The Audiophiles: Zoe Keating’s one-woman orchestra

Cellist Zoe Keating uses a cello and a foot-controlled laptop to record layer upon layer of sound. Photo by Jerry Dodrill

Zoe Keating's unique style of music has gotten her to the top of the iTunes classical and electronic music charts, and all the while she's remained an independent artist. KALW's Martina Castro went to talk with her at her home studio about how she experiments with the sound of her instrument.

All the music in this story was performed live during this interview. And it was all performed by just one woman, her cello, and her laptop.

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MARTINA CASTRO: Zoe Keating is walking me around her house. We're looking for woodpeckers.

ZOE KEATING: We call them tree penguins…

CASTRO: Why penguins?

KEATING: Because they look like penguins!

Her home is like a big tree house, halfway up a steep hill in a thick forest of redwood trees.

KEATING: They get really loud again in the evening, and they sound like, “Ek ek ek ek!”

There are many sounds that surround Keating...

KEATING: Blue Jays…

The neighborhood dogs...

DOGS: Bark! Bark! Bark!

And some less natural sounds…

KEATING: Chainsaw. Chainsaws and woodchippers.

It's fitting to find Zoe Keating in the middle of this natural cacophony because inside her studio, that's exactly what she creates when she sits down to compose.

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. It gets bigger and bigger, and then it goes in new directions, and then I clean it up later. So it's almost like there's two parts to it. There's the kind of getting it all down, and then the clean up and the refining.

CASTRO: And the "getting it all down" – that's an improvisational thing? It's just you jamming with yourself?

KEATING: Yeah, exactly! I'm jamming with myself! It's me down here having a party with like 16 other cellos! And I really love that part of it, I just love adding up all the layers, and things get totally over the top. It's just like, how many cellos can I possibly have!

When Keating says that, "how many cellos," it's because of how she constructs her songs. She records a phrase, then loops it, then plays on top of it and records that, again and again, creating layers upon layers of sound. That's why she's called a “one-woman orchestra.”

KEATING: When I'm mixing down I might actually have 48 tracks, but a percussive sound might be created out of six or eight cellos that are all layered up to get a particular kind of tone.

Keating started playing the cello classically when she was eight years old, but she had paralyzing stage fright. But in college she discovered electronic music, and started improvising soundtracks for her friends' films. She found that when she improvised, the stage fright would disappear. While recording for one of her friend's projects, she started really experimenting with the sounds that could come out of her instrument.

KEATING: I was really interested in things that were not musical. Little screeches...

CASTRO: Can you give me an example?

KEATING: Yeah, ponticello is a good one. Here is a regular cello sound. Then if you move the bow up a little bit ... You hear how that's different?

CASTRO: Yes!

KEATING: So there's a lot of potential in there! And other things, like, you can tap with the bow and your fingers, or you can shuffle.

CASTRO: Wow, that's literally you just playing the bow on the side of the instrument…

KEATING: Yeah, I'm just playing the wood of the instrument.

In 1994, Keating moved to San Francisco, and she started layering all of those sounds as she composed. She says there's a major difference between the music she makes in the studio and what you’d hear on stage when she performs those same compositions live.

KEATING: The difference is when I'm in the studio, I'm striving, I'm trying to recreate a feeling and something that's inside my head. I'm trying to recreate it perfectly. There's something very concrete that I'm going for, and I'm struggling to make it! And it takes weeks and weeks and weeks. I think it's true for writers – you have an idea, and then you polish it and polish it and polish it, and it takes a long time for everything to finally click and you know it's done. Whereas on stage, it's something that's happening right there in that moment between me and the audience. it's like the culmination of what I'm feeling that day and the music that I've written, and it's different every time.

Sometimes I'll try to make it really, really perfect, like I said I do this improvisatory process where I'm just recording, recording. And then I'll go back and I'll say, "Okay, I'll just go back and record this one better," but that never works! It's always the first take with me because it might have some technical problems but it will always have the right feeling. In some ways, maybe being on stage is the first take.

CASTRO: I mean, it's amazing what you can do while your hands are on an instrument, you can't use your hands to do anything other than play. But then your feet are tapping on things, you've got 10 pedals that you've got, and you're thinking how many beats ahead of what is happening?

KEATING: I'm not thinking in beats really, I'm thinking in musical shapes and phrases. So I'm thinking about the overall shape of a piece, and I'm thinking about it phrase by phrase.

CASTRO: So what is actually happening when you're pressing the pedals?

KEATING: I'm running three different programs on the computer, and the computer is controlled with MIDI messages. So these messages tell the computer what to do. It's basically like your hands, so you know, “Record now, stop recording, record on this track, stop recording, fade this down, fade this up, pan.” Things like that, all these things that you might do if you were a DJ. And the messages are preprogrammed in some cases. It's almost like a score? Like a musical score? But it's a MIDI score.

CASTRO: So these are parts that you are recording live. You just have maybe told the program, “Store these, I'll come back to you?”

KEATING: Yeah, it's like a mixture of sampling and live looping. So, one program samples things, so it records the cello and then stores it for later. And then other times, I am recording and recording on top of it where you can hear sort of a delay kind of thing, and I just combine those to try to make it interesting.

CASTRO: So do you ever improvise on stage in live performances?

KEATING: I try to do it every performance actually. You know, it's so abstract that I don't know how I could possibly describe it. It's more like shapes and colors, it's completely a non-verbal, non-direct thought kind of experience. It's almost like I'm painting. When I make some sort of atmosphere pattern in my mind, I have to balance it out with something low in the bottom and then I have to add little things on the sides. Maybe I'm an abstract expressionist!

I think that my goal is to have the audience experience it like I do. I don't know what that means, but I'm always trying to go there and trying to figure it out.

Zoe Keating will be performing live this Saturday and Sunday, June 24 and 25, at the Great American Hall in San Francisco.