Jeffrey Zeigler: Cello and the Art of Meaningful Conversation

Words: Olivia Giovetti
Images: Jill Steinberg, David Andrako

The last time I interviewed Jeffrey Zeigler was shortly before he left Kronos Quartet in 2013. Since then, the cellist – label director of National Sawdust Tracks, and husband of the composer Paola Prestini, co-founder and artistic director of National Sawdust – has continued to expand his orbit as a musician who defies categorization.

This is both a natural and deliberate act of expansion for Zeigler, who notes that as he gets older, he feels his world becoming smaller. His residency this week at the Stone at the New School is an act of pushing those boundaries, in his first performances at one of the new locations for John Zorn’s trailblazing home for experimentation. Zeigler’s Feb. 19–23 residency at the school’s Glass Box Performance Space is a homecoming for Zeigler, who is on the faculty at Mannes School of Music as well as a regular at the original Stone on Avenue C. But it’s also a chance for him to experiment with new partners, and for New York audiences to hear fresh voices.

If conventional chronos time runs in a linear manner, Zeigler’s schedule now resembles kairos time, circling and recircling around ideas from different vantage points. It comes across in many of his sentences during a recent telephone interview, which run on in eloquent riffs strung together with “ands.” It shows in the programming he’s assembled for this week at the Stone. And this sense of kairos also fuels the conversational approach he has to making music, improvisation, and the albums he records—and doesn’t record. A lot has changed since 2013, but embracing change has stayed the same.

NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: You had a long history with the Stone back when it was on the Lower East Side, and are still involved with it both in this residency and through John Zorn’s Stone Commissioning Series at National Sawdust. What was your relationship to the old Stone like?

JEFFREY ZEIGLER: The Stone was one of the safe havens of New York for people to make music and experiment and try things out. The first time I played in the Stone in the Lower East Side was seven, eight years ago, and it’s become kind of a regular home for my projects at different stages of completion. Some things were pretty finished and ready to go; some things were more like, Geez, I don’t know if this is gonna work, but let’s try it out. It’s been a real beacon of hope for music in the future. Unlike John [Zorn], I was actually very sad when that location closed down.

What was your last set with the Stone on Avenue C?

The last week of the Stone, [Zorn] was doing improv nights every night and just invited his friends, the regulars of the Stone, so I did one night. I didn’t think it was going to happen, but once I walked in the door I went, Oh man, this is really sad. I was down in the basement, and as you no doubt know it’s dirty as hell. It’s not a very pleasant aesthetic, but that’s the Stone. It’s not about the frills; it’s about the music. And I got kind of emotional, and John was like, “Hey, man I’m done with this place.” And I said, “I’m gonna be emotional about this. You don’t have to be, but I’m gonna be emotional about this.” And so of course, I think it’s wonderful that the Stone lives on in different iterations.

With the New School and Sawdust?

They’re also about to launch a new Stone series in Crown Heights at an art gallery [happylucky no.1] that I also have a connection with: The owner of the gallery is Liane Fredel, Paola’s and my old landlord when we lived in Crown Heights. Of course, as a teacher at Mannes, I think that the Stone being at the New School now is amazing. I don’t think the students even know what’s going on right in the lobby of the school. You might walk in and, oh, there’s Bill Frisell. John has cultivated this amazing community over the decades, and that’s literally sitting in our lobby.

Jeffrey Zeigler
Photograph: Jill Steinberg

It’s interesting you bring that up, because I just saw Kronos Quartet play music from Muslim-majority countries, many affected by Trump’s travel bans, at Carnegie Hall. On the one hand, it felt so strange to hear music by Omar Souleyman in Zankel versus Sawdust or the Stone. But on the other hand, it was also probably a lot of Carnegie subscribers’ first brush with some of these musicians. In a way, it feels like the Stone is doing the same through its new iterations.

Absolutely. The only thing I would add: One thing that I loved about the Stone – and there’s a lot of venues all across New York that do things kind of more off-the-radar – but one of the scary things for a New York musician is you have very little distance from the ears of the press. When you say, “I don’t know if this is gonna work, but let’s try it,” Carnegie Hall isn’t really the place to do that. The Stone is. I remember one day a few years ago, I was in the lobby of National Sawdust chatting with some people. Laurie Anderson’s name came up, and then the person working at the box office said, “Oh yeah, Laurie Anderson, I just saw her play a club in East Bushwick.” And I get that, because she’s like, “I want to try something out, but I don’t want The New York Times to come.”

Where do you see the balance sit between the freedom to try something out and experiment versus the act of keeping a record of what was played and where, offered by outlets like the Times?

I’m not really sure yet how the new Stone plays into that equation. I have to admit, this is the first time I will be performing in the new Stone, so I’m not sure what the vibe will feel like, who the audience will be. Up until this point, I’ve taught a lot of classes in the room but I haven’t actually performed in the room. So as far as what this space means to me personally, it’s gonna have to take on a different light. But especially the fact that it’s in the New School, again, I don’t know what the audience is like. Do students actually go? I hope so. But that in itself, even if a couple of students show up, that’s already a different vibe than the old Stone. My hope is that the spirit of the Stone continues, even though the bathrooms are clean and have paper towels.

Your first concert on February 19 is an evening of improvisation with three colleagues: Yuka Honda [electronics], Laura Ortman [violin] and Zachary Watkins [guitar]. How did that set come together?

Those are three collaborators in different stages of my own personal relationship with them. Yuka is a very old friend at this point. We’ve collaborated in many different situations together. She’s kind of a mainstay at National Sawdust, and she also wrote a piece for my last album, The Sound of Science. I’m a huge fan, obviously. Laura Ortman, I’ve collaborated a little bit with at the old Stone. I think she’s a fantastic, visionary artist. I love the way that she listens, and I hope that this collaboration will be a stepping stone to the future. And Zach Watkins is somebody that I have not even met yet. I’ve been following his work for many years; he’s based out in the Bay Area, and I first heard his name maybe about four years ago. He does a lot of fascinating work, and he’s just a very thoughtful artist. I’ve been wanting to get to know him for a long time. So this is a little bit of, let’s bring these elements together and see what we can cook.

The next night is you and multi-hyphenate artist Raz Mesinai.

Yeah, that was one of the last pieces to fall into place. I’ve known Raz a really long time. He wrote a piece for Kronos when I was in the quartet – it could have been 10, 15 years ago – but we knew each other before then. Before there was National Sawdust, there was Paola’s old company, VisionIntoArt, and we did a performance at the old Whitney Museum. VIA had a residency there, so that was when I first worked with Raz. I was always fascinated with his work, especially with his project called Badawi.There’s nobody on the planet like Raz. We were talking a few months ago and he said, “Jeff, we haven’t hung out in a while, let’s go grab a drink,” and I was like, “Well, why don’t we do one better, why don’t we just play together?” We’ve never done a straight duo together. This will also be an improv night, and I think that it’s just gonna be in some ways old school Stone: put two people together and break stuff.

The next night in the residency features Golden Arm Trio and Graham Reynolds’s Water Music. Is there a difference for you between improv sets and playing something that’s pre-set?

Even with the Golden Arm Trio, there are going to be some things that are written out, but it’s a hybrid between things that are written and improvised. I consider myself a very young improviser. Like so many cellists around the world, my training is completely western classical: the Bach and the Brahms and the Beethoven. My teachers in college were always very encouraging. They knew that I had this kind of new music bug, but when it comes to people like János Starker and Paul Katz, they’re not improvisers. So they were like “Yeah, Jeff, you can do that thing, but also practice your Dvořák.”

Your work as an improviser seemed to really take off after Kronos.

The last concert I played with Kronos was Landfall, which of course won the Grammy a few days ago. And then the next day we went to Seattle to Cornish to receive honorary degrees, which I thought was so cool. It felt like I was graduating from Kronos Academy or something, so the last thing I do with Kronos is receive a diploma. And then literally the next day, I took an early-morning flight to New York and I played an improv night at the old Stone with John and Erik Friedlander. And then the late set that night was with Jon Rose, this amazing violinist. And we played this 10 o’clock set on a Monday night and afterwards he gave me my cut because it was his week at the Stone. He gave me $30, and then he said, “Are you glad you left the quartet now?” [Laughs]

But that was really out of the frying pan and into the fire. Up until that point, I virtually hadn’t done any improv. So at that stage, it was sort of like starting a new chapter. I was beginning to realize how different one’s improvisation was depending on who you were playing with. Everyone approaches it differently: You have your own personality, and we’re having a certain type of conversation. But then let’s say my friend Murat [Eyuboglu] comes over, and we have a different kind of conversation. And then Paola comes home, and we have a different kind of conversation. You hit different points, listen in a different way, interact in a different way.

That’s fascinating, and I love how you put it. The dynamics of our relationships are different depending on who we’re in relationship with.

And that’s a good thing. It means that we’re actually connecting to the person. We’re trying to find some avenues in common in order to find a conversation.

And that can be harder for a traditional orchestral cellist, where you may be guesting as a soloist with a different orchestra every week, with only a little bit of rehearsal time and the same program.

In a way, we’re making a parallel between music and human interaction. Is music human interaction? Yeah, it is. So by nature, even though I do quite a bit of solo work now, at the heart of it I think I am a collaborative musician. I played in two string quartets; I love chamber music. Even when I play solo, I look for relationship, collaboration. There’s always some kind of conversation going on. And not only do I think it’s natural, I think it’s a great idea. It’s a great way to make music.

Miyamoto is Black Enough: (L-R) Jeffrey Zeigler, Roger Bonair-Agard, Andy Akiho
Photograph: David Andrako

Speaking of solo performances, on the 22nd is Re:Volver, which is billed as “Cello, Electronica & the Mayan Apocalypse.”

That’s a new program that was born from a couple of different threads. The one thread is that over the years, I’ve worked with a number of composers from Mexico. It just sort of happened, and I’ve actually performed down there quite a lot. I love it. It’s a type of home-away-from home. One composer in particular is Felipe Pérez Santiago —I first met him through Kronos. He’s written me something like five or six solo cello pieces. He’s written a piece on both of my solo albums.

The other thread is that about four years ago, I was invited to Mexico City to do some work with an organization called Núcleo Integral de Composición. It’s a school in Mexico City where they teach young composers about composition with electronics. With this particular project, they brought in six composers to write a piece for solo cello using Max/MSP. The pieces were fantastic; in fact, we recorded it and the album should be coming out any day now. Two of the pieces in particular, I thought, were next-level. They were all very talented, but these two pieces really stood out. So piece by piece, I was creating another program. And especially with so much going on in our debate right now around immigration, the wall… I’ve always felt that Mexican culture is overwhelmingly ripe. So I wanted to honor that in some way.

Which became Re:Volver.

Between the NICO pieces and the music by Felipe, I wanted to round it out with a few other pieces. So I spoke to Felipe and asked if there were any young composers that should be on my radar. He pointed me in the direction of Jimena Maldonado Álvarez. She’s a super-talented composer based in the Hague. I commissioned her to write a new work, Edges, which is a tableau of five photos she took in abandoned buildings. I think the piece is just beautiful and wild. It fits so well in the program.

And then I was looking at some pieces that were “older,” and so I found one that was written about 10 years ago by Hilda Paredes. She wrote this piece for Rohan de Saram, the original cellist of the Arditti Quartet, called Zuhuy Kak. The title in Mayan means “New Fire.” It refers to the fires that were lit by the Toltecas during the religious ceremonies to prevent the end of the world and to mark the new time cycle every 52 years.

So this concert will also help ward off the end of the world.

Well, you know, the end of the world was supposed to be a couple of years ago [in 2012]. And it’s interesting, because even though the universe did not collapse, boy, the world has changed in the last few years. So maybe it has something to do with the cyclical nature of the world and the universe. We’ll only know in retrospect, so I don’t know.

I want to come back to that thought but I also want to give due attention to Hae Vocessince your program with them closes out your residency.

This is a duo, also based in the West Coast; I guess that’s a big element for what I was going for in my Stone week. I didn’t want to play music that I had done before. It would have been easy for me to do Sound of Science again, but I’ve already played that in New York. I wanted to be able to present music I hadn’t played before, and also to bring in musicians that aren’t here, because New York tends to be every venue with the same players and the same musicians. With people like Zach and Hae Voces, I wanted to bring in people outside of the New York scene. Majel Connery, the singer in Hae Voces, she’s also in the group Oracle Hysterical. We’ve released two of their albums on National Sawdust Tracks. She formed this duo for violin and voice with Kristina Dutton, and the range is really broad, so we’re basically going to be doing it more trio style. That will also be more chart-oriented, a lot of fixed themes and harmonies and melodies, but also improvised, too.

So everything we’ve been talking about, I’m getting a sense of circularity. You’re broadening the circle of performers in New York, there’s the circularity of time. And it’s funny to talk so much about Kronos Quartet, because with chronos time you have a linear progression of time. On the flip side, the Stone program feels a lot more like kairos time, which is much more circular.

Obviously, we measure time linearly. Time adds up, days move in one direction. But I definitely think that the universe works circularly. I don’t have any theories on why, but I do always think there’s an up and a down. When people say history doesn’t repeat but it rhymes, I believe it.

Four years ago, my father passed away. The death of a parent always has a major impact, and my dad was a big influence on my life. One thing that I noticed, though, over the last several years with him and also with my mom is that, especially as I get older – I’m in my 40s – is that you can see how one’s world get smaller. People that you know die, you don’t travel as much anymore, you don’t go out as much anymore. You get more fixed in your ideas. It’s very natural as you get older for your circle to get smaller, and smaller, and smaller. And so I think all of us as individuals need to push those boundaries out, just for the sake of pushing them out, because the natural forces of nature push them in. So in order to keep it broad, keep our minds from retracting, we have to think outside of the box as an exercise. We have to discover something new.

So I guess in a small sense that’s what I’m trying to accomplish this week, and that’s something I’m always trying to accomplish.

That seems to be the common theme in most of your projects now – between Sound of Science and Miyamoto is Black Enough, and Something of Life – circle around this question of what it is to live a life with meaning and purpose.

Porous and also challenging even my own aesthetic. For example, a few years ago I was going to record an album. And it felt very easy because the music I had chosen for the album, it was a great fit. But it didn’t feel right. Maybe it was the Mayan Apocalypse, I don’t know — it was probably more like the Trumpocalypse was imminent. But it felt like it didn’t matter. And I struggled with it, and I probably disappointed some people who were expecting me to follow through with it. I’m not questioning whether or not, as far as legacy goes, this stuff will stand the test of time. The most important thing is not to think of it that way – the most important thing is to continue to challenge and make the best work possible. And I think in that sense, certain stakes will hold, because I will believe in them. But it was important for me to make that shift rather than fit into a very typical format. I needed to create art that had meaning.… It doesn’t fit in any box, but I find that attractive.

Jeffrey Zeigler performs in the Stone series at the New School Feb. 19-23;

Olivia Giovetti has covered music and arts for Paper, the Washington Post, NPR, VAN, and beyond. She’s previously served on staff at Time Out New York and WQXR/Q2 Music, and her writing has been heard onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival. She combines her love of the arts and meditation practice on The Meditation of Art.