James Keepnews brings visionaries to the shores of the Hudson

James Keepnews of Elysium Furnace Works is one of the region’s most energetic and least discouraged advocates for some kinds of music that we can’t seem to agree on a name for.

If you are looking for someone to credit or blame for the wild, challenging, blooming garden of sounds rising weekly from the City of Beacon in recent years, Elysium Furnace Works (EFW) co-founder James Keepnews is the man you’ll want to track down. You won’t have a hard time. He takes all comers. With his EFW partner Mike Faloon, Keepnews brings a steady stream of visionary ensembles, improvisors, composers and paradigm-bending performers to the banks of the Hudson. Proximity to ever-hip New York City is a huge plus, of course, but EFW curates with an international eye and exploits the Hudson Valley’s own uncommonly rich community of vanguard talent as well. A credentialed player/composer and conceptual artist himself, and a second cousin of the preeminent jazz producer Orrin Keepnews (a name oft spoke in my Bill Evans-lovin’ childhood home), James is one of the region’s most energetic and least discouraged advocates for some kinds of music that we can’t seem to agree on a name for.

Experimental? Sure it is, but what happens when your experiments harden and formalize into their own recognizable dialects and traditions? Avant-garde? Fine, people will know what you mean, which is a plus; but the term is loaded at this late date with unwanted associations and behavioral stereotypes, and it will always be linked to specific 20th-century movements of transgression and tradition-dumping. James uses “vanguard” casually and with no particular enthusiasm for the term. Looks pretty much like a respelling of avant-garde to me, and why do we assume that the experimentalists always occupy a forward and oracular position with regard to the future? Seems more likely to me that the music we are talking about – experimental jazz, modern classical, Minimalism, noise and on and on – are parallel traditions and alternate histories, evergreen in their function, always there, always ready when you are. Thanks to James, at least.

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As you will see below, Keepnews tires quickly of the act of defining what he likes to listen to, and perhaps bristles that it shouldn’t be any more incumbent on him to justify and name his tastes than someone who’s booking blues bands in a Middletown barbecue restaurant. Fair. For years, much of Keepnews’ curatorial work centered on Quinn’s in Beacon: a converted boxcar luncheonette that became the unlikely county seat of the outré and the heavy. But, with EFW and before, he has pressed many spaces into service. The conscious pairing of performer with environment – always an area of avant-garde concern – is built right into the EFW mission statement: “to present the work of vanguard artists in settings as dedicated and uncompromising as the art itself.”

This month, EFW announced a staggering lineup of winter and spring shows. All concerts this time around are to take place at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon: a vintage jewel of a small venue, the acoustical properties of which have made it an ad hoc recording studio for classical ensembles for years. Major score for EFW, and for the Howland. The series began last month with a performance by James Carney, a fierce modern-jazz talent who, as if posing for the EFW brochure, alternates between meticulously through-composed music and film scores and agitated, liberated improvisation. Next up on March 7 is an eminence of the avant-garde, pianist Matthew Shipp, who will perform solo on the Howland’s 19th-century Steinway grand.

On April 4, virtuoso Joseph Daley brings his Tuba Trio to the Howland. On May 16, the noted bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck (Anthony Braxton, Nels Cline) joins forces with keyboardist and composer Wayne Horvitz, one of the chief architects of downtown experimental cool. Finally, on May 30, EFW presents exclusiveOr, a duo featuring the director of the CHIME (Chicago Integrated Media Experimental) Studio at the University of Chicago, laptop artist Sam Pluta, and director of both Electronic Music and the Princeton Laptop Orchestra at Princeton University, analog synthesist Jeff Snyder. If you think things were weird before.

It was a good time to catch up with James Keepnews as he catches a breath:

With Pauline Oliveros, with EMPAC at RPI in Troy, with tons of residing locals like the great Marilyn Crispell, the Hudson Valley is an unlikely seat of experimental music, and you are one of the people who has really been able to tap that, as well as to import kindred talent from all over.

There’s an underdiscussed history of boundary-pushing music presentation in the Hudson Valley overall – notably, as you suggest, with Pauline Oliveros and her Deep Listening Foundation. Creative Music Studio/Foundation, under the sage stewardship of Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso, is also legendary, but stopped presenting concerts regularly for a while; happily, that’s changed in recent years. Joe McPhee, of course, has lived most of his life in Poughkeepsie, although he has struggled to present his own music or anything else out of the ordinary locally, but memorably has been able to here and there alongside great players like Joe Giardullo. More recently, there was Matt Luczak’s incredible house concert series My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in New Paltz. Matt basically dedicated his entire living situation to helping make extreme music possible in the region for many years.

I agree EMPAC does excellent work, but I’ve never been there. I got my MFA from RPI’s iEAR Studios program, and it was such a corrosively toxic experience (with occasional bright moments like working with Chris Dobrian early on, and George Lewis when he was artist-in-residence), I’ve never returned to RPI except once to perform at the Chapel & Cultural Center.

After I graduated, I lived in Peekskill for a few years before moving back downriver in 2002, ending up in Jersey City and coming back upriver to live in Cold Spring in 2010. During those years, I volunteered for Arts for Art, the organization that presents the avant-jazz Vision Festival annually, and which also presented a separate weekly music series I helped out with. I got to meet countless brilliant musicians like JMc, and also created my own music series in Jersey City for two years.

Once in Cold Spring, my neighbor Gwen Laster, who was on the board of Chapel Restoration, asked me if I wanted to present music there. The first artist had to be (and was) Dr. McPhee. I was subsequently invited to join the board, during which time I presented any number of boundary-pushers: William Parker, Daniel Carter, the late, great Roy Campbell twice, Matthew Shipp, Jason Hwang, Darius Jones, Nioka Workman and many others. After moving to Beacon in 2012, I started the Change of the Century series the following year, which had people like Joe and Trio X, Ingrid Laubrock, Tom Rainey, Bad Touch, Ras Moshe and others perform at the lovely Howland Cultural Center.

That same year, Quinn’s opened, and I was invited to book musicians there – a long story still being written, with its early years especially well-captured in my EFW partner Mike Faloon’s epochal scorcher The Other Night at Quinn’s. I’m very proud of the enormous breadth, quality and sheer number of world-class musicians (now well over a thousand) we’ve been able to present at Quinn’s over the past six-plus years, and most of them have really enjoyed the experience – not least the one-of-a-kind vibe and collaborative spirit there. Quinn’s staff, owners and…well, me, regularly exchange deejay duties across any given night. Before trumpeter Peter Evans and percussionist/electronic musician Levy Lorenzo played there last year – as avant-garde a musical performance as must have ever occurred in the Hudson Valley – server/musician Bryan Fitzgibbons put ESG on the house system, prompting Levy to exclaim: “This is the greatest place in the world!” Co-owner Steve “Che Pizaro” Ventura, Bryan Kopchak and myself communicate several times a week to hash out the upcoming live music schedule, which also includes Craig Chin’s awesome monthly Experimental/Electronic night. We continue to have a wide variety of musics performing there, and it’s solid gold well into 2020.

I completely love the Hudson Valley, and this time we’re living here. For all of its challenges and creeping gentrification, it’s inspiring and a huge oasis of light and sanity, where all else in the world seems dark and insane.

How many venues is EFW currently engaged with? I mean, honestly, if you’ve got the Howland, why even look anywhere else? That’s one of the best-sounding rooms I’ve ever played; it seems just about the right capacity for what you do, and if the trustees there are on board, that’s just a win.

We mostly present at the Howland for all the reasons you mention. I’m tremendously grateful for the support I have gotten and continue to receive for Elysium Furnace Works from board members like the tireless Thomas de Villiers and Craig Wolf. But we have also produced shows elsewhere in Beacon, including St. Andrew’s Church and Beacon Yoga, directly across the street from the Howland, which is a really beautiful room for the right musical situation. I have also been in touch with Story Screen Beacon about several possible shows there, including music documentaries and silent films, both featuring live music, and they have been very receptive.

Great as the Howland is, their best arrangement means we only get a cut of the door, which limits what’s possible there in terms of guarantees if, as generally happens, we are well-short of sellout crowds. I have much more flexibility – and, candidly, often considerably larger audiences – across the river with the Jazz at Atlas series I run at Atlas Studios in Newburgh with my partner, Triple Point Records owner/scholar/deejay Ben Young. David Torn has played the Howland as part of the EFW series, but we could only present, for example, Sun of Goldfinger (DT/Tim Berne/Ches Smith) at Atlas, as we unforgettably did last year. I’m no less grateful to the fine folks at Atlas Studios for all their outstanding support of challenging music, as well.

As a curator of some experience, how aware/committed are you to defining your traditions: jazz, improvisation, modern classical et cetera? 

Aware, completely uninterested and thus utterly uncommitted to divisions of any kind in defining musical experience apart from “good” and “bad,” particularly in the case of those generally noncommercial varieties to which you refer.

But does your work feel ideological to you, and is that part of its appeal? Or would you say you are more just a player/fan sticking up for music you love, which just happens to be music that really could use some advocacy? We are pointing here, I suppose, toward the question whether ideology and aesthetic theory attend the avant-garde more than other musical traditions.

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Being “a player/fan sticking up for music (I) love, which just happens to be music that really could use some advocacy” strikes me as being pretty ideological by definition; this is my praxis and the change I bloody well want to see in the world. If “vanguard arts” include (here come the “divisions”) punk and metal, as they certainly do for me, then I’m finally no different than anyone from those scenes who sets up situations for great bands to play, puts up posters and tries to drum up an audience for it every time (looking at you, Crazy Dan). DIY ‘til I die, motherfucker.

My eldest sister, ever the voice of reason, has gently encouraged me to try to stop losing so much money presenting uncompromising music, but that does unfortunately seem to go with the territory. Believe me when I tell you I am almost completely broke, but despite everything that’s going on in the Hudson Valley now, if I didn’t make these concerts happen, no one else would. My life is infinitely richer for hearing such brilliant artistry regularly. Find me 100 people in the Hudson Valley who feel the same way consistently enough to support gigs every time, and I’ll either make the world spin backwards or present artists that sound just like that, making the perceptible differences between the two experiences negligible.