What comes to mind when you think of a cello concert? If you answered red dreadlocks, shaved hair, tight black dresses and a floor laptop, youre obviously in the know about Canadian sololist Zoë Keating and the Portland Cello Project. If not, youre in for a heck of a surprise if you head to Tacomas Rialto Theater tonight because the intense soloist who dresses like a Louis XIV-Lady Gaga combination and layers her sound electronically is teaming up with the eight-member Portland Cello Project for a show thats not your grandmas cello music.
When you sit in an orchestra, you really dont get to play very much in a lot of music, said Doug Jenkins, director of the Portland Cello Project. You get the sensation that these composers had no idea what a cello could do. In the backs of our minds were thinking, We can do so much more than this. And when cellos get together, we play all those things.
If youve heard either the PCP or Keating, youll know what things Jenkins is talking about: layers of rich, vocal-like tone, high operatic melodies, dirtied-up bass lines, funky rock rhythms, eerie harmonics, glissandi. And theres music from Bach, Kanye West and New Age, plus Keatings own mesmerizing, looping compositions for solo cello. And combining the highly-textured Portland ensemble with the improvising soloist promises to be a unique sound experience that Tacomans will be the first to hear.
Zoë was actually at our very first rehearsal in 2006, Jenkins said. She was living in Portland at the time. We all played together. It was really fun. The Ontario-born, classically trained Keating had just quit her computer tech job to merge those skills with her rock cello moonlighting to create her own solo compositions, which she layers live line by line using a foot-controlled MIDI and looping software on a laptop.
After that, the cellists paths diverged. The PCP went on to become Portlands indie darlings, with genre-crossing shows in bars, clubs, wineries and concert halls alike, with anywhere from six-12 cellists playing together in lush arrangements. Keating, meanwhile, moved to California and saw her self-marketed solo career take off. Shes been featured on NPR, toured America and Australia, won grants and awards and collaborated with a variety of artists, including Paolo Nutini and Tears for Fears. Her music has been used for TV scores, ballets and movies such as The Secret Life of Bees, has hit No. 1 on iTunes multiple times and rocked the Billboard charts.
Now, after talking about getting back together for a gig, she and the PCP cellos are doing their first combined show tonight at the Rialto. It should be totally fun, said Jenkins of the concert that will alternate PCP arrangements such as Bachs 6th suite Sarabande, the William Tell overture by Rossini and Kanyes All the Lights, with Keating compositions ranging from the meditative Into the Trees to the melancholy rock of Tetrishead.
While its tricky mixing electronically layered improvisation with arranged written music, both groups are hoping to fuse forces in a few numbers, even improvising with the whole group.
Its so fun to play with a group of cellists, Keating said. In youth orchestra, that was my favorite thing to do. Wed all go back to someones house after rehearsal and play pop songs.
Keating cuts a stunning figure all by herself on stage. With long red dreadlocks or shaved platinum-pink hair, ballooning satin dresses and combat boots, she records each layer of her sound from bass to rhythm to harmony, amplified with custom mics and using a combination of Ableton Live and Sooperlooper that shes programmed herself through Apple Scripts on a MacBook Pro.
Its a never-ending project, Keating said. I feel like half my job is being a sound engineer.
The PCP also cut through the traditional classical cellist image, with little black dresses, sharp suits and red stilettos, and their own custom-made mics.
While the PCP takes inspiration from local indie bands, classical composers and jazz, Keating writes about the things shes living through.
Im inspired by my daily life, she said. The feeling of walking through the forest (which I live near), or the city. Or, lately, being a mother. Like most musicians, I see life from afar. You cant encapsulate that in words, so I play it in music.
Some of what shell play in Tacoma tonight comes from her recent album Into the Trees; much of the rest is from an upcoming album.
Aside from transforming the cello through eclectic music, the other thing that Keating and the PCP have in common is self-released music. Keating records and releases her music online, without a label something she started after receiving absolutely no interest from the music industry. That music has now won her accolades.
Its an inspiring prototype model of the future of the music business, Jenkins said.
How has she succeeded where so many other musicians have failed?
Thats the million-dollar question, Keating said. A lot is luck. Im really persistent. But I think what makes it work is that I think small scale. At first all I wanted was to sell enough albums to pay for my recording costs. Then I focused on paying for my travel costs, too. Then for my cello, and equipment. And Im always prepared that it could go away.
Most important to Keating is the music itself. I get bored easily, so Im sure the audience does, she said. The answer is good old-fashioned creativity. The software has developed a lot from the old-school hardware, now it can record four layers at once, do A and B sections. I pride myself that its never boring.
Zoës a master at keeping things dynamic, Jenkins said.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568; email@example.com