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.



    1. Saw you’d wondered whether I’d abandoned this place. No. Just working a lot, like 12-14 hour days, some weekends, etc. Doesn’t leave much time to write. I’ve got a couple things that will be going up here soon, but I don’t have a definite “when”, just that they’re bubbling up inside and looking to get out. If you’d rather not follow, suit yourself. But I can’t just create time to post stuff out of thin air when, if I am to keep all the projects I have currently on my plate at work on schedule, I’d need to be working 26+ hour days for the next 3 months. Yes, 26. No, not possible unless I find a DeLorean,a flux capacitor, a Mr. Fusion, and don’t mind creating temporal paradoxes daily. But you see what I’m up against here. You can follow me on Twitter @autojim: I throw little 140-character stuff out more regularly than I have time to do proper posts here.


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