Sunday, April 10, 2011

16 Cellos Are Better Than 1

I have delved into the world of sampling.
Now, in my case, the word “delve” is being used in the barest version of its definition. I recently was given a banjo from my friend, and, not having any idea how to play it in its stereotypical, high-speed finger-picking style, I settled for experimenting with original motifs and guitar-like strumming. I wasn’t getting too much satisfaction from playing the banjo like every other folk-based instrument I have played (ukulele, guitar, a bit of mandolin). But it wasn’t Sufjan Stevens or John Hartford that inspired me to pick up the banjo with a different attitude—but a cello. Rather, 16 cellos.

I started listening to Zoë Keating a few months ago, and ever since it’s been difficult to pin a genre to her one-of-a-kind music. She is listed on the internet as an avant garde cellist, on my IPod as “Dance & DJ,” and on the charts as classical. Classifying her type of music is almost impossible, because it contains that homemade feel that isn’t easily found these days. What Zoe Keating does is this: she layers tracks of her original cello melodies (sometimes around 20) on top of each other to create strong and creative pieces. This concept of classical sampling is nothing new (Ingram Marshall’s “September Canons” are gorgeous), but Keating does it in a way that appeals to anyone and captures the essence of one of the most beloved instruments. Though she uses technology profusely in all of her music, the listener cannot detect an ounce of it because she keeps the cello’s voice organic and strives for an almost chamber music sound.

Zoe Keating was born in Ontario, Canada and began playing the cello at age eight. In an Intel “Visual Life” mini-documentary, Keating says, “It never occurred to me that I could stop playing the cello, and I just loved it immediately. We moved around a lot and I think playing the cello was the one thing that was always the same.” She was classically trained until she went to Sarah Lawrence College, and played cello in/with a number of groups including Raspuntina. Pomplamoose, Halou, and Amanda Palmer. Her 2005 debut album, One Cello x 16: Natoma, heavily includes one of her most used styles, a sort of warrior inspired yet delicate feeling, but also includes tracks like “Fern” and “Frozen Angels,” more lament-like pieces. The piece “Tetrishead” is the epitome of Keating’s base style, beginning with exaggerated spiccato on an ascending D-E-F-G base line. Listening to this track, one thinks “Why has no one thought of this?” and in some ways, people have, but not like Keating has. On this album, her tone is incredibly organic and woody and sounds like it could have been emitted form a musical-making forest and simply recorded; or, more accurately, the listener isn’t even connected to headphones or speakers, but is in the forest that Keating has created. She is able to walk the line of technology saturation and technology deprivation.

Her second album, Into the Trees, came out in 2010 and is just as organic as the first, but seems almost more complex and intricate—while her first album was the combat fighter, up-front and gritty, her second is the sniper, with a more broad view and a keener sense of what is going on. It uses more techniques and seems to have a better sense of structure in each piece. The piece “Optimist” is light and almost playful, but surreptitious like a smiling, silent wise man. “The Path” is similar in its foundation to pieces like “Tetrishead,” but uses high glissandos and variations on her motifs that are new and beneficial. “The Last Bird” is subtly frightening and tragic, “Hello Night” is jam-packed with orchestral sounding swells, and “Seven League Boots” sounds unmistakably Asian with light-footed pizzicato pared with the pitched percussion she creates. Honestly, it is incredibly difficult to center on one or two pieces to describe, because they all have their own distinct personality that would fill pages on their own.
Oh, right! The banjo. I’ve been experimenting with Keating-like layering with software that I’m still getting used to (Cakewalk Sonar LE)—despite the thousands of buttons and options, I’ve been able to get by with solely using the “record,” “play,” “add new track,” and "enable loop" buttons. So far, after listening to Keating, the two tracks I’ve created are quite bare-bones, but I have to convince myself that Keating-like work is impossible as a starting point.
To listen to my first track, click here.
And here is my second (a bit more creepily relaxed than the first).
Also, awesomely, Steve Layton, the NiwoSound composer and editor of the blog Sequenza 21, took the last harmonica/banjo phrase of the second track, slowed it down, stretched it out, and layered it with “an ambient track” from Californian Paul Muller, who, along with Layton and many others, is an ImprovFriday composer. It sounds like a whale in the best way possible, and here is that track. Thanks, Steve! And thanks Zoë

Again, here is the Visual Life mini-documentary on Keating:

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