It is rare to find music that is so layered and complex but at the same time so hauntingly simple to connect with.
There is a famous old quote—attributed to everyone from Frank Zappa to Lester Bangs to Laurie Anderson to Steve Martin—that goes like this: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
That sounds about right. But what if one were to simultaneously write about music and dance? What then? Maybe that would be something along the lines of dancing about architecture while high jumping about zoology?
I’m going to daringly dance and high jump over two unique entities slated to take the stage at the Chautauqua Auditorium this Tuesday night, August 3, in Boulder as part of the Colorado Music Festival: avant-garde cellist Zoë Keating and the Apex Dance Company.
Keating has described her art as a “fusion of information architecture and classical music.” Formerly employed in the high tech world as an information architect and trained as a classical musician, she’s basically merged her two passions. She sets loops of musical data dancing via her cello with the help of a MIDI controller hooked up to a Mac laptop. While she bows the cello’s strings, her feet tap dance across a foot-operated pad that controls a variety of pre-recorded segments of a song that she can repeat, layer, and alternate to create a cascading flood of otherworldly musical sound—cue dancing and buildings. She’s said that she doesn’t like to title things because she doesn’t want to pin down what her listeners can choose for themselves. Despite this, though, her works have been named for forests, battle scenes, and the setting sun. (While listening to the piece “The Sun Will Set,” one listener was heard to exclaim: “Gadzooks! That’s exactly what a sunset sounds like!” Full disclosure: the individual who said that was the writer of this article. But don’t take my word for it: check out her music for yourself.)
The fact that Boulder is currently awash in rabidly frothing Zoë fanatics anticipating her show this week has nothing to do with advertising or pre-concert hype. Keating does no marketing. Nada. Niente. Nunca. The only notice she provided for Tuesday’s show has been through her website, her tweets, and an international network of fan chatter. “Can’t—wait—for—the—Boulder—show” tweets and emails have been flowing her way ever since she announced the concert months ago. Have a hard time believing that this kind of interest can be generated by an avante—garde string player whose music you can’t even buy at Albums on the Hill or Borders? Check out this tweet she received while visiting Chautauqua for the first time this past weekend: “That was such a surprise! Ran into @zoecello at Chautauqua! Made my day.” This from a Boulderite on a hike. How many cellists can you spot on an average day? That’s the kind of fan base we’re talking about here.
When she released her album “In the Trees” simultaneously online and by mail order in June, it debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard classical charts. Once again: accomplished with zero advertising. That week she was bigger’n Beethoven, Brahams and Bach rolled into one. And she’s gotta be way more popular than any other classical composer whose name begins with a “K.”
She told one reviewer that her new home near the Muir Woods in Northern California was purchased with the revenue from the iTunes sales of her music.
The Road to Boulder
The reason Keating’s in Boulder this week is because someone from a contemporary dance troupe in Parker, Colorado, called her a while back and asked her to collaborate. She didn’t know anyone in the group, hadn’t heard of the company, and, in typical Zoë style, simply said “sure.” So, last week she packed up her 10-week-old son Alex (more on him in a moment), her raft of electronic gear, a new cello built by a luthier in Italy, and flew to Denver for rehearsals with the Apex Contemporary Dance Theater.
She recounted how David Reuille (pronounced “Roy”), the company’s artistic director, made his informal pitch: “David sent an email. That was it. That’s how my life works these days. I like performing with dancers. Dance is abstract, my music is abstract. Plus, it’s a kick for me to see how others ‘see’ my work. I really like it because it’s something totally different [from performing solo]. My dream is to go on a big tour with a ballet company. You’d rehearse, then go on tour for a few months. That would be great.”
Tweeting from a rehearsal in Denver last Saturday, Keating wrote: “Can I work with dance companies all the time please?”
Reuille discovered Keating’s music the way most people do: by word of mouth. A simple listening recommendation set the Keating-Apex collaboration in motion. “A friend of mine turned me on to Zoë’s music,” says Reuille, “and . . . I used it in class. I find that her music is filled with a depth and soul that made any movement done to it feel like an expression of truth. It is rare to find music that is so layered and complex but at the same time so hauntingly simple to connect with.”
Sporting an impressive resume filled with dancing and teaching dance in places such as Russia and Poland, Reuille’s performed with a number of international groups, including the prestigious Ballet Folklorico de Mexico in Mexico City. He’s also worked with such renowned musical artists as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the Ahn Trio.
“Working with a live musician and not a recording is truly something [that’s hard to describe],” he says. “There is a point of interaction between the dancers and the musician that is like a feedback loop. The energy between the two can sometimes be overwhelming.”
Tuesday’s performance will include two full dance pieces titled “Emergent Properties” and “Dialectic” that incorporate six Keating compositions. The troupe put in more than a month of rehearsals to create the works.
Now entering its fourth season, the Apex Contemporary Dance Theater company is made up of remarkably talented and athletic dancers who appear to defy gravity on a regular basis, or at least answer to a different gravity that the rest of us have to. This is also a dance company with a strong altruistic streak. The group works with the nonprofit ArtReach whose mission is to “change lives through the arts by providing access to arts and cultural experiences for underserved and at-risk people of all ages.” Apex’s president and associate director, Heidi Nichter, has danced with some of the most prestigious teachers and dance companies in the country, but it’s obvious that one of the things she’s most proud of is her work with disadvantaged individuals who wouldn’t normally have a chance to get in touch with their inner dancers. Nichter, who has taught dance to everyone from young women in correctional facilities to abused kids, obviously enjoys preparing for the Chautauqua program but also puts her heart into her community as well: “A lot of the kids we work with have never had people pay attention to them before. Once they started dancing, though, they couldn’t get enough of it. They get so excited about it.”
In addition to the company’s remarkable compassion and community work, the dancers of Apex are smart and inquisitive. During a break in last week’s rehearsals, members of the company gathered around Keating’s cello and peppered her with questions about her electronic equipment, wanting to know how she keeps all the strands of her music straight in her head. Keating patiently explained how the MIDI foot controller works, how she deploys various recorded sections of her pieces at predetermined points within a composition, and how long she’s been playing cello. “Thirty years,” she laughs when she tells them how long she’s been at it, seemingly startled at the thought of so much time passing. “Since I was 8.”
The Obligatory Yoga Angle
Because this is Elephant Journal, you’d assume that something in this story might tangentially involve yoga. And you’d be right.
“Most of our dancers practice yoga to varying degrees,” says Reuille. “One of our dancers, Julia Anderson, recently completed her certification as a Hatha yoga instructor. Apex has taken to a practice of yoga and stretching as a cool-down and finish for our long days of rehearsal. This practice has been one the best that we have established as it helps us to mediate the sometimes grueling things that we make our bodies do. As I have entered my 40’s, I have found that it is more and more important to release the muscles and tendons immediately following strenuous exercise.”
Reuille himself has also studied multiple styles of yoga over the years and is close to certification as a pilates instructor as well.
Eat Locally, Perform Globally
As mentioned, Keating has a new album out this summer. She was pregnant while she was putting the music for it together. She was renovating various rooms in her house at this time as well. She also played the South—by—Southwest festival last spring while eight months pregnant.
When she recounts all this, she notices my eyes widening. I ask if doing all these things at once weren’t a bit like giving birth to twins or triplets.
Keating laughs. “That’s my life. I always seem to have big things going on. At least Alex knows my new album really well. . . ”
Her husband, the graphic designer Jeffrey Rusch, was working on the new album’s packaging when Keating went into labor.
“My water broke at 4 a.m. in the morning ten days before my due date,” she said. “I think we were in a bit of denial about the whole thing.”
As with her ability to meld the technical side of her life with the creative, she proves herself to be a systems thinker in all aspects of her existence. The site for the house that she and her husband built in Northern California was chosen, in large part, because of its proximity to an 80-acre organic farm.
“We wanted to be somewhere where we could eat locally. We eventually want to do solar panels. How we live in our world is something we talk about continuously. We live in a forest and are constantly reminded of how beautiful things can be even when you’re surrounded by loss. Where we live was once filled with giant redwoods, but they were all cut down 100 years ago. We have big trees now, but you can see the ‘fairy rings’ that indicate the size of the original trees. It’s amazing to think what used to be there.”
Keating is the poster child for connectivity. Not just the connectivity of the web, but connectivity in the sense of networks and patterns and relationships between people and art. As mentioned, her art connects with people in a strong way. The leader of a dance company will call her out of the blue with an idea for a collaboration while a fan will spot her from across a meadow at the base of the Flatirons. One fan wrote to her from Antarctica saying that he liked to listen to her music while locked inside his station listening to the storms rage outside. One letter she received was from an American tank commander who told Keating he listened to her music as he drove his tank across the Iraqi desert. (Interestingly, Keating’s piece “Legions [War]” was written at the outset of the war in Iraq as she contemplated both the impending conflict and the legions of homeless people living in San Francisco, the city in which she was living at the time.)
In the ultimate act in this age of networking, Keating is giving her fans a chance to decide when and where she’ll return to Colorado. If you’re lucky enough to see Keating perform in Boulder this week and want her to return again soon in support of her new album, you can use “Demand it!” on Eventful to request a concert. (Or go here to determine when Keating will return.)
It’s obvious that Keating spends as much time thinking about her music and her listeners as she does about the environment in which she lives. “I want to take people out of the day-to-day and help them to really experience what it is to be in that moment, the moment of the music. I get totally carried away by that moment. I feel like I’m talking with the cello and people are understanding me.”
Zoe Keating and the Apex Contemporary Dance Theatre will perform at 7:30 p.m. on August 3 at Boulder’s Chautauqua Auditorium.
Jim Schnebly is a freelance writer who rides and abides in Denver, Colorado.