Part One: Eli Keszler vs. Keith Fullerton Whitman

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An artist-on-artist interview in three parts. Part one: the clock; the synth; sabotage.

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Eli Keszler and Keith Fullerton Whitman | May 7, 2012

Left: Eli Keszler; Right: Keith Fullerton Whitman

Left: Eli Keszler; Right: Keith Fullerton Whitman

Eli Keszler and Keith Fullerton Whitman put out a really cool split LP with NNA Tapes earlier this year. Both of these gentlemen are high-grade experimental musicians, working within analog and digital frameworks to not only create new sounds but to change the ideas of what exists as music and what could be music. Keith became known in the '90s as a maker of what in that time was called IDM under the name Hrvatski. However, he stopped assuming this moniker, and making dance music at all, instead moving on to taking apart modular synthesizers in ever more adventurous ways. Eli Keszler could be referred to as a “sound artist”, a delighfully unspecific term. But it makes sense – he creates entire installations of sounds that are capable of playing themselves, including two recent fascinating ones: “Collecting Basin“, in which piano wire is strung to the top of a water tower in Louisiana and struck by micro-electronics to create a present tone, and “Cold Pin“, in which an assortment of wire and electronics are strung, arranged, and programmed in a gallery in Boston. Both of these men are interested in the role of the musician in music, and in Eli's forms, he is a ghost or a shadow, not really present.

We asked Eli and Keith to interview each other, because we had an inkling that beyond being slapped together on two sides of vinyl, they might also have an interesting amount of dialogue in the current state of experimentalism and also the specifics of each other's work. However, we might not have estimated that they would have quite so much to say; for your reading comfort, and for ours, we have split this interview into three parts, each published over the next three days (on Wednesday, we will include a downloadable PDF of the entire text). Please enjoy part one, where Eli takes the dominant role in interviewing Keith about his work. —Eds.

Eli Keszler: I was curious about your connection to the idea of the body in relationship to what you are doing, because you are an interesting case. You can really here a certain rhythmic intensity in your music – even in the slower pieces, that to me wouldn't be there if dance music, and acoustic music, wasn't a real part of your life. For me its almost the opposite case, where my body is right in the center, and when its not with the mechanized music or composing, it really isn't. With you, it seems a little bit more complicated.

Keith Fullterton Whitman: Good start! recently, i've been feeling more and more disconnected with the organization of the sounds that I'm “performing” at any given time. One of the main ideas behind the hardware system(s) I've been using recently is that, when you get down to it, they're largely self-sustaining. I'm almost not even part of the equation.

I can see that – but the results are very you.

My role is merely a “puppetmaster”. Maybe i'm dangling the strings in a certain way, in a certain order. But the sounds are mostly the result of an internalized decision-making process that doesn't necessarily need me as a “performer” inside the loop. I can influence the boundaries, the ranges. maybe even the timings & their adherence to or complete denial of a central “clock”. but the individual sounding elements are policing themselves.

Can you listen to your music objectively because of this? Do you feel that if you get negative criticism, you are receiving it, or do you just think of it as someone objecting to a mathematical fact, in a way? For me I try to detach myself emotionally from what I'm doing, not because I want my music to be devoid of feeling, because I feel a lot when I'm playing. But I just don't think of it in those terms. It's just material.

As a performer, no. But I guess this all blurring the lines of what constitutes a performer and what a listener. I'm sure you've often been in that so-called “alpha state” while performing, where maybe each individual hit isn't calculated in real-time. More like you're overseeing the overall energy and pacing. But your motor skills are largely handling the intricacies, and maybe your frontal lobe is working towards the complete, overall sound, not each one as it's going by. I'm very much in the moment when I'm playing, even if the time-scale is compressing & expanding at its own free will. I often step away from a performance thinking only a few minutes have passed, when in the audience's time-scale it's been 10, or 20, or 60…

For sure, I'm rarely paying attention to each hit. That's for me, maybe the big thing I focus on that I think has been greatly under developed in percussion. Drums are always thought of in small units one hit a time, each attack matters..but what about so many sounds overlapping that it creates a tone out of sound? This is a idea that's applied to all sorts of instruments, but I don't hear it too much from drums, perhaps because its counter intuitive, but that's what is so important about it for me– Also, in my mind, some of the slower work I do with bowed crotales, and more sustained tones is very connected in pace to the more percussive pointed pieces, I'm not hearing things on a tiny scale, but more through the larger lens.

As a solo performer your abilities to multi-task have to be constantly put to the test; you're not just providing sound, you're also shaping the overall form, plus preparing for the next move/set of tools, breathing…

On rhythm Keith, I was wondering what your connection to pulse was? Do you hear parts of your music as adhering to tempo and breaking from it, or more in terms a open space, where things can jump of? To my ear, I here a connection with your rhythmic ideas and someone like Nancarrow, for example in study no. 21. You have crossing tempi over the course of three minutes or so, and you hear a process unfolding. Do you think of having multiple tempos or is it more open then this?

in the pieces i'm doing these days, the “occlusions” (the name is kind of a misnomer – the act of opening and closing your ears akin to opening and closing a filter – but it's stuck) there is ALWAYS a “master clock” and everything is derived from it. That said, i've gone to great lengths to use the clock to multiply & divide musical time in interesting ways. At the core is this idea that there's a threshold at which you can perceive “harmonic” rhythm, and where you only hear asynchronous, unrelated tempi. The Nancarrow example there is perfectly in line with this. You're interpreting the “crossings” of unrelated rhythm-sets as “resolutions”, whether you want to or not. It's human nature to do this. Also ; the master clock is mutable. I've found a way to have it influence itself, in a feedback-loop of decision-making. It often gets “stuck” and needs me to reach in and restart it. It's dialable from straight-time through short bursts followed by long silences.

So thats a point that you would re-enter the piece, in a way.

The piece is continuous, whether it's sounding that way or not! That's one of my favorite aspects of it. Also that it's essentially eternal and I'm just bringing it up for 20 minutes at a time to be “heard”. I love the idea that it's running on any given night for a few hours between soundcheck and performance, at exactly the same intensity. then it comes up over the PA and is somehow made “significant” simply due to the fact that people are listening to it. But it's been going the whole time. It doesn't have any perceptions as to what, formally, is significant or not. It's executing a task.

I see – I think that idea shows a real divide that has happened now in the way we think of time and development in comparison to a piece like this one by Nancarrow. Very little music is so clear cut in terms of its form anymore as this piece. Talk about letting go – I think Nancarrow really did this in an incredible way. He's essentially showing proportions between rhythms, with a canon, but when you hear it especially to the end its so beautiful when it reaches that density. It takes on a whole different meaning, and becomes something far beyond the basic components. It's amazing. But, I imagine you have a similar instinct in you, to break away from such clear cut forms as you described. It's just not in me at any rate. That's my response to this, as much as I love this music. He's one of my favorites.

I feel a great resonance w/ Nancarrow. Not just the forms, but also in that he's taken a purpose-built instrument (the player piano; for when the saloon is too cheap to pay a pianist!!!) and has just gone in the other direction with it. He worked with the idiosyncrasies of the instrument, emphasized them and used those as the core of his music. I have a hard time with most dance music these days ; especially the 4/4 things. I feel like we should moved so far past all of that by now. The '90s were an excellent time for re-introducing heavy syncopation into that highly socio-sexualized area of music; I feel like all of that good work has just been abandoned & we're back in the stone ages of NTSS NTSS NTSS again.

I really agree with you. You must have felt to a degree in the '90s that this was it! We are finally moving beyond the 8th note. . . and then back to square one. At the same time, there is an atmosphere to the simplicity of pulse, I can sympathize with it. I just see a lot of possibilities to reach that point with different sets of material then something so ancient, as I'm sure you do.

In the same way as nancarrow, I'm taking this language of sound – his piano timbres, my analogue synthesizer ones, but removing the timbres from their normal stylistic use – his classical & jazz, my dance & hip-hop. Keep in mind that I ONLY got interested in dance music AFTER all of that stuff started happening. Late jungle, drum & bass, breakcore, etc… when all of that disintegrated and then gave rise to 2-step, garidge, then dubstep, I gave up and went back to free jazz, etc. But there's a deep love of the early, renegade stuff ; esp. the afro-futurist elements – Detroit & Chicago techno, etc.

For sure. Well it makes sense, you have to go the opposite way of the crowd.

For me it was all about this imagined contest, a race towards a real complexity that somehow invaded the consciousness of the “pop” music listener… for a blip. Obviously, the audiences were dwindling with each step towards the brink of total chaos. And, at the end, the audiences were really all that mattered to most people who were active in those days. They went back to populism, back to simplicity. I kept going.

Do you think you'll move away from the synthesizer?

Definitely. I'm very happy with it both as a signifier and as a direct link to the history of electronic music. But it's a huge undertaking to yield even 1/10th of what can be achieved with even a modest computer these days. Or hell, even a cell phone. The form factor of the modular is crucial for me; it's visually analogous to the construction of any given variant of what I'm performing, in a very real way – a patch cord is removed and sound or control stop. But as I strive for more and more detail and control, it grows physically. I'm already having problems carting the bare-bones version around. I could easily build something just as rewarding in Max/MSP and have it on a little MacBook Air, maybe save my back a little bit. But it wouldn't be anywhere near as interesting as a performance gesture. it's not about the “reality” of analogue vs. the “virtuality” of digital. At this stage 80% of what i'm running in hardware in the modular is digital.

In a way its just the output. You could plug any sounds into the generated material you are using, which seems so crucial. Do you feel in control over what comes out? How much is your coding based on feedback – or trial and error? Or can you sit down and write in the language, and it come out with the sound you are interested in? Almost thinking in the code. I find that it's a matter of trust. I stopped writing music at the piano or behind any instrument at all a few years ago, and I couldn't believe how much accuracy I had between the sonic idea and the reality that would come out, but it takes a lot of trust on my end, to give up using your hands and ear to check your inner-ear. I'm curious your relation to that.

Much of the patching I've done involves feedback loops. In audio, in code, in control information. I do love the sound of an analogue oscillator; t's infinite. And the little tuning inconsistencies that come with using analogue gear and tuning “by ear” … I definitely feel in control now; whether it's an illusion or not. I think that comes with just spending time with a system & being surprised by it less & less with experience. that said, there's always somewhere to go with these systems. I'm a fan of sabotage when things get too complacent, too repeatable.

Part two of this interview is available here. If you have some spare time, you would be well advised to do some exploring. Keith Fullerton Whitman is performing Friday at 285 Kent with Pete Swanson and others and Eli Keszler is part of a group show and installation at Eyebeam in Manhattan on June 7. Both have other tour dates on their web sites as well.

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