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Snapsongs: “Tetrishead” by Zoë Keating

Tuesday 8 April 2014 - Filed under Snapsongs

I first became aware of Zoë Keating by her lack of presence in Melora Creager’s thrash-cello outfit Rasputina. Don’t get me wrong: she was definitely a presence on the album Cabin Fever, which is a lovely crazy romp all over the stylistic universe, but nothing that made her stand out from the other two musicians. The reason I say “lack of presence” is because soon after starting to tour, Keating broke a finger on her fret hand, which made it impossible for her to properly play the power chords necessary for Rasputina’s catalog while it was healing. She gracefully exited the band, hinting at solo efforts to come that didn’t require barre fingerings. I was intrigued: what does one do as a solo cellist in this day and age?

Well, if one is Zoë Keating, one delves into technical solutions to make a solo cellist sound like a whole posse of cellists. She uses a laptop, software, delays, control pedals and effects to loop, sample, cudgel, tweak and coax various themes, motifs and riffs into a seamless whole. Her first album, One Cello x 16, recorded in a warehouse space in San Francisco, was an amuse bouche for the ear, five compositions that defied the “classical” pigeonhole that her instrument of choice would otherwise consign her to. I was immediately entranced. No, this wasn’t a Windham Hill sampler; this wasn’t bloodless New Age music designed without heat or light for maximum sales penetration. This was chewy chamber music with a technogeek backbone. This was the hookup.

It’s pretty obvious that I come from a background in low-end stringed instrumentation. Multitrack layered cello is right in my wheelhouse. However, before one accuses me of taking airs to beat Moses, the electric bass guitar has nothing on the cello. I’d love to learn cello, truly I would, but I’m a lazy bastard. I’d have to buy a cello, for one, and they’re not as cheap as a bass. Also, I am very happy with using the crutch of physical frets to make sure my notes ring pure. Going fretless scares me, although I’ve dipped my toe a time or two, and I’m just not that good. Add bowing, plucking, fingering, theory, sight-reading, the whole nine yards, and I’m just a dilettante with four strings, happy to thump along as best I can. But I am in love with the lower end of the scale, with the things one can do when one is not a six-stringed attention-whore married to the G-clef and easy groupies, and with the amazing spectrum of tonality and timbre one can coax from big fat meaty strings. And I love the acoustic puzzle of fitting together a myriad of modulating lines of melody and harmony. Zoë Keating was all of that and more.

“Tetrishead” comes from her second album, One Cello x 16: Natoma, an altogether more confident outing recorded in the same warehouse, that takes the concepts from her first and expands them in various directions. There’s theme and variations, there’s simple mood music, there’s snarky almost-thrash, and there’s stuff in-between. “Tetrishead” is some of the in-between. The title is pure technogeek, and if you set your mind’s eye you can see the tetrominoes of the titular game appear, spin, and set themselves in time with the basic rhythm she thumps out on muted strings. There are three or four motifs that come and go as the song progresses, hummable themes that weave in and out of the basic tempo as it repeats itself again and again. Such, of course, is the nature of looped multitrack recording, but this is a benefit, not a detraction. Chamber music, as it existed back when there were chambers to play it in, was all about the hide-and-seek of disparate parts that came and went as the suite progressed. Keating was just able to take modern technology and do it to MIDI word-clock exactness. And it’s great fun.

But the thing that elevated this particular song beyond just the fun and games of my normal interest in multitrack recording, base-level sounds and technical geekery, is by parts timing, circumstance, and just pure genius. One particular night, as I was driving north from San Marcos, Texas in order to see my beloved in Austin, I had One Cello x 16: Natoma playing in the car as a favorite commuting selection. “Tetrishead” came on, and as the distance slipped by I could feel the inexorable progression of the song find and meld with the highway hypnosis of long-distance driving. The interweave of motifs and themes became something of a fugue state, that finally became paramount about the last third of the composition, when the multiple voices gave way to a simple ostinato.

Low, low, low on the scale, a simple five-note theme emerged solo and moaned over and over again as my travel continued. My ear pegged on the progression and kept following it as layers began to build. More and more voices came into play, but below them the low cello continued its simple baseline drive. Even as the themes ran into themselves and merged into sheets of singing strings, the ostinato continued. I kept tracking it as it buried itself under more and more shimmering layers. I am prone to alphanumeric synaesthesia, and it sometimes presents in music as a spectrum of colors ranging from deep-note brown climbing through gold and brass to silver and white on the very high end. The composition became a slow-moving river of deep earth sliding its way under stacked layers of various precious metals melting through my brain. It wasn’t until the entire song had dissolved into nothing but overlapping unison notes and thumping rhythm slaps did that snaking basement dissolve. And it was with great surprise that I emerged back to myself, to find myself five miles farther down the road, and with my ears ringing with sound.

That is why, Dear Reader, “Tetrishead” is my absolute favorite track on another definite Desert Island Disc. Sometimes I listen to it just to see if I can fall back into that fugue state, and feel the movement of the earth once again.

2014-04-08  »  Edward Semblance