Category Archives: Zoë Keating

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.


*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.



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

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