Called “Tantalizing...dynamic... with magnetism and poise so high that he seems to have been born onstage,” Joseph Keckler is a singer, musician, writer, and interdisciplinary artist whose image rich, humorous performances elevate the banal to operatic intensity.
An early pioneer in our Interarts program, Joseph graduated in 2004 and recently visited Ann Arbor as a Penny Stamps speaker. Stamps student Nicholas Williams sat down with Joseph to talk about life after graduation.
Nick Williams: Your work combines so many media - writing, music composition, video - I was curious, first of all, about your process. Could you walk me through how you would create a piece from start to finish?
Joseph Keckler: My process differs from piece to piece—depending on the mediums involved, actually. But I'm always noodling around with music, and then I'm always noodling around with concepts, and then I’m like a switchboard operator. I'm pairing, plugging one into the other and finding relationships. I'm not necessarily writing music for one idea. They are separate processes that then intersect.
For the operatic material, basically I document some experience that I had. I reconstruct that experience through language then edit the text, then have it translated into a different language. Then I score it and write a melody and then create English supertitles that loosely translate back. Then I perform it. That's the process for that. But my long piece I am an Opera is kind of a palimpsest—it involves musical themes I borrowed from earlier work, an old unfinished self-portrait that we animated and made sing a Shakespeare sonnet, a faux-silent film of a voice teacher who enters to give me little corrections as I’m singing—the process for that piece was very complex and feels difficult to summarize neatly. Each little element had its own process, and then the elements were all jammed - or hopefully something slightly more elegant than jammed - together.
While many of my narratives document personal experience, my songwriting in English is often completely non-autobiographical. I usually meditate on a certain forlorn creature or mythic scenario or specific literary source and use little scraps of found text and quotations from various sources that are swirling around in my mind.
All my pieces are interrelated... I'm constantly reshuffling the way they exist, putting pieces together then taking them apart. They’re like severed starfish legs that grow new bodies. I will pull a small narrative or song from a larger performance piece and then it will grow a whole new show around it.
If you're struggling with a piece and it's not really coming together, do you drop it and move on?
I don’t drop pieces, but I set them aside. If I come to a block in my writing, I shift over to music for a while, or to something visual. But I continue to think about the writing, and to develop the ideas in my mind, until I’m ready to go back to it.
It's good to have a long development process sometimes. Something might go wrong the first time I show a piece, but I will have shown it in a low-stakes scenario. My “Shroom Aria,” which has become something of a ‘hit’ for me, felt relatively lackluster when I first performed it for the first time a couple of years ago in Amsterdam. In the case of that piece, the material was there, but I hadn’t learned how to perform it yet. Through tons of repetition, my performance became focused and the piece gained power.
Presenting something helps me understand what's wrong or weak, and then I continue to develop it.
So the audience’s response plays a role?
Yeah, in performance. But you can't totally rely on what the audience wants. You can use them to help understand how the work is being perceived, how it’s being read. That helps you understand if your intentions are being realized and if your intentions even matter. You don't necessarily just imagine what the audience would like because what they would like is unpredictable to you and to them. And you may wish to do something they don’t like!
I think every artist has an output that's going to be uneven in some way. Sometimes I do throw a piece out or I set it aside because really it's not ready and it might take another year for me to have some second idea that's really going to focus this piece. If a piece fails it's not necessarily that you have to throw the whole thing out, you just have to keep developing it and focusing it and putting it through a process.
Yeah, I totally agree.
Joseph Keckler: At the same time I think a piece that fails can be interesting... Jean Cocteau said that if a critic writes a bad review of you and has isolated some specific flaw in your work, then that—the so-called flaw is the very thing you should develop.
When did you discover your voice or what you're trying to say as an artist? Did this happen organically or did you have this planned out from the beginning?
In a certain way my artistic career is a kind of identity crisis. At this point the crisis is the identity. I've always been interested in more than one area. Rather than making that a problem, thinking of myself as a dilettante, or conflicted for example, I view the conflict as actually where I want to exist.
I was always pulled in these different directions. I've tried to make my process such that I can actually encompass that conversation among these different forms. At a certain point I was much more split. I was on these separate trajectories – being an artist, being a singer, being a writer. I developed all those practices, in one way or another on separate tracks. Now I think I'm more successfully fusing these different practices and interests into one practice.
How do you make your work visible? How do you get found, I guess?
The most important thing for anyone is to work. You can be like Henry Darger, I guess, and just exist in some little hidey‑hole. But if you want your work to be visible while you're alive, which I guess probably most people do except for some hermits ‑‑ they're doing their hermit thing, that's fine-- then you just have to start showing at any level.
In my case, I probably have slummed it too much. I essentially said "yes" to everything and performed in clubs, and performed in bars, and performed in basements, and in bathhouses, and galleries and everywhere.
When you're starting out, one result of putting yourself out there constantly is that people will see you working in an inchoate stage, in an immature stage and they may make judgments about your work. There are people in New York who saw me when I first got there and then saw me several years later and were somehow shocked that I had improved. But it was necessary for me to work constantly and subject myself all sorts of performance conditions in order to really refine what I’m doing.
For me, that's the only way that I could test my work and build an existence. To become visible I just had to... Put it out there, basically. Maybe not just without any sense of direction, but people have to create their own opportunities and create their own spaces. You can’t wait for something to happen – for someone to find you and think you're fantastic. Now, someday when I have lots of power, I myself will go around finding fantastic people and pushing them to the fore of American culture. But until then you all gotta hustle.
I've worked with lots of lovely agents, but no agent has actually, technically, ever gotten me a gig—to date. I've gotten everything myself. You basically have to make yourself visible in your own way and put yourself in charge, rather than deciding whoever is in charge is going to float down and...
...Pick you out?
So you can create own exhibition space, invent your own series, and develop your own work. I think that's the thing. Of course, there are many structures and figures standing between you and the world of success. There are gallerists, and curators, and there's press, and there's all this stuff, but at the same time, nobody's going to stop you from doing something. You just have to embrace the mentality of, "OK, nobody can stop me from doing X." For instance, you're having a show in your house tonight and no one is going to stop you. (editor’s note: Nick Williams was staging a pop-up performance “happening” in his house that night. And nobody stopped him. See the pictures.)
Finally, is there anything you wish you would have known when you were an undergraduate to make your life easier now?
If I had known how difficult it would be, I might not have done it. I don't wish that I knew that because it just would have been discouraging and I’m sure I simply would have retreated to my parents’ basement and languished in obscurity.
I do wish I’d taken a few more rigorous academic classes when I was an undergraduate, because it's a privilege to be able to take those classes. I should have learned ancient Greek.
I think you should work really, really hard when you're an undergraduate. You should just work very hard on your craft and on your vision and really take advantage of the resources that you won't have when you graduate.