When the Brooklyn-based performer and composer Eli Keszler settles in behind a drumkit, it’s likely that he’s given as much thought to the space he’s playing in as the notes he’s filling it with. “As a composer it’s essential that I know the space I’m writing for,” Keszler says. That’s because his surroundings are as much a part of the piece as the sounds themselves: To experience one of Keszler’s pieces in person is to become aware of your surroundings.
It’s doubtful that you’ve heard music or experienced visual art quite like his. In performance and on solo releases such as last year’s double album Last Signs of Speed, 2015’s Oxtirn, and 2012’s Catching Net (another double), Keszler scratches, scrapes, taps, and bellows his way around his unassuming four-piece kit, and those particles of sound coalesce to form extended, yawning phrases that morph over time. His playing is original and virtuosic—yet its most jarring quality is the way it invites listeners to consider concepts beyond drums, or even music. Keszler’s performative art installations pose questions about life, art, and our relationship to environments.
One could frame Keszler’s work as new music or site-specific, interactive installation art. His dizzying drumset compositions often incorporate wire sculptures that stretch across the performance space, and together these elements interact and reverberate, ultimately animating spaces we may notice but never really consider. Keszler’s novel approach has made him stand out in a city overflowing with musicians and artists of all types, which is why his work has been featured at Lincoln Center, the Kitchen, and museums and universities around the world. He’s worked with So Percussion and the Icelandic Symphony and Brooklyn String Orchestras, among many others. His performance pieces and recordings open doors to expressive and dialogical possibilities we rarely associate with drum-centric music.
Keszler’s playing is imagistic, and his pieces convey a spectrum of emotional dynamics that range from the epic (think gamelan with tribalistic tom explosions) to the intimate (“house noises” you might hear while lying in bed). A player of polyglot inspiration, Keszler takes cues from almost everything that surrounds him—drawings, buildings, other drummers, rocks, machines….
“Looking at and listening to the world around me gets me very excited, and I often say to myself, Oh my God…I have to figure out how to reflect this in my own way,” Keszler explains. Maybe that’s why you’re as likely to hear in his playing compressed bebop chops that sound like a tape of Art Blakey played in fast-forward as you are Morton Feldman-esque melodies that are equally haunting and dulcet. Regardless of any of his phrases’ origins, after hearing Keszler play you’ll definitely agree that he is fluent in the languages that have helped create contemporary music’s lexicon.
Sheets of Sound
Chance, improvisation, preparation, and variation all inform his approach, so it’s tempting to describe Keszler as one of John Cage’s musical descendants. Yet his skill as a drumset technician makes his music distinctly accessible for drummers. Keszler’s sound is built from many components, but the one that will likely floor percussionists first is the flurry of strokes that he orchestrates across every reachable surface of his kit—rims, stands, shells, cymbals, crotales that he plops on top of his snare, not to mention the drums themselves (which he texturizes with folded cloths). He often begins pieces by introducing phrases built from impossibly rapid taps across two or three textures (the snare drum, its rim, and the hi-hat, for example), then follows that original phrase with variations on those same surfaces, broadening his palette to new textures only after he’s explored a mind-bending slew of rhythmic inversions.
These exploratory and organizational systems suggest something structural, almost in the way that a building constructed from bricks uses parallel and overlapping repetition to create not only its foundation but its very form. Each brick may appear identical to its neighbor, yet divots, discoloration, nicks, and clots of mortar give every building block a variation all its own. Keszler’s compositions stretch in a similar fashion, and each of his brick-like phrases is imprinted with its own sort of variation that modulates vertically across the textures of the kit as the piece unfolds.
Keszler address the instrument in a way that many drummers likely wouldn’t: through phrasing and melodic contour. Contemporary composers like Tony Conrad and Phill Niblock—musicians who work with long, sustained tones—helped him form that approach. “About ten years ago I got really interested in that kind of music,” Keszler says. “I thought about ways I could create the sense of sustain on the drums, rather than using the cymbals as a wash of sound. I wanted to see if I could play phrases on the drums that are so fast they form long shapes of tiny shards…where one sound morphs, but that one sound is made up of 200 individual hits.”
Keszler goes on to describe this sort of playing as forming “sheets of sound,” a concept he first encountered with British saxophonist Evan Parker and in John Coltrane’s later music. “I’m really into the idea that the drumset can create a wash of tones, where you stop hearing individual hits. Schoenberg had this idea called the Klangfarbenmelodie, which is basically a ‘noise melody,’ where there are multiple sounds going on at once and you don’t hear the individual pitches—you only hear [makes a groaning, wailing sort of sound that modulates]. That [sound] is how I imagine the shapes on the drums, that it comes more from my voice than from the drums themselves.”
Next Exit: The Road Less Traveled
The early parts of Keszler’s development followed a path familiar to that of many musicians: He played in bands with friends and took private lessons. It was his first exposure to live jazz that made Keszler focus on his instrument. “I saw all these jazz drummers at Scullers and Regattabar in Boston,” Eli says. “I was just blown away and would think, This is so heavy…THIS is drumming. What I’m doing is, like, nothing.”
Keszler points mostly to jazz drummers like Ed Blackwell, Paul Motian, and Elvin Jones when he talks about his early influences. “Elvin Jones and Tony Williams said they practiced five to ten hours a day. So I said to myself, At the very least, I can practice that much. I don’t know if I’m as talented as they are, but I can try as hard as they did.”
Yet as indebted as Keszler is to traditional heavyweights, he owes a great deal of his sound to composers who helped define modernism. “Han Bennink, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, composers like Morton Feldman…they really influenced the way I think about phrases, in terms of repetition and variables,” Keszler says. “I’m interested in creating micro-variables within a repetition until it morphs into something else.”
As Keszler began to take playing more seriously, he started composing his own music, and ultimately that became his primary area of focus. It led him to the New England Conservatory of Music, where he studied composition with Ran Blake and Anthony Coleman.
Keszler has funneled those years of practice into a tornado of sound that is all his own. His shows feel more like multidisciplinary performance art pieces than concerts, and in those performances Keszler shatters the traditional notion of the drumkit’s role in a piece or ensemble. His work communicates curiosity about the instrument and the space that surrounds it, and it becomes obvious that his stacked and mortared phrases are only one way in which architecture is important to his music. Keszler says that he works with architecture “in very literal ways,” and that he often uses the space itself.
Commissions allow Keszler an opportunity to engage with a space’s acoustic and social significance. At a recent concert at Boston City Hall, Eli addressed the fact that many designers love the Brutalist building’s aesthetic boldness, but those who work there find that the space has many practical difficulties. This complicated development history became a central aspect of his performance. Keszler recounts that when he scouted the location he understood why people find the building problematic. “There’s not very good light,” he discovered. “There’s problems with ventilation. But when I went inside I saw these long vertical windows, and eventually figured out they could open.”
With that in mind, Keszler built a piano-wire installation that ran from the open windows to a plaza 300 feet away, and transmitted sound recordings he made of the building’s boiler-room machines (located in the basement) across the wires. He then played a drum solo in the plaza, accompanied by the recordings. By sending sounds created in the basement to the public plaza outside, via the upper floors’ open windows, Keszler figuratively connected the building’s bottom to its top and invited those who gathered in the plaza into areas of the building that are typically closed off.
One could argue that every drummer works with architecture in ways that don’t require any figurative extrapolation, and that—like it or not—structures play an important role in how we approach our instrument. Keszler addresses this relationship head on. “As a drummer I listen closely to the way that I hit a drum and the way it interacts with the room. I mean, that’s everything. If you hit a snare drum one way in a dampened studio, and then you hit it the same way in a cathedral, it’s not even going to sound like the same instrument. That’s because of architecture.”
Exploration for Fun and Profit
Musicians often talk about how difficult it can be to carve out a performance-oriented career, and the prevailing wisdom suggests that the less mainstream your music, the tougher it is to make a living. Yet Keszler’s experience suggests something else: He’s found job opportunities because of the specificity of his vision and his willingness to explore diverse, nontraditional venues.
Keszler says that glimpses into Boston’s noise scene and New York’s visual art community led him to explore performance opportunities outside the typical club-scene-for-hire racket. This is largely how he found his path writing applications for grants, which led to other job opportunities, like writing for new music ensembles. Ultimately, it’s how he’s found liberation from a gig circuit that many working players find oppressive. “You can ask yourself, What would be a really interesting thing to do with this street, bridge, or public space? Then all of a sudden the world becomes much bigger. It becomes much more than just the ‘jazz scene’ or the ‘experimental music scene.’
“I don’t think about it like I’m tapping into a market,” Keszler adds. “It’s more, ‘I go to art shows and I want to start doing things in that context—maybe they’ll let me.’ That’s what happened. I was able to convince some people to give me a chance.”
As an artist in the post-recession economy, Keszler isn’t familiar with the cliché of “waiting for the phone to ring.” If he wants to make the rent, he spends time creating opportunities—usually a mix of commissions, concerts, teaching, grants, selling of his own visual art—and occasionally doing “something I don’t really want to do,” he laughs. “It’s a constant struggle. But I’m doing what I want to do, so I’ve been very lucky. You have to apply for grants, write music, perform, stay open. For me it’s about following my interests, and that takes you in different cultural areas, which brings about possibilities.
“We live in a really open time, and we can all work in unconventional ways and across fields. It’s not easy. You have to be determined. You have to be crazy.”
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Keszler’s approach to equipment is almost as novel as his approach to playing. Every working New York drummer has to learn how to wrangle a jury-rigged house kit, and Keszler uses accessories like Zildjian crotales and Low Boy leather and Vater Vintage Bomber beaters to help him achieve his sound on an otherwise unfamiliar kit.
“I love Yamaha and Gretsch drums,” Keszler says, “but I rarely use single-source drumsets. I have a [Gretsch] round-badge kit from the ’60s [8×12, 14×14, 14×20] that I use pieces from. I almost always use a 3×13 Pearl piccolo snare that I’ve had since I was about sixteen. And sometimes I use a 5×14 metal snare drum in place of the rack tom. I try to treat my drumset the way a drummer would in the 1930s, the way those sets just sort of look like something they put together in a garage.”
Keszler’s current cymbal setup includes 14″ Dream Dark Matter hi-hats, a 20″ Dark Matter Energy ride to his left, and a 22″ Zildjian Constantinople Armand ride to his right. For sticks, Keszler favors Vater BeBop 500s for their lightness and thin tip. He’ll often change sticks from piece to piece, however, and it’s not uncommon for him to use everything from his fingers to bass bows to achieve the right sounds.