down to a lamppost on the street. The wires ran about 800 feet down, overlapping each other in a splayed pattern. Wires from two lampposts crossed through these to create three different endpoints for sixteen interwoven wires that were strung at various angles. The passing traffic on the bridge—the different train lines, service trolleys, cars, and trucks in different directions exiting and entering Manhattan—vibrated the wires, periodically causing this powerful hum and sustain from the strings. I used mechanical hammers as well on some of the wires. The whole system was amplified and played through a PA. It was pretty elaborate setup, and a bit dangerous. The wires went directly into the street—they were hard to see, and people almost ran into them. I put some safety cones around the area, which sort of helped, but not really. It was a crazy day, now that I think about it, to put up an installation so big so quickly, perform with it, and then take it down like that.
MB That’s a shame. I bet those hammers could have kept going indefinitely.
MB It’s funny because the installation and the bridge itself seemed to complement one another so well, and yet I’ve seen these hi-resolution projections in the archway that feel really out of place on the bricks, like a tattoo on a grandmother. But you use a lot of materials that don’t date easily, which gives your work a sense of timelessness. Not timelessness in terms of artifact, but as continuum—those hammers are just going to keep striking those piano wires until they run out of power. Do you find yourself fascinated by the idea of—not stopping time, but creating a continuous moment?
EK Yeah. I mean, I’m very careful of the way materials are read and also where I put these projects. It needs to read as something that could have been there already in some strange way. I use a lot of raw materials in my work. Materials like wood and metal and ink are going to stay the same more or less for a really, really long time. But you can date something like a guitar sound or a digital print really easily to a specific era and machine. A lot of times, two technologies from different periods don’t blend well together, or at least they form autonomous histories. For me, I prefer trying something that isn’t bound in that particular way.
The great part about raw materials is that they might change forms, but they always stay the same at root. For instance, wood is always wood. If you traveled back a thousand years, you could still sit in a wooden chair.
MB Like we are right now.
EK (laughter) And a thousand years from now, permitting that we don’t deplete our resources, you could reasonably assume that people will still be using raw wood to make chairs.
MB You don’t use compositional computer programs. You still write your own scores by hand. There’s a rawness to that too, I’d say.
EK When I was working with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, a couple of them were telling me that they really prefer to have handwritten scores by the composer because they can tell by the rigidness of the handwriting the feeling they want to get across in the music. It affects your body as an instrumentalist when you sense this.
I like the abstract component of writing music where you’re sitting with a piece of paper. It’s almost like drafting. I’ll write a text that will describe what I need to have with maybe some little drawings, quick sketches, notes here and there. Then I’ll say, Ok, here’s two minutes of time and I need to get here and then I need to connect it together. You lose that element of sound, which I find really exciting—you really have to use your imagination to get through it otherwise you just get lost.
MB I think that’s something that might be going away, the idea of using that imaginative power without the aid of a computer.
EK Maybe so, yeah. I mean, I do think it’s changing; the point of entrance is different. But I just really respond to that method.
MB You’ve spoken about wanting to hang wires over the East River, which would be awesome, but logistically mindboggling. Do you have ideas that you just don’t have the means to do?
EK Yeah, all the time! I saw a friend recently that I used to ride BMX with and we were talking about how we’re still wired like riders—every time we’d see a nice staircase or ledge or railing, we think about riding it. You get tuned into the architecture where you see it as this opportunity to do these things, and you connect your biography and desires with public space. I’ve been thinking this way about the installations and since the piano wires are manufactured at over 2000 feet—and I’m sure you can get longer ones if you really needed to—you start to see skyscrapers, bridges, highways, boats…
MB Like how Philippe Petit saw the Twin Towers as the holy grail of a highwire act. Wire is so versatile.
EK I was working on a project a while back using prints of buildings that interested me and I started printing them and drawing these sketches for these imaginary utopian installations. But after doing the one in Manhattan I realized the magnitude of administrative and bureaucratic labyrinths you need to navigate to actually get the permits to do things like that.
MB That precarious balance between being a businessman and an artist at the same time.
EK In some ways it felt like the installation was done when I got the permits. In the sense that it said, you know, that I could hang piano wires off the Manhattan Bridge. That blew my mind. I mean I had a lot of help—Make Music New York, NPR, Issue Project Room and Pan, they really all helped to make it happen. But just getting to that point was such an ordeal.
MB And it’s only going to get more bureaucratic as you take bigger risks with your installations, I imagine.
EK Yeah, hopefully I’ll get to that point. I love that contrast of blurting out an idea and dealing with the fallback of it for a year. Trying to make it happen. (laughter)
For more on Eli Keszler, visit his website.
Michael Barron is a writer and associate editor for New Directions living in New York City.