Kevin Keller, composer

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

By far, it was the music of Claude Debussy that had the strongest influence on me as a young musician – especially his solo piano music. Being a kid fascinated by the natural world, I was deeply affected by Debussy’s impressionism; works like “Clare de lune”, “Reflets dans l’eau” and “Des pas sur la neige” were very inspirational to me. I loved Debussy’s idea of incorporating nature into his music, and this influenced me to do the same when I began writing my own music at the piano. You can hear Debussy’s influence very strongly on my first album “The Mask of Memory”, especially on pieces like “Pale unkempt hours of late grey afternoons” and “Goethe Park”.

After Debussy, it was the piano music of Harold Budd that influenced me the most when I was young. Budd’s music was very similar to Debussy’s, both in terms of its harmony and in its connection to nature. His albums “Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror” and “The Pearl” (both created with Brian Eno) were released just as I was beginning to explore the piano, and they had a deep influence on me that I think can still be felt, even today. I think you can hear some Budd influence on “Moonlake” and “Ithaca”, both from my album “Ambient Chamber Music”.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Having my music categorized as “New Age” – this caused frustration for much of my early career. It was really unfortunate that ground-breaking, innovative artists like Tangerine Dream, Brian Eno, and David Darling were thrown into the record bins next to albums for meditation and yoga and relaxation. Sure, much of their music was relaxing, but this categorization really detracted from what they were doing as artists, and cheapened the whole genre. Because my music used synthesizers and electronic effects, it didn’t fit neatly into the “Classical” genre, and was characterized as “New Age”. It was frustrating to overcome this, but I stuck with it and kept trying to innovate. At this point, the term “New Age” has died off, and now my work is most often called “neoclassical”, which is at least a little closer to the truth.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Whether commissioned or not, the biggest challenge in starting a new project is finding the right sound, and the right way into the music. This can often take quite a long time. I’m working on a new album now that incorporates songs by Hildegard von Bingen, and this has proven to be very challenging. It took almost a year of experimentation before I found something that sounded “right”. Once that happens, the music seems to flow on its own. But finding the right doorway into the work can be a long and slow process.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?

Of all my collaborators, cellist Clarice Jensen is the most frequent: she’s appeared on 7 albums of mine over the years, and she’s a joy to work with. Clarice has a rich and beautiful tone, and she can play anything that I throw at her. She’s a very sweet and friendly person, and she’s very dependable as an artist and collaborator. I love working with her in the studio, because I know that the results will be amazing.

Of which works are you most proud?

“The Day I Met Myself” is probably one of my proudest moments as an artist. The stars were aligned in just the right way on that album: I was working with a great producer (Russel Walder) who really pushed me creatively, and I was working with inspiration from a significant personal experience. Musically, I was able to combine a chamber ensemble with electronic effects in a very innovative way, and the result was something surreal and beautiful. That album was difficult to make, and I didn’t even know if it was any good when I was done. But now, with 10 years of distance, I think it’s one of the most original and innovative albums I’ve released. It has a very unique sound and style, and is very cohesive from start to finish. It takes you on an emotional and psychological journey, and it isn’t afraid to go into some dark places. It is definitely not “new age music”.

I’m also really proud of the work I did on “Shimmer”, which is a more recent album. Unlike other projects, I didn’t enter the studio with any preconceptions of what the music might sound like. It was an open experiment from beginning to end, and I incorporated suggestions and requests from my fans. The results were very satisfying, and that music is fun and challenging to perform. “Inverness” is one of my favourite tracks from my whole catalogue.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

The words I use most often are “atmospheric neo-classical music”, with an emphasis on piano and strings. It’s definitely tonal music, and there are some minimalist elements, as well as both Impressionism and Expressionism.

How do you work?

I almost always start with a title. With the exception of “Shimmer”, every album and every piece of music I’ve ever written has started with the title. Once I have a good title, the music flows naturally from that place. I often know what it is that I want to express with a piece of music, or an album project, and the title creates a “container” for the music. I also often find the cover art long before the music is done. It’s as if I imagine what the album looks like, and what it’s called, and then I let that dictate the way the music comes out. The title and the artwork create the parameters for the music.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Creating a cohesive body of work, and being able to make a living solely from that – for me, this is success as a musician.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Always push to find your own unique voice, something that’s never been done before, something that will set you apart from other artists. And don’t ever give up. Believe in yourself.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

I’d like to see classical music taken out of the traditional concert hall, and presented in clubs and theatres with exciting staging, lighting design, and immersive audio. More of a “rock show” approach.

What do you enjoy doing most?

I’m a nature lover, and my favourite thing to do is to hike alone in the woods, or along the seashore. Those solitary hours spent out in nature are the most important time in my life, and they inform my work as artist more than anything else.

Kevin Keller is an American composer and recording artist known primarily for “ambient chamber music”

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