An orchestra of one

Zo%uFFFD Keating and her cyborg cello

Brian Palmer | Boulder Weekly

Zoë Keating is not your typical cellist. Instead of performing with an orchestra, she marries her cello to a variety of loopers, pedals and laptops to create a layered cello experience which makes her a one-woman orchestra. But as much as she relishes her ongoing creative endeavor, she sometimes has a love-hate relationship with it.

“I’m always fighting the technology because I’m always pushing the envelope on it,” Keating says. “I use a piece of software called Ableton Live, and about four years ago, somebody at that company told me I was the only one using the software the way I was using it. I thought that was the greatest compliment. That’s often where I find myself, using a device in a way the designer never intended, so one of the results of that is I’m continually frustrated.”

But whatever frustration Keating has, it is easily overwhelmed by her need to keep coming up with new musical ideas. Combining the grace and skill of Yo-Yo Ma with an insatiable desire to make technology do what she wants it to do in the same way that renowned technologist, composer and electronic artist BT does, Keating’s creations sound like the work of an entire string section rather than just one person.

Her most recent selfreleased solo effort, 2010’s Into the Trees — which spent 14 weeks on Billboard’s Classical chart upon its release — is a wholly visceral experience. “The Path” main-SPeCIal offer: $5 uplift Tickets tains a steady pace despite the flood-distressed at the dips and rises in Keating’s cello, effectively mimicking the proverbial path one’s life takes, while “The Optimist” uses an otherworldly ambient intro and the eventual introduction of Keating’s playful cello to suggest the wide-eyed wonder of someone who constantly hopes for the best. In addition to the sonic beauty of these and other tracks on the record, what makes these wordless creations even more interesting to Keating is how varied people’s reactions to them are.

“I’m a very shy person, so when I first started performing, that held me up because I felt self-conscious about being so revealing on stage,” Keating says. “[I remember] playing this one song that was really emotional, and I thought the meaning of it was written all over my sleeve, and when someone told me afterward what they thought it meant to them, it was totally unrelated! I kept experiencing this over and over again.”

Coming to the realization that she could bare her soul to the audience and still have it translate to them in a completely different way was liberating for Keating.

“Because there are no words in these songs, people can take them and have them mean whatever they need them to mean in that moment,” Keating says. “So I feel like now I’m free to go up there and experience it. I can feel those things, and it’s still private, so I’m not embarrassed about it.”

In addition to her own solo work, Keating has contributed work to film scores, received commissions to write music for dance companies, worked as a cellist and arranger with artists like Imogen Heap and DJ Shadow, and been invited to become a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum — an invitation which came from Queen Rania of Jordan. Not a bad track record for someone who once worked in the tech sector. But despite the success she has achieved in the past decade, she has taken little time to dwell on any of it because she is always pushing on towards something else.

“When I reach a goal, it is already forgotten by the time I get there because I’m already on to the next one,” Keating laughs. “I am trying to create some kind of music that is in my mind. It’s always slightly elusive, always a little ways ahead of me, and it’s hard to see, so each time I push the technology a little further or add something new, it takes me a little closer to that elusive musical dream.”

With any fortune, Keating’s forthcoming album, which she hopes to release this summer, will bring her closer to achieving that dream. But if it doesn’t, her fascination with combining the cello and technology will remain the same.

“I never just decided, ‘I’m going to play the cello with the computer,’” Keating says. “It was more like I was trying to solve a problem of getting more complex music.”