March 20, 2011
I have long been an admirer of Zoë Keating’s layered cello performances on CD, so when the opportunity arose to hear her live in Boston, at Berklee’s Café 939, I had to take it. Ms. Keating is unmistakable, even in a darkened room: gaunt and long-limbed, her head surmounted by a Medusa’s tangle of auburn dreadlocks. I have to admit to a slight frisson when she brushed past me in the intimate venue as her supporting act, the Army of Broken Toys, was setting up.
Clad in a mélange of vaudeville and circus vests, tule, and sequins, the Toys played their invigorating brand of steam punk to a standing-room only crowd. Then the human marionettes and cabaret zombies departed, clearing the small stage. Ms. Keating’s discreet attendants swiftly reconfigured it with a platform, single chair, and computer equipment. Yet she entrusted no one else with her instrument. She brought her cello on stage herself, greeting us diffidently, explaining that the Boston winter weather was playing havoc with its delicate tuning.
Ms. Keating’s repartee was unusually self-deprecating for a performer of her caliber. She noted that when she had last played in Boston, the audience had numbered only five. Later, she mentioned that in youth she had suffered from stage fright, perspiring so profusely that she had once lost control of her sweat-slickened bow so that it flew from her hand like a missile far into the audience. She told us that she had then stopped performing, and had turned to computer programming. “With a computer, I could be alone,” she added tellingly. Then she worked out how to combine her computer with her cello, and the desire to do so live led her to perform once more. Now, she continued, the nervousness has largely disappeared, so long as she keeps performing. And perform she did.
Zoë Keating is an accomplished cellist, delicately controlling her considerable range of tone, attack, and vibrato with absolute assurance. She also has sixteen instant recording tracks at her disposal, which she controls with pedals through a laptop. She plays phrases and layers them successively, building complex figures, exploiting every sonic characteristic of her instrument. Of the pieces she played, all but the last were her own compositions. She explained that she develops them in performance so as not to allow them to petrify by adhering strictly to the versions recorded in her “cello cave” in the redwood forest north of San Francisco. To play so self-assuredly while simultaneously layering tracks to produce a one-woman cello orchestra is an astounding feat.
She gave us a succession of mesmerizing works, some from early in her career, others from her recent album, Into the Woods. Her music exhibits an apparent simplicity that belies its complexity. Her sartorial style may be punk cabaret (she sometimes plays with Amanda Palmer), but her musical inspiration is classical, as she herself both acknowledged and demonstrated. She announced that she doesn’t play encores as they make her feel silly, then ended with nothing less than a layered rendition of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. I have never heard anything like it. I was not the only one in the packed audience who left as amazed as I was elated.