In debut album, experimental artist Nina Keith meditates on death and memory

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Composer Nina Keith created and recorded her album,

Composer Nina Keith created and recorded her album, "Maranasati 19111," in her bedroom. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Growing up in the Fox Chase neighborhood in the 1980s, Nina Keith’s first memory is of childhood games about the “Boy in the Box.” That was a real case from the 1950s of the body of a boy found in a box in the woods of her neighborhood. 

It is one of Philadelphia’s most notorious cold cases: the dead boy was never identified and the crime was never solved.

“It was spoken about with the same levity as Santa Claus when I was a child,” Keith said. “‘Don’t go into the woods down the block, that’s where the Boy in the Box is.’ It didn’t mean anything at the time. It was just a mysterious concept.” 

Keith believes death has been on her mind, subconsciously or otherwise, ever since. She has been pondering death while composing music for her debut album, “Maranasati 19111.”

Maranasati refers to a Buddhist meditation practice focused on the concept of death, and 19111 is her hometown zip code. 

The instrumentals are written and performed by Keith on piano and electronics: the piano lays out simple and arresting melodies, an analog synthesizer gives texture and, in some cases, discord. The album is both delicately beautiful and darkly moody.

 The songs do not have lyrics; the stories they tell are buried and private. But two of the tracks reference “woods” in particular,  as in “The Woods of America’s Unknown Child.”

 “That being my first memory I can find, I think it has something to do with where I am now, as someone who feels the concept of death as magical,” Keith said. “I don’t think these horrific things are magical: it’s more about all-encompassing impermanence that is way more important to me.”

 Keith is not trying to be morbid, but training her brain to be more present in her life and in her emotions by reminding herself of impermanence. Everything is rootless and will eventually change. To ponder death, per maranasati, is to appreciate life as precious and fleeting. 

Keith composes music to navigate her sometimes difficult emotional responses to the world at large. She grew up with Tourette’s Syndrome and has obsessive tendencies. She is prone to panic attacks. She dropped out of high school at 16.

 As an adult, Keith underwent EMDR therapy — eye movement desensitization and reprocessing — a technique that tries to uncouple emotions from traumatic memories. It’s often used in patients with PTSD, to disassociate painful feelings from the memories that trigger them.

“It was creating a meditative space to go visit a memory,” Keith said. “The therapist would ask what level of pain I was at. Maybe it would be a 10. You keep going back and sitting with it until it goes down to a 3. Maybe it stays at 3 forever but it’s a lot better than a 10 and causing panic attacks.”

While Keith was exploring her own memory networks in therapy to find emotional equilibrium, she was also unraveling her gender. Keith is trans — and her experience was captured in her compositions.

“The framework of the album comes from my EMDR therapy,” she said. “Once I lost health insurance and stopped going, I started to think really hard about memory networks that are dormant and left unattended.” 

Without her health insurance, she is no longer in EMDR therapy. She says parsing memories and emotions is now a daily task for her own well-being.

“I don’t want to think about death. I want to feel the groundlessness within it that allows me to see things as they are,” she said. “To keep a firm awareness of death is to be in touch with how precious our reality is.”

Keith has no formal music training. She learned to play and write mostly in her bedroom, with a keyboard and an old-fashioned analog synthesizer, the kind with patch cords and banks of knobs.

“I’m very obsessed with trying to create sounds, trying to create texture that I haven’t heard before,” she said. “In the same way I feel like I don’t have language to say the words I want to say, I’m looking for sounds to express something.”

“Maranasati 19111” was released at the end of August. Keith says some people have commented about it as though it were a piece of experimental classical music — a genre for which she’s not comfortable placing her music.

“It’s strange to see it be received in ways I was not imagining, having made something in a genre I feel I don’t have access to. I don’t know any classical musicians,” she said. “It’s a genre of music that is perceived as academia adjacent. Since I have had no experience with academia since I was 16 and no formal training, I wasn’t sure what I was doing is valid.”

Keith does not see this album as particularly enlightened — “I’m erratic, sloppy” — but more as the soundtrack of her navigation to an emotional landscape that is fraught, mysterious, unstable, and ultimately sparkling.

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