KEVIN KELLER: From imaginary movies, to real film scores.
Now in his third decade as a composer and recording artist, Kevin Keller has crafted a diverse discography – twenty releases and growing – that has made him a favorite on beloved syndicated radio programs Hearts of Space and Echoes, found his music featured on the popular TV show So You Think You Can Dance, and won him two Zonies (ZMR Awards) for “Best Neo-Classical Album”. Beyond that, he regularly receives commissions from ballet companies, a considerable amount of his soundtrack work appears in History Channel documentaries, and he has recently moved into the field of film scores. Pretty good for a guy who entered the conservatory never having had even a single piano lesson.
Growing up in Northern California, his gateway into music came when friends exposed him to the sounds of Krautrock legends Tangerine Dream, synthesizer pioneer Wendy Carlos's Switched-On Brandenburgs, and the ambient soundscapes of Harold Budd and Brian Eno. By the end of his high school years he had started playing piano, teaching himself how to read music so he could play Debussy. Keller says, "I don't really hear a big difference between Harold Budd and Claude Debussy, except that Debussy is more harmonically complex. But in terms of the aesthetic, I feel like they're similar – if you simplify Debussy, you end up with [Budd and Eno’s] Ambient 2. Or The Pearl." No surprise, then, that after Keller's second album was released, John Diliberto of Echoes called Keller's style "ambient chamber music."
After graduating from music school, where he'd had the run of an electronic music studio while, he had to start from scratch by saving enough money to buy some synthesizers of his own, which allowed him to create his debut album, The Mask of Memory. "If you listen to that with me," Keller admits, "I can point out, 'that's my homage to Budd and Eno there, that's me lifting a melody from [Tangerine Dream's] Rubycon.' But I remember when I was working on 'Pale Unkempt Hours of Late Grey Afternoons,' it started out sounding like Debussy, and then this melodic figure came in, and I remember that it really struck me: 'This doesn't sound like anything I've ever heard. This just sounds like...me.' I felt like I had discovered something that was purely my own that was different from all of my influences. Like soundtrack music for my own life." Hearts of Space liked The Mask of Memory enough that they played two of its tracks on one week's show, and HOS host Stephen Hill became "a mentor" to Keller.
Keller's second release, Intermezzo, expanded on the melodic side of his music by adding cello. Telling the story of a day spent hiking the beach at Big Sur while emotionally processing the recent death of a close friend, it again connected strongly with Stephen Hill of Hearts of Space, who devoted half a show to the album. Keller also picked up another important fan: "John Diliberto called me and said, 'This is the best album of the year,' and I said, 'It's only January.' He says, 'I don't care.'" Diliberto being the host of syndicated radio program Echoes led to not only more airplay for the album, but also a Living Room Concert on Echoes.
Pendulum, the last of Keller's heavily electronic albums, again featured cello, this time played by ECM icon David Darling, a connection set up by Hill. Pendulum is a rarity in the Keller discography for depicting scenes not from, as before, a personal story but rather an actual book: Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. "After Pendulum was done in 1998, I made a very clear, purposeful decision to stop making music that couldn't be performed. That was my biggest frustration with all of this music, especially Pendulum; it was so much the product of the studio that it wasn't really practical to perform." So Keller formed a trio with cellist Tania Simoncelli and bassist Mark Fassett and changed his own focus to acoustic piano. The result was the 2002 album Across the Sky and a greater focus on concert performances, most notably at San Francisco's Morrison Planetarium, where Keller had become resident composer.
Fifteen years down the road, Across the Sky track "A Star in a Stoneboat" was chosen for use on So You Think You Can Dance, giving Keller's music its biggest mainstream audience exposure thus far. Wonder what they would think of some of the major influences on his music: Keller admits, "I did quite a lot of Ecstasy in the '90s while working on Intermezzo, and several mushroom trips while working on Pendulum and Across the Sky. I also attended Burning Man from 1996-1999, and raves in San Francisco – but for me, the drug experience was always deeply spiritual and transformative, and this filtered its way into my work rather significantly."
After Across the Sky, Keller moved across the country to New York City. Thinking about what music to use as his calling card in a new environment, he "made a list of tracks that were the most authentic" and ended up adding one new track to compile Gathering Leaves, which earned him a deal with Alula Records. Then, with new cellist Meena Cho, with whom Keller had a monthly gig at legendary Greenwich Village nightspot Caffe Vivaldi, he made Santiago's Dream, which better integrated his acoustic music with electronics, telling the story of Keller’s move across the country through the eyes of Santiago, the main character in Paulo Coelho’s beloved novella The Alchemist. Meanwhile he had started composing for dance, so when Cho moved back to Chicago, Keller let go of performing and returned his focus to composing and recording, though retaining his focus on acoustic music.
In fact, his next album, 2009's In Absentia, had not a single electronic sound or effect on it. "Because of the very personal nature of that music," Keller explains, "it was very important to me that it be very pure, so it had to be acoustic. It had to be very real and raw and human." Created in response to his father-in-law's unsolved disappearance, In Absentia is a deeply moving album of emotional gravity. Never has the "chamber music" part of Diliberto's characterization of Keller's music been more apt: Keller and his ensemble of strings, English horn, piano, and light percussion lead us through an emotional journey that plays out almost like a film score, with its vivid depictions of various emotional states – "Reflection," "Exhilaration," "Struggle" – at the core of which is the stunning simplicity of "Absence."
Another album soundtracking a significant personal experience followed, of which Keller says, "The Day I Met Myself is the one album in my catalog that I had to make. I had this experience in 1999 – and there were no drugs involved this time – hiking in Wildcat Canyon [in California]. There was a lot of drama going on in my personal life. It was August, and it was warmer than normal in the Bay Area, very cloudy, and there was a huge brush fire in Yosemite, not too far from Berkeley. I thought about turning around, going back, and choosing a different day. But instead, I went farther out into that canyon than I had ever gone and found myself in this very remote part of the park. Being completely alone – I didn't see another soul all day – spending that many hours alone with my own thoughts, I was able to process a lot of what had been going on for me at the time. By the end of the day, the smoke [from the brush fire] had cleared and I felt that in myself the smoke had cleared as well; I had worked out something in my life and felt better about where things were."
"Because of the lingering smoke in the air, there was the most amazing sunset, bright orange, very surreal. So I took that as a metaphor: sometimes you've just got to stick with it and eventually things will get better – eventually there will be a beautiful sunset at the end." As a result of working with producer Russel Walder for the first time (which also reintroduced electronics to Keller's music), The Day I Met Myself involved lots of revision, and was a lengthy and arduous journey - but, much like the day that inspired it, Keller did stick with it, and ultimately earned his first ZMR Award for "Best Neo-Classical Album".
Keller's next album, Nocturnes, emerged easily through a completely different process. "There's a photographer in San Francisco I know named Seth Dickerman who creates amazing photographs, and I had always wanted to write music that was inspired by them. My process for Nocturnes was to pick one photograph and tack it to the wall right where my piano is, look at it and ask, 'what does that sound like?' and improvise a piano piece. There's nothing that was written down at all. I would just record three or four different versions and then choose the best parts and paste them together." Nocturnes did so well on the radio that Hearts of Space named their show 'Nocturnes' the week they played the album.
Then, for Keller's 2015 album, La Strada, it was back to working with Walder and a bigger production sound, this time complete with an actual orchestra, everything written down and played in the traditional way by all the musicians at once in the same room. "I wanted to make an album that showcased my abilities in a grander, orchestral film score approach," Keller says. There was also a less expected influence: "DEADMAU5's album while (1<2). I really love his approach to sound design and rhythm, and I wanted to infuse that kind of attitude into my music." In addition to winning a second ZMR Award for "Best Neo-Classical Album", La Strada also earned plaudits from Diliberto, who said it was Keller's “most ambitious and assured work to date,” and RJ Lannan of Zone Music Reporter, who called it “a brilliantly theatrical cinematic soundtrack.”