One-woman orchestra brings her experimental music to Tacoma

Zoe Keating is a one-woman orchestra. She is a classically trained cellist who crossed into the indie-pop world as a member of Rasputina and a session musician for the likes of DJ Shadow and French rock band Dionysos. Along the way, she developed the experimental, one-woman show she will put on display in Tacoma. Armed with her cello, Ariez, a few pedals and a laptop loaded with sampling software, she will build lush, improvised string arrangements that will resonate through the Rialto Theater on Jan. 25. Recently, Tacoma Weekly caught up with the Sonoma County, Calif. resident to learn more about what to expect when she and Portland Cello Project come to town.

TW: You actually started playing the cello at 8 years old. What are you earliest musical memories?

Keating: Well, it’s funny because I don’t have any memory of wanting to play the cello. It was one of those things where I think I was tall, and it was that time when they dole out the instruments in school. I was the tallest. My first memory was a really tiny school in northern England, and I had my lessons in the storage closet. I remember being surrounded by stacks of paper and pencils … with the door cracked open for light. (She laughs.)

TW: So your life path may have been set because you were tall at age 8.

Keating: Yeah, quite possibly. I could have been playing viola or something if I was smaller. But I was pretty tall, and I’m still pretty tall.

TW: I have read that stage fright changed your career path.

Keating: When I was about 16 – so it was my last year of high school – I remember I was struck by terror. That’s the time you have to audition everywhere. It’s like I was floating through life with this incredible sense of doom and dread every day because there was always some new audition around the corner. So I just decided not to pursue music as a career, and I went off to Sarah Lawrence College. It was there that I started improvising and playing jazz, playing rock ‘n roll with my friends’ bands. ... I found when I was doing any kind of music that wasn’t classical, anything else; I had no fear at all.

TW: Take me to the epiphany that led to what you are doing now.

Keating: I went off to San Francisco and fell into the dot-com boom. And like so many liberal arts grads, I wound up working on computers somehow. I was living in a warehouse … with some other electronic musicians and programmers. One of them was a software programmer for a company called Cycling 74. He was making some looping software for them, and we were always trying things out.

"It's funny because I don't have any memory of wanting to play the cello" - Zoe Keating

We would have these parties where he would have the latest build of his software, and I would hook my cello up to it and he would sample me, and we’d sort of do it for a horizontal audience. So that’s when I first got the idea, ‘Hey, people might actually want to listen to this stuff.’ And I developed it right there.

TW: What appeals to you about playing this way?

Keating: There would be so many battles when I was playing with other groups that I wished the cello could be louder. Or I’d go into the studio with some band and record some elaborate string arrangement, and then it would get buried in the mix. So to actually create my own cello orchestra to play in is the best, most cathartic experience I could think of.

TW: What is your setup like?

Keating: Right now I’m using Ableton Live and something called SooperLooper and something called MidiPipe, which together work pretty well. It’s always the balance between having the right software and latency. The computer (is) really just a pencil. I don’t think of it as a musical instrument. It’s just a tool that allows me to create music, and I want the audience to kind of get lost in the organic feeling of the cello.

TW: There is an interesting quote of yours maybe you can expand on. “Everything I do is based on the limits of technology. I’m dealing with the repercussions of what it means to be able to do almost anything.”

Keating: When I first started out with this idea of looping, it was very linear and very specific. I had one little pedal that could do one thing; it could record a phrase then it could play it back. Now, it’s like a piece can have any structure I want. Traditional looping music has one long, kind of pyramid-shaped structure to it, and now I can have things be much more complicated and compositional. What makes it harder is there are less limits, so therefore choices you make are creative ones rather than technical ones. The canvas is much more blank than it used to be, and larger. So I find that challenging.

TW: That can be overwhelming, I guess.

Keating: Yeah, I think people in other creative fields talk about this, too. Sometimes when you have some kind of artificial constraint it can really help free up your creative process so you don’t doubt yourself. There’s this whole array of things that I can do. So I think by limiting myself ... I can make myself be more creative.

Zoe Keating & Portland Cello Project

7:30 p.m. Jan. 25

Rialto Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma

$19 to $39

(253) 591-5894 or


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