Zoe Keating and Redshift on How Technology Is Changing So-Called Classical Music
Classical music is dying, woe, woe. We've heard the dirge so many times, but nobody seems to know exactly where all the classically trained, tux-adorned musicians are going. They aren't completely extinct yet. Instead of dying out, it seems that this endangered species of musician is adapting and evolving to the 21st Century by mixing genres and incorporating technology into their music.
Evan Sung New music ensemble REDSHIFT
In particular, San Francisco seems to be a hotbed for this new generation of musicians. Cellist Zoe Keating, who plays her instrument with a foot-controlled laptop to create layers of sound, observes that in S.F., "There's a natural Venn diagram that happens between technology and music."
SF Weekly spoke with cellist Zoe Keating, new music ensemble REDSHIFT, and award-wining composer David Lang to find out how classically-trained musicians are re-composing their field.
Zoe Keating, whose layered cello album Natoma has four times hit #1 on the iTunes classical charts, will be performing tonight at the Great American Music Hall. Next Thursday, S.F.- and N.Y.-based REDSHIFT debuts a new set of compositions, Arctic Sounds, that incorporates field recordings of Alaskan Wildlife. Their show includes a piece by David Lang, who won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Music.
How does your classical background affect the music you write and play?
Zoe Keating: I'm very fixated on perfection. It's not enough for me to just improvise; I care about subtlety and phrasing . I still love classical music, but I feel really boxed in by it and I want to interpret it my own way. I play one classical piece live, which is the 2nd movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony. But I always say that my piece is a cover of Beethoven.
Kate Campbell (REDSHIFT, piano): I think you definitely need the technical training with a lot of the pieces -- they're written for a classically-trained musician. I also have a certain loyalty to the score and want to do it perfectly , versus a band which may be a more casual or collaborative situation.
When you perform live with technology, are you scared of technical failures? Is it hard to juggle playing and technology?
Zoe: It is a bit of a balancing act and I feel like I'm on a tightwire. I have technical failures all the time, but I've decided I won't get upset about them. If I fail, I stop and tell the audience what's going on. The technology gets more and more stable each year, but when I started out it was really flaky and that's just the nature of the beast. It's part of the process of performing.
Rose Bellini (REDSHIFT, cello): There are a lot more cords on stage [laughs]. And there's definitely more risk involved -- with a computer there's always a risk of crashing. In general, though, it's like adding another player, which just happens to be a laptop.
Do you think that up-and-coming musicians need to look into technology and or other genres to survive?
Andie Springer (REDSHIFT, violin): If you want to work in a city, versatility is essential. Even if you do want to play in an orchestra, you have to be open, because more and more symphonies are starting to realize that to stay afloat, they need to play contemporary works, and a lot of those pieces are starting to incorporate multimedia, technology, and extended technique. You can't really get by being resistant to that.
Rose (REDSHIFT, cello): I hesitate to use the word necessary but I think it's really smart. It's not good to be a performer who can only play your instrument but doesn't have any entrepreneurial skills ... to be more well rounded is necessary. We're all fluid between genres and I think that's typical of musicians of our generation.
David Lang: I do think that a composer needs to be open to letting his or her music go wherever it might find itself, no matter how unintended. It is not a question of survival, but of using your music as an opening to see other things in the world, that wouldn't normally come your way. Maybe that kind of openness is about survival, now that I think about it.
What can we expect from your upcoming performance?
Sounds of Alaska
Andie (REDSHIFT, violin): I grew up in Alaska, and it's just so beautiful -- you're in nature all the time. Then I started playing music and got very serious about that. I ended up in New York and got to be very busy, and I felt like I was being pulled away from Alaska more and more by music. Finally I had this idea to bring these two loves of my life together . You can expect to hear a huge array of really cool wildlife sounds that you might not be able to recognize. We'll also be in many different combinations of instruments.
Rose (REDSHIFT, Cello): The tracks are definitely integrated into each piece. There are pieces where the track plays more of a background role to the live performance, but there are others where the track is in the foreground and we're just along for the ride.
What's the difference between live performance and recorded/purely electronic music?
David: Since perfectly made and recorded music is available on the internet at all times of the day and night, and is often completely free, there has to be a reason for people to continue to see live performance, and that is because it is made by people, right in front of you. Because of this I am much more interested in human struggle than in using technology in my music.
Kate (REDSHIFT, piano): Well, that's the main way that musicians interact with the listeners. It's direct, you can see them, you can get feedback. It's more interpersonal, like talking in person rather than talking over email.
What do you want your audience to get out of your performances?
Jeffrey Rusch Zoe Keating thinks outside of the box
Zoe: I'd like to be able to take people out of the moment and have some sort of cathartic musical experience where they forget where they are in time and space.
Jeffrey Anderle (REDSHIFT, Clarinet): When I am on stage, my goal is to transfer the passion and excitement I feel about the music I am playing to the audience. Sometimes, audiences need a little help understanding the context or the techniques being used, which isn't really different from any other contemporary art field. One of the primary goals of REDSHIFT is to remove any barriers that would prevent an audience from having an emotional experience.
Kate (REDSHIFT, piano): Well I think the biggest thing with REDSHIFT is that we don't like the misconception that new music with classical instruments is very hard to get, or that there's even something to get. We just want people to come and say, I didn't realize I'd like that. Maybe they'll have more fun than they expected to.
Having performed all over the world, what draws you to the S.F. music scene?
Zoe: S.F. is interesting because it's kind of expensive so that means that people try really hard. other cities have different kinds of music scenes -- I'm not saying they're slackers, but there's a kind of intensity to the S.F. music scene. There's a natural venn diagram that happens between technology and music. That makes it easy to think of a computer as a potential music instrument.
Jeffrey (REDSHIFT, clarinet): San Francisco is a great place for all types of music, because there is room for people to experiment, and audiences are very open-minded. Plus, musicians here are very adventurous, willing to strike out on their own, which is very inspiring.
Andie (REDSHIFT, violin): I absolutely love San Francisco. I feel like there is an energetic and small but growing audience for contemporary music -- people seem really open. It is really exciting to be part of it. I haven't heard of any other city that has so much rumbling going on. We've always had such great responses to our concerts there, which gives us the impression that it's special to the audiences that are coming out.