What does it mean to be a multimedia artist today? For 28 year-old American composer/percussionist Eli Keszler (www.elikeszler.com), the answer might not be what you would expect.
Keszler--whose new art installation L-Carrier recently opened on June 7 at Eyebeam Art & Technology Center in New York City (video premiere below)--frequently combines elements of sound, visual art, and mechanical engineering to create highly immersive sonic environments rooted in the tactile world.
With his double album Catching Net, released on June 5 by the German record label PAN, Keszler continues to do what few artists are able to do -- effectively translate his installations into engaging audio recordings. The installation documented prominently here, with both previously released and new iterations, is Cold Pin. The artist's press release explains the process most succinctly: "Keszler's installations employ piano wires of varying lengths; these are struck, scraped, and vibrated by microprocessor-controlled motorized arms..." The artist has in essence created a mechanical percussionist that can either produce its own "solo performance" or be accompanied by Keszler and other more "organic" musicians.
A musical abstract expressionist, Keszler excises anything that suggests a melody in favor of myriad textures with drones that blare, sear, and scrape their way across the soundscape. His creations are unapologetically violent, and none of the double album's six tracks last less than ten minutes. It seems as if Keszler is attempting to break us from the preconceived notion that percussion's primary role is to establish the rhythmic foundation of the music. Throughout Catching Net, the percussionist elicits seemingly countless colors from his drums, crotales, and other percussion instruments. In this way, Keszler gives the percussion family equal footing alongside the other instruments, rather than relegating it to less-than-musical status. His approach to the other instruments' timbral possibilities is similarly inventive.
The Disc One opener, entitled "Cold Pin 1," features a relentless barrage of sound -- various drum rolls, clatters, clinks, screeches, tapping, and ear-ringing frequencies. This visceral onslaught gives way to "Cold Pin 2": whirring sounds reminiscent of baseball cards stuck in bicycle spokes and pattering akin to rainfall provide a quieter, if no less daunting aural environment. As the composition progresses, signs of enigmatic and unspecified life suddenly appear -- frog-like croaking, primal squealing that sounds like electric guitars, bird-like chirping, low growls and gongs.
"Cold Pin 3," a nearly half-hour long live ensemble version of the composition, closes the first disc. This iteration gives the listener the impression of increased distance, as Keszler's percussion reverberates uninhibited through the cavernous sonic space that is the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts. The arrangement of instruments is noticeably less cluttered, giving individual utterances more freedom to move through time before colliding with the other looming sounds. Arguably, this final track in the trio that comprises the first disc is the most harrowing -- a slow scream clawed by guitar drones and meddlesome percussion, along with wailing trumpet and woodwinds, in what sounds like some new earth groaning amidst the process of creation.
By comparison, the title track and Disc Two opener "Catching Net," a string quartet and piano version of the Cold Pin installation, lacks the feral mystery that characterized the previous Cold Pin variations. The expressive capabilities of this known quantity pale in comparison to the idiosyncratic configuration on the first disc that included guitars, trumpet, bass harp, cello, saxophone, and bassoon. The triumph of the Cold Pin variations is its enigmatic approach to sonic production--the listener can never be quite sure of what he or she is hearing at any given moment. Which instrument played what, and how exactly was that particular sound achieved? All of these fascinating questions are answered in "Catching Net," and that's the problem. When the unconventional timbres are mined by a more traditional ensemble, the mystery is deconstructed, and the magician's secret is revealed.
But if "Catching Net" made us temporarily forget what makes Keszler's creations so special, the album's closing track "Collecting Basin" instantaneously reminds us. In this recording of a Shreveport, Louisiana installation of Cold Pin, the composer employs colossal scale -- with piano wires as long as 250 feet suspended from a water tower two-stories tall. What results is what sounds like the world's largest didgeridoo. If it were a physical landscape, "Collecting Basin" would be virtually impassible, a windswept and craggy terrain. Somehow it could be the highest cliff, or the lowest valley.
The double album Catching Net confirms Eli Keszler as an artist whose distinctive blend of soundscape and architectural engineering transcends the perceived limitations of percussion, and in the process, forges new sound worlds.