The Towering Inferno

From Eli Keszler we have the wonderful Catching Net (PAN 32), shaping up to be an exceptionally powerful set…I received the release as two unmarked CDRs in a plain white sleeve so shoved one into nearby slot in hopes of result…this is how I began by playing the second disc first and received the almighty shock of hearing ‘Catching Net’, where Keszler combines one of his installations with chamber music, viz. a string quartet and piano. We have encountered his installation work previously for example on the impressive Oxtirn LP which was reissued by ESP-Disk in 2010. For some reason I misapprehended these installations as being a little more complex than they actually are, when it seems the main component is piano wires, strung about the performance space in such wise as to cause strong and extremely resonant vibrations. Paul Panhuysen would be proud. It seems the composer was aiming for a certain timeless quality in opting to use piano strings, “sounds that won’t get dated in any way”. I also learn that while he’s had training in music, his visual art / sculptural skills are all hard-won on his own terms…in other words he’s an auto-didact in that area…which may account for his bold gestures and risk-taking. This ‘Catching Net’ piece alone ought to justify instant purchase of the release by Xenakis fans…using all-acoustic methods, a monument in sound is erected, its creaks and groans reaching up to the stars with solid staircases of iron…his compositional method does involve some form of notation, but a stopwatch is used to determine the tempo, rather than conventional marks on a stave…this may be because machinery and motors are used to scrape, judder and hammer the strings…imagine a large-scale version of Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano, only stripped bare and removed from its wooden coffin, and the hammering action taking place in a form of grisly, deathly slow-motion performed by inhuman robot arms.

The triumph of ‘Catching Net’ has been to combine the mechanisms of the installation with the violins, viola, cello and piano, melding classical chamber music with abstract metallic sound art to produce astonishing, astringent effects that your body cannot ignore, in a face-to-face exemplar of raw and physical art-music. To hear the installation by itself, we click on to next track ‘Cold Pin’ which offers further monstrous scrapperings of doomulated grind for 13 minutes. It is here specifically that the motorised components come into play on a version of the installation that was attached to a large curved wall in a huge dome in Boston called the Cyclorama 1. Once again the axis of art-music-architecture is too clear to ignore and the Xenakis comparison is not far from the mark. Also on disc two we have ‘Collecting Basin’ which was executed by stringing up a large water tower and using two empty basins 2 as “amplifiers” or echo units. Astute avant-music fans may recall to mind Eric Lanzillotta’s Water Tower record 3, but also the echo experiments of Yoshi Wada when he used an empty swimming pool to act as a natural echo amphitheatre for his resonant chanting voice 4. It’s probably fair to see Keszler in the tradition of the old school of American conceptual artists of the 1960s and 1970s, who really thought big…transforming entire landscapes, taking over buildings, creating huge blocky steel sculptures in enormous New York lofts, pushing them out into public spaces…5 this ‘Collecting Basin’ induces dizzying vertigo as we listen to its terrifying grunts and sighs, like some gigantic breathing ogre in its cave, the very sound invoking the awesome scale of the acoustic space.

Disc One gathers three performances called ‘Cold Pin’ 1-3, and are records of Eli’s “band” performing heavily percussive and metallic noise. The three performances were recorded in significantly different acoustic spaces, which is most noticeable on the third very echoey track. In the band are Ashley Paul on alto sax and bass harp, Geoff Mullen on guitar, Greg Kelley on trumpet and Reuben Son on bassoon, with Keszler rattling his tireless arms across an array that includes drums, percussion instruments, crotales, and another guitar. Two of these cuts have already been released by the PAN label. ‘Cold Pin 1’ is intense and heavy – the improvising elements barely allowed to get a word in edgewise among the throbbing steel blasts and near-continuous resonating effects. On ‘Cold Pin 2’ the other players are more audible and the performance succeeds as a very radical form of group improvisation, where every second is packed with dense, detailed musical information. This music seems to be unfolding and generating itself, rather than played by people in real time; the collaborators are like radio receivers for these streams of information from unknown dimensions. On ‘Cold Pin 3’, it’s a little unclear whether the same five-piece is featured; the notes refer to a “mixed sextet and piano quintet”, and on early spins I’m not yet able to perceive any pianos playing here at all. But no matter, as this 25-minute piece is another essential piece of keening, melancholic, churning music, where some very unhappy brass or reed instruments make their plaint in slow and languid tones across a bedrock of spiky and restless percussive skitterments. Highly recommend this Catching Net double CD…its wild dynamics, resonating frequencies and primeval forces will alarm and amaze you…Keszler is emerging as a significant talent and one with a completely unique and personal approach to acoustic sound-generation, combining it with composition, improvisation, noise and live ensemble playing in very exciting ways.

  1. See this image to give you some idea of the scale involved.
  2. Very coincidentally, the water tower was in Shreveport, thought by many to be the original home of The Residents.
  3. Anomalous Records, SOUND 1, 2000; although Lanzillotta was probably aiming more for a naturalistic “found” installation vibe
  4. Lament For The Rise And Fall Of The Elephantine Crocodile, India Navigation IN 3025, 1982
  5. Such as…erm…Tony Smith, Christo, Serra, Carl Andre…

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