EXACTLY! Great Zoë Keating interview

Zoë Keating: Composing a Fever Pitch

Some wonderful quotes:

“I love it when people hear something in my music that I didn’t hear, and when they have some vision of what it is that is not my vision. That’s fantastic, because it’s like these pieces go on to have multiple lives.”

“[A choreographer working to her music] has no idea about their origins, because I never told her! The thing is that after I write the pieces, they take on all these different meanings, both for me and for listeners. I love that.”

“The thing with writing music is you have some sort of an inspiration that makes you write a piece. But when you succeed writing music, it transcends things, so it can mean lots of different things at different times. If you think about the music you like to listen to, it probably doesn’t have just one meaning to you.”

We have got to get rid of this garbage attitude in classical music that there is one Ur-Way To Perform A Piece, according to the godlike dead spirit of the composer, and if we only channel exactly how he would have done it (always a he, natch), his dead spirit will rise from the grave and be with us tonight! It’s like a seance, and it’s stifling. No wonder the whole attitude came to be in the age of a bunch of death-obsessed spirit-medium-babbling Victorians. How would BACH have done it? How would MOZART have done it? I even remember one interview with a concert pianist (thankfully I do not remember his name, because I’m about to call him a complete jackass) insisting that any musician, when they play their own interpretation of a piece — only one of course — was de facto stating that everyone else’s interpretation was wrong! What a blithering moron.

You know, there’s a time and place for a historically accurate performance, but come on … they’re DEAD, people. And I’m sure they wouldn’t have felt that there was only one exact, precise way to perform their piece, and that the only way the performer can inject their own individuality is by holding a fermata for one zillionth of a second more or less, or playing a single note heavier or lighter. Jesus, what sort of music is this that the performer’s own individuality is shoved into such brutally small cracks, and the One Godlike Overarching Way To Play It takes up all the rest of the space? Did it ever really take up all that space when the composer wrote it? (Okay, maybe Beethoven, but he was a pushy, egotistical bastard, and either way, he’s still dead so who cares?)

I like arranging Haendel, and yes, it sounds like Haendel written by Billy Joel while trying to fake Beethoven. Who cares? Haendel didn’t buy my damned piano.

Classical music “revolutionaries” and middle-aged teenagers

From the way some of the po-mo middle-aged hipsters who pretend to promote a “revolution” in classical music talk, they’ve never heard of this guy. They’re as ignorant of Virgil Fox and his rhinestoned shoes, too.

I mean, Jesus. 1881. This whole “bring classical music to the masses” stuff has been around for a lot longer than those overgrown teenagers imagine. I tend to be tolerant and maybe a bit overprotective of youngsters anymore, but not of greybeards who pretend to be one of them. It’s understandable although annoying when a 17 year old thinks that just because they’ve felt a certain feeling for the first time that it’s the first time any human being ever felt it. But when you are approaching retirement age and are still completely disconnected from the history of your culture, and imagine that nothing of note happened in music before Woodstock, it’s pretty pathetic.

And in classical music, this attitude is even more so. We’re talking about a musical tradition that goes back about 800 or so years. Isn’t it a little too perfect that the “revolution” is poised to happen just as you happen to approach adulthood (or to have gotten tenure)? Even as they pretend to be knowledgeable about all of this, there is still a deeply buried, not even acknowledged, conviction that the “revolution” will happen just in time for them to get on the NY Times bestseller list by writing about it. It won’t. People have been writing books about culture and society — and topping the NYT list — for a long time now, and they will continue to do so as the years roll forward, whether there is a “revolution” or not.

Meanwhile, the Arthur Fiedlers and Virgil Foxes of the world (although they may now be named Mark Wood and Zoe Keating) will continue to steam along nicely, selling out auditoriums and making ordinary people very happy.

It’s worth noting that in a great two-part interview with Berklee radio, Keating remarked that she has found herself “at war” with the music hipsters because her music is pretty and accessible. They always seem to attack those at the forefront of the revolution, and then — in all innocent disingenuousness — retroactively claim as Of The Tribe them three decades later. (Happened to the Beatles as well, and it’s starting to slowly happen to some other bands.)

Marketability and its severe lack

I’m reminded of a comment the wonderful Jeff Schmidt made in an interview about selling oneself as well as one’s music, when he said that despite the success of a lot of information-age musicians like Zoe Keating and others, that paradigm posed a problem for him: “It’s hard enough finding people that like my music. But if my livelihood depends on all those people ALSO liking ME personally? Oh boy.”

I feel the same. As much as I think my music might be sellable, I am a smartassed, unpleasant, middle-aged hermit with a very unforgiving outlook on life and a real short path from brain to mouth writing something that is close enough to New Age piano to at least bump up against the rainbows-and-dolphins crowd. That’s not a marketing match made in heaven.

Turning everything into a piano

I’m not talking tonally. I’m talking about enabling every instrument, no matter what, to sustain a complete performance including melody, harmony, and rhythm — using the looping techniques that are being investigated by many performers, including Zoe Keating as one of the most visible doing this with an instrument that is almost always considered an accompanying instrument. Yes, there are soloists and a decent solo literature, but for the most part, it’s one voice and it’s not the one that often carries the tune.

The piano has disadvantages — mostly that you can’t alter the tonal quality very much, you can’t bend a note, and you are locked into a tempered tuning if you want to be able to modulate freely. However, the massive advantage of a piano — the single most significant difference between it and almost everything else — is its sheer theoretical and structural size. You can carry an entire extremely complex performance down to every detail, as one person. Melody, harmony, rhythm, texture. All of it. It’s the only instrument except for a pipe organ that allows one person to be a complete orchestra.

Except well … now with Keating demonstrating the possibilities of creating a complete sound universe with one cello playing all of those roles, it appears that any instrument can be turned into its own total performance, even the ones that have played shadow roles thus far. Bassoonists? This is your time to shine. Tuba? French horn? Clarinet? *angelic smile* Viola? Guess what — you can now carry large orchestral works; the piano isn’t the only instrument that can sustain an orchestral reduction or a structurally complete piece anymore.

This requires a whole new way of arranging music, though. Arrangement for live performance means that new works will need to be created that optimize this technique, while old works may have to be retooled. Perhaps some, like “Bolero” or the “Canon in D” would lend themselves easily. With audio processing or distortion, perhaps one instrument can make more than one type of sound as well, making this all relevant to the piano, too. (Although I’d say that the more significant change to a piano would be to enable a digital piano to enjoy dynamic intonation, vibrato, or changes in sound quality like the tasto and ponticello that you can get out of a string instrument.)

It’s all very interesting, and enables all instruments to enjoy the same nearly unbounded structural advantages of a piano. I’ve often said that the piano welcomes you no matter what type of person you are or mood you’re in: introverted and reserved, social and outgoing. Anyone is welcomed. Now, the same can be said of every instrument in the orchestra. You don’t have to play with others if you don’t want to, and even the bassoons and bass trombones can be a universe unto themselves.