Monday, January 6, 2014

Zoe Keating, YouTube's Most Popular Cellist?

So much of the news about classical music these days is driven by the needs of branding and promotion. Take this article about popular new music cellist Zoe Keating at Slipped Disc. The point is merely to promote Zoe Keating, of course. But in the sensationalist style that the media use these days, it is all about how the San Francisco Conservatory hurt her feelings:
Zoe Keating, with 1.2 million Twitter fans, wanted a classical career. Moving to California two decades ago, she set about practising the Shostakovich cello concerto for six months before presenting herself for audition at the San Francisco Conservatory. The panel immediately asked, ‘who’s your teacher?’
‘I don’t have one,’ said the applicant, her hands shaking at the looks of disapproval.
‘Maybe you should come back when you’re ready,’ they said.
Afater that, says Keating, ‘I fugured that classical music could just kiss my ass. I was so angry, I couldn’t even bear to set foot in a concert hall.’
Well, boo hoo. Let me get the world's smallest cello and play a lament for you. Having sat on many, many auditions, I can imagine how this one went. A young self-taught cellist's impressions of one of the Cello Concertos by Shostakovich might well have provoked the question "who's your teacher?" The thought behind that being, "my god, who taught you to phrase like that?!?"

Now, don't get me wrong, nothing against Zoe Keating or her music. Here is a recent sample:

Since she has difficulty telling us what that "song" is about, let me take a stab. She uses a lot of brief, modal, and rhythmically agile motifs put through a laptop sequencing system to get the kind of overlapping effects that people discovered back in the 1960s using tape loops. She builds up resonating layers that work together because she stays roughly in the same harmonic space for all of them. Musically it is pretty simple stuff. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But I'm not sure I would want to go hear her play one of the Shostakovich concertos...

That's a whole other world, now isn't it?

(Just as an aside, the ideology behind Zoe Keating's reaction to the audition panel's fairly innocent comment is based on the idea of the absolute autonomy of the creative intelligence. This comes originally from 19th century German Romanticism and was enthusiastically adopted by 20th century modernists as it suited their purposes quite well. What you do as an artist is always absolutely right because it is based on your individuality. What an odd idea that is, once you dig into it! For one thing, so much of the music produced by these unique creative intelligences is drearily alike!)


Augustine said...

I think you're missing the important part of the audition comment: it looks like she didn't get to play at all. Just a 'Oh, you don't have a recognized teacher? Well, come back when you do, then'

Bryan Townsend said...

I read it over very carefully a few times, trying to discern what actually happened. It is a bit ambiguous. Perhaps she walked in and they immediately asked her who her teacher was and dismissed her without hearing her play. Or perhaps she came in, played some Shostakovich and they asked her who her teacher was. Frankly, I find the second scenario more plausible, though less useful for promotional purposes. We are not told too many details.

It is possible that an audition panel was so hidebound that they would not even listen to someone who was not studying with someone they recognized, but no panel I was on would have ever taken that attitude. It is so self-defeating!

Augustine said...

Very true. By the way, I came across this band and love their aesthetic. I wonder what you think:

They've got some funky time signatures, and great vocals!

Shantanu said...

Yup, a lot of music marketing is done on the basis of dry "individualism", using phrases like - 'this has never been done before, anywhere by anybody!' or 'my music is so different, it's utterly impossible to describe it'. Also, inevitably when I see a not so good musician perform, they have great emotion and movement in their person - I don't know whether its fake, but it certainly looks like sometimes it deters them from paying more attention on what they are playing. No wonder Zoe Keating opted out of classical music.

Bryan Townsend said...

I like that phrase "my music is so different, it's utterly impossible to describe it"! Inevitably, whenever I see something like that the music, when you listen to it, is a dreary knock-off of something like flamenco fusion or three-times diluted Philip Glass.

I think there is a real trend for classical musicians to overdo the whole stage-presence thing. When I see a string quartet bobbing around excessively and throwing their bows in the air I always wonder if their publicist told them, "you have to connect with the audience more and since they respond more to visual cues than aural ones, let's see more tossing of the hair!"

You know, I'm not sure that Zoe Keating thinks she did opt out of classical music--just the old fogey conservative stuff. She might think she is the new wave of classical.

Rickard Dahl said...

That was hard to listen to. Almost 7 minutes of that thing. It sounds either like bad film music or music that is often referred to as "epic" without being epic (such as the various very bland arrangements by "The Piano Guys", see for instance (I don't have any idea what's Beethoven about so bad music, it's certainly not a Beethoven secret, it's rather a reason for Beethoven to turn in his grave)). Now here's some great (film) music as a constrast:


Anyways, if Zoe thinks she's the new wave of classical then we're doomed. Just kidding, but seriously, neither the extreme-modernism of the academia, the wierdness of postmodernism or the fakes doing all sorts of fusion stuff and calling it classical are good directions. What is needed is going back to the roots while ofc taking into account the good developments over time and simply writing good music. It may reflect our times and have certain stylistic traits that refer to our time or recent times but the aim should be timeless music.

Bryan Townsend said...

Rickard, it sounds like you have been reading this wacky classical music blog I know...