Musician and Vocalist Artist Interviews

An Interview with Cellist Zuill Bailey

Zuill Bailey’s Telarc recording of Bach’s six unaccompanied Cello Suites soared to the top of the Billboard charts this past February. In an age when classical music is increasingly marginalized, the continued surge of interest in the music of J.S. Bach is cause for rejoicing.

Even as Bailey’s recording stayed in the Top 10 through the first week of September, he gained even more recognition through an appearance in Michael Lawrence’s widely aired documentary, Bach and Friends. The exposure was just another in a series of appearances that began in 1997, after the strikingly handsome cellist appeared on the TV show Oz.

In early September, 2010, a few months before he was set to perform Bach’s Cello Suites in Western Massachusetts, I spent a good half hour conversing by phone with the intense cellist. Here’s what we had to say.

Zuill Bailey

Jason Victor Serinus: I watched your little episode on TV where you play the murderer cellist. If you put that clip back-to-back with scenes from the movie Amadeus where Salieri plots to kill Mozart, you see quite an interesting take on the darker aspects of classical music.

When did you start performing in front of the public, and when did your career take off? I’m wondering what led to your Telarc contract and worldwide fame.

Zuill Bailey: It’s kind of one of those 20 years overnight success stories. I’m 38. I started traveling and performing before the public when I was 17 and 18. I was attending Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, and had won several competitions while in college which sent me out to play lots of concert recitals in small towns around the nation. I played 40 or 50 concerts in the first couple of years of college.

Because I continued to do those kinds of things, and they continued to spin over into other engagements, I always had little things to keep me busy professionally. Nothing of major proportions while I was in college.

Then I went to Juilliard, won the school competition, and started to do similar things. I also had other opportunities. Meanwhile, everything I did spun into something else. Someone would hear me play and invite me to play somewhere else.

Literally, right out of grad school, almost to the month, I was making enough that I could pay my bills with my cello alone. It had built from age 17 to 23 to the point that I could actually pay everything I needed to survive as a cellist and not have to be distracted.

Right at that point, I got a manager to manage what I had, rather than to invent my career. It just kept building and building until it went from 15 or 17 concerts a year to 25 to 28 to 30 to 38 to 40. Of course, the gigs got more and more reverberant.

JVS: What an interesting choice of words. Other people might say “prestigious.”

ZB: Reverberant as in playing in a place like Chicago, rather than a small suburb in a state. Obviously, when I played in Chicago, it got reviewed in the Chicago Tribune. Once everybody read about it, it became reverberant. So things kept building.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that all those concerts that I had done earlier at a different but equally important level ended up being my audiences who would come out of the woodwork to hear me play my first concert in Minnesota or with the Minnesota Orchestra or with the San Francisco Symphony. I had built a fan following, so it became a good business. People already knew who I was.

It continued to build, and I got some unusual opportunities here and there. Television and these kinds of things, that were not based on actually getting attention. They were based on taking unusual opportunities to expose my love for classical music: going on Oz, teaching on HBO, or teaching actor Ed Beatty to play the cello on the TV show Homicide. These were things that I thought were a bit funny and interesting.

Then, of course, shockingly, those turned into other things. You know, Oz was 1997. It was the first show that HBO really put on as a show other than movies. It’s pre-Sopranos.

JVS: We have a basic TV, and no cable. Basically, I don’t watch TV.

ZB: I didn’t have HBO when it came out When it was filmed, I didn’t even know what it was about, because it had never been on before. When it came out a year after I filmed it, it started getting called ‘groundbreaking’. I didn’t know that would happen when I walked on the set. I just knew I was spreading my love of classical music in a very unique situation.

Subsequently, the performing arts part of my career continued to build. I’m now in my 21st year of playing before the public, and I’m finally to the point where it’s too much. I’m turning things down because I can’t be everywhere people want me to play, which is what I used to try to do. It was that whole kind of mindset.

Because of today’s transportation, a few years ago I played in Fairbanks, AK one night, Sanibel Island, FL the next, and Santa Fe, NM the next night. That was one hundred degrees difference in temperature in four days. The only sleep I got was in the airplane seat while I was flying red-eye.

JVS: What happened to the wood in your cello during that temperature change?

ZB: It went nuts. That’s an exact reason why I probably won’t do it again. It’s exactly like what happens to your body. You get stiffened up, you have trouble walking, and you can’t think straight. My cello, with the humidity and lack of humidity and temperature changes, literally started coughing on me.

I had walked through this life being a prolific sponge of information. I’ve always been very interested in not only how things work, but also in process and my surroundings. I walk around without blinders on. Long story short, I found myself asked to be the artistic director of a music series and festival in El Paso, TX.

JVS: Do you do that with pianist Awadagin Pratt?

ZB: We perform together because we’re long-time friends – since 1986 -- but we don’t run a festival together. I’m the artistic director of two festivals. And he and I are recording the complete Brahms sonatas, transcriptions and songs this week for Telarc.

JVS: Which songs are you doing?

ZB: I can’t tell you that yet. There are seven that we chose, including of course the lullaby and love songs to Clara and his mother, and a couple of beautiful transcriptions. We’ll record as many as we can in the time we have to fill out the record. We’ll have to see. But I have seven chosen that, if I have anything to say with it, will be the ones we record.

We’ll have a pre-release available in the fall. Bob Woods is the engineer, and Elaine Martone and Bruce Leek the producers. They were all entrenched with Telarc. Their presence is the reason I’m affiliated with the label.

Zuill Bailey

JVS: Let’s jump to Bach. So many great artists, including Casals and Rostropovich, have recorded the suites that every cellist must ask themselves if what they have to offer is good enough and unique enough to merit a recording. What was it like, given your illustrious predecessors, to approach these monuments, as it were?

ZB: Bach is the cellist’s bible. It’s gotten so revered that not only are people afraid to record it at this point, they’re afraid to play it in public, especially because it’s so changing at the moment. Yet that makes it the perfect vehicle for mirroring what’s inside of you and how you feel, and channeling that. It’s the most inspirational music we have that does that.

I’m a big believer that one has to know from where they’ve come to know where they’re going. I am a great admirer of history. I know too much when it comes to other struggles with this composer, how they came about, the whole scholarly view of playing it in period style or the romantic style of the ‘50s and ‘60s. If you listen to a lot of the old recordings including Casals, it wasn’t until the mid- and late-0th century that the camps of Bach split, and you had people who were trying to go back and play Bach as it would have been played historically, in Bach’s time, vs. playing it as the cello and cello techniques have evolved. So you had the Anna Bylsma camp of specialists in baroque.

JVS: At its worst, it was a period where people played devoid of passion. There was this belief that if you played authentically, you played “the notes.”

ZB: It’s a difficult subject to broach. You have to think that if Bach and Mozart had heard the evolution of how music can be played with the use of the new modern bow, modern strings, the longer fingerboard, or vibrato…

I believe Bach was one of the great romantics. He wrote in a religious sense that was very unaware of self, meaning that he was always looking up to God, and asking for acceptance. There was this passion, but with this reverence to it, versus just letting it all hang out.

Having said all that, how I prepared was that I went back and studied everyone. I studied every aspect of the historic performances and documents. I actually went back and relearned the Bach verbatim from the Anna Magdalena manuscript, which is the source because there is no Bach manuscript. I was able to play it in a specialist kind of way, without using as much modern playing technique as I’m comfortable doing.

Then I started studying other “performance editions,” and how specific cellists in history started bridging from historic presentation to modern techniques. Then I let go. I stopped. It was too much; it was complete overload.

For about five years, I had a score of notes – an untouched blueprint of the music. I never read from the music again, and instead just started playing it as music, rather than as a daunting untouchable.

Over the next four years, I started bridging from the Anna Magdalena edition to finding things that made sense to me based on everything I knew that I had let go. That’s the recording.

JVS: How many years ago did you record it?

ZB: In December 2008. I decided to record them all in one week without ever looking at the music. I had them all memorized, my muscles were completely developed and ready to go to play a suite a day with an extra day of fixes or whatever we’d have to do.

I had people sitting there with their scores, making sure that I was aware of all the things I was doing. If I had morphed into doing something out of habit that wasn’t on the page, I was questioned, because I wanted to be able to back it up by explaining that I knew it was in one edition, but not another. Meaning that I had done my research and made decisions. Barring none, I was able to answer at that time, every question as to why, yet play from my heart and be free. And it was done, and I let it go.

It’s very interesting to me now, having not listened to the recording but having played the pieces a lot, to go back and listen to bits and pieces of the recording, because they still make sense to me. They may not be exactly how I play them at this moment, but they still reflect the planet of thought that I’m still in.

JVS: In the digital age, we’re able to do fixes that are undetectable. That wasn’t the case in Casals’ era. Do you find that people are sometimes disappointed to go from a perfect recording to the inevitable errors that come in live performance?

ZB: There are several answers to that question. I try to just play, and let the recording engineer hash it out. What they try to do, at least with the recordings I’ve made, is that they try to take out distractions, whether they be mistakes or errors or chair creaks or breaths or hall sounds that distract in the end from the music. Classical music is the perfect example, because you listen to it over and over. That moan becomes part of the piece, and people expect that grunt. That’s something you have to be very careful about.

Also, I was miked where someone would sit in the perfect seat in the second or third row. I breathe when I play, and I’m emoting. I’m not self-conscious; I’m just in heaven. And there are decisions that had to be made. Do they try to take out my breathing, or do they let it go? I asked them to let it go, because that’s what I do. That’s my breathing. It’s the human part of this. I don’t want it to sound sterile. I don’t want it to sound too perfect.

With technology, you want it to be representative. You want it to sound the best it can be, without sounding like a computer could present it.

It was a totally different ball game when Casals and others recorded these pieces. It was like watching a movie form the ‘30s or ‘40s, where scenes are eight to ten minutes long each, and shot with one camera. These people are actually acting.

Now you look at today’s movies, like The Bourne Identity, that are all about the cuts. Snap snap snap snap snap, different angles. It’s not about what the actors are doing; it’s about the editing. That’s what makes a lot of media these days interesting, not necessarily the content. So you have to make a good balance, where it’s like watching a movie and not having it be about the cuts, and yet let the cuts augment the beautiful story line.

Zuill Bailey

JVS: Do you have favorite recordings of the Bach other than yours?

ZB: I don’t think of my recordings as part of the equation. Mine are a personal thing that are not discussed. If you or someone else wants to bring them into it, I’m very humbled and that’s very nice.

But yes, I have favorite recordings. I have 100 different versions; I’m a record collector.

Bach is very individual. If you ask who’s my favorite performer, I would ask, “What piece?” I wouldn’t say Joe Cellist, because maybe their Haydn cello didn’t attract me, but their Brahms double with so and so did.

With Bach, I want to be interested. I don’t want to be comfortable; I want to be interested. I want someone to show me something that is actually interesting. That doesn’t mean it has to be perfect. A lot of historic recordings are my favorites, because they’re unaffected by the world boiling pot, as the world has become now with the internet. Back then, a Spanish cellist sounded very different from a Russian cellist, or an Italian cellist. They were worlds away from a Dutch cellist, because they didn’t hear each other. So these artists were creating their own voices, rather than taking what everyone else was doing and becoming a Frankenstein.

So, to answer your question, most of the favorite recordings that I have that are the most interesting to me are the historic ones and the ones that are most imperfect. They’re just laying it out there; they’re not trying to make a perfect recording.

JVS: I am asking, not only for the article, but also for myself as I explore. Please, give me some names.

ZB: I think a really interesting performer is Colin Carr. It’s a semi-live recording, and a hybrid between a period specialist and a romantic cellist. He plays on a modern cello, yet he is very attentive to history. Thomas Demenga is even more towards period playing. What’s interesting is that he recorded the six suites over a 15-year period. You can tell that his knowledge changes exponentially through the recording of the six suites. The problem with his set on ECM (I believe) is that each suite is on a different CD, with a compilation of works by other composers mixed in.

Casals was the first. He’s the one who took it on his shoulders and put it out there. It doesn’t necessarily mean that his EMI recordings are my favorite. They’re very interesting to me. But to hear him, in interviews and on film, continue to play the Bach suites is very inspiring. It makes me understand why he refused to make an edition. Every time he plays them, they’re different. He’s changing by the week.

For the very uniqueness of his perspective on music, Janos Starker. He’s recorded them on five times, including once for Mercury Living Legends. If you have an audiophile system, the way the Mercury system puts him in the room with the airy sound around him to the point that you can see the F holes moving around, and the freedom and purity of his sound, are very attractive to me. I don’t listen to them a lot, but I definitely have them within arm’s reach when I’m sampling and listening.

JVS: Is he still alive and playing?

ZB: Yes, he’s still alive, in his late 80s. I believe his health is becoming an issue, although I don’t know for sure.

JVS: How your relationship with the suites changed in these two years?

ZB: I’m now at the point where I’m letting them live and breathe on their own. There’s a new question on the table whether Bach was even a composer or an improvisational guy. I’m not going to that extreme, but I’m definitely looking into them as I’m playing them.

Of course, they’re here in my hands and ready to go. But when I play, it’s as inspiring to me to hear them coming out as they may or may not be to the listener. I’m not pre-planned at this point. I’m letting the music unfold, and I’m probably going to do them in order.

JVS: Are there times when you don’t?

ZB: I have done them sometimes in reverse order. I believe the first suite is the beginning and the end. There’s something in the cyclical nature of life – how we begin so simply and so basically, and also end in the same way as we move toward death. Starting with the prelude of the first suite to end the concert, you just sort of feel that it’s going to be okay.

JVS: Cool. I wish it were all so simple, but cool.

Your bio mentions that you do a lot of outreach. How much of your work is with children? You hit No. 1 in the Billboard charts after your Bach Suites CD came out in February, and have remained in the Top 10 for many months. You’ve sold well over 10,000 copies. It’s consistently selling well, and dwarfing other sales, because it’s music that doesn’t go away. Do you have any stats on the demographic that is buying it?

ZB: I don’t know. I probably shouldn’t be speaking about this. All I know is that everybody is very, very happy, and that stores are wanting more copies of it.

JVS: How are you doing in terms of outreach to young people?

ZB: My big thing is about making this kind of music accessible. I’m taking it to them. It’s basic to me. I bring my affinity and affection for this music. Then I play it, and people are open to it and wanting. There’s no particular age group I go for. Wherever I am, I’m talking about classical music. I’m one of the many ambassadors for all this.

JVS: Would you want to re-record the suites again?

ZB: I plan to re-record them when I’m a little after 50. I’m hoping to re-record them three times in my life, at least twice. I believe, based on the age I am now, that this first recording is semi-early, based on the spectrum of these pieces in people’s blood. The second time would be in my middle point, when I’m 50-55. I’d also like to record them when I’m 70.

JVS: Look at how many times Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recorded Schubert’s Winterreise.

ZB: I know. I’d like to do them in a very different way next time, maybe live. It depends on what media are out there to do it. It’s not just to put another recording out there. It’s to see, look back, and have a timeline of growth and perspective, because I feel the Bach suites really magnify that.

JVS: Did Bach play the cello?

ZB: I’m pretty sure that Bach, like most composers like him, had the ability to play any instrument on a basic level. But Bach is a bad example, because most of his music can be played on any instrument.

JVS: To what extent do you allow yourself at times to deviate from the score and throw in a note or deviate from the tempi?

ZB: I bend the tempo all the time. But I’m also able to play it very straight and understand the structure. If you understand the structure and the blueprint of a piece, then, even if you take time here and there, it doesn’t mess up the meter. You don’t lose the heartbeat of it.

I’m walking into a high school right now to talk about Bach.