Layers of Music: Zoë Keating at the Aladdin Theatre

As a words person, I have a complicated relationship with music. It’s not my first language in the way that writing is. Sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation- I got you. Dots on five lines? It’s taken me a lot of work to kind of get it. After a few unsuccessful attempts to learn an instrument (Elementary school recorder, Middle school flute) music can feel magical and out of reach. Even singing makes more sense to me than using an instrument.

While I’m shaky on the technical aspects, I love how music changes mood, brings about emotion, and how though invisible, it can actually be felt. This review won’t feature any fancy musical knowledge or vocab, but that’s something I’d like to work up to one day. Today, it’s my honest thoughts and my first attempt to talk about a world that I want to understand better and appreciate more fully by sharing with you an artist I totally admire: Zoë Keating.

I saw Zoë Keating at the Aladdin Theatre in Portland on May 31st. I got into her music (and the stories she shares about her life) after seeing her in a music video for Amanda Palmer‘s cover of the Pink Floyd song, “Mother, last November. I hadn’t been someone who listened to classical music or movie soundtracks, really any music without words for fun. Cellos, in particular, were not an instrument I was drawn to, but Keating’s style pulled me in.

From Keating’s website:

Cellist and composer Zoë Keating is a one-woman orchestra. She uses a cello and a foot-controlled laptop to record layer upon layer of cello, creating intricate, haunting, and compelling music. Zoë is known for both her use of technology – which she uses to sample her cello onstage – and for her DIY approach, releasing her music online without the help of a record label.

During her sold-out performance that night at the Aladdin, I got to feel for myself how the layering of sound creates a complex emotional response and moves through space in a particular way. The layering effect helped to create a progression, in the same way that words build a dialogue to create a narrative. I could hear a rising action, conflict, climax, and a resolution in each song which made me feel like I was part of a journey. I wasn’t passively listening to something antiquated or precious. For someone so comforted by words and dramatic structure, this made music without words accessible. Alone in this layered world of cellos, each thought in my head and each feeling in my heart flowed unfiltered through each piece. It wasn’t until after each song, when the spell was broken, that all of us in the audience came back into awareness of each other and into a friendly, almost awkward consciousness.

The LEDs morphed expertly with each song and sculpted the space around Keating. Even the heat that came off of the lights lent an ethereal sense to the performance. I felt like I was watching dreams or ghosts rise from the music. Keating’s white hair was the perfect canvas for this light and her body moved with precise intention under it. With her eyes closed, she leaned in and away from the cello; her heart, her center. She caressed the strings with her bow, struck the belly of the cello with the heel of her hand, and tapped the floor gently to make her music. 

After one of her songs, she talked about having stage fright, even now, after performing for so long which I think surprised many of us in the audience. It’s her candor in these small moments that wraps the audience in even closer. We can appreciate her more fully as a cellist, performer, and person through shared moments of vulnerability like this.

It was a night of music, of graceful sharing, and of quiet appreciation but there was a strong sense that we- audience and performer -were all in “this” together. Music may be the vehicle, but this sense of community felt like the point.

Here are two of my favorite songs from the night: “Optimist” and “Sun Will Set”, along with the strong recommendation that you see Zoë Keating the first chance you get!

Photo: Sally Montana


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