Turning the Manhattan Bridge into a piano

Exclusive: check out a film of rad sound artist Eli Keszler stringing up the New York bridge

Any scene is codified. It’s better to split between the crowds,” says Eli Keszler from his New York studio bright and early on a weekday. Going from punk to avant-garde to a monolithic sound art installation, ‘Archway’, on Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn, he’s ideally placed among the PAN roster. It’s a Berlin/NYC based label, consisting a crew of stylistic outsiders spanning noise, techno and the more esoteric realms of sonic experimentation. 

All artists are brought together under an umbrella structure of idiosyncratic graphic design on vinyl album covers that make PAN releases collectibles as much on a visual level as a musical one. That goes some way in illustrating the experiments of Keszler, whose piano wire installations in his ‘Cold Pin’ series reached across water towers, gallery walls and an LP, sequenced and coded micro-controllers strumming them in search of order in the chaos of their vibrations. A droning, humming “vertical experience” of dense sonic compositions, these structures rely as much on chance as on method. Except, where the process of organisation and composition of ‘Cold Pin’ was as reliant on mechanics as the improvised musical ensembles that occasionally interacted with it, ‘Archway’ differs, not only for its much larger scale, with wire lengths reaching up to 800 feet, but for depending less on the micro-controller sequences of collaborator Reuben Son and more on the reverberations of the bridge’s passing traffic: “It’s a system, fed through something that’s chaotic and leaving as something that creates an illusion of control”. 

Dazed Digital: How do you move from something as political as punk to something as esoteric as sound art? 

Eli Keszler: I think that some punk has a political message but some doesn’t, necessarily. Whatever punk says it’s doing, obviously it’s made some changes in the world. Ultimately, what it created was a sense of freedom amongst young people, to be themselves and do what they want. In some way, I’m interested in these public pieces for similar reasons. I’m trying to take spaces that are used for specific purposes and showing that they have other potentials; that they can be used for tonnes of different purposes and causes. 

If you’re moved by something that is esoteric, in some ways that’s what that culture is about. It’s not about a style of music. To me, that’s the thing that I felt the least attached to about that culture. I was always an outsider there too. I never really felt like I fit in there and I never really wanted to. I was always just interested in the freedom of it. 

DD: Is there any conceptual bearing to this idea of human interaction with an urban environment that you’re exploring? 

EK: I think so. I really have problems with, on a personal level, being told what to do and also telling people what to do, which is sort of unusual for someone interested in composition and composing. I think that’s how I was drawn to this; the idea that you could create an environment that, with very little direction, could produce the results that you’re after. It’s almost like a composition through other means, when you create an installation like this. You have people perform within it and if it’s done right, you get the right people and you create the right atmosphere and community, you really don’t need to say too much. The results are what you’ve been looking for to begin with. 

On a similar level, I think that’s something that’s really appealing in a greater sense. To live within a place where you don’t have to tell people what to do and to create a situation for people to do what they want and at the same time for it to work together. 

DD: That sounds like quite a utopian way of thinking. 

EK: [laughs] I’m wary of calling it ‘utopian’ because I’ve tried it and I’ve had successful results. So I don’t want to imply that this is some sort of attempt to create a utopian situation. I’m more experimenting with different models and finding ones that work better than others. I don’t’ think that imposing an environment on people and having them perform within it is a perfect situation. I mean, the perfect situation would be if everyone just walked in and it worked but, in my opinion, that’s been proven that it almost always fails.