Music is so ephemeral it’s hard to capture in words, but I like Zoë Keating‘s music so much I’m going to give it a try. She’s a mesmerizing live performer and improviser, and I’ve found some great web media to help you see what I find so appealing.

photo by Lane Hartwell

Zoë Keating photo by Lane Hartwell

Zoë Keating’s music is rich with emotion, color and light. She’s a passionate performer, reaching deep within to find the confidence and strength that powers her phrases – at times delicate as dew, then gently drifting like a burbling stream, then dark and brooding as a gathering storm.

photo by Jerry Dodrill

photo by Jerry Dodrill

Unlike most classical musicians, Zoë improvises her compositions on the spot, using her acoustic cello and computer looping technology that she controls with her foot. She’ll typically start with a phrase, capture it in the computer, play it back and accompany herself as she builds her intricately layered pieces. Note upon note, she weaves a tapestry of sound with lush melodies, pulsing rhythms and haunting atmospherics.

Her move from San Francisco to make her home in a Northern California forest inspired her latest CD, Into the Trees.  Zoë describes the creative process that sparked the CD on the website:


CD cover for “Into the Trees”

I think of this album as moving into an unknown world. Having been an urbanite for so long, the forest sort of represents that. 

When I lived in San Francisco, 75 percent of the pieces I wrote came from me riding my bicycle through the city while singing to myself. Cycling itself is a repetitive motion, so the melodic segments I would improvise would also be repetitive. Here in the woods, I experience something similar when walking. It’s hard for me to walk by myself and not sing at the same time, so that’s where some bits come from now. I also dream some musical phrases. I’ll come up with them in my head during the night. 

I “discovered” her as I was revisiting Intel’s Visual Life series on creative artists. Their agency’s production team crafted a fine documentary about Zoë and her music:

Like her music, the video is very textured, with images that reflect and amplify her creative spirit. As the video opens we hear Zoë playing as we see closeup images of her studio, revealing little fragments from her life, creative space and work. Then we hear a few brief memories from her early days, punctuated by closeup snippets of Zoë playing her cello. In this sequence the filmmakers give you a sense of her development as an artist and performer, with imagery that is personal and intimate. It draws you in, making her music less abstract and more accessible.

Later, when she talks about what the sound of her cello looks and feels like, we see images of nature, the forest and water with the natural sounds mixed in. The intercutting of sounds and images echo nicely with what she’s talking about and remind us of the source of her inspiration.

Jeffery Rusch2

photo by Jeffry Rusch

You also see her briefly in rehearsal and performance, so by the time the video shifts to exploring the nature of her music, you’re ready to understand what Zoë means as she describes what she’s doing as “creating a world of feeling, motion, color and light.”

Then they use a highly effective technique to portray her description of music as a captured moment of time. As she describes how each note comes and goes, you see superimposed images of her moving through the same space. It becomes a beautiful metaphor and visualization of how she layers her music – how it lingers in the same space for an instant and then vanishes into memory. I liked that section very much and, overall, found the video well-designed, lyrical and visually engaging.

photo by Mark Trammell

photo by Mark Trammell

In the interview below, NPR takes a more journalistic approach as it explores Zoë’s creative process and how she used improvisation to free herself from the rigid confines of perfectionism:

Finally, here is a complete performance of her piece, “Escape Artist”

Zoë Keating produces her own work, books her own concerts, serves as her own agent, record company and distribution network. She’s an example of how an enterprising artist, with just a few thousand devoted fans, can sustain themselves financially.

photo by Jeffery Rusch

photo by Jeffery Rusch

I think it’s a great time to be an artist. My recording studio consists of a laptop and a microphone. I can sell music directly to listeners on the web. I can talk to them on Twiter and Facebook. It’s a marvelous democratization of the arts and I can’t imagine that I would be able to have had this career a decade ago. I’m not going to become a multi-millionaire, but I can make a living and I can reach people.

As for me, I guess I’m one of those people. I’ve been listening to her latest CD and highly recommend it. You can find it here.

A final thought:

photo by Chase Jarvis

photo by Chase Jarvis


I’m compelled to do what I do. I think that’s true for a lot of artists. There are things we have to express. Creating cello music is the thing I’m driven to do. It makes me very satisfied. If I’ve worked for a couple of hours in the studio, I feel really good. It’s like therapy. It helps me be okay with the world.


Does her music speak to you? Add a comment and share your thoughts.