It’s certainly not everyday that an avant-garde cellist sells out a show in a popular rock club, and adorned with only a cello, series of foot pedals and laptop completely wins over the entire crowd. That is unless you’re Zoe Keating.
Keating is so much more than a cello player, however. She builds grand, cinematic songs out of loops and samples, all of which she controls onstage with various pedals. These rich compositions often include elements of improvisation as well, an intriguing disparity between her contemporary structures and the classical counterparts to which much of Keating’s sound is owed. There’s no denying the influence of traditional, classical music in her ouevre; in fact, she opened her encore set with a re-imagining of the Second Movement from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. By embracing improvisation and making it a major part of Keating’s approach to live music, though, she is able to free herself of the rigidity that classical music often imposes. Thus, her songs seem alive and fresh each time they’re performed. Either through redrafting the score or employing a new kind of technology, Keating’s work gains vibrancy, zest and ebullience.
Because Zoe often reworks her own material, it’s not enough to just have the mp3s; rather, the live setting is a vital, and in many ways necessary, part of understanding and experiencing Zoe Keating as an artist. For example, she describes “Don’t Worry,” one of the best songs from her last album Into the Trees (2010), as “the happy result of a catastrophic onstage technical failure and subsequent improvisation that occurred when I was on tour with Imogen Heap.” There were certainly a few moments during her show where she’d miss an entrance, have a small technical mishap or even completely forget how to start a song. Rather than be frustrated, though, Keating’s self-deprecating sense of humor and willingness to embrace the often vexing reality of live performance breathed life and energy into the songs. It felt like the audience was a part of her creative process in these moments. By incorporating the entire room in the process of making music, Keating ceased being just a single cello player on a stage, but instead morphed into a full orchestra and conductor, immersing everyone in the beautiful depth of her creation.
There were several moments throughout the show that could have become self-indulgent or tedious had Zoe continued in a dark, moody vein. The cello’s timbre provides an implicit proclivity for melodrama, but rather than linger in a somber ambiance, Zoe paced the show beautifully. “Tetrishead,” while still slightly brooding, has an urgency and nervous energy that borders on being hopeful. She then followed with “Sun Will Set,” a stunningly gorgeous song that reminds one of a pastoral scene, replete with long grass, old trees and the warmth of a golden sun beginning its descent in late afternoon.
The real highlight of the evening was “Monolith,” a song commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She confessed that after composing “Monolith” she never thought she’d play it live; however, integral to live performance, according to Keating, is the incorporation of challenge. How to translate a highly experimental studio piece onstage requires careful thought and planning. Thus, the performance of “Monolith” illustrated Keating’s desire to test her artistic ability and flex her creative muscles. On record, the song is impressive, opening with a warped cello stroke that sounds as if it’s been played backward through the speakers, and in many ways recalls Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates.” This electronic sample is then juxtaposed with robust acoustic cello strokes that build in intensity as Keating descends into the guttural depths of the cello’s range. It’s a testament to her composition skills and a reminder why she’s one of the most sought after contemporary instrumentalists around. But, the fact that she not only translated “Monolith” onstage beautifully, but actually added to the song by including various arpeggios, changed time signatures and other auxiliary electronica sounds to the live performance further reveals the true scope of her talent.
The final three songs of the main set were especially potent. “Escape Artist” is a deliciously dark piece, with an incessant marching beat that breaks open into these spacious vistas of contemplation and limitlessness. The oscillation between the march and the unbounded legato moments provide an unease that builds suspense and melodrama. “Lost” displays a lot of the classical influence in Keating’s work. Its escalation of energy underscored by the quick, staccato bassline (of sorts) is infectious, intensifying the anticipation for the song’s resolution as the energy mounts and deepens the restlessness of the piece. She ended with “Optimist,” which she claims as one of her favorite works. It was a fitting end to the evening, as it is one of the most pop-friendly of her compositions, but without any of the saccharine or shallowness that such a label may convey. It is upbeat, heartening and joyous, though certainly with streaks of melancholy and sadness.
Keating returned for an encore set of covers-- both quite well-known works, but from wildly different time periods. The Second Movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony has a delightfully Russian feel to it, with its downward chromatic scales. It’s part funeral dirge, part dreamlike sequence, part militaristically sobering. Keating’s interpretion, though, showcases her trademark loop/sample sequence to interweave moments of the movement together, and the resulting work is utterly compelling. Her read on Muse’s “Time is Running Out” did not seem as inspired or fully formed, but the intensity and climax of the piece reminded the audience of “Escape Artist” and “Lost.”
After ninety minutes of playing, Zoe thanked the audience, with her unwavering modesty and kindness, for continuing to support her efforts as an audience, and mentioned how lovely it was to play in her old hometown. She departed the stage graciously and without pretense, exactly as she appeared. The difference, however, was the transformative event in between entrance and exit. Keating’s music is passionate, captivating and riveting, keeping the listener on the edge of their seat during each song. Because of her integration of technology, the possibilities for each work seem infinite, and the chance to experience just some of those results onstage is nothing short of thrilling.
Zoe Keating will continue her tour supporting her recent album Into the Trees (2010) throughout the spring. Her next Bay Area show is with Kaki King at Yoshi’s San Francisco on March 4, 2011. For more information, please visit www.zoekeating.com or follow her on Twitter: @zoecello
Sun Will Set
Beethoven’s 7th Symphony (2nd Movement)
Time is Running Out (Muse cover)