Sound chaser

Local guitarist-composer Derek Keller launches his latest hybrid vehicle

What is the sound of one hand hammering-on?

What is the sound of one hand hammering-on?

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

Find out more about the events lined up at FeNAM—including concerts, master classes, composer forums and workshops—by visiting, or by calling (916) 278-5155. And for more on Keller visit his Web site,

Maybe you’ve never heard a Ph.D.-wielding, avant-garde composer shred distorted, tube-warmed arpeggiations with monstrous dexterity. Maybe now you should.

Derek Keller has a term for the sounds he makes. “Hybrid music,” he calls it, a fusion of styles including jazz, heavy metal and avant-garde classical. Keller didn’t coin the term, but his recent album, Impositions and Consequences, does an admirable job of defining it.

Case in point: the disc’s title track, which features electric guitar, tenor and soprano voices, baritone saxophone, piano, Mellotron and contrabass. It opens with swelling guitar passages layered over comped jazz piano and a driving, heavily syncopated drum pattern. These are interspersed with sections featuring baritone sax and soprano voice harmonies over lush Mellotron chords. As the work progresses, various instrumentations explore the musical material in an expanding range of stylistic combinations—piano, bass and drums do a mad-cap riff on hard-bop; distorted guitar, voices and baritone sax marry metal and neo-classical counterpoint; and so on.


“Mixing [musical styles] is nothing new,” the youthful 36-year-old Sacramentan says. “In the Middle Ages you had folk songs being used as the cantus firmi in religious music.” Now, apparently, you have all kinds of crazy shit.

Keller speaks freely about a whole progression of influences—an early attachment to Led Zeppelin; and Steve Howe of Yes; and fusion guitar virtuoso Allan Holdsworth, who led, “through the back door,” to jazz greats like John Coltrane and Miles Davis; an affinity for certain Frank Zappa compositions, which in turn brought him to one of Zappa’s influences, Edgar Varèse—but Keller agrees that influences can’t tell the whole story. As with so many things in life, it isn’t what you know, it’s how you use it.

Released this past summer on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, Impositions and Consequences’ four compositions showcase Keller’s talent for stylistic splicing as well as his prodigious guitar skills. Home to former Faith No More vocalist Mike Patton, art-rock’s side-man guitarist of choice Marc Ribot and dozens of other major names in experimental music, Tzadik doesn’t accept slackers into its distinguished fold, and Keller is no exception.

His music is loosely tonal, and while some passages seem to revel in their dissonance, on the whole the pieces manage to avoid the sometimes alienating sonorities of absolute and serial music. Nevertheless, Keller is aware that listening is, in the end, a subjective experience.

“I know that my music may not speak to everyone,” he allows. “However, [I] hope that the listener will walk away having gained something meaningful. I can’t dictate what a particular message may be, but I can provide a means to a meaningful message.”

So maybe, instead of reading about the guy, the more appropriate thing to do is to go and hear him play, which you can do next Wednesday, November 7, at noon, when the Derek Keller Group plays a free concert to celebrate the CD release. Keller’s NorCal ensemble features a number of local talents, including Jeff Alkire on alto sax, Eric Arellano on tenor sax, Gerry Pinada on bass, and Alex Jenkins on percussion; along with conductor Daniel Paulson of Vox Musica and soprano Naomi Peterson.

The performance is part of Sacramento State’s Festival of New American Music, which begins today and runs through Sunday, November 11. Keller joins contemporary music artists like pianist Sarah Cahill, composer Ingrid Stölzel and the legendary composer/accordionist Pauline Oliveros, for the 30th-anniversary presentation of FeNAM, as the festival is otherwise known.

There’s more. In addition to composing, performing and teaching—he currently spends part of every week as a visiting assistant professor of composition at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio—Keller also finds time to curate the 2007-08 concert season at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, which includes performances by Sac’s Capitol Jazz Project and Vox Musica.

Hybridizing, it seems, may be habit forming.