The mind frame of Eli Keszler is complex, intricate. These are the same adjectives with which many critics have tried to label his sound. At the same time, his approach to music is not complex at all. He likes the timelessness of things; to connect with pure sounds; to work with raw materials; to tell a story. The non-technological aspect is beautiful.
He does not believe in the political sense of art, rather than as a reflection of change. Despite this, his latest albums tear apart the “neoliberal hellscapes and complete commercialisation of the cities.” A personality of high complexity framed with sensitivity and inspired by jazz and concrete composers such as Mingus, Xenakis and Varèse. Here is my interview with Eli Keszler as a prelude to his presentation in Barcelona.
You have gone from being a visual artist and create your own instruments, to be considered an avant-garde drummer and composer. Critics say that for more than a decade you have “dismantled the idea of how a drum should sound”. What are your thoughts on this?
It’s a good question. I never really wanted to dismantle anything. I’m much more interested in the way things connect together. I guess that’s the way they started like break apart but, obviously, to make something new you have to dismantle things from the past to some degree, you know.
I always have experimented and I’m still experimenting with different techniques of playing and different ways of putting music together. Mentally you’re deconstructing things but it’s more about maybe making connections where people didn’t think there were any.
You learned to play when you were eight years old, and at 12, you were composing. Your beginnings have been associated with the art world: sound installations, you combining your compositions with your drawings and writings. Was it only an experimental stage on your career or is it something you continue to do?
Yeah, I play the drums a lot. I consider myself to be like a percussionist, and drummer, and composer. I don’t really feel fixed to any identity in that sense. I’m very much trying things out. I’ve gone through phases where I’m playing more than other times, you know. I quite like that. I quite like being able to switch gears in a way that makes sense, trying new things. I don’t feel, you know, locked into being a drummer or anything. I think that’s how I ended up doing different things. I mean, I am a musician, but I don’t consider myself these and that. I try not to think of myself in those kinds of professional terms, you know. It takes a bit of freedom from you.
How is your creative process triggered? What determines it? Is there something that, on the contrary, retains it or limits it?
I think I’m just looking for that kind of sense of spark inside of myself. The one that says, you know, ‘I have to pursue this’. I find that kind of spark challenging to shut it off, and that’s what I look for. Obviously, we all use language and words to formulate our thinking, but I try to not let it take over my creativity. I follow my intuition quite closely. I’m invested in my intuition. I think that’s the best answer to that. Yeah.
Speaking of intuition, you have mentioned that you like “to work with raw material, simple sounds, primitive or very old sounds”, and Pauline Oliveros in her book Software for People said: “All of the music speaks to me like music, no matter how diverse, no matter what its function might be (…) and no matter what its origin: human, animal, artificial or extraterrestrial.” Do you feel the same?
Yeah, I think it actually speaks to everybody, and that’s what I like about it. I believe technology has a way of evolving very quickly, driving a particular type of digital sound that evokes a very specific time. I think when you’re dealing with something like a drum or a piece of metal or wood, it has this quality that is timeless, beyond the scope that we can sort of keep track of.
I try to work with sounds that are, in a way, timeless. They’re not connected to this specific moment, but they have some kind of history. If you think about metal, for example, it has this unique sound, but it also evokes this energy and old craft. Those are the things that touch the core of people, way beyond styles or trends. It’s also non-technological, which I think is very beautiful.
Your most recent albums, Stadium and Empire, seem to have a clear line: It is you speaking to the cities or trying to decipher their language, and some critics see a sense of political malaise in your discourse. Do you consider yourself a political artist?
There’s a bit of confusion when people try to make political change through art because it serves a different function –a really valuable–, and I don’t feel it is weak because it’s non-political. On a personal level, I’m very into politics and it plays into my thinking about music, and my discontent, and the role of music in the contemporary world –that I find a little bit disheartening. I don’t think that change comes through music. I guess maybe music can reflect the change, you know, at some level, or music can illustrate change.
I very into politics and it plays into my thinking about music, and my discontent, and the role of music in the contemporary world –that I find a little bit disheartening.
I don’t want to over-politicise my work, though. But those records are definitely a reflection of this sort of like neoliberal hellscapes and complete commercialisation of the cities. I’m really interested in looking into those spaces and reflecting on how they make me feel. I try to take as much of a three-dimensional look at it as possible, rather than simplifying and saying like ‘well, luxury condos in NY are inherently wrong‘, you know, like a very simple way of looking at life. Cities are changing and I’m trying to leave all that complexity in the music, and I hope that maybe inform people in the way they approach issues in the real world.
Are you able to identify some influences, authors, composers that have been leading your musical and artistic path?
I’m influenced by so many things, to be honest, that it’s a little bit hard to give you a couple. I always say that I’m influenced by all sort of people and things happening, but there are like very formative ones such as Ornette Coleman, Morton Feldman, Iannis Xenakis, Charles Mingus, a lot of jazz people. I’m into so many things that it’s a little bit hard to mention just a few.
Edgard Varèse in The Liberation of Sound, Perspectives of New Music said: “I decided to call my music ‘organised sound’ and myself, not a musician, but ‘a worker in rhythms, frequencies, and intensities‘.” Do you see yourself as a sound organiser? As a worker of rhythms, frequencies and intensities?
That’s a beautiful statement, and I don’t think I wouldn’t be making the music that I make without Varèse. I feel very much in debt to that legacy. I pretty much try to treat sound as composers as Varèse. They fully embodied sound rather than just follow a piece of paper. It was more about the concept, so in that sense, I would agree with that, for sure.