An orchestra of one

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Whenever Zoë Keating takes the stage, her hefty jumble of red dreadlocks pulled back from her face, a tangle of cords reaches like tentacles out of her cello. Her accompaniment: a small table supporting a rack of high-tech knobs and blinking lights, all connected via the cello's electronic appendages.

None of this is what you'd expect of a classically trained musician. Yet it's the sound she produces that may be most surprising.

Using multitracking, which lets her record and play back more than one cello track at a time, and looping, or repeating a portion of the recording, Ms. Keating layers cello sequence upon cello sequence, forming what can sound like as many as 16 cellists playing at once.

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While it isn't new, this electronic technology is more often used in pop and rock than classical music. But Keating and virtuosic classical bassist Edgar Meyer have each tapped into it as a means of essentially collaborating with themselves: she through live performances and a 2005 album, "One Cello x 16"; he on a CD to be released this month in which he alone plays and records six instruments ( it's aptly titled "Edgar Meyer"). The result is music that conveys the complex sounds one expects of an ensemble, not from solo musicians.

Before arriving at this more unusual type of collaboration, both Keating and Mr. Meyer have had long and fruitful relationships with other musicians. Keating has recorded two albums with the cello-rock group Rasputina. And Meyer, a MacArthur "genius" award winner, is known for being equally comfortable on a concert billing with classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma as he is playing an outdoor festival alongside bluegrass banjoist Béla Fleck.

But they both wanted a little more freedom. "When I started writing my own compositions, initially I wanted other musicians to help me play them," says Keating. Yet she found herself struggling to translate her ideas. What she was looking for, she realized, was someone who could improvise along with her. And that's "a lot to ask of a classically trained musician," she says. "But someone not classically trained was not an option because they don't have the technique." So Keating, who through the '90s worked as a computer programmer and saw this as a technical sort of problem akin to to designing a web page, decided her "efforts were better spent seeing how [she] could play all the parts."

Meyer wanted something similar: room to meander. "With several people working on something, there's a limit to the detours you can take," he says. It also made sense for his instrument, the double bass. "If you just throw a bunch of instruments together, the bass is not going to be the one that stands out."

David Finckel, co-artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York, where Meyer performs regularly, suggests there's more to it: "Only one person in the world can do on the bass what Edgar can do, and maybe every once in a while he needs some musical company." (That, of course, would be himself.)

Deserved or not, the reputation of classical music is that of a traditional art form in opposition to technology. In fact, electronic technology has been in use by contemporary classical musicians at least since the 1950s when such composers as Pierre Schaeffer experimented with multiple turntables and mixers.

"It started first in these avant-garde circles," considered a part of the Western classical tradition, says John Mallia, director of the Electronic Music Studios at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music. Then it "made its way to pop music and, funnily enough, it's making its way back to classical music," he says.

Still, when most people think of classical music, they envision orchestras performing live or else hewing as closely as possible to a live concert for a recording.

From a small basement studio at the New England Conservatory, filled with many thousands of dollars worth of electronic equipment and padded with black and red soundproofing and diffusing foam, Mr. Mallia says he's being approached more and more by student musicians interested in learning about the possibilities of electronic music. His course, required for composition majors, has been only an elective for performance students.

Of course, neither Keating nor Meyer's work can be neatly pegged as "classical." And the debate about what actually constitutes contemporary classical music seems endless - but, actually, neither musician seems terribly interested in engaging the discussion.

Others before Keating and Meyer have tried self-collaborations with varying degrees of success. Jascha Heifetz's recording of both violin parts of the Bach Double Concerto in 1946 was probably "the first time such an audacious thing was tried" by a classical musician, says Mr. Finckel. This year, the Emerson String Quartet, with whom he plays cello, won two Grammys for their recording of all eight parts of the Mendelssohn Octet. But Meyer says that Stevie Wonder, who made "Music of My Mind" in 1972, is still the best example of the one-man band. "He hasn't been bettered in terms of an overall vision: using that technology to make music you couldn't have done another way," he says.

Go to zoekeating.com or edgarmeyer.com for more information on the two artists.

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