Exponential: The Music of Zoë Keating

Exponential: The Music of Zoë Keating

When Zoë Keating takes the stage, her charismatic presence—a perfect balance of focused performer and welcoming MC—exerts a magnetic attraction. She is a composer who, with a chair, her cello, a bit of software, and some amplification, conjures an entire orchestra of sound out of the timbres of this one instrument.

Written By

Molly Sheridan

The Center Stage auditorium at the Reston Community Center
Reston, Virginia
April 14, 2012—6 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Homepage photograph by Jeffrey Rusch


When Zoë Keating takes the stage, her charismatic presence—a perfect balance of focused performer and welcoming MC—exerts a magnetic attraction. If you have heard Keating’s music on recordings or encountered it in TV commercials, you are already familiar with the immersive worlds she conjures with her cello, using digital technology to build up an entire orchestra of sound out of the timbres of this one instrument. In live performance, however, her stage persona (which I strongly suspect is not all that different from her real-life self) adds a beautiful gloss to the work she is presenting. Anecdotes about the genesis of the music, life as a touring musician, her love of pancakes, pull the audience into the experience, a background on which Keating then lays out her compositions with a serious intensity. Hearing Zoë Keating’s infectious laugh is in no way essential to appreciating the powerful music she creates, but it is perhaps crucial to best appreciating the artist who makes it.

This combination of compositional prowess and generous personal spirit may also be integral to understanding the successful DIY career she has built, which includes a largely self-managed touring career (she only began working with a booking agent a year ago), the sale of more than 45,000 copies of her self-released albums, and the astounding (as of this writing) 1,268,864 member community of followers she has attracted on Twitter (she’s on Twitter’s “Suggested User” list). Writers often refer to her as a one-woman orchestra, an avant cellist. It might also be effective to think of her as a composer who, with a chair, a cello, a bit of software, and some amplification, hopes you’ll join her inside the evocative aural spaces she constructs. To help you feel welcome there, she’s not afraid to introduce herself first.

As a result of her methods and her success, a lot of people want to speak with Keating about the business of making music, and she has been incredibly transparent about this on both her own blog and in industry conference sessions. However, with so much reporting already out there devoted to such topics, we chose to focus here on the music-creating side of this equation, digging into the “whys” and “hows” of her private work in the studio and her public stage performances.


Molly Sheridan: When I speak with classically trained musicians, it often seems that the longer they study and the deeper they get into the repertoire, the more uncomfortable they become with the idea of making their own music. When you decided to make the transition away from being the classical cellist you had been trained to be, how did making your own music fold into that?  Was composition something that was already part of your life?

Zoë Keating: One thing that happened to me, and I think it’s true for some other people who are trained classically, is that there’s this long period where you have to give yourself permission to play your own music.  It doesn’t seem valid somehow; it doesn’t seem like real music.  It’s like, “Well, I’m just playing.  I’m making up this stuff.”  And I had a really long period of that, of feeling like there were all these different buckets.  There was the music that I would play that was classical—the stuff that I was learning, or that I was being judged on, or graded for. Then there was music that I listened to, which was mostly popular music, that I would sometimes try and work out on the cello.  And then there was the music that I would improvise or that was just my own.  And they were all very separate.

It was when I was in college and right after for a couple years where I started feeling like making my own music was maybe actually a thing.  It wasn’t just this way to let off steam. Initially, you know, I had this terrible stage fright, and I found that I could calm myself down by just playing open strings.  So I would sit at the cello and I’d close my eyes and just play open strings until my hands stopped shaking. I would play patterns, because patterns were this great way to sort of cancel out all the chatter in my brain—it’s almost like a meditation.

My composition really came out of that. I realized that the thing I was doing didn’t have to just be this way to calm myself down so that I could play this other music.  It could actually be this thing I could develop. Eventually that happened.  But it wasn’t like one day I woke up and said, “Egads!  I’m a composer.” I think I didn’t even start calling myself a composer until a few years ago.

MS: Really? What shifted that for you?

ZK: It was actually a reaction to being described as a cellist. When I was trying to describe myself, I realized I wasn’t just a cellist, I was also a composer. I think there’s this idea that composers write music down, and I think I thought, well, I don’t write it down, so I’m not really a composer.

MS: Well, you weren’t writing it down as a score, perhaps, but at a certain point you did begin developing and capturing your work using various technologies.  I don’t want to ask you to rattle off a complete list of all the gear you’re using on stage, but since this is such a significant part of your identity, I would like to know what some of the most important items have been as you’ve developed your sound.

ZK: Well, like everything else, it’s an organic process. I started out wanting to have maybe two cellos playing, and so I had some gear that would allow me to double what I was doing, like a delay pedal.  I explored the limits of that box. Then, I was like, now I want four.  So then it’s four; and then it was six; and then it was eight.  Everything I do, I’m just exploring the technology that I have on hand.

The vision I have in my head, the music that I want to make, is so vast and multi-dimensional, and the tools in this three-dimensional world are so much smaller than the music that I want to make.  So it’s a never-ending process; I’m still not there.  Right now, I’m using a computer. I can do up to, like, 24 tracks of cello. I can sample things and store them, and throw them back at the audience later. Now, I need to make it more fluid so that I can really improvise more with the computer.  If I think about it in advance, I can structure it so that I have places where I can improvise.  But it’s still very structured.  The technology creates a box for you to work in, which is a good creative tool, but then you reach the limits of it. Then you’re starting to add new technology and it’s very much a part of the writing. I think that struggle to make technology do what you want it to do, and to make it maybe do something it wasn’t designed for, there’s something interesting there. But then, I don’t like the technology to overwhelm the music. I need it, but I’m always changing.

MS: Do you find that you go looking for technology to match the sound in your head, or do you use the parameters of what the technology can and cannot do as a starting point, a creative challenge?

ZK: Usually I go looking for something that will allow me to do a problem. I have a problem: I really want to be able to have 16 tracks of cello.  What will allow me to have 16 tracks and record them and not have too much latency? Things like that.  So I’ll go looking for a tool, and I’ll use the software program that will allow me to do that.  But then as I’m learning how to use this program, I might discover something interesting that I wouldn’t have thought of.  So it’s definitely both. That’s what I mean by “I need the technology”—as a creative challenge.  But at the same time, I’m using it to problem solve.

MS: One of the things that’s interesting to me about what you’ve done with it, though, is that even with all the sounds you could make using the technology, you haven’t buried the sound of your primary instrument. You’re using it to amplify the cello exponentially.

ZK: Well, I love the cello!

MS: Can you talk about your relationship to the instrument and your attraction to this sound world?

ZK: I think the cello is the best instrument, I’m sorry.  Bassoon is pretty great; I love French horn—you know, no offense to other instruments! But I just love the cello. I was really influenced when I was in high school by this disc that I got—it was The 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic—and they were playing a whole bunch of stuff. I heard that sound, and I was like, “Oh my god!  That is the sound to end all sounds.”  It was this big, big sound. Also, when I was in high school and just taking lessons and classes at the Eastman School of Music, every Saturday all the cellists would be there and we would play ensemble music.  We would play Klengel’s Hymnus, or we’d play the Bachianas Brasilieras by Villa-Lobos, and that was really my favorite thing to do.  I could just do that all day.  So I just want to recreate that feeling of lots of cellos.

Except, I have my own musical vision that I’d like to make, and initially I didn’t have the finances or the ability to get a bunch of cellists to do this.  I couldn’t figure out how to translate my ideas to them.  The little experiences I had of saying, “Okay, just play it like this for like four bars and just vamp that, and then we’ll do this.”  Total blank stares—”No, you have to write it out, please.”  And I felt like that was really limiting.  The idea of writing something out, and then playing it, it just was all wrong.  I wanted it to be about feel, like this other emotional world that was more flexible.  So I just found it easier to do myself.  So when I’m layering up all those cellos, I still want them to be cellos. When I’m doing the actual recordings for an album, I have a lot of microphones all around me and I’ll put a microphone closer in a certain place to get a certain kind of tone.  Or when I’m playing live, I’ll bump up the EQ on some particular phrase so that it stands out.  Because the thing is when you have 12 cellos, you have to sort of differentiate, or you just have a wall of sound.

I just find it really interesting.  The cello can make an infinite number of sounds, and I infinitely prefer them to anything electronic.

MS: I know musicians and composers who work with technology and then struggle to keep playing works in their catalog as hardware and software continue to develop or break down. Some hold tight to keeping things as set as possible, but I’ve heard you say that you actually change your gear quite frequently. How do you keep playing the music that you’ve already written in that case?

ZK: Well, the music that I’ve already written is always evolving on stage. I have a piece called Frozen Angels. If you were to listen to that piece two years ago, and then listen to it today, they’re pretty different.  That’s because I have different technology I’m using.  I have different microphones.  My microphones change really frequently. Again, the cello has this beautiful sound, and the microphone is taking, like, a picture of it, and then giving that to the audience.  When I started out using Piezo pickups, that picture was like a photocopy. Then I was like, “Okay, this isn’t working,” so I started using contact microphones and that was like a color copy. Now I have some different microphones, and those are pretty good digital photographs. I want the audience to feel the sound of the cello the way that I feel it, and I’m still trying to get that.

Every time I even just change a microphone, that changes so much the kinds of recordings I make that then, of course, I want to change all the parts that stack up against those recordings.   It’s like the butterfly flapping its wings, and everything down the line changes. I’m playing a certain way because it sounds better or worse with the microphones I’m using.

MS: So you are actually going back and re-making pieces?

ZK: Definitely.  Oh, sure.

MS:  That’s quite a volume of work.

ZK: Yeah, it’s never ending.  It also keeps it interesting, though. When I make a piece of music for an album, I spend a lot of time making it the perfect thing ever that I want to hear.  And it’s really difficult to choose the one version that is the piece, because there are so many permutations.  At some point, I have to just choose one and develop that because it’s very time consuming.  The thing that makes me choose that one is usually some sort of artificial deadline, like I have only two weeks.  That’s how I get things done because that crystallizes all your decisions and I do that. And I always feel sad about all these other little musical children I had to leave by the side.  Some of them will turn into whole new pieces.  Other times, they’re just kind of like variations, and when I go on tour, I just let them develop.  So I’ll have an album version of a piece. Then, tonight I’ll play this piece called Lost and this piece called Seven League Boots and those are very different than the album versions because I’m just exploring other areas with them.  Also, because my technology has changed since I wrote them, I can make different kinds of sounds, or things like that.

I feel that there’s no reason for it to be stuck in time.  A piece of music is a snapshot of all of my past, with whatever is going on right now.  And it’s going to be different each day.

MS: I wonder if that would be surprising to a lot of people.  Looking at the gear you use on stage and how clean the presentation is, the audience could assume that you must be playing tightly to a set script for it to come off. But what is really happening in performance? How much flexibility do you have?

ZK: I have a lot of flexibility.  Sometimes it’s about how confident I’m feeling. If I’m feeling confident, I’ll really go far out there, you know, and the pieces will be vastly different today than they were yesterday.  Other times, I’ll have sort of a “this is the way that I’m doing them right now in this period of time” [version]—meaning this tour that is lasting three months.  There’s also this authenticity thing where, if I’m playing a piece and it’s not risky for me to do it, if it’s so easy because I know it so well that there’s not risk involved, I feel like I’m cheating the audience and I’m cheating myself. I’ll have a piece, and for a long time, I’ll try to make it as perfect as possible, this endless quest for perfection. I’ll really get into that, and I’ll make all the little parts as perfect as I can possibly make them, within the constraints of this one composition without changing it.  Just making the phrasing better and better and better and better.  It’s kind of like what we do as classical musicians.  Eventually I’ll have improved every little thing in there.  They’re all improved now.  They’re all where I want them to be.  And I’ll play it that way with great pleasure for a while, just enjoying that I’ve made it perfect now.  And then some day I’ll wake up, and I’ll be like, “This is boring!”  It’s perfect, but it doesn’t move me anymore.  And I want to be moved when I’m playing the music.  Then I start changing things.

MS: Since you’re not writing your pieces to short score and then orchestrating them out for an actual orchestra, would you briefly walk us through what is involved in making a new piece, either starting in the studio or even backing up further, depending on how it typically unfolds for you?

ZK: Well, when I’m making a piece of music, there are multiple places that I start from. I would say a good half of my work starts from me improvising. I’m just messing around, improvising. I’ve got all my technology around me, and I’m sampling things. I’m just playing, and I’m having a great time.  Usually when I do that, I don’t actually go back and listen to what I did.  I’ll have some memory of what I did, and that will stick with me.  So a couple days later, I’ll have something in my head, which is a memory of what I did, which might not actually be it.  That memory becomes a foundation for everything, so it’s sort of this thing in my imagination.  Then I just try to make that thing. I might go back to the original recordings that I made and take some of them in, and put them into my software that I’m using, and then start playing against them. I make a ridiculous number of tracks—like, 60 tracks of cello, just a huge thing. I make this big cathartic mess, which is totally overwhelming. I get totally swept away—I just love it.  I love it.  I love it.—And then I start taking it away, and that’s the process.

MS: How long does that take?

ZK: I tend not to do things very linearly, and I’m often working on multiple pieces at the same time.

MS: So you might have 180 tracks floating around and any one time.

ZK: Yeah, I have drives and drives and drives of material.  Often then I start sort of pillaging and putting them in other projects.  I have this one piece called Last Bird. There’s actually only eight parts in there. I made this piece over the course of two weeks and recorded it. That’s a great example: I had a deadline, because it was something I had to write for a movie, and I had two weeks to do it, so I did it.  Other pieces, like Escape Artist, that one was made for a performance. I had to premier a new piece on a certain day, so I made it.  I made it to be a live work.  That one took me about two months to figure out the piece, and also how to program it so I could perform it live; that was done simultaneously.  Other pieces are very much studio creations, and then I figure out later how to do them live.  And in the figuring out, I might change it.

MS: Then is the digital file—for whatever software you happen to be using—the score essentially? When you have to go back to older material, is that what you refer to? Or, considering how you like to work, are all your scores more like memories?

ZK: They’re just memories, which is why sometimes they’re different. I like that feeling, when you hear something on the radio, and then you’re left with a memory of it and you’re like, “Oh, that was such a great melody,” whenever you’re singing it.  Then, when you actually someday go back and listen to the song, it might actually not have been that melody.  That’s definitely how sometimes I interpret my own work. I have a memory of the recording that I made two years ago and I’m going to make a live version of it, so I’ll do it based on my memory of it.

Actually, for my last album, I did all of this recording and made all these pieces, and then I moved.  We moved from San Francisco to Portland, and we were staying with my husband’s parents because we were trying to find a place to live.  Then we moved back to California, and during that process, I lost a drive. I was on tour with Imogen Heap at the time, so I was just all over the place, and I lost my main drive of music. It was funny because I use Ableton Live, and you have to be really careful to collect all your samples.  If you don’t collect all your samples into the same location, you open the file, and you can see the lengths of them, but the samples are not there.  In my haste, I had put everything on a drive, and I had not clicked on all the samples.  The shells were there, but there was no audio in them. I was really devastated by this. Then in 2009, I was like, well, I’m just going to have to recreate them all from scratch.  So I recreated these six pieces from my memory of what I had done two years before.  Then, when I had a studio—because during that time, 2007-2009, I didn’t have a studio to work in—that was my album. Then after I released the album, I went back and I found the drive. Those pieces are nothing like what I made.  So that’s my next album!

I did have an interesting experience a couple of weeks ago. I played with ODC Dance in San Francisco at Yerba Buena, and we had five performances with the ballet dancers.  When you’re doing something for dance, it has to be the same every time, and that’s what’s hard about it. I can’t just be doing my usual self-indulgent thing of playing music, because they need to hear it—they’re getting ready to launch themselves across the stage on this particular phrase. That’s where I practice the most sometimes.  I had to practice for like for a week straight, just every single day, to make it the same.  Half the performance was me solo, and for the other half, I hired a string ensemble.  So I had six string players and a marimba player with me.  And that was a real big challenge because they had sheet music. They absolutely were not able to just riff or just do it from the recording.  It had to be written down.

MS: They had sheet music that you provided. So you can work that way.

ZK: Yeah, they did, but that was a very strange experience—to go out there and play the same piece every night, exactly the same way, off of music.  I was like, “Wow, that’s so weird!” though that’s what I always used to do [as a classical musician]. But it felt very odd for my own music to be written down on a piece of paper.

MS: You mentioned Imogen, and I know that you said when you were on tour with her that you knew you would lose the audience if you didn’t quickly convince them at the beginning. Your performer side and your composer side might have had different needs in a situation like that. How did you navigate?

ZK: Often I trust my own judgment with things, but I do feel like live is a very specific situation.  It’s all about the environment that you’re playing in, and that the audience is in. In certain situations, you just cannot take a million years for a piece to develop.  It’s just not going to happen in that format.  So I saw it more as a fun challenge: Okay, how could I keep my artistic integrity, but also make it more interesting for the audience? What would be fun to do?  So it was another little artistic challenge, just like having a new piece of gear.  It was like, “Oh, okay, I’ve got an audience full of 15-year olds with cell phones and I only have 60 seconds to win them over.” I definitely saw it that way.

Because I decided not to go the standard classical path, usually playing in a concert hall was not open to me as an option. I had to play in rock clubs.  If I wanted people to hear me, I had to be in an environment where I’m opening for a pop star, perhaps, and I’m playing in a nightclub.  And those are different artistic parameters. I didn’t feel like it was a non sequitur for me, also, because I grew up in the ‘80s. I listened to songs. I felt like it was actually more of a challenge to make something short.  On my own in the studio, I can make a 20-minute cello extravaganza, but it’s actually harder to make short things, I think.  So it’s like, “Okay, I have to do this all in seven minutes; that’s my boundary.”

There are times though when I make something, and I’m just like, you know, take it or leave it: this is the piece.  For a live performance, I definitely think about what makes a good show, because it’s not just me up there, in my own world.  We’re having this whole experience, and so it really, really matters to me that you have a good time. Or not “have a good time”—that makes it sound too light.  It’s more like I want us to escape time; that’s my goal.  Music is this thing happening over time, and when it really works, you lose the sense of time.  Was that a minute, or was that an hour? That’s a good musical experience, and that’s what I’m going for. I want to take you out of your little linear path along time. I’m doing that for myself as well as for the audience.

MS: Does the fuel for that creative impulse tend to come from extra-musical stuff, or is it you in your studio with those bits of pure musical experimentation that you’ve already described? Is there something larger than that that you’re drawing from, or looking to communicate?

ZK: No, I’m not. It’s definitely very abstract.  It’s more of an experiential kind of thing.

MS: You’ve said you have trouble even titling pieces, because you don’t want to make them concrete in that sense.

ZK: Yeah, because I don’t know what they are, and I change them all the time.  Also, if I say this piece is this, well then that piece is going to have to be that for me tomorrow, too, and it might not be.  It’s like I’m an abstract expressionist, except that it’s not very abstract.  It’s very specific. I’m just expressing this sort of thing, and I try not to get too big about it.

MS: You might have too much groove to be an abstract expressionist.

ZK: Yeah, that’s what I mean. I think of my emotional landscape that way, but it’s much too organized. I’m really drawn to the minimalists, and I love that sort of order, but I’m not that ordered.  I’m too messy to be a proper minimalist.  Sometimes I feel like I have the most in common with a sort of instrumental post-rock, like Sigur Rós or that kind of stuff. I think if you were to cross that cathartic, instrumental post-rock with minimalism, maybe that’s where my landscape is.

MS: Many of your previous interviews focus on the business side of the career you’ve built for yourself and the ways in which you’ve leveraged technology and DIY methods to connect with fans and sell records. [Readers who want to dig into that further should check out Keating’s online talks, such as this one, which she delivered at MIDEM in 2012.] We’re focusing more on the music-making side of your work in this conversation, but I did want to ask you one DIY question:  You’re obviously a very charismatic, bracingly honest person, and that’s reflected in things even as simple yet as public as your Twitter feed. But unlike most people, you have a million plus followers—a huge audience to be regularly interacting with! Do you feel the need to set certain boundaries to protect yourself emotionally or is that kind of exposure the price you have to pay to be an independent artist in 2012?

ZK: I get that question pretty regularly—how to manage all that stuff—and I feel like I don’t ever give really good answers because I don’t think about it. At the same time, I’m actually really private, so I do have some sort of unspoken rules. I try to reveal as much about me as a person, doing my job here in the world, but at the same time I don’t want to expose my family to constant scrutiny. I think that I’m sort of lucky, in that the kinds of people who are interested in me are very respectful, and so I don’t experience any sense of intrusion from anyone else.  It’s more like, “What do I feel like sharing today?” I try not to over share; I’m not going to talk about crass things.  I’m just not going to go there.  So it’s definitely curated, but it’s not over-curated.

I feel like in order for me to exist, I need to interact with other people. I’m too isolated otherwise. I’m just this woman in her studio with a cello and a computer, and it feels kind of lonely. The act of sharing things with other people, and then they’re participating, I need it in some ways. When I was making my last album, and I was pregnant and trying to finish it before my son was born, I was spending hours and hours and hours down in my studio, just mixing and mixing and mixing—it’s a really laborious process. I found that I’d have a really intense mixing session, and then I would let off steam by using Twitter to interact with people. I totally needed it, and then I would feel refreshed and inspired, and I’d come back.  However, if I would go down to hang out with some friends in person, that would be so draining for me that it would sap all of my energy, and then I wouldn’t go back into the studio.  So it’s this thing, forward and backward, where I want to tap into the stream of human consciousness and interact, but then I want to get what I need from that and go back to being creative.  When you’re creative, it is kind of an isolating thing, because you have to figure out what is you.  Often having lots of dinner parties is not conducive to that, even though, left to my own devices, I might have dinner parties at home almost every day. I think we’re really lucky that you can have these tools, but I do know people and it gets in the way for them, so that they can’t be creative.  That’s just not how I am.  For me, it’s the opposite: they allow me to have interaction with people, but without getting in the way.

MS: Speaking of being left to your own devices, you’ve had the opportunity to play in so many unique situations.  However, where do you most like to make your music?

ZK: Well, that is an interesting question because I feel like I’m really struggling to find the right venue. There’s sort of these two extremes.  We have the concert infrastructure of America that was built for the Baby Boomers, the concert halls with the seats.  Then we have clubs, with the bar in them. I don’t really feel like either of those fits for me.  I feel like there’s some whole other architectural environment that I need to be in. This is my next project; I want to try to make the perfect performance environment.  My ideal space, it’s almost like everybody’s just sort of reclining on bean bags.  We’re going to talk, and I’m going to play music for you.  Then we’re going to have an intermission and we’re going to hang out, and then some other artists are going to play, and it’s going to be really interesting.  And because it’s this relaxed environment, people can maybe be a little more experimental as musicians.  Then I really want it to be about community. I often find that a lot of the people who come to my concerts are people that I wish we could just hang out, out in the lobby, for like an hour or something.  But it never really works out that way.

I was just talking with someone actually about the amount of wasted space that there is in America, places that don’t necessarily have places to hang out or cafés, and it might be kind of neat to go into town with your semi trucks. You’ve got the bean bags in one truck, you’ve got the portable café in the other truck.  Take over the abandoned strip mall and make it a place for art and ideas where we can listen to some music and then talk about urban planning—lectures and music and that kind of thing.  I feel like that’s the place where I exist, but I don’t know if it exists.