Last November, cellist and composer Zoë Keating performed at the Garrison Institute’s Insight & Impact benefit. We caught up with her recently to discuss her spiritual and artistic sensibilities and her use of technology in creating emotional experiences through music.
This post is the first in a series of short interviews on contemplation and creativity.
Do you have a contemplative or spiritual practice?
Living in Sonoma County, where everyone practices some kind of meditation, I get asked that quite a bit. My answer is that playing the cello and composing is my practice. From everything that I’ve experienced, it seems to be the most direct way for me to go to that special place.
Tell me more about that special place.
I’ll describe the situation. You’re sitting in a beautiful place. There’s a fantastic view. The sun has just come out of the clouds. You’re with somebody you love. You’re looking at the view and it’s perfect. But you’re always aware that it’s just that one moment and that it won’t last forever. So it’s this feeling when you’re aware of how precious it is while you’re experiencing it, and you’re trying to enjoy that experience without letting the knowledge of the preciousness overshadow the experience.
Yes, that dynamic reminds me of the two songs that you played at the Garrison benefit in November. The first one was dark and cathartic and the second one was uplifting and optimistic.
It’s very complex. It’s both joyful and sad at the same time. That sort of feeling is where I often go in music. I think it resonates with a lot of people. So I just keep doing it, because I feel like I can never express that emotion enough. There’s something out there that I’m trying to say with music. It’s hard to articulate because I don’t even know what it is. I discover what it is as I’m saying it through the music. It’s always one step removed.
For something that’s hard to articulate, I feel like you’ve given me a glimpse. I think it was David Foster Wallace who said that post-game interviews with great athletes are always disappointing because it’s basically impossible to articulate what it’s like to be in a state of being that allows for the magic that sometimes happens while playing the game. Not to suggest that this interview is disappointing, but perhaps it’s similar with music.
Yes, it’s difficult to explain to someone but perhaps it’s easier to show them. It’s a rare occasion that I can achieve that state of being in my studio, alone. What I do is I practice in my studio so that then, when I go on stage, I can have the experience while being there with other people. I need the people there, witnessing what’s happening, in order to go there myself.
Why do you think that is?
It’s the connection. It’s feeling like we’re all in it together. We’re so together, actually, that the best performances are the ones where I personally cease to exist.
You have described your music as “a fusion of information architecture and classical music” and you use technology to create your unique sound. Your use of technology might strike some as robotic and cold, but everything we’ve talked about has been deeply human. The technology drives an emotional experience.
Technology is just a means to an end. If the computer allows me to create a certain musical expression that I couldn’t do on my own, then I will use it. I love the sound of the layered cellos and the way that they all interact with each other on stage. The computer creates this complex musical organism that is superhuman in a way. It’s more than I could ever make by myself. But then, in the end, the experience we’re having isn’t about technology at all. It’s just about people existing in a moment in time.
But I have really worked hard to make the computer and the technology as invisible as possible so that you get the final musical result and are not distracted by the technology. We often get enamored with the tool—the phone, the app, whatever it is—instead of the thing itself. Of course, I came of age in Silicon Valley during the dotcom boom, when we became completely enamored with technology and believed that it’s going to save the world. But actually it’s people and ideas and how they are implemented that will save the world.
Yes, there are those who say, “technology is going to save the world” but there are also people on the opposite side of the spectrum, who see technology as limiting the human experience and see our devices as distractions.
It’s true that with technology we can get enamored with the device and it can stop you from seeing what’s really there. When I have a concert, I’m proud that very few people are looking at the concert through their phone. They put their phones away, and they experience the here and the now. If I have a motive for making music—beyond striving for a certain sound—it’s that I want people to exist in this particular moment.
Why is it important to you that people aren’t on their phones during the concert?
I have a son who’s five, and I remember when he first became aware of photographs. We would take pictures of him, and then he would want to see the photographs. I would take a picture of him, like you do as a mom, and he would say, “Oh, let me see! Let me see! Let me see!” And then he would look at it on my phone. And then he would say, “Oh, no. I want to do it differently.” He would do it differently, so I would take a different picture. It was very clear that one day my son became aware of his image. It was cute, but I thought it was also really sad.
When you’re watching a concert, it’s wonderful that you want to share it with other people. But then, in that moment, you’re not really there because you’re experiencing it for the purpose of somebody else experiencing it some other time than right now.
So much of technology is about capturing something that then you can experience later. But that means that you don’t experience the now.
In your music, you capture something that you’ve just played on the cello and then you experience it again right afterwards.
Yes, that’s a funny thing. So I’m listening in repeat to my most recent self, and I’m adding music on top of it to modify it or to make it sound better. There is an aspect of looping and layering, where you’re listening to yourself over and over and over again, and you’re slightly modifying it, for better or worse.
Do you do that because you like the way it sounds or are you interested in the philosophical implications of it?
I like the way that it sounds, but I have been very aware that in looping, there is no ability to change what you’ve just played. You have to live with what you’ve done. This idea that I’m trying to be okay with what I’ve done—and I’m improvising with it—appeals to me. Sometimes the little loop recording I’ve made is out of tune, and that might mean that I have to play everything else slightly out of tune to make it sound okay.
I guess people might say it’s naval-gazing, but the repetition is something that speaks to me. I’m somebody who suffers from performance anxiety. I can get kind of obsessive-compulsive about things. That process of recording a phrase and listening to it over and over again and making phrases to go with it is an incredible way for me to release stress.