Eli Keszler

Catching Net
PAN 32 CD

Seers as different in temperament and seriousness as Andy Warhol and the Italian Futurists posited the virtues of non-human vs. human music. But young American composer/percussionist Eli Keszler appears to have gone them one better. Although 11 live musicians in two separate configurations are featured on some of the tracks of this two-CD set, aurally only a modicum of difference exists between their playing of his compositions and other versions that are recordings of Keszler sound installations.

The question of whether humans are becoming more mechanized or machines more human is beyond the scope of the sessions. However since the scores played are fully notated and timed with stopwatch markings rather than tempo or meter, that means that the human or artificial intelligence become secondary to the performance itself. Both child prodigy and enfant terrible, New York-based Keszler was playing drums at eight, and composing at 12. Besides studying composition at the New England Conservatory, he has played in Rock, Hardcore and Free Improv settings and collaborated with everyone from Phill Niblock to Roscoe Mitchell.

Overall, on the evidence here, while riveting, his work lacks the basic suppleness and compassion that someone like Mitchell brings to his most obtuse percussive and electronic work. On the contrary, if there’s anything that unifies the six tracks on Keszler’s CDs it’s a sense of claustrophobia, density and calculation. With the underpinning of all tracks piano wires of varying lengths that are struck, scraped and vibrated by computer-controlled motorized arms and beaters, the resulting crackles, shakes, scrapes and resonations dominate every track.

Power emanating from the rude clangs, quivering buzzes and jagged scrapes make outright and fortissimo musical statements throughout. Yet it appears that only Keszler, in his role of percussionist, is comfortable enough with the components so that his live contributions protrude from the juddering, percussive miasma. The pieces are performed by a string and horn group consisting of prepared guitar, cello and bass harp, trumpet, alto saxophone and bassoon –plus the composer on drums, percussion, crotales and guitar on CD1; and solely by strings – piano, two violins, viola and cello – on CD2. But most commonly the string players’ parts are reduced to the occasional strum, stroke or slice; the horns squeal and reposition themselves with grace notes and echoes; while on the first disc only paradiddles and ruffs from the drum kit are fully showcased.

There are points at which the strings combine to suggest the sound of a giant zither or the horns’ unison blowing creates organ-like chords, but these outbursts are secondary to extended strings and percussion whaps and ruffs plus cymbal vibrations. Arrhythmic and broken-octave interactions are frequent, but abrasive friction trumps every other timbre here.

In short, Catching Net offers a fascinating look at the program of a still developing composer. But why human musicians were engaged for these performances remains an unanswered question.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD1: 1. Cold Pin 1 2. Cold Pin 2 3. Cold Pin 3 CD2: 1. Catching Net

2. Cold Pin 3. Collecting Basin

Personnel: CD1: Greg Kelley (trumpet); Ashley Paul (alto saxophone and bass harp); Reuben Son (bassoon); Geoff Mullen (prepared guitar); Benny Nelson (cello) and Eli Keszler (drums, percussion, crotales and guitar) CD2: Sakiko Mori (piano) and the Providence String Quartet: Carole Bestvater and Rachel Panitch (violin); Chloë Kline (viola) and Laura Cetilia (cello)