Zoe Keating: Avant Cellist | The Avant Cellist Layers a Host of Intriguing Sounds

Zoe Keating’s densely layered cello music attracts a very devoted fan base.

The talented West Coast cellist Zoë Keating does things with her instrument that Yo Yo Ma or Pablo Casals would never dare. She attaches microphones to the inside and outside of the wooden body and attaches them to a computer that sits next to her. Then she uses foot pedals to record, playback, and add effects to the sound. She freely improvises and creates a sort of classical jazz.

“I call it avant-cello,” Keating said over the telephone from her northern California home. She lives and built her recording studio in the middle of a redwood forest on a hill that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. The scenery often finds its way into her music. “Computers can do so much, but the cello is at the heart of the creation,” she said.

“My music is the way I order the world and is heavily influenced by my everyday experience. Living among trees that are over 100 feet high and hearing the sounds of the woods are intimately connected to what I play,” she said. “Before I moved here from San Francisco five years ago, my music was much more urban oriented.”

Keating began on the cello when she was 8 years old and living in the United Kingdom. “I didn’t even know what one was, but my teacher asked me if I would like to play the cello, and I said ‘yes.’ One thing led to another as the school gave me a cello, I started taking lessons, and I just took to it. However, I think the only reason she asked me was because I was tall for my age.” She said that if she were shorter she may have been directed to a violin or piano like other classmates.

At the age of 10, Keating gave her first public performance and learned the classical repertoire. However, she developed  terrible stage fright in her teens and gave up playing in public. She went to college at Sarah Lawrence and learned about computers and other things. She also started playing cello with rock bands. Keating has recorded and performed with acts as different as Amanda Palmer, Tears for Fears, DJ Shadow, John Vanderslice, Rasputina, Imogen Heap, and Paolo Nutini. She will perform solo at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City on Monday, February 13, at 8:00 p.m.

“I love listening to classical music, but there was something about playing it that scared me. I felt constrained because everything had to be played a particular way and could not be changed. If you don’t play it the way it has always been done, you were playing it wrong. There was no room for error. Stage fright literally crippled me. I couldn’t even walk on the stage.

“When I started playing non-classical music, I was allowed to make mistakes. In fact, there really are no mistakes in improv, just opportunities. I was able to use my classical training to play other kinds of music and have the freedom to express myself,” Keating explained. “The problem with playing classical music is that you often feel like you are speaking in someone else’s voice.”

Keating called what she does “live sampling.” She begins with a sort of preconceived idea of where she wants the music to go and starts to perform. She uses her hands to play the cello and her feet to play the effects pedals and control the computer. (“I have very pointy shoes,” Keating remarked.) She uses simple loops and builds the sound. While she only uses one cello, there are times when she uses the sound of 24 cellos or more atop themselves in concert: she’s been called a one-woman orchestra for that reason. She also does things like play percussion by tapping the body of her instrument, or whistling inside the wooden box so that  strange and unusual sounds come out.

“Those noises might be the woodpecker or other birds that have integrated themselves into my music just by living where I live,” Keating said. Her latest album, Into the Trees, contains many such resonances. The album has also been one of the top tunes on the iTunes classical and electronic music charts and has spent 49 weeks on the Billboard classical charts, peaking at number 7.

While the term “avant-cello” gives one the impression of loud and abrasive music, Keating’s music is very much the opposite. There is always something going on, changing and shifting, as she performs.

The music can be soothing, but with too many things happening to be considered New Age or easy listening. There are electronic effects, but the soundscapes lack the dance beats and repetition of electronica. One can recognize Keating’s classical techniques, but they seem deconstructed. She will sometimes start with a vibrato and a flourish, and then simplify even as she adds more instrumentation.

Although Keating left the classical world, she has recently been drawn back in—this time as a composer. “I’ve recently been commissioned by the Low End String Quartet to write a piece for bass, guitar, viola, and cello, and San Francisco’s Magic Magic Orchestra wants me to pen one for seven instruments, with me being one of the seven players,” she explained.

“There’s something very rewarding about it that I find hard to explain. It’s like coming back full circle,” she said. Except Keating has learned that sometimes mistakes can be the most interesting part of a performance. “I construct my pieces like a house of cards and sometimes things come crashing down. That can be the most fun of the night.”