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.
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.”
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?
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.