Thursday, February 2, 2012

Cello on a Wire

Really, I’m creating a world, and it’s really hard to say what it is, but it is a world of feeling and emotion and color and light.
—Zoë Keating 

When I was looking for music to accompany my Halo of Sound post, I realized with horror that I knew of no 21st century compositions for the cello.  I went on a frantic search and, with a lot of help, both cyber- and human, came up with some possibilities, including a cellist by the name of Zoë Keating.

Keating put me in mind of a young assistant I once hired.  My assistant’s hair was, shall we say, an unusual color (I’m not sure now, whether orange, pink, or green—it varied), and she sported numerous piercings, along with a large hummingbird tattoo.

At the time, though I lived in New York City and should have known better, I'd no idea what to make of this mode of decoration.  Though my assistant was a university student, I worried she might not have the requisite discipline and reliability to perform the less than ecstatic duties I had in store for her.

How wrong I was.  She was a terrific assistant, not to mention the loveliest possible human being.  I’ve long since lost touch with her, but I’m confident she’s doing something worthwhile that benefits us all—and I’m sure it’s not typing and filing, though even that she did efficiently and with good cheer.

Keating’s adornments aren’t nearly so exotic, but enough to signify her inclusion in a generation a few removed from my own.  Her website labels her an “avant cellist.”  I hadn't a clue what that meant, but I liked what she played and how she played it, so I popped a link to her in the post.

Then, as so often happens in the rush of life, I didn’t get back to listen again, though I did keep her in mind.  Maybe it was the hair.  Well maybe it was the whole thing:  a classically trained cellist and card-carrying member of the digital generation who’d put her cello on a wire.

What she plays, as they say nowadays, “defies categorization.”  On the video I’d found of her, she had this laptop on the floor beside her stylishly booted foot.  With a foot on the laptop controls, she laid down a track, beating out a rhythm with her bow on the cello strings.  She played a melodic line on top of it, and just kept on like that until she had a whole cello ensemble going, all played by her.

I’d heard Richard Stoltzman play Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint, so I had some inkling what was up, as he’d told us some back story about the piece. When he first looked at the score, he saw it was for umpteen clarinets.  When he asked Reich who was supposed to play all those other clarinets, he learned he was it.

Reich composed New York Counterpoint in 1985.  In those days, the equipment was a wee bit more primitive—remember tape recorders, anyone?  As Reich explains:  “the soloist pre-records ten clarinet and bass clarinet parts and then plays a final 11th part live against the tape.”

These days, Keating performs this kind of magician’s trick right before your eyes.  Now, as Keating will tell you, there’s a lot of “knob twiddling” involved.  “To perform live,” she writes, “I use a combination of microphones and pickups attached to the body of the cello and record on stage using a foot-controlled computer that runs Ableton Live, SooperLooper and MidiPipe.”  The innards of that are way beyond my ken, but I love the notion of it:  a sort of cello sound collage.

Keating’s music remained queued up in my endless stream of half-finished projects until I read an interview about her on Chris McGovern’s The Glass.  I learned that, as a teen-ager, she moved from classical music to playing cello in rock bands.  “At the time,” she explained, “it was unusual because classical musicians were supposed to play only classical music.”  She wrote music, too, but, as so often happens, when she sent it out, she was greeted with the response, “it’s interesting, but it has no absolutely no market potential.”

So, what the hey, she decided to go direct and find an audience via the internet.  As McGovern writes, she “went on to sell over 40,000 copies of her CDs without distribution, a record label or management.  And she has over one million Twitter followers.”  How’s that for a can-do spirit, right?

Even more appealing, for me, is the way Keating talks about the experience of making music.  She relates that, when she was eight,
the music teacher asked me if I wanted to play the cello, and I had no idea what a cello was. . . . I had my cello lessons in the storage closet of the school . . . and it was really hard to find room to bow, because you’d hit textbooks and stuff.
She goes on to say:
When people say what do you do, I find it a really difficult question. Because, well, what I do, yeah, I play the cello, and I use technology, but that’s just sort of this thing that happens on the surface.  Really, I’m creating a world, and it’s really hard to say what it is, but it is a world of feeling and emotion and color and light.  And I think that you can’t actually describe it with words, because that’s why it’s music.
And here’s the main thing I discovered:  I really like her music.

Who knows?  Maybe you will, too.


If you're not convinced by the post, I commend to you the documentary Ghost Bird.  The film recounts the search for the ivory-billed woodpecker and journeys, among other things, deep into an Arkansas swamp.  The tale concerns not only extinction of a species, but also the near extinction and hope for revival of a small Arkansas town, the future of which might depend on a sighting of the bird.  The soundtrack for the film is superb, and its highest state is realized in the harrowing and poignant music of Zoë Keating.  Yup, the very one.

The whole of the video from which I've quoted can be found here. Click here for the video from which I first learned about Keating.

Lots more fine listening can be found on Keating's website.  Just click here, then click on "download from Zoë" to hear tracks.  You can do an aural trial run without charge on the site.  I quickly went on to buy both albums, in "CD Digipack," as I still have what's known as "stereo equipment."   (I know, another trousers rolled thing. . .)

Credits:  The quotation at the head of the post is part of the Intel Visual Life video, as are the two quotations that close the post.  The quotation about New York Counterpoint can be found here.  The quotation about "knob twiddling" can be found here.  The quotation about Keating's equipment can be found here.  The quotations from The Glass interview can be found here. The image at the head of the post is a still from the video I first spotted, which can be found here. The second image is a photograph by Jerry Dodrill, which can be found here.  The last image is my photograph of my new Keating CDs.  The remaining two images are stills from the Intel Visual Life video.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Susan:
What a fascinating young person Zoe Keating is and how pleased we are to have been introduced to her. We love the idea of hers to create a 'landscape of sound' and find her creative use of technology alongside her classical training beguiling.

The music she creates is unique and although distinctly contemporary it does seem to us to have a profoundly classical foundation. For us, she paints pictures with the sound, we like her music very much indeed.

Jayne said...

Oh Susan, isn't she marvelous? I don't remember when I first heard/saw her, but it was on the internet and I was immediately reminded of a young Laurie Anderson who pioneered a certain avant sound with her voice and violin, and who is still making magic today. (Have you seen Delusion?) I can imagine Keating incorporating more multi-media, adding more dimension to her already visceral and pure sound. Not that she needs to.

The cello really gets to the gut, doesn't it? A wonderful meet and greet, Susan!

Friko said...

You are right, Keating is somebody to watch and listen to. She is a fascinating person. Thanks for the introduction.

PS: she is also very handsome!

ShySongbird said...

Hi Susan, so nice to catch up with you :-) and what a thoroughly absorbing and enlightening post. I confess I had never heard of Zoe but I am so pleased to have found her, she is very talented. I do love the Cello and music in general and I think it is wonderful that the lines between classical and contemporary music have become more blurred in recent years. My husband recalls, when he was at school, a teacher asking a pupil how he could possibly like classical music and jazz!! Why not? I say.

Herringbone said...

It was exciting to hear something very different musically. For me, it was equally inspiring to listen to her passion for her life. The way she talked about her work, her environment, and the way she handled the kid on her hip,struck me as really natural. Her smile radiates honesty and energy. "... A world of feeling and emotion and color and light..." What a world. Thanks for introducing us to Zoe.

Chris McGovern said...

Hey Susan,
Thanks so much for posting this!!
Really nice take on Zoe--I'm glad you put the interview clip in there! Great to see her at work at the same time. And thanks so much for the mention!

Anonymous said...

BTW, you did this for Zoe's birthday today?

Suze said...

'I’ve long since lost touch with her, but I’m confident she’s doing something worthwhile that benefits us all—and I’m sure it’s not typing and filing, though even that she did efficiently and with good cheer.'

She who is faithful in small things, can be trusted to be faithful in great.

'When people say what do you do, I find it a really difficult question. Because, well, what I do, yeah, I play the cello, and I use technology, but that’s just sort of this thing that happens on the surface. Really, I’m creating a world, and it’s really hard to say what it is, but it is a world of feeling and emotion and color and light. And I think that you can’t actually describe it with words, because that’s why it’s music.'

No words. Actually.

Listening to 'Sun Will Set,' first.

Susan, one of the characters in a novel of mine was a vocalist with the reputation of a declining giant on his adolescent shoulders. In the end, he preferred the piano because

there were
no words.

Will listen to 'Optimist,' shortly. But I may play 'Sun Will Set,' several times in a row, first. Enjoying it immensely. Trying not to cry, actually, because tonight is not a night for crying. Though is may become one if I listen to Keating long enough.

Suze said...

Optimist = Catharsis.

Mark Kerstetter said...

She sounds as interesting as she looks. The technique she uses looks a lot like frippertronics, and it's interesting to contrast how she's getting herself out there compared to an established artist like Fripp, who does not allow the majority of his music to be sold in mp3 form in any market, and many of his CD's are expensive. I can appreciate that he thinks the music deserves a better listen than mp3's allow, but in today's world, outside of piracy, he's not getting any new fans this way.

'Optimist' sounds nice - will be back to check out more. Thanks.

Rubye Jack said...

When I listen to Sun will Set, I see myself walking/floating down a very very long hall toward a light at the end.

Optimist sends me into the heavens of everyman waiting for god to whisper it is okay to breathe now. Breathing, one can begin to dance.

And so was my experience with Zoe Keating. I will be back because thank you again Susan. I was so very touched.

Britta said...

Dear Susan,
I shared your very interesting post on Facebook to my nephew (he studied Law, and plays the Cello).
I was surprised when I saw/heard the video: my ears are very touchy, and especially string instruments can almost hurt (though strangely I like to hear bagpipes!). But her music was beautiful! I don't know why but it reminds me of a music I heard about Kyoto.
I also loved her words: "My environment will change, my friends will change, but my cello will stay."
As to your assistant: she seems to be another variety of "Legally Blonde" (who is sexy and intelligent, what nobody can believe because she is sexy and blonde...) - in Germany female Law-students by insiders are called "pearl chickens", which is the German word for guinea fowl - because they wear cashmere twinsets with pearls (but I like that too).

The Solitary Walker said...

Your beautifully written piece prompted me to play the performance video, Susan, and how glad I am I did. What an arresting work. And what an arresting player.
How much I have to learn about modern music! Your blog is such a good starting point.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. I listened to both videos - aren't they wonderful .. and I loved her words describing her music .. she's weaving colour, feeling and light - sounds very synesthesete -

Fascinating - many thanks for writing about her .. loved it - cheers Hilary

Kleinste Motte said...

I am here for the first time and I am so very impressed with this presentation. I shall be back. Thanks for the inspiration.

wanderer said...

What is it about the cello? - about the same size as we are, embraceable in arms and legs. I admire her enormously, that she 'goes outside to look within', that music making is 'in/of the moment'.

It's interesting how we tend to judge individuality and lack of conformity as rebellion and resistance instead of a belief and confidence in the creative spirit.

I'm off to the hairdresser right now.

Steven Schwartzman said...

At the end of the first video Keating says that music is her visual life, which I'll grant is a kind of synesthesia that works for her. If I try the reverse, if I say that photography is my musical life, I get a statement that I don't feel is true in general for me, even if there are occasional moments of crossover. I wonder if Keating is truly "seeing" the music.

Andrew Fulton said...

Wonderful.. many thanks for sharing this Susan.

Susan Scheid said...

To all: As all your wonderful comments came in, I thought I should write Ms. Keating and let her know how much we were enjoying her. I found a way (on her blog, no less)! To my enormous surprise, this busy musician, with over a million followers on twitter, sent back a “tweet” saying this: “thank you @prufrockdilemma for the really lovely review. It is so wonderful to feel understood.” She even included a link to the post. While addressed to me, it’s certainly also apt for everyone who has commented here.

Jane & Lance: I like very much your description of what Keating does as painting “pictures with the sound.” And yes, how fascinating the way she’s combined technology and classical training to come up with something so beautifully new.

Jayne: Interesting to think of Laurie Anderson in relation to Keating. In another woeful gap in my musical education, I’ve not heard much of Anderson, but from the little I do know, I can certainly see what you mean. As for the cello, agreed!

Friko: This was a very nice discovery for me (late though I was to the party!), and I’m so pleased you enjoyed her too. Loved your PS, and I whole-heartedly agree. And what panache!

Shy Songbird: How very nice to see you, too! I love your anecdote about the teacher. Why not?, as you say, is absolutely right.

Herringbone: I’m glad you picked out her way of being with her child. I was quite taken with that, too. And also this: “Her smile radiates honesty and energy.” So true.

Chris: Hey, Chris, it is I who must thank you for reminding me of Keating with your great interview. Thanks so much! And what serendipity that I posted on Keating’s birthday. I had no idea.

Suze: Both your comments are so splendid, hard to know what to say. I’ll particularly note the mention of your novel “in the end, he preferred the piano because

there were
no words.”

Well said (and well spaced).

Susan Scheid said...

Mark: So, first thing is I had to look up “frippertronics.” Yes, it does seem quite analogous. So much to know, so little time . . . but I shall persevere. Interesting to read about his sort of “anti-marketing” approach, in contrast to Keating’s approach. As you can see from Chris McGovern’s interview, she’s thoughtful about what she shares and how she does it, but everything about her approach really does welcome the audience in.

Rubye Jack: You descriptions are lovely, pure poetry, and so suited to what I hear, too. Thank you for setting down such beautiful words.

Britta: I can well understand the connection to music of Japan. Rubye Jack’s description in a way gives words to that, too. I love that you shared this with your lawyer/cellist nephew, but even more that this was music you enjoyed!

Solitary Walker: I am pleased you enjoyed the piece, and even more that you enjoyed the video. “Arresting” is a great word for her as player and for her music, as you note.

Hilary: How nice you were able to listen to and enjoyed both videos. I, too, was quite taken by the way she talks about her music. The music stands on its own, but it’s so wonderful to get the added dimension she brings in the way she speaks about it.

Kleinste Motte: Welcome! So pleased you’ve come to visit, and even more, that it enabled me to find you. I’ll look forward to future conversations.

Wanderer: Ah, what, indeed. I do love John Metcalf’s description of the cello on its own, “like a halo of sound.” He’s the one really put me on the trail of cello music, starting with the Bach Cello Suites. As for Keating’s look—quite grand, isn’t it? I think your point about how we tend to judge individuality and lack of conformity is absolutely right. (In that regard, I look forward to a full report on your return from the hairdresser!)

Steven: What Keating says made some sense to me (the Hattatt’s comment seems to fit that, too), though I believe the “visual life” moniker came out of the series by Intel of which I gather this was a part. (I don’t know anything about the series, but I notice Intel has several of these on their video channel. If one had world enough and time, I wonder what other discoveries might be in store . . . )

Andrew: Thank you!

shoreacres said...

Speaking of being late to the party, I'm always dragging in late to comment, especially where such content-rich delights await me. My new discipline for the year is "write first, read second, comment third", so until I get all three feet moving in what passes for coordination, I'll just have to drag in late.

I read your post several times and the comments very carefully, looking for the connection that came to me immediately upon reading your title. I'm amazed I didn't find it - especially with at least a few New-York-connected here.

"Cello on a Wire" recalled "Man on Wire", the recent film about Philippe Petit, the fabulous wire-walker who traversed the space between New York's Twin Towers in 1974 and then went on to perform other such marvels.

The similarities between Keating and Petit seem to me deeper than the title structures. Keating's comment that she is "creating a world...of feeling and emotion and color and light" seems to me to partake of the same spirit as Petit's famous "When I see three oranges, I have to juggle. when I see two towers, I have to walk."

Less famous but also resonant with echos of Petit's memory of his Twin Towers walk: "I could hear the horns of the cars below me. I could hear the applause, too. The rumeur of the crowd rose up to me from 400 meters below. No other show person has ever heard a sound like that."

I've never heard a cello like Keating's, either, and I suspect she's had a moment or two when she's thought, "no other musician has ever heard a sound like that".

Susan Scheid said...

shoreacres: I like your mantra for the new year--I try to do something like that myself, so I know just how hard it is to get a good balance going! As far as I'm concerned, you can "drag in" over here as late as you want, and all the more so when, like this, you come up with a comment that is worthy of a post on its own. You know, I did think of Petit in coming up with that title, but only glancingly--I certainly didn't have the motherlode of information about him that you've identified here. I think you're right, Keating must think from time to time (and certainly we as listeners must), that "no other musician has ever heard a sound like that".

Anonymous said...

Dear Susan
I followed back to you from another blog (portraits of wild flowers). And here on this post is a wonderful discovery. Thanks for hunting down this brilliant cellist and for the thought that you wanted to know of 21st century cello pieces.

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