Strange Vibrations

Two composers on Breaking Bad, cello angels, and the thrill of improvisation

by Sally Ann Flecker

David Porter sitting in his music studio

I once overheard an old-time West Virginia fiddle maker talking about how a fiddle wakes up—that as you play it, the very cells in the wood begin to open up and the instrument becomes more responsive and resonant. It’s something that happens over the course of a session— and also over the lifetime of the instrument. The act of playing shakes the instrument into being. The vibrations themselves ever-so-gently reshape the fibers of the wood, tempering its character. Imagine that. The instrument is always in the act of becoming itself.

I’m thinking about that now, about how visceral music can be, as Zoë Keating ’93 fills this intimate club with layer upon layer of mesmerizing sound using a single cello. It’s a Tuesday evening in Pittsburgh, a December day that started with a few inches of snow and never warmed above freezing. Nonetheless, more than a hundred people have braved the cold for the rare treat of seeing Zoë perform live on her very short Midwest tour. Keating is an avant-garde cellist and composer. Her instruments are an acoustic cello and a laptop that she controls unobtrusively with a foot pedal to create the illusion of a roomful of musicians.

In the 10 years since she took a deep breath, quit her day job, and launched her career as an independent artist, she’s had a remarkable response. Her self-released albums (two albums and an EP to date, with a fourth recording in the works) have sold 65,000 copies. She’s been the number one classical artist on iTunes. She’s been featured on NPR, toured in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia. She’s created music for documentaries and for indie and commercial films (including contributing to composer Mark Isham’s score for The Secret Life of Bees). Modern dance and ballet companies around the world have performed to her music—in both Spain and San Francisco, she’s accompanied the dancers live. And an astounding 1.3 million people follow her on Twitter. Not bad for a shy person who has suffered from horrible stage fright in the past.

Not that you would know that from watching her this evening. She’s all indie-rock glam—dressed for the occasion in a black tunic that sweeps into a dramatic, asymmetrical tail. Her legs are sheathed in black leather and topped off with fuchsia socks, which echo the pink streak that runs through her pale hair. (In a previous incarnation, her signature was a knot of carrot-red dreadlocks.)

She’s rocking the cello side to side dreamily now as she plays the slow and sonorous melody of a piece called “Escape Artist.” After a few repeats she adds another, more rhythmic melody, followed by a repeat of the very first phrase, now voiced in a higher register, and then harmony. Keating is recording and then sampling loops of the music, using computer software and a digital audio interface. As she builds these multiple layers of sound, she continues to add fresh melody, counterpoint, or rhythmic phrases until there are amazing strata of resounding phrases. She calls it her “cello angel sound.”

Make no mistake. This is a completely live performance. None of this is prerecorded. Although she improvises here and there, this is a composition she has formalized and memorized. Halfway through the show she introduces a new piece. She has only performed it live twice before, she says, in Detroit and Cleveland the previous two nights. She begins to build the layers, when she suddenly utters, “Oh, dammit,” and stops mid-bow. When she makes a mistake in performance, she tells the audience, she often goes with it, but because this piece is new, she wants to get it right. A man sitting at one of the few small round tables near the stage calls out to her: “We love your mistakes!” The audience laughs in agreement.

Meanwhile, across the country, in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles, TV and film composer Dave Porter ’94 works in his studio, a converted, stand-alone garage behind his house. (Porter and Keating were classmates in the electronic music program at Sarah Lawrence and members of the Improv Ensemble.) The studio is crowded. A collection of vintage and contemporary synthesizers, an acoustic and an electric guitar, an assortment of ethnic instruments, even a shiny red toy piano–technically his 2-year-old son’s but still fair game—surround him. Leaning against one wall is the nearly six-foot-long, 13-string Japanese koto. This is one of the wooden instruments he brought home with him 20 years ago after studying traditional Japanese music abroad as a Sarah Lawrence junior.

Porter has made a name for himself as the composer of original music for the award-winning AMC series Breaking Bad. By turns tragic, perplexing, funny, and demented, it’s a startling and stunning study of transformation. Porter’s unconventional score doesn’t embellish the visual narrative. Rather, it surrounds it like weather.

The Breaking Bad score has an elemental feel—grainy, gritty, metallic, hollow. It clanks, whooshes, and whines, breathes, buzzes, and sputters. Porter says the biggest decision he made early on was to steer clear of the traditional orchestral instruments commonly used in TV and film music. “The show was so arresting and so different. And, to boot, it had its roots in science and in Walter White’s very methodical brain,” he says. “I wanted to do something that involved electronics and combinations of world instruments that would never in the real world be playing in the same room—anything that felt a little disjointed, a little uncomfortable. I wanted as little as possible of what I was doing to be expected.”

Take, for instance, the melody of the title theme. It’s voiced by a resonator guitar before being taken up mid-phrase by a gonged instrument. Despite the stark contrast in the timbre of each, the movement is so seamless that it’s not so much a transition between instruments as a transfiguration. For the percussion, Porter turned to something completely original—gas tanks junked from old cars.

There’s a good story behind that. When Porter first moved to Los Angeles, he had an older sports car that needed a lot of work. (It still does.) He needed work, too, but wasn’t finding it, so he would hang out at his mechanic’s in Santa Monica. That’s where he discovered the gas tanks in a heap of car parts. He experimented with them, striking them with tympani mallets and filling them with varying amounts of water to produce different timbres and pitches. The results were surprisingly melodic.

Porter uses a number of naturally occurring sounds—ticking clocks, desert insects, hospital respirators—which he processes electronically to blend them into the score. “The ‘found sounds’ add a level of quiet and subtle tension,” he says. “I do a lot of sculpting of almost every sound that I use when scoring Breaking Bad.” He’s not shy, he says, when it comes to using compression, distortion, and bit-rate reduction to create the exact sound he wants.

Porter created a new piece of music for the end credits of each episode, with the Breaking Bad theme making an appearance in some shape or form. “I used those 30 seconds each week to highlight a particular emotion from the episode, or decompress from a momentous ending, or give a glimpse of something we are leading up to in the next episode. Free from the duties of scoring directly to picture, these little pieces became a moment of creative expression and experimentation.”

Porter had been following Keating’s career and listening to her music from afar. “When a particular episode in season three (“Sunset”) came along, it dawned on me that Zoë would bring the perfect element I was hoping for in that end credit piece. So I reached out to her, reintroduced myself, and she graciously agreed to collaborate with me and perform my Breaking Bad theme in her own way.” Keating’s take on the theme is raw and rough—more cello devil than cello angel. She pounds and saws at her cello, dancing in and around the theme, ending in a lusciously low-voiced register. You can almost hear Porter’s original melody, but it’s evanescent, shimmering away from you before you can catch it. “Of the 50 or more versions of the Breaking Bad theme I created over the years, the one Zoë and I worked on together is one of my favorites,” says Porter, who adds that he now catches up with Keating every time she comes to Los Angeles.

Aside from the end credits, everything else Porter writes is written directly to the picture. In his studio, he has a huge screen where he can run clips from the show in a continual loop. First, he uses a metronome to establish a tempo that suits the pacing of a scene. Then he’ll grab one of his many instruments and respond to the picture with melody or rhythm. “For me, the composition process is all based in improvisation,” he says. “Once I latch on to something that seems like an interesting starting point, I record it and start building up from there. Getting the tone of a piece of score just right is the most difficult aspect of writing music for film and TV, and particularly difficult on a show like Breaking Bad, where the characters have many different layers.”

Here’s the kind of problem he has to solve musically. (Spoilers ahead!) The most pivotal scene in the whole series, in Porter’s estimation, occurs late in season two, where Walter lets Jesse’s girlfriend Jane die. “The score in that moment had to add gravity in a subtle enough manner that wouldn’t influence how the audience perceived Bryan Cranston’s incredibly complicated and nuanced performance,” he told fans in a chat on the Web site Reddit. “And yet had to be bold enough to complement the incredible horror of this character dying before our eyes.”

He wrote that scene very quickly, only modifying it slightly over time. “I was completely immersed into the scene by the actors’ performances, very moved,” he says. “I found a sound and a small chord progression on an old synthesizer. It felt hollow and sad, and yet powerful at the same time. Within an hour I had written it.”

As a complete contrast, he points to his experience with the opening scene in the “Buyout” episode in season five where the characters are getting rid of the evidence of the shooting of a young boy. “It’s a very special scene for me—it would be for any composer because it’s a three- or four-minute segment where there’s nothing but music,” he says. “There’s no dialogue, there’s no other sound, and it creates a sort of dreamlike sequence, even though it’s very real. They’re disposing of the kid’s dirt bike, which, of course, is all foreshadowing and metaphor for what they’re also going to have to do to the kid himself. It’s a dreadful scene. As a parent myself, it was very, very hard to work on. It was very emotional, especially having to watch it hundreds and hundreds of times. But I also knew it was an incredible opportunity to try to capture all that dread and emotion and horror in me, and hopefully mold it into music that would translate that to the scene. A complex mix of horror, dread, revulsion, and sadness. The piece itself is very simple. In fact, as I worked on it, it got simpler and simpler, because that proved to be the most powerful answer. It took me a long time. In the world of television composing, that means a few days, which is all the time there is.”

Dave Porter’s first memory of Zoë Keating was walking into the electronic music lab at Sarah Lawrence late one night and seeing the white tape she had plastered all over a complex creation on the modular synthesizers. A complicated analog sequence can take hours and hours to set up—and it only exists in real time. So once you move a patch cord or change a dial, you’ve lost the original composition. Hence the tape, preserving it at least until the next morning when others could critique. But alone in the studio, Porter got the first listen that night. “It sounded like a forest of birds, an absolutely incredible thing,” he says. “I was definitely impressed—and daunted.”

Zoe Keating playing cello on stage with loop pedals and laptop

The electronic music studio at Sarah Lawrence was a revelation to Keating. She played around with all the equipment, but she was especially keen on recording herself on the cello and then taking the tape and splicing it with a razor blade until she had created the sound she was looking for. “I was completely enamored with the sound of layered cellos. That was pretty much all I wanted to do,” she says. Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D minor had always been a favorite of Keating’s. “I loved certain parts of it. I discovered I could splice it up, loop it, layer my favorite parts in the studio—and then play on top of it,” she says. “I feel like I’m still re-creating that piece of music every day.”

Keating started her life as a musician when she was eight years old and a teacher handed her a cello—“because I was tall,” Keating speculates. It was love at first pluck. But no matter how masterfully she was able to play classical music, she suffered intractable stage fright.

If she had one epiphany at Sarah Lawrence in the electronic music lab, she came to another in the improvisational ensemble led by John Yannelli '82 (music). “It was terrifying,” Keating says. “But I loved it at the same time. The stage fright didn’t debilitate me like it did when I was playing classical music. I think by playing in an improv group and, later, by playing cello in everybody’s guitar band, I learned on a cellular level the structure of rock and roll, which is really the basis for everything I’m doing.” (Studying with John Yannelli was an important factor in Porter coming to Sarah Lawrence. The improv class was an “incredible awakening,” he says—and the basis for everything he is doing now.)

After graduation, Keating took off for California. (Today, she lives in a forest an hour and a half north of the Bay Area.) In San Francisco, she held a string of random jobs—waitress, prep cook, salesclerk at Victoria’s Secret. In the meantime, she played cello in the Freeway Symphonies—community orchestras around the Bay Area. She was better able to manage the anxiety of performing, she believed. Then, after a calamitous audition for the San Francisco Music Conservatory—she fell to pieces after playing only a few notes—she turned her back on classical music. She started to work for a small software start-up, eventually becoming an information architect by day. At night she transformed into a cello rock goddess with the Victorian punk band Rasputina.

A 2005 profile on NPR’s Day-to-Day kicked her career as an independent artist into overdrive. She had released an album, One Cello x 16, the month before. (She released a second album, Into the Trees, in 2010.) After the exposure on public radio, sales of her music soared on iTunes. “That was the beginning,” she says. “I really felt like this brand-new world was opening up, that, if you were an independent artist, you could do it yourself, you didn't need to have all the machinery. It felt like a new meritocracy. I think it was a lucky little window of time there, where there was a pathway for an independent artist, but it wasn’t swamped yet.”

These days, Keating has a huge fan base. She balances motherhood (3-1/2- year-old Alex, who loves it when mom uses her cello to make fire truck noises and silly fart sounds) with a growing list of commercial and commissioned work. Her music for a Viper sports car commercial allowed her to build a studio on her property. “I don't know why, when everybody looks at me, they think of muscle cars,” she laughs. She also created music for a live-theatre planetarium show, The Kepler Story, in San Francisco. Recently, she imposed a “cone of silence,” cutting herself off from everyone but family in order to concentrate on a special commission.

Queen Rania of Jordan, on behalf of the World Economic Forum, had named her a Young Global Leader for a five-year term, and Keating was composing a special piece for their annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in January. “These world leaders will have spent four days talking about problems of the world, and my task is, musically, in 10 minutes, to take them from a feeling of disorder and uncertainty to a sense of purpose.”

Keating often closes her eyes as she plays. She has a long, delicate face—ivory-skinned, with extravagant cheekbones. Her facial expressions cycle between self-assurance and vulnerability. “I love that feeling of getting swept up in sound and music. You get swept up in this wave. I always wanted to capture that feeling,” she has said. “You’re in this three-dimensional landscape of sound. That’s where I like to be with my music.

“I can almost see the way the music happens. But that’s not seeing people playing, or seeing a conductor conducting it, or seeing people watching it. It’s very much a feeling of what does the sound look like—the sweep of the sound, or the way it moves up and down, or the way it’s rushing forward.”

As a listener, it’s just you and her and this luscious, hypnotic, haunting music. As the evening moves to an end, I try to hang onto each phrase, try to notice when one begins, when another fades. But it’s like trying to hold onto the wisp of a dream. There’s too much to follow. All you can do is let the vibrations of sound in, filling you—opening and reshaping your very cells. We are all—musician, audience, the instruments themselves, even those gas tanks—always in the act of becoming ourselves.

Sally Ann Flecker is stopped in her tracks by all sorts of wonderful music, but she has a particular spot in her heart for old-time Appalachian music. She sings and plays—with more enthusiasm than prowess—guitar, mandolin, and clawhammer banjo.