Art and Science: Zoe Keating at the House of Blues Houston’s Bronze Peacock Room

What? Since when did I start reviewing concerts? Well, since about now.

So a couple months back, I’m up late poking around on the computer, with my Twitter feed (I’m @autojim, of course) open in one window, and a tweet from singer Marian Call (@mariancall) comes across, that she’s listening to Zoe Keating (@zoecello). A few clicks later, I’m listening to the free streaming audio on Zoe’s website and reading about how she does it: 1 cello, a computer, and as many as 16 sound loops generated by the cello, which has been hot-rodded with a variety of pickups and microphones to get different types of sounds.

Being a music-powered techie, I’m always intrigued by the use of technology in the service of art — particularly in music. Now, there’s what I consider "good" techno music, where the emphasis is on the music and the tech serves the art, and also a fair bit of "bad" techno music, where the music is secondary to the tech.

Zoe’s music is decidedly the former. And because Zoe’s primary instrument is the cello, there’s a warmth and woodiness to the music that defies the technology completely — no carbon-fiber or titanium cellos for Zoe; she uses a custom-made instrument from France with a personality all its own.

A few paid downloads later, I had Zoe’s collection on my iPod. And I noted she was going to be playing here in Houston soon. Tickets procured, I was ready for a show.

This past Thursday, May 12, 2011, Zoe took the stage at the House of Blues Houston’s Bronze Peacock Room.

I knew it would be different from the recordings — there are enough YouTube videos, etc. of Zoe’s live performances to note all the differences — and that’s something I find interesting: that each performance of a piece is just that little bit different than the other performances of the same piece. Yet, because of the nature of looping, there’s an overlaying precision to the timing required — looping, done right, is amazing as layers build upon layers. Looping just that little bit off is a FSM-awful train wreck. On the recordings, of course, one gets to pick and choose from a number of takes and it’s as good as it’s going to get. Live, of course, can be a different story. Hoping for the former, but in any case looking forward to seeing how the layers of sound are built from nothing, we went off to the show.

I’d been to a few shows in the main Music Hall at House of Blues Houston, but this was the first time I’d been in the Bronze Peacock Room. Small stage, big open space, a few comfy chairs around the walls. This would be a very Bohemian show — we probably could have brought a blanket or yoga mat to sit on on the floor — but fortunately for my knees, we got one of the comfy chairs over by the merchandise table.

I don’t have a copy of the playlist, so I’m going from memory (if I get one, I’ll edit the post accordingly). I’m sure the first song was "Tetrishead" from the "One Cello x 16: Natoma" album. And we saw — and heard — the layers be formed, one at a time, overlaid. Zoe’s concentration on the timing was evident — and yet this, too, was in the service of the music, not overpowering it.

Between songs, Zoe talked to the audience — we heard how her trip to Houston had an unexpected snowstorm delay (in mid-May?) in Denver, which apparently resulted in her cello flight case (a case inside a case) getting thoroughly dunked to the point that moisture penetrated all the way to the cello — and she said if the sound was fuzzy, that would be the reason why.

It didn’t sound fuzzy.

The music continued — and as each song had its layers built, I noticed subtle differences in the looped playback versus what went in — was there some trickery going on? Yes — that pitch was very different than what went in! But… it worked. It was supposed to be like that. And while I was listening and enjoying the layers, I also noticed that she wasn’t using the foot pedals to trigger each loop. Was there another trigger, something built in to the cello, maybe? Technical me pushed those questions to the side — the music was in charge, as it should be.

After "The Path" (a song about going from the city to the woods and back and forth again, not entirely sure where you will end) and "Lost" (after all that movement, not entirely sure where you are) from her latest album, "Into the Trees", Zoe talked about how, when she started, she used a lot of hardware looping pedals, but the tech was catching up with what she wanted to do, and now her biggest limiting factor was RAM. Until she got her current computer, she couldn’t play one of her earliest pieces, "Exurgency" (from the "One Cello x 16" EP) live, because she’d run out of memory for all the loops that particular song requires. And then she played it. As good as the recorded version is, the live piece was better — more living, less "best take of each part". Keep in mind, this is over 8 minutes, and I lost count of the number of active layers — okay, truth be told, I lost interest in counting the number of active layers, as that would have detracted from my enjoyment of the performance.

There were some glitches — as Zoe started "Sun Will Set" (from "Natoma"), the computer "helpfully" supplied layers she hadn’t played yet. Zoe stopped and explained: you have to remember to delete the previous performance, otherwise the computer will kick in the last performance of the piece (presumably from sound check). A few clicks of the keyboard, and she restarted the piece. I don’t think it was a detraction from the experience, however. Quite the opposite: it added a human touch to the tech, a reminder that the machines are only as good as the humans who program them.

Another indicator that the music comes first: the cello itself had a say in the proceedings. Zoe checked tuning between songs — and at one point commented that it wasn’t out of tune — she just thought it was! Given the rather dramatic changes in climate the cello had gone through in the previous 24 hours, I’m surprised the tune didn’t shift more as the wood continued to get back to "normal" in a severely over-air-conditioned room, after experiencing whatever cool humidity San Francisco had to offer, two trips to altitude in airplanes, and several hours stuck outside Denver International Airport during a late-season snowstorm (Frontier Airlines has a lot to answer for in terms of how it parked luggage outside during a snowstorm), and then Houston’s heat, humidity, and, mid-afternoon, a major frontal system complete with severe thunderstorms blowing through. I could just imagine the poor cello begging the universe to give it a break and let it settle in!

What also impressed me was Zoe’s concentration — cello, like all bowed instruments, is rather physical to play, and then combine that with the precision timing required by the looping — and the desire to have some fun with the songs themselves during the performance — and you’re looking at a very intense 90 minutes or so for a live performance.

As the show was Zoe’s son Alex’s (aka #cellobaby) first birthday, the crowd sang "Happy Birthday" to him. Despite Zoe’s concerns, he took the singing very well — smiles and laughs — but did NOT want to leave the Mama so she could finish her show. Alex’s dad Jeff (#cellobabydaddy) did scoot him off without incident, and Alex was part of the meet-n-greet afterward.

Zoe performed two cover songs. The first was Muse’s "Time is Running Out", which she said she’d done in San Francisco International Airport as part of a music-to-the-masses series — and people weren’t sure if she was busking, or just stuck there with all her gear and decided to play — and, well, watch the film and see for yourself how people react. I note that later shows at SFO put the performers up on a platform so it was clear they were supposed to be there.

The second cover gave a little technical insight — I’d noticed she was doing some of the loops without hitting any pedals on the MIDI controller, which the setup talk for this song explained: she can set automatic loops at X number of measures/beats/etc. It also gave a bit of insight into something that’s been written about elsewhere, namely how Zoe overcame severe stage fright by busking and playing in groups (as opposed to solo). She wanted to regain the feeling of playing in a group, and noticed that this one piece had a 32-bar pattern, so she could play all the cello parts at once if she set the computer to loop at 32 bars. And then, could we guess the piece? It was the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony in A Minor, which has been used in film scores for Zardoz and recently in The King’s Speech.

The night’s final song was "Optimist", from "Into the Trees", a song Zoe wrote for Alex at "negative 2 months of age", inspired by the hope she has for her son as he grows into the world. A magnificent performance of a beautiful song, which had the audience on its feet at the conclusion.

Zoe stuck around for a good hour after the show talking to fans, signing autographs (including a young fan’s rosin block for her bow!), and making sure to spend a little extra time with the youngsters who had just seen where classical music can go if you take that left turn at Albuquerque (or, in Zoe’s case, Natoma Street in San Francisco), and the one or two adults who went unabashedly fanboy/fangirl on getting to meet her.

Overall, a show I thoroughly enjoyed, and would recommend to any of my friends and readers with a taste for the mixing of traditional and technology. Zoe’s current tour dates are available on her website. As I write this, she should be taking the stage in Austin, Texas, right about now.

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It’s Mother’s Day. Here’s a story of two moms.

There’s a lot of catching up I need to do, but first, because it’s Mother’s Day here in the US, is a bit of story about the two wonderful women I’ve gotten to call Mom. And a few other wonderful women who also played part-time or emergency-backup mom. This came about because Stephen "Stepto" Toulouse wrote a FANTASTIC post on his blog about his mom, and issued a challenge to write one of our own.

Back in 1968, a lady named Margaret Jane Crider (nee McCartney) gave birth to me in Los Angeles, California. I don’t recall any of that year in LA — around the time of my 1st birthday, Dad was transferred to Detroit and we moved. I have a few memories of those early years in the Detroit area, particularly going to the park with her, riding in the ’65 Mustang, getting soft pretzels at Wonderland Mall in Livonia near our home, some friends. Three years and a month after I came along, my brother David joined the party. Unknown to me at the time, Mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer before they learned she was pregnant with David. David, thankfully, came along healthy and hale. But about a year later — and I do remember this — the cancer came back with a vengeance as a tumor in Mom’s brain stem. They treated it as best they could, but ultimately, Dad took a transfer to allow us to move back to Tulsa, the family home base.

Mom’s situation was that the tumor trapped her mind in a body that increasingly wouldn’t cooperate. We had a year or two in Tulsa, during which I started kindergarten, with her at home, but with Dad having to be on the road for work, and with Mom needing more and more care, she ultimately had to move to a nearby nursing home.

This was weird: she wasn’t OLD, and that nursing home was full of OLD PEOPLE. At first, we went to see her every night. And gradually, the frequency of the visits decreased. And it seemed like, to elementary-school-age me, that the less we saw her, the worse she got. It wasn’t until some years later I learned that the opposite was true: as her condition deteriorated, she didn’t want us to see her that way. It was her wish, but 6-8-year-old me didn’t see it that way.

I got in trouble a couple times for riding my bike over to the nursing home after school instead of going home. I was in 3rd grade, mind you, all of 8 years old, and this involved traveling along and crossing a major north-south artery in Tulsa, as well as cresting the tallest hill in SE Tulsa, without sidewalks or much of any support. I didn’t care: I had to see my mom, because if I saw her, she’d get better. I knew it would be that way. Sometimes, she was completely out of it. I didn’t care. I was there, and I knew she knew I was there. One time, I found her in her wheelchair down the hall, trying to get back to her room, but going the wrong way. I pushed her back. I don’t know if she was ashamed or embarrassed to be caught lost like that, but I want to think she was proud of me for finding her. Each time, Dad would find me there, with Mom, not at my friend’s house like I said I was going to do. He’d put my bike in the trunk of the big LTD and take me home.

I got in trouble with Dad, but it was for the danger of the main street, not because I went to see Mom. I think, even now, that he knew *why* I did it.

This is where I fill in some info I didn’t learn until I was well into my teen years, from my maternal grandfather. Mom knew that tumor was a death sentence. And she told Dad that when she was gone, he needed to find a good woman and marry her, because he needed a wife and her boys needed a mother to look after them. Dad, naturally, wouldn’t hear of it: he had a wife, and she was it. So Mom started working with the family, and friends from church, and I think it’s safe to say she "encouraged" the meeting of Dad and Barbara, the wonderful lady I also call Mom.

In September 1977, just barely into 4th grade for me, and 1st grade for David, Mom passed away. I was quite a bit lost, and even then I felt for David, who never really had the chance to spend time with Mom when she was healthy and active. One of the interesting things about that is I tend to hang a lot with Mom’s side of the extended family and David has always been closer to Dad’s side of the family. Part of this is the relative ages of cousins on each side (David and I are the youngest on Mom’s side, just as she was the youngest of 4, while Dad is the oldest of 2), I’m sure, but also has something to do with our personalities and interests. I do cars. Always have. That’s from Mom’s side of the family (though she herself wasn’t terribly keen on it). David, not really. Ever. Though based on how David’s son is, he was certainly a carrier of the Car Guy genetics.

A lot of what went on in 4th grade is a bit of a blur. One of my best friends, Jeff Ball, had moved away from Tulsa to Colorado during the summer between 3rd and 4th grade. Jeff’s mom, Lola, was one of the Emergency Backup Moms. Luckily for me, my other best friends, Brent Estes and Steve Walton, were still there, as was Brent’s mom, Brenda, another Emergency Backup Mom, and Steve’s dad and stepmom (Steve’s parents had gone to high school with my parents — another level of connection).

But we were increasingly spending time with Barbara and her daughter Debbie. And sure enough, in April of 1978, Dad and Barbara were married, and I went from being the oldest child to being the middle child. Not a bad situation: now I had someone older to learn from (particularly helpful in the "avoiding getting in trouble" categories). And while neither Dad nor Barbara required it, both David and I started calling Barbara "Mom" pretty much from the beginning.

She earned it. Oh, yeah, she earned it. One of the first things that happened was she greatly improved our "cool" factor by nixing the usual-to-that-point school clothes of Sears Toughskins jeans — with iron-on knee reinforcements on the inside from the beginning — and made sure we had more fashionable choices, including shoes that didn’t have rubber toe caps (ala Chuck Taylors. They’re cool again now, but in 1978, not so much…). I pushed her. David pushed her. But she was consistent — we couldn’t get away with anything with her that would couldn’t get away with with Dad.

And we got to meet her family — the "third side" of the family. Her clan, the Garretts, are legion, and so we discovered a whole new group of cousins. And a whole new set of adventures there. It was the "third side" of the family that let me drive full-size tractors well before I was of legal driving age. That side had a private airplane brokerage. That side owned the World of Outlaws sprint car team for a while. That side had the big huge Christmas dinners with the giant yeast rolls and the barn/garage with the ’50 Ford in it. That side had the FBI agent uncle. So many things, so many people I wouldn’t have done or met otherwise.

I have no doubts that I, in particular, made it tough on her. I don’t think it was ever on purpose, or even conscious, but there was always this little comparison going on: she wasn’t my mom. And yet I never had any doubt of her love for me and for David, of her commitment to us as an entire family. Eventually, I made sure she knew how much I appreciated and loved her. It just took a while, I’m afraid. Not proud of that, but I hope I’ve made up for it since.

One incident from my college days jumps to mind: I went to school at U of Tulsa, just across town, and usually brought my laundry home on the weekends. Late in spring semester, sophomore year, Dad got transferred to Atlanta, and I came home one day to find Mom laying into David about something or other. I walked in the front door, laundry basket in hand, and she turned on me, finger pointing, and said, "AND YOU…" I dropped my laundry basket, and said something along the lines of "At least let me be home long enough to screw up before you yell at me." A brief silence. Then laughter.

If ever she’s doubted that I accepted her, I hope I set that to rest a long time ago. But I did. She picked up the baton and finished the job of raising David and me, children not of her, but her children all the same. And I love her as my mother.

While Mom/Barbara was (and is) present, I’ve never lost the memory, or indeed the influence, of Mom/Margaret. For a while, I was sure I’d just be a mechanic at the family auto repair shop. Oh, no, said Grandpa, you’re too smart to be "just a mechanic. You’ll be designing the stuff we just fix." That was Mom: she didn’t want her boys (including Dad) to work in that shop. It was a huge time sink. My grandparents and uncles often didn’t pay themselves in order to pay the guys & the bills. And Mom really, really hated that and didn’t want anything to do with it.

Well, after college and 20+ years as an engineer, I get to play with cars for fun. I’m pretty happy with how my life has turned out. A big reason for that are my Moms. Margaret. Barbara. I’d be extremely remiss if I left out my aunts, particularly Karen and Nancy. And I can’t ever not mention my grandmothers, Mary Jane and Mary. The Emergency Backup Moms, Lola and Brenda. All remarkable, amazing women who helped make me who I am now.

To my Moms, all of them, I salute you and I thank you. I hope I’ve made you proud of me. I know I’ve tried.