Caterina Barbieri and Eli Keszler
March 28, 2023
Electronic composer Caterina Barbieri and percussionist and composer Eli Keszler brought engrossing sound and visuals to Pioneer Works on March 28, with bright, flashing lights and cavernous sound sculpting full-body experiences. In Keszler’s set, the drum kit was amplified and transformed by a computer, mixing atmospheric electronic rings with the pitter-patter of snare drum improvisation to create a transfixing sensation. In Barbieri’s, warped images of nature were projected on a screen, and smoke shrouded the stage and audience as her modular synth moved in smooth waves, creating an otherworldly groove. Each musician offered a different type of sound—Keszler’s was muted and intricate, while Barbieri’s was maximal and rich—providing the audience with two different immersive experiences.
Keszler, who’s based in New York, opened the evening with a rippling, feathery sound that emerged from his bass drum and echoed around the room as the projection screen behind him glowed red. He played in the style of albums like 2021’s Icons and 2018’s Stadiums, which both feature a similar blend of ambient electronics and thrumming rhythms. Live at Pioneer Works, he tapped rhythms on snare drums which were then manipulated using his computer, creating a web of scratchy textures and ringing sounds that wavered between stilted, jolting patterns and smooth and watery rhythms.
Throughout his performance, the stage lights matched the moods of his music, moving from bold reds, yellows, and oranges into peaceful teals, greens, and purples as his textures seesawed between frenetic and gentle. At first, the music and colors excited the senses, but as time went on, the set began to feel monotonous. Keszler was always trying out different tools on his drum kit, seeking different textures by switching out drumsticks for mallets or tapping the sides of the drums rather than the tops, but much of his results ended up sounding the same. His rhythmic patterns were often muddied and his repeating electronic buzzes lost their sheen. But by the end, he finally showed something new; fast rhythms, loud dynamics, and a boom, bringing the set back to its initial fervor, finding one last note of excitement before leaving the stage.
There was a greater sense of mesmerism when Barbieri began to play. The Italian composer’s music is derived from minimalism, finding inspiration in the ideas of phasing and repetition heard in pieces by Steve Reich, and her live performance launched from these ideas to craft dramatic and full resonances. It’s a sound that she’s also perfected on recent albums like 2022’s Spirit Exit, which showcased her affinity for enrapturing melodies through crafting cavernous sound from blossoming synth melodies.
Live, this felt more immense. She’s interested in exploring our perception of sound, in creating hallucinatory and ecstatic experiences, and this concert was no exception. During the first few minutes of her set, smoke spurted out of canisters, swirling around her and her modular synthesizer as a booming beat pulsed from the speakers. The room was dark, save for a dim, yellow spotlight that shined from above onto Barbieri’s back, glinting off a metallic, silver sleeve she wore on her arm. From those first few minutes, she had the room hooked into her every melody, rhythm, and motion. Throughout, her performance ignited all the senses: the smell and dewy feeling of smoke hung in the air; lights flickered, flashed, and dimmed; sound ebbed and flowed from screeching loud to silent. It was easy to get lost in her performance, but closer listening revealed her careful attention to detail. She would introduce a melody and then develop it, modulating the key, altering its timbre, or bending its tempo. With those fundamental techniques, she crafted massive walls of sound, letting each idea grow to its full potential.
During the most dramatic portion of the entire evening, the stage again filled with smoke as a bass line rumbled from Barbieri’s synth. Then, a twinkling melody sparkled on top as an image that looked like a picture from the deep universe popped up on screen. The audience went wild, dancing along to this catchy melody as it revved up speed, feeling the pulse of her thunderous beats. The goal for the evening was to find hypnosis, and in moments like this, it was easy to forget about everything else for a little bit, letting the music’s earth-shaking vibrations transcend the ever-present ticking of time.