January 13, 2015
Besides a gramophone perched by the staircase, there is little trace of the antiquated at SubCulture, NoHo’s latest underground performance venue. The whole place has a squeaky kind of newness to it, perhaps because it opened its doors a mere two Septembers ago, or perhaps simply because that’s the point. Yes, you’re tucked away in a basement on Bleecker Street, but not to see or be seen, some indie rocker a backdrop to loud, whiskey-laced small talk. You come to SubCulture to listen: there is less scrappiness, more order. The light bulbs that line the ceilings, while distressed looking, are still arranged in purposeful clusters. Everything is backlit in blue. There are cup holders.
Zoe Keating shakes up SubCulture’s tidiness by announcing, “I always like to start things in a terrifying way.” A cellist-composer who uses her laptop to form “a one-woman orchestra,” Keating begins the evening with a song she admits she hasn’t finished yet. Closing her eyes, she layers a languid melody over a mournful vibrato that her computer then rehashes, again and again. Every so often, her foot darts to her pedal to record a new phrase. She sways. The computer sings. Her eyes remain closed.
There’s a fascinating meta-ness to it all: Keating waiting not for some other musician’s or conductor’s cue but for her own—from a past or present her. She trips herself up as she tries to articulate the strangeness of “remember[ing] something that you may or may not have done, trying to recreate your own memory.” I’m reminded of Ben Lerner’s 10:04, marked by the refrain of the paraphrased proverb: “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.”
There’s an element of the savant in Keating—you can’t help but be captivated by this artist in utter control, the sole manipulator of a dozen tiny moveable parts. And yet, the spectacle doesn’t interest me as much as her fine-tuned ear, the soulfulness of her cello work. Does this make me old-fashioned, I wonder, resistant to innovation within the field? Or am I just challenging the even-keeled crispness of the loops, which, much like SubCulture itself, have so far been pretty and clean?
I wait for messiness.
It comes in the form of a song she calls (after a winding description of a mountain near her house in the Redwood Forest) “Seven League Boots.” She pats her strings with her bow, ushering in a twang that swells to panic. The song possesses an urgency absent from her cheeky story. It ends in a high-pitched cry.
Laughing nervously, she admits that she’s forgotten her set list backstage, and politely asks a staff member to fetch it. Later, she mumbles, “That was terrible,” as she strikes a chord on her D string—only to realize that it’s gone flat. But she’s in the company of friends. The audience laughs at her hiccups.
The majestic beginnings of “Escape Artist” take us far away from this brick-lined, backlit stage: an Iñárritu movie, maybe, or some foreign land. We watch Keating build and then dissolve melodies into a strained and yet beautiful scratchiness, the computer’s reverb punctuating them; jagged, then deep, then resonant. It’s one of the night’s standouts.
In “Frozen Angels,” there is a looming distress. I start to wonder, what is she hiding? What has she been through? Soon I succumb to private panics, the song leaving me disoriented in my own clutter of worries and recollections. It makes sense that Keating now composes for television; her moving phrases easily lend themselves to narrative.
The song “Leap,” Keating tells us, was written for the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. “I was thinking about the world and the economy and all that good stuff,” she explains sheepishly. It’s hardly an introduction for what’s to come. The song begins shrilly, then creeps into severity. There is a vastness to this piece, apt for a world both on the brink of disaster and advance. I picture an auditorium of stuffy economists floored.
The final song she plays is called “Optimist.” It is a piece she dedicates to her husband who she reveals—her voice breaking—was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer this past year. There is a collective breath, an understanding of the melancholy in her work. The song is her best. She draws her bow with renewed power, the phrases framed by controlled crescendos. Computer layers seem to reference Brian Eno’s Another Green World. If someone were to tell me this song had saved a life, I’d believe it.