Category Archives: looping

We Drove Eight Hours to Hear Zoë

Zoë Keating, the ultimate “loopers delight”* cellist, creates multi-layered, consonant, steadily-pulsed, ever changing pieces with a fascinating array of timbres (sound colors) that show just how much the cello is capable of.  Her website bio says she’s sold over 35,000 albums. Her Wikiedia page says that the 2005 album Natoma has topped the iTunes classical chart four times.  She has 1.3 million Twitter followers, including yours truly.

I’ve been a huge fan since I came across that album; her inventiveness is amazing.  I’ve experimented with looping, where you use a foot switch to control a computer, sometimes built into the switch itself, which when you tap the switch starts recording what you are playing and then, with another tap, repeats it continually until you instruct it otherwise.  Zoë uses a laptop computer, probably with Ableton Live software. The results–original compositions which use real-time looping–are entrancing.

Last night (Sunday March 6) she played [le] poisson rouge.  Looping violinist Todd Reynolds, who has his own considerable fan base, was the opening act and joined her for a closing improvised duet.  The original show, at 7:00 PM, sold out quickly, and LPR added a second, at 10:00 PM.  I snapped up tickets for the late one as soon as I heard about it.

Doors were scheduled to open at 9:30 PM. It was a cool, drizzly night and by the time I got there, a line had formed, stretching from LPR’s front door on Bleeker Street, down past and around the CVS on the corner of Bleecker and Thompson, going almost down to Houston.  Hundreds of people, standing in the rain, all there to see and hear Zoë.

My daughter was in that line somewhere, and I had a bit of fun embarrassing her by loudly calling her name until I found her. (Dads do that.) Once we were united, I struck up a conversation with the young man behind us. “Does the fact that she’s playing here at LPR make a difference to you?” I asked.  “Would you have gone to hear her if she was playing somewhere uptown in a regular concert hall?”  One of the things I’m sorting through is what difference the venue makes.  Was he here for this performer, the club, or a combination?  “I’m here for Zoë,” he explained. “I love her music and have used it in shows.” (He’s one of the many underemployed producer/directors in New York.) “I never heard of this place before,” he continued.   “I’d go anywhere to hear her.”

We finally made it in, and secured what may have been the last two adjacent seats at a table.  A male/female couple in their early twenties were our table mates, stylishly dressed in all black, leather jackets, looking very East Village.  “So,” I asked, Mr. Curious that I am, “does the fact this show is here at LPR have anything to do with your coming?”

“We drove eight hours to get here, from Erie, Pennsylvania.  We just came to hear Zoë.  It doesn’t matter where she’s playing.”

Zoë, quite clearly, is doing something right.  “Increasingly considered a role model for DIY artists,” says her website bio.   Absolutely.

I’m not going to review or describe the concert other than to say Todd was great, Zoë was amazing, and it was the best lighting job I’ve seen at LPR.  What I want to write about it what occurred to me as I listened.

If you teach music in higher education and don’t lose sleep some nights about encouraging kids to major in music, especially performance, something’s missing in your conscience circuitry.  It’s always been tough to make a living in music, and it’s getting tougher, especially in traditional classical music.  But college is where you learn and explore and lay groundwork for the rest of your intellectual and creative life.

So look at Zoë, with her million-plus Twitter followers who will drive eight hours to stand in the rain in order to hear her wherever she might play.  She started playing the cello at eight, she told the audience.  Would conduct Beethoven symphony recordings in her room.  Went not to a conservatory but to a great liberal arts college, Sarah Lawrence, and then ended up working as a computer programmer.

A computer programmer, right out of college.  Not a job in an orchestra or touring quartet or a string of graduate-school assistantships and an endless round of competititons.  Most of the traditional classical-music establishment would have written her off.  Didn’t make it.  A disappointment.  Many are called but few are chosen, and all that.  Didn’t have the drive and ambition.

We make up all sorts of explanations.

But she kept playing.  Started doing ambient music at parties “where people were horizontal,” combining her computer knowledge with the cello.  Ended up playing (2002-2006, according to Wikipedia) in the all-cello girl band Rasputina (which she didn’t mention last night and isn’t included in her official bio, so maybe that relationship didn’t end up happily).  Now she’s a star in her own musical world, making recordings in her “cello cave” (a 10 by 10 foot studio with 7-foot ceilings, she said) in a California Redwood forest.

Her music is her own, exisiting in an intersection of classical, rock, minimalist, and ambient/new-age genres.  Definitely beyond-genres music.

She has great technical chops for what she does. At the same time, she probably couldn’t play much of the virtuosic solo classical repertoire.  This is not a criticism, just an fascinated observation.  She rarely plays in what cellists call thumb position, where the thumb is on top of the fingerboard.  When she does, she doesn’t go very far up, rarely venturing beyond what most of us think of as the first thumb position, and gets more careful. When she ventured beyond the D a ninth above middle C, up as far as an F, it was a bit out of tune.  Besides evidently not being really comfortable in thumb position, she does little fast playing, especially with separate bow strokes that takes lots of coordination between the two hands.

What she does, she does extraordinarily well.  She uses about half the fingerboard.  And makes a ton of incredible music with it.  At some point earlier in her life, she may have mastered thumb position and the kind of fast left-right hand coordination needed for a piece like Elfentanz (“Dance of the Elves,” below), and doesn’t need it now for the music she hears.  Or maybe she didn’t.  Maybe some cello teacher tore her or his hair out over it, like I and so many of my colleagues do with our students who avoid conquering certain difficult techniques.

If you can do what Zoë Keating does, do you care if you can play this?  And maybe she can do what she does because she didn’t spend years killing off her creativity, learning to play this sort of thing.

I hope she was one of those who didn’t spend hour after hour practicing thumb position exercises.  I hope she resisted.  Because I’d like to think she’s someone who developed her creativity and followed her own path.  And that the lesson for us is that we cello teachers, and those of other instruments, need to spend more time developing our students’ imaginations and sense of possibility and less time pressuring them to learn concertos they will never perform.

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*Looper’s Delight is a website resource center for musicians into looping.  I’m using its name in a generic sense; as far as I know the site has never named anyone it’s ultimate anything.

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Filed under Le Poisson Rouge, looping, Rasputina, Todd Reynolds, Zoë Keating

Two Very Different Mashups at [le] poisson rouge (Sabbatical Journal VI)

Two very different recent events at [le] poisson rouge had one thing in common: combining separate pieces. “Mashups,” to use the rock/pop vernacular. (God, that makes me sound so middle-aged.) One classical, the other, well, nearly every possible genre.

On Thursday February 3, Bruce Brubaker (chair of piano at the New England Conservatory) joined his former student Francesco Tristano (who needs to get his website back online) in  Simultaneo, parallell concerts on the same stage. The music was by Buxtehude, Gibbons, Schumann, Messiaen, Glass, Cage, Earle Brown, and Tristano himself. Using LPR’s seven-foot Yamaha (amplified) and an electronic keyboard with processing effects, they created an etheral and haunting soundscape as they combined pieces. There was a slow-motion, quasi-hypnotic feel to the evening, the music never stopping, even when the two traded positions (looping and/or delay processing comes in handy).  Brubaker wrote a blog post before the show, saying in part,

Next week, I’m playing an overlapped, simultaneous concert with Francesco Tristano, this time at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. It’s billed as “[ Simultaneo ].” In the advertising it says: “Two concerts at the same time!” A manifestation of remix culture for sure — it’s Girl Talk Classical!

So a definite reference to pop culture, and how classical musicans are being influenced by it.  (I guess I really ought to listen to Girl Talk and start paying more attention to pop culture.) Here’s video of an earlier concert:

For me the sometimes Ivesian juxtaposition of the music worked really well.  For Jake Cohen at consequenceofsound.net, it didn’t.

At one point during the double piano set by whiz kid Francesco Tristano and veteran Bruce Brubaker– two artists steeped in the 20th-century piano tradition– I jotted down in my notes: “I’m just not sure what the point is supposed to be.” Maybe that was the point. Avant-garde artists frequently set out to mystify their audiences, appealing to an elite and eccentric few, while shock and confusion were stalwart aesthetic values of the Fluxus movement and other happenings going on in this city during the 1960s and 70s. Make no mistake– Tristano and Brubaker are consummate musicians, unarguably at the top of their respective fields, and they know their stuff. They had a novel, wild idea: play two concerts with programs of both contemporary and classical piano music, from Cage to Schumann to Buxtehude, at the same time, at one of the hippest venues for classical music in the country. See what kind of freaky concurrences result, how each pianist will engage in a dialogue with both the music and with each other, and how the introduction of electronics will affect a wonderful synchronism of styles, touching on all the notable giants of piano music over the last 400 years. Unfortunately, their idea simply didn’t translate to practice.

I, on the other hand, was drawn into it. Maybe it has something to do with how my brain is wired.  When I improvise, I sometimes find myself playing two pieces at the same time, switching back and forth between them.  And this performance had that interactive quality that good improvisational music has. Brubaker and Tristano were clearly listening to and responding to each other. The music wasn’t only juxtaposed, it was often folded together.  It was, indeed, mashed up.

The audience was pin-drop silent, which meant that the sonic landscape included, even at the tables, clinking ice and cocktails being shaken, not stirred.  The music was so soft so much of the time that I found myself wishing we were in a recital hall rather than a club.

There wasn’t a lot of ice clinking last night, Sunday 2/6, at the 10:00 PM Dueling Fiddlers rock violin show, where extraneous sounds would not have disturbed the loose atmosphere or the amplified and energetic music. There was a small but enthusiastic audience. Not only was it Superbowl Sunday (it was hard to tear myself away from the Superbowl party; as a former Wisconsin resident I was riveted by the Packers), but the only genres it was tagged with on the LPR website were “rock and roll” and “rock violin.” I keep track of the events billed as “classical” and “contemporary classical,” so I hadn’t noticed the listing until that morning.  (There was enough classical music in the mix that both tags I mentioned would have been appropriate.) Glad I did, because it was really fun.

Adam DeGraff and Russell Fallstad have significant classical backgrounds (Adam, Russell told me, is the former concertmaster of the Richmond Symphony; Russell was the founding violist of the Fry Street Quartet) and top-level technique.  Playing acoustic violins (Fallstad often using a 5-string instrument including a C string) amplified with wireless mics, often processed with looping and effects pedals (one of which lowers the pitch of Degraff’s violin by a couple of octaves), they play with energy, a wide range of emotion, a sense of adventure and play, and interact with the audience with self-deprecating humor.  It’s much more than rock;  they quote a lot of classical music (Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach), and pop schmaltz (the theme from Love Story) as well country fiddling (they are based in West Virginia–or was it Virginia?) and original music.  They did a mashup of Lady Gaga and, well someone whose name I don’t remember. (OK, it was Ke$ha.) My 19-year-old daughter recognized much more than I.

One piece that struck me, and that I can remember pretty well, was the Prelude of the Bach G Major Cello Suite, played rather freely by Fallsatd, over which Degraff improvised a line, at first very conservative, reminiscent of the Bach-Gunoud Ave Maria. Then a blue note or too, and the thing morphed into a fiddling extravaganza about half way through the prelude.  Things were mixed up for a while, with all sorts of virtuoso double stopping, when Fallstad played the Bach’s descending scale passages so fast that they made a brilliant cadenza.  It built to a rousing finish, and gave me the idea that this Prelude, often played rather gently, could work as a free-tempo, very improvisatory and virtuosic showpiece.  Fallstad commented after that he had initial trepidation about “doing this to Bach,” but got over it, since “Bach is dead” and they can do whatever they want.  The comment seemed to fall flat. I’d say that Bach transformed and rewrote pieces by other composers, and what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

My daughter and I chatted briefly with Fallstad after the show.  How’d he get into this?  “I would be playing Beethoven quartets, realizing I was having a much better time than anyone in the audience,” he told us.  “I thought, we’ve got to do something about this.”  His old friend Adam called him with the idea of doing rock violin, and the duo, which has been performing together for about a year, was born.  They are getting an increasing number of gigs.  They’ve got a big future;  it will be interesting to see how their career develops.  There are things to work out.  There’s a quasi-apologetic energy to some of their comments that seems to be their classical selves making excuses for their rock selves; that they can move beyond.  Overall, there was so much great music making, interaction, and playfulness that I think I had the best time at their show of anything I’ve attended in NY so far.

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Filed under alternative classical performance, Bruce, Francesco Tristano, improvisation, Le Poisson Rouge, live performance, loop-based improv, looping

Zoë Keating on how she does it

The fabulous looping cellist Zoë Keating explains it all.

Well, not in as much detail as those of us who also do cello looping might like, but it’s a great WNYC Radiolab podcast, with lots of music. Zoë does looped cello compositions; my own looping is mostly improvised or quasi-improvised. (Of course she also improvises, and the podcast ends with an imprvisation.)

I love her stuff.

And she makes some insightful comments in the podcast on how much more comfortable she feels playing her own music than the compositions of others. That resonates with me. I’m hopelessly addicted to playing classical music, though, and since much of my job is teaching it, I have to keep doing things like playing the Arpeggione Sonata and driving myself nuts. There are times, though, when I’d like to leave the classical stress behind. Yet the joy of performing classical music, when it goes well, is–what’s the word?–oh, right, addictive.

Back to Zoë. Here are the tech details from the bio page on her site:

The cello is amplified with an AKG C411 contact condenser mic. I run it through a few looping/sampling devices: two Electrix Repeaters, Ableton Live and a plugin called SooperLooper. I control the sampling and various other audio parameters with my feet, using a midi foot controller.

I bought ProTools SE this summer, with some faculty devlopment money that had to be spent before July 1. The package, which I have yet to open (due to being obsessed with all those shifts in the Arpeggione sonata, which I’m performing again Monday), is supposed to include a stripped-down, “lite” version of Ableton, about which I hear only great things. I’m going to need a foot controller, I know, to start really exploring it. But I’ll start thinking about such post-classical things Tuesday, post-Arpeggione.

(photo by Jeffrey Rusch, from Keating’s site.)

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Filed under looping, Zoë Keating