In March of this year I had the opportunity to see the musician, writer, and artist Joseph Keckler perform to a packed house at MacDowell Downtown, The MacDowell Colony’s free series of artist presentations and performances in downtown Peterborough, New Hampshire. The buzz in the room was palatable, and yet no one knew what to expect from a performer who has been described by The Village Voice as “David Sedaris meets Diamanda Galas.” As one member of the audience said to me before the show began, “This is either going to be one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen, or the most incredible performance ever.”
Joseph Keckler’s work resists definitions; it doesn’t fit into a neat category or boil down to a catchy blurb. This fact alone can make new audiences uncomfortable. But once the lights come up and Keckler begins his performance, all doubts dissipate. Keckler’s stage presence is palatable. He is many artists in one–a unique combination of actor, pianist, opera and blues singer, performer, cabaret act, and storyteller. Within minutes, Keckler had us on the edge of our seats. We were captivated by his haunting, elastic voice, his disarming humor and ease, his down-to-earth banter with the audience, his ability to inhabit the lives of women, old men, fantastical creatures, and talking animals.
Keckler admits that he is fascinated with banality. “I resent stories that have things happening,” he told New York Press. It is this mixture of the absurd and the everyday, of the operatic and the vernacular, of compassion and comedy that makes Keckler’s work unique. He is equally at home in an art museum, on stage at Joe’s Pub in New York City, at the SXSW festival in Austin, or in the rural, New England town of Peterborough. It is Keckler’s wit and empathy that allow him to move between these worlds with such ease. One minute he is singing an Italian aria, the next he is telling you a compelling story about his childhood in Michigan.
In this interview with Matthu Placek, Keckler defines a successful performance as one in which he is “half in control and half out of control” (“to echo Marina Abramovic echoing Maria Callas”). He also admits that he has grown tired of “phrases such as ‘genre-busting,’ ‘boundary-crossing,’ and ‘risk-taking.’ But I’d like to see if a non-profit theater will present me taking some risks such as texting while driving, mixing cleaning products, and leaving my front door unlocked,” he jokes.
With such enormous talent, it would be easy for Keckler’s work to be marred by self-indulgence, but so far, he has managed to avoid this trap. In his daily life he is a self-described “hurrier,” but he is also polite, charming, and unassuming and gives the impression of being wise beyond his years. Keckler tells Placek that he likes “defiance, absurdity, a keen wit, a beastly intellect, high standards, celebration of pleasure, openness, and intensity” but is turned off by “moral seriousness” and “open discrimination against anyone.”
Keckler grew up near Kalamazoo, Michigan and earned a painting degree from the University of Michigan. As a boy he loved the music of Cab Calloway and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Originally, he wanted to be a blues singer, but Keckler veered off this path when he began training as an operatic bass-baritone under the instruction of American tenor George Shirley. His classical training has served him well. He now has a three to four-octave range, but uses his versatile voice to create original, classically infused songs, instead of sticking with traditional fare. His love for the blues is still apparent, as when he launches into classics like “I Put a Spell on You” or dark, humorous songs he has written about fantastical creatures.
This quote from New York Press beautifully describes my own impressions of Keckler: He “commands the stage with erotic bravado, launches into dramatic monologues and embodies so many different personae that you can’t help but wonder whether he’s possessed by spirits or if his body cannot help but channel all of the voices in his head. Sensual, cathartic, overwrought and deeply philosophical, his psychotic twists and turns can bring his audience either to tears (from laughter) or to a numbed silence.”
Keckler is quickly making a name for himself. He has been featured on NPR and The Sundance Channel and written about in The New York Times, The Guardian, SPIN, The Observer, and Time Out New York. He has performed at The New Museum, SF MOMA, Joe’s Pub, La MaMa, and SXSW. In 2010, Keckler came out with an EP, Featured Creatures, released in Italy with Transeuropa, paired with a book by contemporary experimental poet Gian Maria Annovi. The songs have be described as dark, theatrical, and eccentric.
On September first, Keckler will be performing a new show called “A Voice and Nothing More” in Amsterdam. He will open the festival with new work, as well as older pieces that have been re-vamped for the occasion. Keckler will take this new show on the road after its Amsterdam premiere.
While critical praise has been plentiful for Keckler, he is just beginning to find wider financial support for his work. This past year, he had residencies at Yaddo and MacDowell, and the organization Fractured Atlas is now sponsoring him. For his upcoming show in Amsterdam, Keckler needs to raise $4000 to pay for audio recording and mixing, equipment rental, video editing, rehearsal space, and the cost of hiring two musicians and flying them overseas.
If you would like to donate, Keckler has set up a campaign on Indiegogo. Fractured Atlas’ sponsorship means that all donations made to Keckler’s project are tax deductible. There are only a few days left for his fundraising campaign, so please give if you can. And if you can’t, you can also help by spreading the word on Facebook, Twitter, etc. You can track the progress of the campaign here.
If you have an opportunity to see Keckler perform, take it. Until then, you can get a taste of Keckler’s work from these videos. But be forewarned, it is impossible to fully appreciate Keckler’s talent through video and sound recordings, etc. Nothing I have seen on the web matches the power of seeing his live performance. It is the impact of his stage performance as a whole that is most memorable. (If you are reading this post in an email, click here to view the videos and to preview Keckler’s music).
This first video contains one of my favorite Keckler monologues about one of his early day jobs at a classical music publishing company. Keckler finds the “culture of emergency” at “Bumble and Maw” publishers tiresome and amusing. While on the job, he is plagued by annoying coworkers, irritating messages on his voice mail, and a coworker’s pesky parrot, who sings “Queen of the Night.” (Any artist who has suffered frustration and humiliation in a terrible day job will love this piece.)
Keckler describes the experience as “the dragon at the edge of a flat world.” Keckler explains the phrase in his interview with Placek:
“I am so enveloped inside the world of this day job, inside the world of this office, that I can’t imagine myself outside of it. I say that I don’t know who I would be if I weren’t there between nine and five every weekday. This is the dragon at the edge of a flat world.
I’m referring to the practice, in ancient cartography, of placing dragons and sea monsters in uncharted terrain. In summoning the image of a flat world I am implying the potential to step out of the world and into an abyss. See, when I worked a 9-5, I felt just as I’d felt as a teenager living in a small town in Michigan – that I might very well cease to exist if I were removed from this context! The concept of subsisting outside of those realities struck me as both wondrous and dangerous. The notion of actually living a life I wanted to live lurked, in my mind, at the very edge of possibility.”
The below video begins mid-monologue where Keckler is performing messages left on his office voice mail. (This one is for all the composers out there!) The second half of the video is a performance of “Venus Infers.” (You can see Keckler perform the entire office monologue at the East Village Boys website. The piece was recorded at Matthu Placek’s monthly salon in Chinatown, so you may need speakers to best appreciate this other version of the performance.)
This second video, “Altar,” is from the show Let it End Like This, which was curated by Todd Zuniga and exhibited at Apex Art in New York. Zuniga asked a range of writers, performers, painters, models, and others to create their own obituary and to ponder life gone by and still to come: “What will they say about you when you’re gone? What would you say about yourself?” Participants included Susan Orlean, Etgar Keret, Elna Baker, Moby, Sam Lipsyte, Keckler, and many others.
When I saw Keckler perform in Peterborough, he used segments of “Altar” in his live presentation. He began his performance by singing an opera aria from the rear, upper balcony of the hall. “Altar” was simultaneously projected on a large screen in the front of the room. As the song unfolded, Keckler the live performer eventually merged with Keckler the virtual performer onscreen. (This is a good example of how Keckler employs video in his performances and is one of the reasons why his work needs to be experienced live).
Keckler has confessed his fascination for animals, both real and imagined. A number of his songs and monologues are about imaginary creatures, inspired by the stories his mother told him as a child. There is his monologue about a bird who speaks in the voice of its deceased owner and his song about a mysterious creature trying to rejoin its severed tail. There is also his monologue called “Talking Beasts,” excerpted below. Keckler performed “Talking Beasts” in Peterborough and asked the audience to imagine which animals were speaking. You can make your own guesses…
I have a hunch that we’ll be seeing more of Keckler in the years to come. His star is on the rise. As Theatre Scene said, “If you’re one of those early adopters who enjoys discovering enormously talented performers moments before their big break and Hollywood has come calling, then I suggest going to see Joseph Keckler.”
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