Joseph Keckler and Ariana Reines in Conversation
Each season, Baryshnikov Arts Center invites writers into the studio to interview BAC Resident Artists. The resulting essays offer an intimate behind-the-scenes look at the creative process. Joseph Keckler was a Spring 2019 BAC Space Resident Artist.
A conversation between Spring 2019 BAC Space Resident Artist Jospeh Keckler and poet, playwright, and performing artist Ariana Reines.
Conversation begins late.
Ariana Reines: That gave me time to eat some lamb off the bone. I don’t eat meat generally but…
Joseph Keckler: Only off the bone when you do? Good policy.
AR: Only off the bone, marinated for six hours in Malbec by a former veterinarian, in a country where meat is a kind of religion. You can see it’s affecting me neurologically. I do have some questions prepared though! I’ve always wanted to ask you this, and it is the most clichéd question that gets asked of artists, but I mean it in the most expansive way possible: how did you discover your voice?
JK: It was more gradual, not a singular moment. I decided to cover a Cab Calloway song for the 4th grade talent show. My parents were recently recalling that I started to practice it and sounded very off-tune and — the implication — talentless. But then something clicked and I suddenly was hitting the notes, and sort of “channeling” Cab Calloway, is how they put it — their only explanation for my sudden ability to sing on pitch. As a teenager I started taking voice lessons because I would sing various dirges at the piano very aggressively and become hoarse after only one song, so I needed to learn technique. My voice teacher at that time, Fay Smith, who just passed away this year at 90, wanted me to have an opera career, and when I was a child I was really into Mel Blanc, the Warner Brothers voice actor, and always doing all this vocal shapeshifting stuff. My facility for that was apparent before the facility for singing.
AR: That’s fascinating. For whatever reason I prefer thinking of your art in terms of mediumship than mimetic camp.
JK: Yes, I don’t think of it in those terms. Then again, how do you define camp these days? What’s a contemporary example? To me there’s an overlap between absurdity and divinity that might be present in a camp performance but not summed up by it.
AR: That’s very well said. I agree, camp is an antiquarian term. I’ve noticed that in my life when absurdity is present I trust that divinity is too. Without some kind of sick joke or a kind of impossible hilarity present, I don’t trust reality. So yes, camp feels like an antiquated thing, but I do feel that as a performer you acknowledge that tradition mildly, without making a thing about it. Pardon my double use of “thing.” I am high off pork (pork followed the lamb). So how long is Let Me Die?
JK: I think it’s a cool 75. I originally envisioned it as an austere museum piece, durational. I realized that has its own aura of cliché and is not really what I do. Rather than being a solo, there will be three very enchanting singers performing much of the piece. I will be a sort of master of ceremonies.
AR: And how did you run into “Arianna’s Lament?”
JK: Right, Let Me Die is titled after Monteverdi’s “Lasciatemi Morire,” also known as “The Lament of Arianna.” It was among the first arias I sang when I started to study voice. It’s a longing for death, an appeal to the gods, after she (Arianna, or Ariadne) has been abandoned on the island of Naxos. And it’s the only part of the opera that has survived. So, I like the way in which she is doubly stranded, the way this is a singing fragment. I also like that this is one of the first pieces you learn in classical voice, implying that to learn to sing is to learn to die. It was only after I asked you to have this conversation that I realized the subconscious connection I’d already made between Arianna, and you, Ariana. And you said you actually sang that aria too?
AR: I did, when I was a beginner singer. I used to have more of a voice but I became too sad to use it except for extreme circumstances. I grew up in a house that had lots of music in it. My mom studied piano with a student of Liszt and I began playing very young, by ear. I’m a lazy person by nature and I was a very happy little dancer composer. When my parents split up and my mom became schizophrenic, I suppose you could say my life became more “operatic.”
JK: Does your mother still play?
AR: No, she no longer plays. She is a homeless person now. She plays my heartstrings.
I think you’re right that learning to sing is like learning to die, and it’s what is so sacred about great singers. The great singers, with their mouths wide open—I think a lot of darkness can fly in. I’m thinking about what killed Whitney Houston, Billie Holiday, Amy Winehouse, Chet Baker, etc. Maybe Kurt Cobain. Obviously it can be argued that drugs killed these people. But I feel there is something else going on, connected to the heart, and the sorrow in people, which they inhaled for us, and returned to us with such overwhelming sensitivity. There are other singers who died of our darkness, and of course there are the great singers who manage to survive the sorrow of their audience.
JK: “They inhaled for us” — that is interesting to me also and something I’m thinking about in this project: opera’s origins in tragedy and tragedy’s origins in sacrifice. There is a sacrificial aspect of performing.
AR: It is something beyond mere technique. And the dangerous, “mediumistic” part of the art, it seems to me.
JK: It is the Sonnet to Orpheus: “real singing is a nothing breath, a god blowing…”
AR: Yes! It sounds to me as though you have a clearheaded understanding of the danger in what you do, and also its power, what it gives to people. What I love about the way you combine talking and singing in your performances is that your voice is literally an instrument of shock. People don’t listen to this kind of music that much these days, and we’re not used to hearing voices like yours. There’s a genial kind of, I don’t know, Brechtian disruption going on when you hurl that sound at people. They just lose their shit and do not know what to do with themselves. It is somehow a punk rock gesture. I love it.
JK: I love that description. It is easier to mess with people in contexts where they’re not coming to see me and don’t know anything about me… It’s harder to do at my own shows, but I try.
AR: That’s probably something great about being a “multimedia” artist. I love showing up where nobody expects anything.
Ariana Reines is a poet, playwright, and performing artist. Her newest book is A Sand Book, out this June from Tin House. She has created performances for the Whitney Museum, Swiss Institute, Le Mouvement Biel/Bienne, and many more. She wrote the Obie-winning play TELEPHONE.