By David Templeton | From the November-December 2021 issue of Strings magazine
In the early days of the pandemic, with vast expanses of unexpected time suddenly on many people’s hands, some decided to use that time to do something they’d never previously felt the freedom to do. While certain folks caught up on binge-watching TV shows and reading all the latest mystery novels, others devoted themselves to long-planned creative projects, from writing one of those novels themselves to memorizing swaths of classic poetry, from learning to play Beatles tunes on the ukulele to learning to speak another language. One magazine journalist taught himself to tie balloon animals.
New York–based cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, already widely known for pushing boundaries and breaking conventions, decided to spend his quarantine time collaborating with his wife, composer Paola Prestini, on a project they’d often discussed but never quite gotten around to. They set out to make one of the greatest and most ambitious solo cello albums of all time. “This,” says Zeigler, simply, “is the biggest solo cello album I could ever imagine.”
Houses of Zodiac: Poems for Cello—released in digital format in September 2021, with a planned vinyl release set for January of 2022—features five pieces written by Prestini, all for solo cello: Océano, Eight Takes, Ophelia, Houses of Zodiac, and We Breathe Again. On the album, Prestini’s gorgeous and mysterious, hypnotically complex compositions, performed by Zeigler with daredevil intensity and a kind of surgical “mad doctor” precision, are presented alongside thematically crucial “interludes”—brief passages of recited poetry, spoken aloud, inventively underscored by new arrangements of music from the soundtrack of the 2017 documentary We Breathe Again, which Prestini also scored, with vocals by the sensational Inuk folksinger Tanya Tagaq.
The album is a stunner.
Its melodically experimental soundscapes, paired with the words of poets Pablo Neruda, Brenda Shaughnessy, Natasha Trethewey, and Anaïs Nin, make a clear and extremely successful attempt at blowing the minds of adventurous music lovers. It’s as if Prestini and Zeigler intentionally attempted to do for the cello what Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon did for rock ’n’ roll. Seriously, this is the kind of album you’ll want to listen to on vinyl, lying on the carpet with an excellent pair of headphones, merging into the music like pearl divers plunging into the ocean.
Zeigler, formerly of the Kronos Quartet, resists such appraisals—“That’s a very tall comparison,” he says with a laugh—but does allow that he and Prestini knew they were doing more than just cutting some tracks of cello music. The inclusion of an accompanying video, directed by award-winning filmmaker Murat Eyuboglu, is evidence enough of the couple’s ambitions for the project, but when you add an immersive museum/studio installation combining spoken word, movement, music, and image to explore the human subconscious through mind, body, and nature, it’s pretty clear this was never going to be a recording you simply listen to in the background while folding the clothes.
Simply put, Houses of Zodiac is a trip, both in the colloquial sense and as a metaphor for travel and journeys, pretty much demanding one’s attention, and providing countless rewards to any listeners willing to give it a chance. And for those whose engagement goes beyond the album itself, for those able to view the film or catch one of the upcoming video installations or live performances, those rewards only multiply.
“At first, I just thought this would be a really great solo cello project, but what I should have known at the time was that nothing Paola ever envisions is small-scale,” says Zeigler. “I never originally envisioned dance and ballet, video and everything. We definitely allowed things to grow and expand.”
Zeigler notes that he and Prestini have been married for 15 years. “We’ve been working together in various ways for many, many years, but believe it or not, this is actually our first album together where we’re both equally lead artists on a project,” Zeigler says. “And yes, we’re still married.”
Over those years, of course, Prestini has written numerous pieces with Zeigler in mind while writing several works for other cellists and other situations. Ophelia was originally written as one of the commissioned pieces for the Irving M. Cline competition in California.
“Océano was a piece she wrote while doing an exploration of stringed instruments while still in college at Juilliard,” Zeigler says. “Houses of Zodiac has existed in a couple of different forms. A lot of these pieces I’ve played over the years, but at the beginning of lockdown, I turned to Paola and I said, ‘You know, we should explore these again. Why don’t we make this a project? Why don’t I dive in really deeply?’”
The timing, as they say, was right.
“Her music is extremely instrumentally challenging,” Zeigler notes, appreciatively, “and thanks to COVID, I had a lot of time for practicing.”
As an album concept, Zeigler and Prestini started talking about it early on in the pandemic, either late March or early April. But Zeigler says he’d been thinking about “delving deeply” into these particular pieces for quite a while. “Houses of Zodiac, in an earlier form—the album features a whole new arrangement—I’ve performed a number of times,” he says. “Ophelia I hadn’t worked on yet, but Océano I had. That is a very instrumentally challenging piece. When you listen to it, it seems very naturally written. But a lot of the double-stops and shifts are very . . . you really have to pay attention. I had a few rough performances of it early on, many years ago. I think I’ve always had a mental hurdle that I had to overcome, so it was wonderful to get a chance and to have the time to really dig in deep on it, on all these pieces, because it finally allowed me to own them.”
Asked if his work on the pieces contributed to any compositional adjustments over the months he and Prestini were preparing to record, Zeigler says no, though he admits there was once a time, on a different piece, when he informed her that a certain note was literally impossible to play. “Basically, I really don’t like it when a performer tells a composer, ‘I can’t play that, that’s too hard, I think you should rewrite it.’ I think a player needs to have a dialogue with a piece, really getting a deep understanding of it, working to learn what the composer is attempting to capture in the music.”
Key to the album’s striking appeal are the spoken-word elements of the interludes, the short, brilliantly delivered vocal performances matched with music that neither overwhelms the spoken text nor disappears behind the poetry. The interludes also serve as commentary, in a way, on the compositions they precede. Océano, for example, is preceded by a snippet from Pablo Neruda, recited by Prestini herself. A piece by Anaïs Nin, which leads into Houses of Zodiac, is read by Maria Popova, best known for her popular blog on the search for meaning in life, Brain Pickings. Shaughnessy and Trethewey read evocative fragments from their own works for Eight Takes and Ophelia.
“Those interludes, and the little pieces of poetry, that’s all part of the project’s natural genesis, because in exploring these new works we realized that all of them were inspired by various writers,” says Zeigler. “So that became a major seed that grew the album.”
The underscore for the interludes includes a number of musicians, and, of course, those soul-altering vocals by Tagaq, which become especially prominent in the final piece of the album, an arrangement based on the full We Breathe Again film, the soundtrack of which was never released. “It’s a lot of individuals for a solo cello album,” jokes Zeigler. “It helps when you have such fantastic artists and such fantastic improvisers.”
For such an experimental and definition-blurring project, the recording of the primary pieces was fairly straightforward.
“We wanted it to feel like a traditional classical recording,” Zeigler says. “I played long takes, with very few edits, because we wanted to have as natural a feel as possible.” Prestini’s writing being what it is, he says he did have to be fairly experimental himself. “I had to figure out new bowings and fingerings to play this music sometimes. The thing about having such a long relationship with a particular composer, I got to know her language better—and she of course has been studying my playing for years.”
That language—the language of music—is vividly alive in such projects as Houses of Zodiac, and working on the album, with all of its ancillary pieces, has only deepened the couple’s resolve to continue working together, as well as with others whose voices deserve to be part of the conversation. “It’s personally important and rewarding because the more I collaborate with composers, the more I realize that string players have an odd way of looking at things,” Zeigler says. “We don’t think very linearly. So players and composers have to do this little dance to bring out the best in each other. Over the years, Paola and I have had a lot of conversations about that. Houses of Zodiac is part of what’s come out of that conversation.”