‘A Scary Move, A Necessary Move’
“When it was announced that I was leaving Kronos,” says cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, “half the people I spoke to said, ‘Wow, you’re really brave.’ And the other half said, ‘Wow, you’re really crazy.'”
We now know: the first half was right. And Zeigler now hands us one of the most intelligently varied, coolly parsed selections this season of music for writerly consideration.
If anything, Zeigler’s bravery arrives with a bravura that can make you crazy: Something of Life is a debut solo album from Innova Records that will remind listeners of how intensely valuable Zeigler’s work was to the Kronos Quartet for eight years.
His choices of material not only demand more from him than even the acclaimed Kronos repertoire did, but they also demonstrate a gutsy willingness to move in and out of what some might consider a soloist’s domain.
In my favorite work on the album — Listen, Quiet by his wife, composer Paola Prestini — Zeigler operates as a chatty buddy of sorts to master percussionist Jason Treuting of Sō Percussion, a composer in his own right. As Treuting delivers Prestini’s syncopated swagger in tropical tones, all soft mallets and pinging bells, Zeigler becomes what Carol Ann Cheung calls a “cello narrator.”
Cheung, a Carnegie Hall editor, is hardly wrong in her write-up of the new album at Q2 Music, Cellist Jeffrey Zeigler’s Debut Solo Album Embraces the Fierce and Everyday. But I’d actually call the cello voice here more a conversationalist with the percussionist than narrator. As if responding to the piece’s title, the cello seems to listen at times to the drums and blocks, and to the women’s plaintive commentary that surfaces and fades. Then Zeigler jumps back into the discussion with a smart authority, alternately cruising on cool legato arcs and then rippling across arpeggios, all against the marimba’s progress.
The Prestini piece is followed by a trenchant, difficult five-minute John Zorn work, Babel; by Philip Glass’ superbly resonant Orbit; by Gity Razaz’s Shadow Lines; and by Glenn Kotche’s 22-minute Something of Life. All this after Felipe Perez Santiago’s opener, Glaub, which may mean “think” or “believe” or even “trust” in various contexts.
How such scope and scale comes together, even for someone as adventurous as Zeigler, the cellist tells me, may have something to do with his appreciation for variety in food.
Anybody who knows me knows that my whole life revolves around food in some way. If someone were to ask me my favorite cuisine, I’d say that any cuisine can get tiresome.
Jeffrey Zeigler went at putting together his debut solo album, Something of Life, as he might bring together dishes that highlight and complement each other.
I was really pleased with how the different pieces are really distinct but also complement each other. For every moment a piece is occupying on the album, I think that piece makes a strong statement for its place and time and pacing and flow.
Along those lines, Zeigler says he had fewer qualms about leaving the security and stature of the Kronos than he might have had about other elements of his brave-and-crazy departure, about 18 months ago.
“It was imperative that I needed to look to different pastures,” he says. “It was clear to me what the next, foreseeable future of a string quartet was going to look like. Even this album: it was clear that doing this would never have been possible while playing in the quartet.
“So yes, it was a scary move, but a necessary move.”
‘You Still Have To Sit Down And Record The Music’
“When I left the quartet,” Zeigler says, “I had some time while playing my last concerts” with the Kronos to plan some projects. He found that he was so busy at first that the arrival of the new album has come a bit later than he’d expected.
One of the things he has learned in the process of bringing his own album to market is that the coordination and organization work can only be followed by the most vulnerable and important work of all: the playing.
As with authors whose writing time today is increasingly challenged by marketing and other business demands from publishers and readers, Zeigler knew that the real test would come when the tape started rolling:
After everything that you plan [in putting together an album], getting the engineer, getting the studios lined up, getting the scheduling done — at the end of the day, you still have to sit down and record the music, very difficult music.
But even with the challenges of getting all this music together, it wasn’t like going to the dentist. It was a lot of fun working with Scott Fraser, the engineer — an old friend, the sound guy for Kronos. It was fun working one-on-one with him on how the edits were going to work together, how the balance is, the backing tracks.
Among the things I like best about this album is how much of the music Zeigler has brought into the world, himself. This is a musician who is expanding the repertoire for all of us.
- Glaub, for example, the Santiago piece, is a 2010 commission by Zeigler.
- Prestini’s Listen, Quiet was written for Zeigler and the percussionist Pablo Reippi, commissioned by The Juilliard School.
- Zeigler commissioned Zorn’s Babel for a 2013 premiere.
- And both Razaz’s Shadow Lines and Kotche’s Something of Life were written for Zeigler and commissioned by VisionIntoArt, the multimedia company in New York that also gave us another Music for Writers entry, Anna Clyne’s The Violin.
This personable, friendly fellow — Zeigler laughs easily at himself during our chat, something not all ranking performers can do — is bringing new music forward and clearly is immensely grateful to those who create it for him.
‘Philip’s Writing Right Now Is So Gorgeous’
He wonders aloud, for example, whether Glass likes his performance of the mournful, intensely focused Orbit.
The octaves, the double-stops — it’s very challenging to get the intonation, with the right feel and gesture. Philip’s writing right now is so gorgeous. It’s his sound, it’s definitely him, but his writing for cello now evokes Bach so clearly. It’s the challenge of playing the Bach Cello Suites.
Sensually talkative, Glass’ presence on this album is, perhaps, the most grounding for those who love the voice of the violoncello. Troubled, thoughtful, maybe lonely, always searching, Orbit is tenderly shaded and yet muscularly fortified by Zeigler’s bow. Many will know what I mean when I say that this is fully a man’s evocation of another man’s artistry. Two masculinities meet here — the creator’s and the interpretor’s — and we cannot help but be stronger for the intimacy of their exploration of this restless meditation.
Orbit is hauntingly “cellistic,” to borrow a favorite non-word of Zeigler’s — the proper and perfect centerpiece of this album, it hovers in your mind long after you hear it, and can support any number of textual explorations a writer might want to make on a cool winter’s evening.
‘All Glenn’s Fault’
The album’s title comes from the longest work in the collection, Something of Life by the Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche.
Filled with sounds of walking, talking, busy public spaces in which Zeigler’s glissandi — and scraps of Beethoven — seem to search out and discover soft rhythms, the piece is unusually successful in its meld of instrumental and ambient elements. On his own site, Kotche mentions that he also drums in the piece.
Dogs bark, horns honk, engines rumble, birds chirp, a siren sounds, bells jingle, and yet the cello’s organization of these scraps of audio renders them cohesive.
Faced with the question of how to perform the album’s music on tour — Kotche’s long piece and five short pieces — Zeigler decided, with Kotche’s blessing, to go in and out of Something of Life between performances of the other works. So if you catch Zeigler on the road (San Diego, he’s headed your way shortly), you’ll find the Kotche piece rendered in interstitial increments, an ingenious solution for a live staging.
The problem of how to perform the album is “all Glenn’s fault,” Zeigler jokes. But so is the solution — an eloquently episodic panorama of sounds and string.
‘With My Arm In A Sling’
Zeigler tells a funny story about being invited to play in one of Zorn’s house concerts.
He played the searingly difficult Babel, a work so challenging that “I can barely move my arm after I play it.”
And then he found out that the tradition at the house concerts is to perform a second time. “With my arm in a sling,” he says, laughing at how he headed home.
“Somehow I got through it. I couldn’t feel my arm but it was a lot of fun.”
By coincidence, Zeigler’s new album Something of Life comes out almost simultaneously with Prestini’s new Oceanic Verses, on November 18 and 20, respectively. Ironically, her album was expected to go to market first of the two.
But the trickiness of putting together an album, for both of them, Zeigler says, has been its own education.
“Maybe everybody has the same panic attack” he did, he says, when about a week to recording he suddenly worried that this terrific combination of composers’ idioms and his own skills wouldn’t work.
“Every one of these pieces is a case in which the composer has ventured out into territory they haven’t been before.” And the same for him.
He’s beyond Kronos now, not only in time but also in power and in an understanding of his own capabilities.
He found the nerve to stay on track with the album, in fact from a boyhood obsession: “When I was in junior high and high school,” Jeffrey Zeigler tells me, “I loved making mix tapes.
“Even though this was the first time I’ve done this on my own, I’m really happy about how this has come together.
“I’m guardedly pleased.”