Monday, July 26, 2010

“Into the Trees”

Happy Monday all!  & it’s another musical Monday here on Robert Frost’s Banjo, tho I am taking the week off from the Monday Morning Blues—I like to mix things up just a bit!  & in that spirit, I’m presenting you with some music you may not know but I think you’ll find intriguing.  That’s the music of cellist Zoë Keating, whose second album Into the Trees was released in June.

It’s a wonderful album, simply put—a series of 11 soundscapes with richly layered sound, gorgeous melodies & harmonies & shifting rhythms—& such rich layering is possible because Ms Keating has constructed multiple tracks, so that she becomes a one-woman cello orchestra.  As a studio production, this would be impressive in itself—however, Zoë Keating is able to reproduce these performances live by simultaneously playing two instruments: her cello & a MacBook Pro.  In the second video below, Ms Keating explains her looping technology in an interview with Wired.  Suffice it to say that Zoë Keating’s compositions are all of a piece, from the melodic lines to the percussive effects.

The compositions themselves are the kind of music that seems at once familiar & completely fresh—the music one might hear in a dream—you believe you know it, & yet in the light of day, you realize you’ve never heard anything quite exactly like it, it seems, too, both ancient & modern.  This is “classical” music, for all its indebtedness to more contemporary sounds—but classical music that could be comfortable in any number of surroundings—from concert hall to dance club.  

The music is also narrative in the best sense of the word—it moves us to different points on an emotional spectrum while all the time leaving space for our own; they allow for stories without insisting on them.  Another way of saying this is that Ms Keating’s music is like the river that’s changed each time you step into it.  It shouldn’t be surprising, given this characteristic, that Zoë Keating has also composed several film soundtracks as well as ballets.

Listening to music that’s built on a looping foundation, like Zoë Keating’s or that of guitarist Matt Stevens, puts me in mind of one of my favorite jazz artists, Rahsaan Roland Kirk.  It’s not that the music itself—the melodies, harmonies & rhythms
are similar, but that Kirk, like these performers, was literally a one-man orchestra.  Because of his mastery of circular breathing, he could play three wind instruments simultaneously.  Some dismissed this as gimmickry, but to me, Kirk was the proptype one-person orchestra—different than a one-man-band in that the overall effect becomes symphonic—tones melded together in a harmonious whole, yet distinct in themselves—tones that create a complex aural vision.

Ms. Keating’s album (as well as her first album, One Cello x 16: Natoma) are available from her website, both as an actual cd & as digital downloads; her music is also available on iTunes.  Hope you enjoy “Escape Artist” (the first video below) & stick around to listen to Ms Keating’s interview with Wired (also set to her music!)


  1. Wow! I love her unique sound. You're right, it sounds both ancient and modern. Thanks for the introduction, John. I'm going to add her to my collection!

  2. She is pretty amazing. I am defintely going to have to pick her up.

    If you like her, you may like Sxip Shirey. He is an experimental musician that creates instruments out of found objects (bike bells, ball bearings in glass bowls, various harmonicas, etc.) and then he dubs the sounds together to create music. I saw him live with Amanda Palmer and he is fantastic. His new CD, Sonic New York, is very good.

  3. Hi Willow & Jessica

    Willow: That's great--please to be able to introduce you.

    Jessica: I'll check out Sxip Shirey for sure--what a moniker! Something I turned up in researching this post is that Zoe Keating played with Amanda Palmer on the "Who Killed Amanda Palmer" tour. If you're interested, Ms Keating is @zoecello on Twitter.

  4. "The fusion of music & information architecture"... that's a powerful phrase. I really like the music; however, I think it would be disconcerting to see her perform but it is a joy to listen... and yes the sound is both ancient (almost Celtic) & modern. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. Hi Lizzy: Yes, that phrase sent me looking for a definition of information architecture! Funny, at one thime I thought about going into library science. My sense is that the MacBook is probably pretty unobtrusive in performances--I'd definitely go, tho I fear southwestern Idaho may not be on her itinerary!

  6. Great review. I loved listening & watching the clips. As someone who used to play violin in an orchestra, I can appreciate the haunting beauty of the sounds of a cello. :-)

  7. I'm always a sucker for cello music; I thinks it's the musical instrument closest to the human voice.

    Of course, I've been listening to this approach to music for a long time; Brian Eno and Robert Fripp were doing this 40 years ago with tape delays and delay loops, and graduating to digital delay when it became available. Thomas Dolby's been doing his one man band thing since the '80s, and nowadays most of his work is done on a Mac laptop connected to various keyboards on the stage.

    But cello-specific, this reminds me of Ethan Winer. I did a post on him last September, and I keep going back to watch his "A Cello Rondo" since he first issued it online as a Quicktime .mov file in 2005.His website is pretty cool, too!

    Computers offer some pretty amazing avenues for expression!

  8. A very interesting post, John. I followed the link it includes to your earlier (November 2008) post on Rahsaan Roland Kirk and was so well rewarded for the visit. The description of Rahsaan is great on all counts and brought precious memories to me. Like you, I also saw him twice in the 1970s. Once at Carnegie Hall and the second time at the Village Vanguard. The second concert came after the stroke that paralyzed half of his body. He actually rigged his saxaphone with a series of levers and wires so that he could still play all notes.

    Rahsaan was truly a total impact performer and forever changed my appreciation of the possibilities of jazz, all music and even art in general as a vehicle for spiritual quest and expressions. Sadly, he was not very well known outside the jazz world, but will always stand as a giant there nonetheless. Your earlier post is a fine, fine intro.

    Since I used to do volunteer work at the WBGO radio station win Newark where his wonderful wife Dorthaan Kirk worked, I got to know her a bit. At one point we even discussed the idea of doing a biography of Rahsaan, in part based on the radio tapes he had made. Although I did a fair amount of research toward that end, I eventually did not follow up on that project, but still to this day cherish having seen him and been touched (more like bowled over) by his music and life's story.

    I enthusiastically urge everyone who reads this comment to check out your link to the beautiful post on Rahsaan.

    Bravo, John, bravo ... and bright moments!

  9. Hi Raquelle & Roy

    Raquelle: Yes, the cello is so great, & what she does with it is amazing!

    Roy: Obviously very right on to bring up Fripp & Eno--who are more in a line with Keating & Stevens than Kirk in terms of the music. I know from writing about Matt stevens that he specifically names those two as influences. I guess Kirk comes to mind becauase his music is really "orchestral," but that's also because I'm more familiar withhis music too. Funny about the cello--I wonder how many guitar players love the cello sound. It's one instrument that I'd truly love to play.

  10. Hi Lorenzo: Wow, thanks. Kirk's music is, as you say, inspiring on multiple levels & I'm glad you liked what I had to say about him. If I had to pick one song as an all-time favorite--an impossible task--it probably would be "Bright Moments."

  11. Another hit, John. I'm currently exploring Garageband as a complete 'newbie', but I have friend who uses Logic. Amazing what you do.

  12. Hi Martin: A lot of folks I know use Garageband with great success. Eberle & I use a dedicated 16 track digital workstation--when I do any editing on the computer, I use CoolEdit 2000--a really old but very good program--in fact, folks tell me that whenever I finally upgrade from Windows XP, CoolEdit will no longer work. Glad you liked Ms Keating's music1

  13. Hi commenters: In case anyone is trying to find Sxip Shirey, it appears his website account has been suspended. However, you can give his music a listen here on MySpace or check out his Facebook page. His album is available here on Bandcamp.

  14. Love it! We're big fans of soundtrack music in this house and I think this is definitely someone whose music I'd like to have.
    She's Canadian-born, I see.
    She seems to hail from the Nigel Kennedy school of personal style.


  15. Hi Kat: That's right--Ms Keating is Canadian by birth. She now lives in the SF Bay Area. I think her music is fantastic--so does Eberle. I see what you mean about Nigel Kennedy!


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