September 16, 2010
Prelude: black leather piano bench gleams softly in a single spotlight. In the background, organ pipes stagger toward heaven.
Black shirt, black jacket, black hair—the cellist strides across the stage. Slight nod and he’s seated, his instrument settled, caressed. His eyes close as his bow draws out the first notes of Bach’s first suite—the notes of creation. Solo for the sun’s first shining. Genesis—in the beginning was the sound.
We’ve come to hear Zuill Bailey play Bach’s suites for solo cello. All of them. On one evening. Played by one cellist. This is not done. Athletic, audacious, ambitious. Gorgeous.
We’ve come to hear him play a cello crafted when Bach was eight years old, a cello Bach probably heard, a cello whose sound Bach might have had in mind. This cello carries an ornament, a rose still visible if you look sideways under the fingerboard. Three hundred years ago, the fingerboard didn’t come down so far onto the body. Players didn’t have to reach around for high notes. Nobody expected high notes from them.
The cellist’s not playing the repeats tonight, and who could blame him? He dances us through each suite’s sturdy allemande, each suite’s svelte and arrogant courante, each suite’s sultry forbidden sarabande. Minuet, bourée, gavotte, gigue.
Suite No. 2 in D Minor—In chiseled tones, the private languages of glaciers groan, internal monologues as rivers inside the ice carve intricate secret passages. Earth in process, building, shaping. Geological time.
Suite No. 3 in C Major—anything is possible! The same shaped wood terrifies and soothes—the player’s passion brash and reckless one moment, exquisitely quiet and courageous the next. The low notes. The low notes—the center of the earth, molten.
These strings, these strands of horsehair, this one man’s hands tuned for a lifetime to cascades of sound. They lift us. The sky opens, aurora of music over golden hills.
E-flat Major, Suite No. 4—Bach goes crazy, tries to hurt people. Before beginning, the cellist tells us, flexing his left hand, flexing, that when his hand cramps it’s a ginger root. When he stretches in odd contortions, yes, I see it—tangled stubs of twisted fibers, fingers worn to nubs. Quavers. No cramp.
Suite No. 5 in C Minor—Poignant sarabande. No chords. One note at a time. One day at a time. One breath at a time. Deep grief as we read the names of the dead. One name at a time.
Suite No. 6 in D Major—This is the suite cellists hate to perform. It’s so easy to mangle, so hard to stretch, so difficult to scuttle so far up and down. Zuill Bailey says most players approach it like gunslingers—look out! Once he was startled to see a buoyant cellist take the stage. Relaxed, his playing looked blissful, serene. Scent of sweet peas beside a cool stream.
“Is he that much better than the rest of us? Does he somehow not know how hard this piece is?” Zuill Bailey whispers to a cellist friend. The friend says, “Look closer. He’s playing a cello piccolo.” Of course. Five strings instead of four. Smaller body. No need to stretch—the piece was composed for this instrument, one that didn’t survive in the contemporary orchestra. Cellists who play Suite No. 6 on modern instruments stretch like gymnasts, Olympian.
After the standing ovation, Zuill Bailey offers as an encore Bach’s Suite No. 1, the piece he plays every morning, every night. That’s the way he makes sure all is right in his world. His bow sails, glides. His venerable cello breathes for us all. His body brings out of strings and wood all human desire, all exuberance, all grief, all curiosity, all wonder. The last vibration stills. He lifts the bow delicately, his eyes still closed. Then the bow points to the sky as the cellist lifts his face into light.
Inside us now, the sound. The sound.
Peggy Shumaker serves as the Alaska State Writer Laureate. She’s editor of Boreal Books and series editor of the Alaska Literary Series at University of Alaska Press. Her latest book of poems is Gnawed Bones. Her lyrical memoir composed from brief pieces of prose is called Just Breathe Normally.
Photo by Tory M. Taylor