Into the Odd – Cellos, Live Looping and Zoe Keating

Zoe Keating | Into The Trees
Zoe Keating | July, 2010

After a few forays into the strange ocean that is Pop music; filled with emotional obscurities, oblique lyrics that mean something and other assorted toothy and man-eating fishies, your fearless purveyor of all things odd and experimental has decided to return to his home waters with Zoe Keating and her 2010 release Into The Trees.

Ms. Keating is a resident of the Bay Area, based in Sonoma, who specializes in real-time composition and perfomance, bravely facing her audience with nothing to protect her apart from an acoustic cello and a computer based DSP system.

Before diving into Ms. Keating’s contributions to the field, I feel a few explanatory words on live looping may be in order for the unitiated.

Live looping is a process by which a performer plays against him or herself, capturing a performace, or select parts of it, as they play and then improvising or layering compositional elements over the top of the recorded segments in real-time. It is a fascinately and famously difficult process: simply due to the fact that the process is not only live but creates a ‘memory’ of the performance within itself any error or sonic anomaly on the part of the performer will be amplified and repeated an infinite number of times within the performance itsef. The potential for a sonic train wreck is of imminent probability, and honestly, part of the fun of watching a live looped performance is knowing that at some point something is invariably going to go horribly, horribly wrong. It takes a player and performer of great skill to pull the trick off without the whole thing exploding in their hands.

First used in a live performance/recording by Terry Riley in his composition Poppy No Good and the Phantom Band, live looping originally consisted of running two open faced tape recorders in tandem with each other, the second recorder playing the recording made by first and then feeding it back into the first recorder itself, generally after being mangled a bit by other electronic devices; creating a cascade of never ending echoes that fade into themselves as the tape saturates.

Perfected by Brian Eno, the technique has been embraced for the creation of ambient soundscapes by Eno himself, by experimental guitarists like Robert Fripp, or by those such as Carlos Zingaro on his release Cage of Sand wishing to embrace the sonic mayhem intristic to the process and create solid masses of discordant noise that push at the edge of aural tolerance.

With the advent of real-time DSP on portable computers, the ability to selectively determine what is to be repeated from a perfomance became a reality. In earlier, analog based systems, the tape just dumbly repeats anything played. With a digital system, the performer can play a phrase, begin looping just that phrase and continue adding more parts… creating more and more loops as they go.

Right, onto Ms. Keating then. What makes Ms. Keating’s work with these systems special is two things: First, she neither concedes to fall into an ambient wash nor does she take the easy road and just make an unholy drone/noise with her instruments. Secondly, her work is highly composed. Listening to Into the Trees one doesn’t ever have the horrible realization that often happens mid-way through many a looped composition that ‘I am sitting here listening to a delay unit’. All of Ms. Keatings sound like a group of Cellists playing a pre-written piece in ensemble. There is no noodling over a pedal point here, and although there is a fair amount of extended technique; tapping for cajon syle percussion or whistling into the body of the cello, these only serve to extract a more varied sonic pallete from the instrument itself rather than functioning as a distracting ‘how clever am I’ diversion from the composition as is common in so much academic avant-garde.

The only instruments used are the DSP system, which being an electronic musician myself I count as an instrument in it’s own right, and acoustic Cello. There are minimal electronic effects applied to sound of the cello, and nothing is granulated, filtered, resynthesized or run through any number of FSU effects so common in all forms of experimental these days. True to the nature of the cello itself, the mood of the album is melancholy, and although there are many quickly played passages, Ms. Keating uses mainly minor keys and more square sounding, widely spaced modes, giving the whole of the recording an introspective and somewhat sultry feel. This is without a question listening music of a kinship more to Shostakovich or Dvorak rather than a perky Mozart concerto or a beatific Eno composition.

This realease comes highly recommended. This is the first piece I have purchased of Ms. Keating’s, but I will definitely be going back for her first album 1 Cello X 16 and keeping a close eye on the work she is doing in the future.

Ms. Keating’s compositions can be purchased or downloaded here or If you are, like me, a person who does not use I-Tunes, her work can also be accessed here.

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Author | Mark Turner

Mark Turner is a musician, working primarily with found sound, electronics and various 'real' instruments. He is a self-proclaimed addict of all kinds of odd and outre music, as well as being somewhat of a pop music junkie. He lives with his partner in the San Francisco Bay Area, and owns more contact microphones than any one man should.

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