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Zoe Keating: A Symphony Unto Herself

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Zoe Keating: A Symphony Unto Herself

Zoe Keating: A Symphony Unto Herself

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And now, the story of a classical cellist whose paralyzing stage fright did not shut down her career. Instead, it helped make her a success. Zoe Keating's self-released recordings have gone to the top of the iTunes classical charts and she's even gone back to performing on stage. From member station KALW in San Francisco, Martina Castro visited Keating at home and sent this profile.

MARTINA CASTRO: Zoe Keating's latest album is called "Into the Trees," and that's exactly where I have to go to meet her. She lives in the middle of a redwood forest, an hour and a half north of San Francisco. As Keating walks me around, we listen for her noisy neighbors, the woodpeckers.

ZOE KEATING: And they get really loud again in the evening and they sound like (makes noise).

CASTRO: It's fitting to find Keating in the middle of all this natural noise because in her studio, she creates a similar symphony of sounds, except she does it with just one instrument, her cello. Her secret is in how she constructs her songs. Keating uses computer software to record sounds and musical phrases as she plays them on her one instrument.


CASTRO: When she plays something she wants to keep, she taps on a series of pedals at her feet. Those pedals tell the computer program to save and loop what she just played.


CASTRO: That frees her up to play a new musical phrase along with what she just recorded. She can then record and loop that combination, which frees her up to play something else, then something else, until she's created layers upon layers of sound that all came from her one cello. And all of this is communicated to the computer program through the pedals she taps with her feet.

KEATING: Like, I'll spend eight hours, you know, I'm just recording parts, and I'm in the groove, and I'm just adding layers and layers and layers. And it gets bigger and bigger, and then it goes in new directions, and then I clean it up later. So I almost - it's almost like there's two parts to it. There's the kind of, like, getting it all down, and then the cleanup and the refining.

CASTRO: And the getting all down, that's just an improvisational thing?


CASTRO: It's just you jamming with yourself?

KEATING: Yeah, exactly. Totally. I'm jamming with myself. It's like me down here having a party with, like, 16 other cellos.


CASTRO: Keating didn't always play this style of music. She started playing the cello classically when she was eight, but when she reached her teens, something weird started happening during her performances.

KEATING: Suddenly I'm like, how am I doing this? This seems really difficult. How am I doing it? And then, soon enough, you wouldn't be able to play the cello and I would, like, falter. You know, your fingers would make it screw up or your bow, you do a wrong thing. Like, your brain works against you.

CASTRO: This turned into paralyzing stage fright that led Keating to give up pursing a classical career. But in college, she continued to play.

KEATING: So I started improvising. And I found that when I improvised, I wasn't nervous.

CASTRO: She started experimenting with her instrument, especially when she discovered electronic music in San Francisco.

KEATING: And I thought, wouldn't it be neat to make music that has that same production quality, but entirely acoustic?

CASTRO: Keating says that she's still discovering new sounds she can make with her cello.

KEATING: I was really interested in the things that were kind of not musical, little screeches and...

CASTRO: Can you give me an example?

KEATING: Yeah, can I do it - can you hear it?

CASTRO: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

KEATING: So it's just - ponticello is a good one. You know, like one - here's a regular cello sound.


KEATING: And then, if you move the bow up a little bit...


KEATING: You hear how that's different?


KEATING: So there's a lot of potential in there.

CASTRO: This experimentation led Keating to realize what was really paralyzing her all along.

KEATING: It was like perfection was the thing that was destroying me and being totally focused on making it perfect.

CASTRO: Now, on stage, it's not about being perfect.

KEATING: Like, I make a lot of mistakes.

CASTRO: And they just become part of the song.

KEATING: Yeah, yeah. I feel it's almost become this sort of thing where, yeah, if I make a mistake, I have to work with it.

CASTRO: But the thing is, you would never know it. When I ask her to improvise something, she closes her eyes and, without a second thought, begins to play.


CASTRO: Slowly, each note comes out as if it were born organically from her instrument. What could be a mistake is easily transformed into a new direction, a new sound, a new expression. And then, it's hard to imagine it sounding any other way. For NPR News, I'm Martina Castro inSan Francisco.

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