The term musical genius is thrown around a bit easily. But in the unusual case of Dave Eggar, it actually applies.
He was a child immersed in sound who has become a man bent on breaking barriers.
Eggar read music before words. His mother was a classical pianist. Among his earliest memories is falling asleep listening to her play sonatas. He began playing piano at the age of three. His first teacher was legendary composer Aaron Copland.
“For me, music has always been my primary grammar,” Eggar said. “From the first second I heard music, there was always tremendous freedom in the song.”
His mother wanted him to be a violinist and enrolled him in Suzuki classes. But it didn’t feel right.
“You’d walk around with a violin, and it was so painful and unpleasant after three classes I smashed my violin on the floor,” he said.
The violin felt unnatural because Eggar was born to play cello. He began playing the instrument at the age of six.
“I took to it very quickly,” he recalled. “In about six months, I was playing Brahms E minor Sonata, somehow, and I started to become the principal in all the little kids’ orchestras. And from the get-go it was something I felt as a voice.”
At the age of seven, he earned a spot in the Metropolitan Opera’s child chorus. He enjoyed an intensive five year career as a boy soprano, becoming a featured soloist. He was subsequently recognized as a teenage prodigy on cello. He debuted in Carnegie Hall at the age of 15 as the youngest winner in the history of the prestigious Arts International competition.
Columbia Artists signed him and he became well known as a classical soloist over the next three years. But as much as he loved the music, he felt stifled as a classical performer. He sought even greater freedom.
“I found that world very difficult and struggled emotionally within it, a lot because of my need to say something,” Eggar said. “I felt like classical music was a tremendous education for me, but there was always a need for me to really reach people and communicate something very personal. I felt the limitations of being a normal classical soloist were not really going to do that for me.”
His rebellion was to enter Harvard on a music scholarship and study biochemistry. While there, however, he also studied under renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma.
“You know, I wasn’t the best cello student,” Eggar said. “I mean, let’s face it, I studied with some of the great virtuosos of the last century, and they all hated me. For a couple reasons – one is I was constantly wanting to do my own thing, and two, I was really good at tricks. Like I didn’t have the best technique, but when it came to those really hard virtuoso things that no one could do, I can do them and I can do them faster than most of my teachers, which in the classical world is a big deal.”
Yo Yo Ma saw beyond the bluster and into the artistry of a young musician who simply sought greater self-expression.
“First of all, the guy is a genius,” Eggar said. “Second of all, he really heard me – he really heard what I was trying to do, and he always had such intuitive things to say to me.”
After Harvard, Eggar returned himself wholly to music. He entered the doctoral program at Julliard and began to forge his own voice on cello. Afterwards, he co-founded the critically acclaimed Flux Quartet and became a much-coveted touring musician. His first tour out of graduate school was with The Who. Eventually he would play with many different artists, including Kathleen Battle, Coldplay, Wynton Marsalis, Ornette Coleman, and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Most recently, he has toured extensively with Evanescence and formed a close musical alliance with lead singer Amy Lee. Most locally, he became a compatriot and guiding light to Hermosa-born and budding Brooklyn star Katie Costello.
“It has been a complicated road,” Eggar said. “I’ve played with many, many artists, but to me it always has been a journey…it’s funny, it is almost like trying to find my way back to something that was so pure and beautiful when I first found music,” Eggar said.
A journey indeed. Eggar, perhaps as much as anyone since his mentor, Yo Yo Ma, has taken the cello to unfamiliar places. He has played in rock stadiums and karate choreographies. And with his newest album, Kingston Morning, he has begun a series of tonal, geographical, and cultural explorations that manages in one fell swoop to create a new musical genre – classical reggae – and delve into the likewise deeply spiritual tradition of American bluegrass.
Eggar, who plays Saint Rocke on Sunday night, said the concept began as a single album in which he hoped to play in Jamaica, Iran, and Appalachia. But after beginning in Jamaica – at the revered Tuff Gong Studios, no less – and emerging with eight different tracks on collaborations with seven different artists and then journeying to Appalachia and recording seven more tracks with Dr. Ralph Stanley, Eggar realized he had a series on his hands. He and Charlie Palmer – the co-producer of his record and “my favorite drummer in the world,” Eggar says – will arrive in Hermosa fresh from the Philippines, where they traveled into the hinterlands and played with tribal musicians never before recorded.
There is nothing this man cannot do and nowhere he cannot go with a cello.
“I like to call it extreme classical crossover,” Eggar said. “I feel that classical musicians have this image that we are scared and not risk-takers, and I just feel that could not be farther from the truth. I think the music I am doing with my band – really, these collaborations we are forging – are high risk things where we take risks even with just our lives.”
His collaboration with Ralph Stanley, the aged, immense, grizzled-angel bluegrass singer, is a risk that resulted in a masterpiece, a recording of the standard “Jacob’s Ladder.” Among Eggar’s profusion of gifts is an uncanny ability to meld his cello into the very vocal wisps and curls of whomever he collaborates with. With Stanley, he creates one of those exalted yet beautifully earthbound moments in music.
“I mean, obviously, everybody always talks about the relationship between cello and the human voice, but one of the things that has been most exciting for me as I’ve toured and played with so many vocalists is to see how I can really get the cello to match the inflections, phrasing, and distinctive vowel sounds of every singer that I work with… Working with Dr. Ralph was incredibly fascinating and terribly intimidating because obviously he has one of the most powerful and distinctive voices alive in the world,” Eggar said. “You know, he opens his mouth and you just start to cry. So seeing if the cello could in any way reflect the power he has in his voice was terrifying, but he is such a powerful and profound man, it happened naturally.”
It’s hard to imagine one record straddling such distant worlds, but Eggar co-wrote what could become a new reggae standard of a sort called “Earth’s Paradise.” It is sung by Jamaican star Luciano. Eggar said that the two traditions have more in common than one might imagine – a sort of spiritual connectedness, storytellers telling age-old tales of survival and perseverance in the face of adversity and loss.
The ghost of Eggar’s second great mentor, and perhaps his greatest influence, the late tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, is alive on these recordings. Eggar, who played with Brecker for more than two years, recalls first meeting the master and feeling his musical universe immediately shift.
“It’s really rare in your life that you meet a musician that changes you,” Eggar said. “I have had a lot of really amazing teachers. I grew up very connected in the classical world – I studied with John Cage and Milton Babbit. I’ve worked with a lot of great people. But it’s very rare someone reaches into your world and grabs you by the throat and just changes who you are as a musician.”
“He played for a minute and then talked for a minute and in those minutes I realized I was working with a Stravinsky,” Eggar added. “I realized it was a whole other level. It wasn’t working for a famous artist or a great musician. It was working for an historical figure. And in the period I worked for him he completely revolutionized everything about I thought about being an instrumentalist, everything I thought about how you express yourself through your instrument. He changed my life. And I think coming off that, my quest was really to try to become an instrumentalist who really could see through my instrument – not just play well, but actually affect people the same way a singer affects people. I haven’t accomplished it yet, but I am working on it.”
(Eggar’s remarks regarding Brecker were made a year ago in an interview before his Kingston Morning travels had commenced. He has begun accomplishing what he set out to do.)
Dave Eggar plays Saint Rocke Sunday night. See daveeggarmusic.com for more info. ER