NPR All Things Considered: September 2011
Heard on All Things Considered
September 6, 2011 - ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And now, the story of a classical cellist whose paralyzing stage fright did not shut down her career. Instead, it helped make her a success. Zoe Keating's self-released recordings have gone to the top of the iTunes classical charts and she's even gone back to performing on stage. From member station KALW in San Francisco, Martina Castro visited Keating at home and sent this profile.
MARTINA CASTRO: Zoe Keating's latest album is called "Into the Trees," and that's exactly where I have to go to meet her. She lives in the middle of a redwood forest, an hour and a half north of San Francisco. As Keating walks me around, we listen for her noisy neighbors, the woodpeckers.
ZOE KEATING: And they get really loud again in the evening and they sound like (makes noise).
CASTRO: It's fitting to find Keating in the middle of all this natural noise because in her studio, she creates a similar symphony of sounds, except she does it with just one instrument, her cello. Her secret is in how she constructs her songs. Keating uses computer software to record sounds and musical phrases as she plays them on her one instrument.
(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO)
CASTRO: When she plays something she wants to keep, she taps on a series of pedals at her feet. Those pedals tell the computer program to save and loop what she just played.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CASTRO: That frees her up to play a new musical phrase along with what she just recorded. She can then record and loop that combination, which frees her up to play something else, then something else, until she's created layers upon layers of sound that all came from her one cello. And all of this is communicated to the computer program through the pedals she taps with her feet.
KEATING: Like, I'll spend eight hours, you know, I'm just recording parts, and I'm in the groove, and I'm just adding layers and layers and layers. And it gets bigger and bigger, and then it goes in new directions, and then I clean it up later. So I almost - it's almost like there's two parts to it. There's the kind of, like, getting it all down, and then the cleanup and the refining.
CASTRO: And the getting all down, that's just an improvisational thing?
CASTRO: It's just you jamming with yourself?
KEATING: Yeah, exactly. Totally. I'm jamming with myself. It's like me down here having a party with, like, 16 other cellos.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CASTRO: Keating didn't always play this style of music. She started playing the cello classically when she was eight, but when she reached her teens, something weird started happening during her performances.
KEATING: Suddenly I'm like, how am I doing this? This seems really difficult. How am I doing it? And then, soon enough, you wouldn't be able to play the cello and I would, like, falter. You know, your fingers would make it screw up or your bow, you do a wrong thing. Like, your brain works against you.
CASTRO: This turned into paralyzing stage fright that led Keating to give up pursing a classical career. But in college, she continued to play.
KEATING: So I started improvising. And I found that when I improvised, I wasn't nervous.
CASTRO: She started experimenting with her instrument, especially when she discovered electronic music in San Francisco.
KEATING: And I thought, wouldn't it be neat to make music that has that same production quality, but entirely acoustic?
CASTRO: Keating says that she's still discovering new sounds she can make with her cello.
KEATING: I was really interested in the things that were kind of not musical, little screeches and...
CASTRO: Can you give me an example?
KEATING: Yeah, can I do it - can you hear it?
CASTRO: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
KEATING: So it's just - ponticello is a good one. You know, like one - here's a regular cello sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO)
KEATING: And then, if you move the bow up a little bit...
(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO)
KEATING: You hear how that's different?
KEATING: So there's a lot of potential in there.
CASTRO: This experimentation led Keating to realize what was really paralyzing her all along.
KEATING: It was like perfection was the thing that was destroying me and being totally focused on making it perfect.
CASTRO: Now, on stage, it's not about being perfect.
KEATING: Like, I make a lot of mistakes.
CASTRO: And they just become part of the song.
KEATING: Yeah, yeah. I feel it's almost become this sort of thing where, yeah, if I make a mistake, I have to work with it.
CASTRO: But the thing is, you would never know it. When I ask her to improvise something, she closes her eyes and, without a second thought, begins to play.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CASTRO: Slowly, each note comes out as if it were born organically from her instrument. What could be a mistake is easily transformed into a new direction, a new sound, a new expression. And then, it's hard to imagine it sounding any other way. For NPR News, I'm Martina Castro inSan Francisco.
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Strings Magazine: June 2010 By Rory Williams
From stringsmagazine.com, originally published 2010-06-01
Quote: ‘I like performing at the craziest events—those things that were always the most unusual have benefited me the most.’
Having a Web presence is no longer a cute way to stay connected to fans. It has become the way a musician can feed, clothe, and shelter herself. Case in point: the “happily unsigned and independent” avant cellist Zoe Keating. “I bought my house with iTunes,” she told an audience last December at the SF MusicTech Summit.
The conference in San Francisco brought together artists and established Web developers from Twitter, Google, and Facebook, as well as other independents and start-ups, to not only gauge the online music experience, but to shape its future. At a time when the major music labels bemoan what’s become of the industry, this conference was brimming with optimism. “This is why I love technology conferences,” Keating says. “At other music conferences, they’re holding onto the crumbs of the past.
“I say, ‘Get out of your music ghetto.’”
At the conference, Keating—tall, fair, and hip with pink dreadlocks—sat on a panel that discussed how musicians can achieve online popularity. Her self-produced One Cello x 16: Natoma has spent time on iTunes as both No. 1 on the classical chart and No. 2 on the electronica chart. Counting nearly 1.3 million followers on Twitter, Keating hasn’t just earned her seat on the panel, she’s leading the techie congregation. Her Web popularity has led to interviews with National Public Radio, the San Francisco Chronicle, Wired magazine, and NBC, and opened up a wealth of collaborative opportunities with leading artists, including electronic-music icon Imogen Heap.
In short, Keating is what every independent string player needs to be—digitally enterprising. “As an independent musician, you have to do as much as possible in as many spheres as possible,” Keating says.
The Canadian-born, classically trained Keating began sphere hopping as soon as she left Sarah Lawrence College. Armed with a liberal arts degree with a concentration in music, she moved to San Francisco, where she picked up a job in the software industry during the dot-com bubble. “I had never turned on a computer before I came to San Francisco,” Keating says. “It was an industry that allowed liberal arts majors to have a job. I fit in along with everyone else—it was like a second education.”
At night, Keating performed in alternative-venue spaces—her favorite being a warehouse—plugging in and experimenting with different looping techniques. She also played for rock cello trio Rasputina, which she found online through the Internet Cello Society. Then Heap, after hearing Keating’s music on MySpace and ordering a CD, hired Keating as the opening act and accompanist during Heap’s international tour, which has since turned into five tours.
“For string players, we’re in a really great position,” Keating says. “Rock ’n’ roll and pop acts want string artists with them. String players can cover a lot of musical ground. You can add so much—a richness to the solo performer like [Heap]. It’s a rewarding thing to be doing because if you’ve been classically trained, it’s not hard to figure out.”
A few “strategically free” gigs, which didn’t offer money, also have paid off for Keating: the oddball concert in the desert that was picked up by NPR for a feature story, for instance, or a tech conference that included executives along with developers. “People at a tech conference may have never seen a live performance,” Keating says. “Corporate gigs [such as banquets] are pretty lucrative. And those people are going to be exposed to you because of that conference, and they’re going to able to picture you in their environment.”
That was certainly the case in December, when the San Francisco tech panel ended—Keating found herself surrounded by members of the audience and swamped with offers.
Do: Get personal on your website and cloud accounts. Keating’s younger fans love when she divulges personal information. “They want to buy my records five times just to support me because of that.”
Do: Think beyond traditional gigs. Keating has made it a point to play at technology conferences. She doesn’t know who featured her on Twitter and iTunes, but it’s possible they watched her perform at one those events. “I’ve become the tech cellist” she says.
Do: Take control of your publicity. “It’s important for me to always be authentic. It’s me on those websites. If I were to use my Twitter account just to publicize things, it wouldn’t be authentic.”
Don’t: Have the inaccessible rock-star attitude in person or on the Internet. After Keating’s concerts, she mixes it up with fans offstage and online. “You’re there to play a concert, but the meet-and-greet is a part of the event.”
From wnyc.org, originally published by WNYC 2008-08-28
SF Weekly: Requiem on Natoma By Jennifer Maerz
From sfweekly.com, originally published by SF Weekly 2006-11-01
©2005 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.
Zoë Keating: Have cello, will travel. article link
In 2000, the Kronos Quartet and Clint Mansell created a soundtrack perfect for a movie about two steep descents into addiction. Requiem for a Dream was a CD as chilling as the story it scored, a film centered on a mother striving for prescription bliss and a son whose heroin habit is as ugly as his abscesses. Separated into three seasons, the album carried ominous undertones, strings sounding the death knell for the lives these characters were losing.
Cellist Zoë Keating has composed a requiem for a far less tragic event, but a soundtrack no less moving than Kronos' work. Her debut full-length, One Cello x 16: Natoma, pays homage to an experimental San Francisco performance space she ran with her husband and friends, 926 Natoma. For 10 years, the split-level warehouse was home to performances by everything from bands like Tarentel to field recordings (hosted by housemate Aaron Ximm Thieme) to adventurous electronic music (from her other roommate, John Eichenseer, aka Jhno). Using beanbags and beds for seating, tea lights for ambience, and a sliding scale for an admission charge, 926 Natoma brought together the fringes of the local music scene under one comfortably large industrial roof. That is, until the group was evicted.
"I felt like [Natoma] was a fight against the landlord," says Keating on a recent fall morning, sipping coffee at a SOMA cafe a couple blocks from her old living space. "We represented art and beauty and vitality, and we tried to convince him how great his space was and how much people were appreciating it as a music space." Her CD, recorded in a studio built into the warehouse, was meant to encapsulate the conflict at hand as well as the wars beyond her doorstep. "Every time you'd step outside our house, there would be homeless people and people doing crack, and so it felt like this real human struggle going on that our little eviction crisis was related to ... somehow. The music is all about that — Natoma is turmoil," she says.
Melancholy sentiment seeps into every note of Natoma, a disc of sublime minimalist music — "with a pop sensibility," adds Keating, who has performed on records ranging from DJ Shadow's latest to albums by Tarentel, John Vanderslice, the Court and Spark, and Michael Talbott & the Wolfkings, among others, as well as with cello-rockers Rasputina for four years (she's since left that group). Her self-released album, which hit No. 2 among iTunes' classical downloads and No. 3 in the site's electronica category, reveals Keating putting the cello she's owned since age 12 to various uses. Using live sampling and looping, she delicately layers the record with everything from percussion (knocks on the instrument's surface) to guitarlike rhythms to expressive melodies moving at a glacial pace. (When she performs live, as she will at 21 Grand in Oakland on Nov. 4, she uses foot pedals to control the tracks.) "It's like so many different art things," she explains. "You make a box for yourself and then you explore the contents of the box. I made a box that's cello-sized, and I couldn't go outside of it. I didn't process the sounds in any way."
Keating calls recording Natoma her "refuge from the reality that we might have to leave San Francisco" — and eventually she and her husband did leave, moving to greener warehouses in Portland, Ore., in March. But this isn't the first time her cello has gotten her through adversity. When Keating was a child, her family moved often, and upon resettling in the United States from England, playing helped her get over the culture shock. "The cello was the one thing that was a constant for me through all the moves," says the lanky, charismatic redhead. "It was this perfect world that I would retreat to, and it was just me and the cello, and I worked hard and got results. It was reliable. It was almost like a coping mechanism."
Practicing the cello also helped Keating get past a case of crippling stage fright that she caught in her early 20s. "I started playing the cello in the BART station," she recalls. "I'd play at the Powell Street or Embarcadero stations at rush hour." Running through all the Bach suites she knew, she was able to come to terms with having an audience — and make her rent with a couple days' work. "Eventually I was able to block out the people, because I realized that if anyone did stop it meant they were enjoying the music," she says. "That completely cured my stage fright."
Keating's most inspiring performance space remains the S.F. home she relinquished (which, she notes, still lies empty). "[The Natoma warehouse] was a pretty creative environment to be in," she says nostalgically. "I'm not sure that the record I made would've happened if it wasn't for that space — it was kind of like my classical music training coming up against all these other [musical] worlds. Which is really very San Francisco, in some ways." Although the price of creating a new artist colony pushed Keating north, she retains a loyal admiration for this city. "I think a lot of things are happening in San Francisco," she adds, "because it's right on the edge of technology and art, and there's a lot of friction there."
The Oregonion: A cellist's new love By Tom D'Antoni
From oregonlive.com, originally published by The Oregonion Friday, November 24, 2006
©2006 The Oregonian. All rights reserved.
Zoe Keating has been cheating on Sebastian. Sebastian is her cello and has been with her since she was 12 and she began taking lessons in Albany, N.Y. Sebastian has traveled the world with her and is more than vital to her popular recording, "One Cello x 16: Natoma" which although self-produced and distributed, hit No. 2 on iTunes' classical chart.
Sebastian endured having electronics added and his sound looped and altered by computer, even being used as a percussion instrument. Sometimes he sounds like an entire string quartet.
But behind Sebastian's back, Keating has been shopping for a new instrument.
"When you go down the road to picking a cello, you have to start dating," she says. "You have to move in together, figure out if you're going to be compatible."
She tried out one. "He was a fun boy. He was a high-quality instrument, but he had a few flamboyant characteristics. There were things about him that I wanted to change. I wasn't willing to put up with the things that he had to change in order for me to tie the knot. That didn't work out and we separated," Keating says, laughing.
"Then I tried another cello, and it was the same thing. We were close, but it wasn't a very exciting relationship. We were going through the motions as a couple, so I stopped looking. As inevitably happens when you stop looking, the right cello appears."
A cello maker had been working on one for a year with Keating in mind. She met up with both of them in Italy.
"He was newly born, a green young cello, very handsome, very sexy. I met him, and it was love at first sight. He was a little awkward the first time but after four days together I knew that he was the one. When I played him I just had to touch the bow to the string and it's like, 'Laaaaaaaaaaaa.' "
Keating moved to Portland with her husband (and Sebastian) from San Francisco a couple of months ago. From her base here she has maintained a dizzying schedule of worldwide touring, recording and composing for films.
Cellos seem to be everywhere these days. "It's like a voice," she says. "When I'm playing, I can feel like the cello is my voice. I can say things with the cello that I can never say in words. If I was going to try to say in words the kinds of things I say in an abstract way in music, it would come out like Jack Handy."
She will pick up her new unnamed cello in Europe next year.
National Public Radio
Day to Day, December 9, 2005 article link
Zoe Keating has been playing the cello since she was 8. She grew up practicing hard every day to learn the music of classical composers such as Bach and Beethoven.
But she soon found the rigid structure of classical music too constraining, and just a little nerve-wracking. She suffered from extreme bouts of stage fright. Keating eventually conquered her anxiety, and at the same time made an unusual transition from performing classical music to electronically looping and modifying the sound of her cello.
The result was a distinctive mix of old and new -- layers of sound, pitched to octaves higher and lower than the original that feel more like orchestrations than a solo instrument. As a member of the band Rasputina, she pushed the concept further, taking on classical tunes with a modern twist and imbuing rock 'n' roll tunes with the warm, expressive sound of the cello.
Keating now has a new solo CD -- One Cello x 16: Natoma. She talks about redefining the traditional boundaries of classical music to reach a new audience.
From portlandmercury.com, originally published by Portland Mercury 2006-11-09
CS Monitor: An Orchestra of One By Teresa Méndez
From csmonitor.com, originally published by the Christian Science Monitor in the April 07, 2006 edition
Copyright 2006 The Christian Science Monitor.
Whenever Zoë Keating takes the stage, her hefty jumble of red dreadlocks pulled back from her face, a tangle of cords reaches like tentacles out of her cello. Her accompaniment: a small table supporting a rack of high-tech knobs and blinking lights, all connected via the cello's electronic appendages.
None of this is what you'd expect of a classically trained musician. Yet it's the sound she produces that may be most surprising.
Using multitracking, which lets her record and play back more than one cello track at a time, and looping, or repeating a portion of the recording, Ms. Keating layers cello sequence upon cello sequence, forming what can sound like as many as 16 cellists playing at once.
While it isn't new, this electronic technology is more often used in pop and rock than classical music. But Keating and virtuosic classical bassist Edgar Meyer have each tapped into it as a means of essentially collaborating with themselves: she through live performances and a 2005 album, "One Cello x 16"; he on a CD to be released this month in which he alone plays and records six instruments ( it's aptly titled "Edgar Meyer"). The result is music that conveys the complex sounds one expects of an ensemble, not from solo musicians.
Before arriving at this more unusual type of collaboration, both Keating and Mr. Meyer have had long and fruitful relationships with other musicians. Keating has recorded two albums with the cello-rock group Rasputina. And Meyer, a MacArthur "genius" award winner, is known for being equally comfortable on a concert billing with classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma as he is playing an outdoor festival alongside bluegrass banjoist Béla Fleck.
But they both wanted a little more freedom. "When I started writing my own compositions, initially I wanted other musicians to help me play them," says Keating. Yet she found herself struggling to translate her ideas. What she was looking for, she realized, was someone who could improvise along with her. And that's "a lot to ask of a classically trained musician," she says. "But someone not classically trained was not an option because they don't have the technique." So Keating, who through the '90s worked as a computer programmer and saw this as a technical sort of problem akin to to designing a web page, decided her "efforts were better spent seeing how [she] could play all the parts."
Meyer wanted something similar: room to meander. "With several people working on something, there's a limit to the detours you can take," he says. It also made sense for his instrument, the double bass. "If you just throw a bunch of instruments together, the bass is not going to be the one that stands out."
David Finckel, co-artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York, where Meyer performs regularly, suggests there's more to it: "Only one person in the world can do on the bass what Edgar can do, and maybe every once in a while he needs some musical company." (That, of course, would be himself.)
Deserved or not, the reputation of classical music is that of a traditional art form in opposition to technology. In fact, electronic technology has been in use by contemporary classical musicians at least since the 1950s when such composers as Pierre Schaeffer experimented with multiple turntables and mixers.
"It started first in these avant-garde circles," considered a part of the Western classical tradition, says John Mallia, director of the Electronic Music Studios at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music. Then it "made its way to pop music and, funnily enough, it's making its way back to classical music," he says
Still, when most people think of classical music, they envision orchestras performing live or else hewing as closely as possible to a live concert for a recording.
From a small basement studio at the New England Conservatory, filled with many thousands of dollars worth of electronic equipment and padded with black and red soundproofing and diffusing foam, Mr. Mallia says he's being approached more and more by student musicians interested in learning about the possibilities of electronic music. His course, required for composition majors, has been only an elective for performance students.
Of course, neither Keating nor Meyer's work can be neatly pegged as "classical." And the debate about what actually constitutes contemporary classical music seems endless - but, actually, neither musician seems terribly interested in engaging the discussion.
Others before Keating and Meyer have tried self-collaborations with varying degrees of success. Jascha Heifetz's recording of both violin parts of the Bach Double Concerto in 1946 was probably "the first time such an audacious thing was tried" by a classical musician, says Mr. Finckel. This year, the Emerson String Quartet, with whom he plays cello, won two Grammys for their recording of all eight parts of the Mendelssohn Octet. But Meyer says that Stevie Wonder, who made "Music of My Mind" in 1972, is still the best example of the one-man band. "He hasn't been bettered in terms of an overall vision: using that technology to make music you couldn't have done another way," he says.
Sacramento Bee: Not content to sit still
The New Directions festival presents cellists who are pushing the music's boundaries
By Edward Ortiz - Bee Arts Critic
Cellist Zoe Keating is a string quartet of one.
By rigging a system that allows her to sample her playing and use it in real time during concerts, Keating can replicate herself onstage. All she needs is a MIDI footpad and a computer.
Her performances are just one of many examples of how the cello is evolving. That evolution is the focus of the three-day New Directions Cello Festival starting Friday at California State University, Sacramento. Keating will appear at 8:30 p.m. Saturday in the Music Recital Hall on campus.
In its second year of setting up shop at CSUS -- which is co-sponsoring the event -- the festival is a combination of afternoon master classes, jam sessions and evening performances by musicians from around the country whose musical focus is the non- classical cello.
This will be the first year for Keating to play at the festival, and she is the most technologically focused cellist on the roster of artists.
She started experimenting with the sampling process five years ago when she realized that she was writing compositions that sounded like cello ensemble pieces.
"I was trying to figure out how to play them live," she said. "I actually tried getting live players to play this music, and it turned out to be difficult to find cellists that were classically trained and also had swing and style."
She soon realized it would be easier to figure out how to program her musical ideas into a computer.
To do so, she integrates a program called Ableton Live and a hardware device called the Electrix Repeater for composing. The repeater works like a four-track recorder to record her cello parts on the fly. The software allows her to layer in recorded cello parts to her liking. The crucial link in the chain is a MIDI foot controller, which allows Keating to control both hardware and software, leaving her hands free to play the cello.
"It's like having an empty score," said Keating, who lives in Sonoma County. "I just have to play the notes into the score, and the computer takes care of bringing the sampled parts in and out for the audience, somewhat like a conductor would do."
Most of what she plays is composed beforehand, though one-fourth of her concert program is improvised, she said.
Through the use of different bowing techniques and electronics, Keating believes she's adding to the evolution of the instrument.
"I think what I and other cellists are doing is taking part in the natural evolution of the cello," Keating said. "I think everything evolves, and when things stop evolving, they die out."
Like most musicians, Keating got her start in music early, at age 8 in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Unlike many musicians who show promise, Keating chose not to go the music conservatory route when she got older. She opted for private lessons while planning a music career.
"When I was 17, I was definitely on the classical cello track," she said. "I was doing competitions and practicing all the time."
But a career as a classical cellist grew illusory as the pressure of competitions and recitals began to weigh on her.
"I didn't want to live under that kind of stress anymore," she said.
Instead, Keating opted for a liberal arts education at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. That led her on a roundabout path to becoming a builder of custom databases for arts organizations while she continued exploring new directions on the cello.
That exploration led her to work with cutting-edge musicians.
From 2002 to '06, Keating was a member of the cello-rock ensemble Rasputina, founded by cellist Melora Creager, who had toured in the employ of Nirvana. She also has played cello for the Boston-based Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls and Robin Guthrie, and has been on five tours with Grammy nominee Imogen Heap.
During her CSUS concert on Saturday, Keating will discuss and demonstrate the finer points of a pursuit she's undertaking -- the writing of film scores. Keating is writing the score to the upcoming British indie film "The Devil's Chair."
"I like to create music in front of an audience," she said. "I want to show how music can make you feel, and what it takes to make scary music or happy music.
"You add one note to another and soon you have a horror film," she said. "But take away some of those notes and it will sound like a love scene."
Such demonstrations are the bread and butter of the cello festival, which began in 1994 as a one-day festival in New York City's Knitting Factory. Since then, the festival has moved from region to region with past festivals at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and other schools. This marks the second year that the festival is being held at CSUS, said Chris White, the festival's New York-based director and founder.
"The idea is to keep moving the festival around to expose different regions of cellists," said White.
White likes to cast his net far and wide for cellists who are revolutionizing the instrument or pushing its boundaries. He has invited artists from as far away as Japan to play at the festival.
"I try to have an eclectic mix of cello artists each year," said White.
And this year is no exception, with a roster of cellists that includes Nancy Kulkarni, who uses the cello to play North Indian classical music of the "dhurpad" style. The festival will also feature performances by the three-cello and drum ensemble Break of Reality and the acoustic cello group Water Bear.
"When we began 13 years ago, it seemed like we were a very bizarre niche group of cellists," said White. "But now it seems like we are more in the mainstream."