An Interview with Eli Keszler
A photo of Eli Keszler
Photo credit: Dan Allegretto

Eli Keszler is a New York based artist, composer and percussionist. His music, installations, and visual work have appeared at places like the Whitney Museum, Lincoln Center, Victoria & Albert Museum, Sculpture Center, The Kitchen, South London Gallery, Barbican-St. Lukes, Walker Art Center, and MOMA PS1 (to name just a few). He has released solo records for Shelter Press, Empty Editions, ESP-Disk', PAN, and Rel Records. As a composer, Eli has written commissioned works for The Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, Ice Ensemble, Brooklyn String Orchestra, and So Percussion. Keszler has collaborated with Oneohtrix Point Never, Laurel Halo, Kevin Beasley, Rashad Becker, Laure Prouvost, and David Grubbs, among others.

We caught up with Eli on August 13, 2019 over the phone to talk about his composition and performance techniques and adapting his most recent album, Stadium, (released last fall on Shelter Press), into a live solo show using Sensory Percussion.

What is your musical background? What made you pursue music?

I grew up in a musical family, I wouldn't even say I consciously pursued music because it was all around me.

You went to New England Conservatory, right?

Yeah, exactly.

How did that influence your playing and your musical direction?

When I was a kid I was into jazz - all types of music really, but I studied composition I would say mostly at NEC. I saw tons and tons of new music, 20th Century and classical. I went in as a drummer and I left a formed musician.

I've talked to a number of people who've seen you play, and everyone agrees that your playing is extremely unique. And so I was wondering how you developed your unique musical voice? You know, the waves of fast gestures punctuated by aggressive accents?

Yeah, thank you. I think I just tried to infuse all of the things I've been interested into one sound. And to be honest, I don't think of myself as a drummer first, I think of myself as a composer and artist and the drums are my instrument when I perform. But I don't feel obligated to play them. I think that's really informed my playing in a way, I don't feel confined to the role of a drummer, necessarily. I mean, I will do that, but I don't feel obligated to participate in the instrument's legacy, and I think that's been my attitude from the beginning.

Do you have any musical philosophies or ideas that you try to portray in your compositions?

I think that music can inform so much of how people interpret an environment: if you look at film scoring, film is incredibly intertwined and reliant on music. I try to start first with the idea that music should retain and control some sort of atmospheric and emotional space for a listener. And I think unfortunately that's often lost in contemporary music.

Totally, so what is your background in electronics? What DAWs or synths? What do you use and how has that influenced your compositions?

I grew up recording on my dad's Tascam four-track recorder, which dates me a bit, then gradually moved into using ProTools. I've experimented with most of the DAWs and systems, but not so much synthesis. I'm a completely analog musician in a sense: I don't use any effects, really, besides EQ, delays and compression, and sometimes some reverb. But even then it's mostly plates or springs - physical objects always. I'm very much attached to tactile music making, so I work with acoustic instruments, acoustic sound.

But in terms of DAWs, I use Logic and Ableton and, again, I keep things very simple. I don't use a ton of the built-in compositional tools. I mostly stick with using microphones and aligning things and coming up with patterns and editing.

Do you mix your own records, typically?

I mix my own records. I think I'm getting gradually better. I just brought some unreleased music into a studio with Nolan Thies the engineer who I work with and he said that he barely had to do anything to them, which is great to hear. I work at home and I get my records probably like 85% or 90% to where I want them.

Yeah that was one of the things that I really, really loved about Stadium. Just the spatial elements: the instruments coming from all angles.

I worked a lot on that. I think about music in terms of the way that it is distributed and for me the dominant musical listening setup is headphones. So I mix with that in mind. And so, thank you, I worked to get that spatialized feel to it.

So how did you hear about Sensory Percussion? And what projects do you currently use Sensory Percussion on?

Greg Fox, my buddy, told me about it: said I have to check it out. And I'm really glad I did [laughs] I love it.

I use it with everything, honestly almost everything that I'm performing on.

I used it recently at the Whitney Museum for this show that I did in collaboration with the artist Kevin Beasley where we were live processing one of his installations with a Sensory setup. And I used it with Oneohtrix Point Never for the live shows. Which is great because I can do a mix of the acoustic set, but when it's necessary to get a very precise electronic sound I'm able to do that.

I've found so many applications for it, and I think I'm just getting going. It's a really inspiring and an endlessly deep system. I've been experimenting - before I knew about Sensory - for eight years or so with very thrown together versions of Sensory. Either with pads and Ableton, or samplers, triggers etc… I tried a lot of different things, but this is the first one that feels like really playing an instrument, and not cueing on a CD player or something, you know?

Can you tell us a little bit about how you approached incorporating the elements from your album, Stadium, into your solo live show. Because you didn't use Sensory Percussion on that album...

No, it was proto-Sensory. I have done a number of different things. It's like any process of taking a live recording and turning it into a live performance -- it's a challenging experience. And so I had to do quite a bit of thinking to locate the core of the piece, if that makes sense, because sometimes it feels really necessary to have absolutely everything, and in other pieces it's more or less impossible to do live solo.

But I've done a bunch of things: everything from cutting up the recording into pieces and cueing it from the drums, or reimagining the piece entirely and making more of an environment based on the music

Eli's current setup:

  • 4 sensors, (on the acoustic snare, rack tom, kick drum, and mesh drum)
  • 3 channel footswitch MIDI controller
  • Sensel Morph
  • various Zildjian, and Dream cymbals
  • Yamaha or Gretsch back line drum set
  • Crotalés, various custom small cymbals and mounts, custom mutes
  • Promark Sticks

Yeah, exactly, it's a prominent sound that I often use. It's the closest acoustic sound to a pure sine wave, it's a very distilled sound. I love hybrid sounds where you take the recording of a sound and then mix it with the same acoustic source, which in that particular part of the recent live show I designed. You get this very strange artifact that occurs between the real sound and the synthetic pitched replica of the sound, which I love.

Tuning and melodicism is, for me, the most exciting part about Sensory, that the drumset can express very complex melodic and compositional ideas. I think that once you introduce the possibility for melody, you open it up to so many more people.

And so that's how I use the crotalés, as more or less a melodic voice.

Have you discovered any new techniques in the software that you use when you're using Sensory Percussion?

Yeah, I still feel like I'm learning the best way to use the software. But I use velocity controllers all the time. I've always wanted to get this enveloping sound from electronics, closer to the way it's used in New Music. Where it's kind of enveloping or swirling around an acoustic instrument and where the line between acoustic and electronic is blurred.

And so I use tons of velocity controllers, tons of dynamics. I use LFOs quite a bit: have little pitch sequences that are LFO controlled. All that stuff is all great. I'm just exploring using Ableton for longer forms, which I'm excited about. It's just so rich, it's just really a matter of having enough time and patience to get through it, but I love it.

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