Zuill Bailey Bailey recorded all of the Bach cello suites on a cello eight years younger than Bach himself. His performance is filled with the rich, luscious bass tones the instrument was built to produce.
NPR logo

Zuill Bailey: Extraordinary Resonance

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/127479657/127496363" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Zuill Bailey: Extraordinary Resonance

Zuill Bailey: Extraordinary Resonance

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/127479657/127496363" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


There's some mighty famous music composed by Johan Sebastian Bach that can be heard just about everywhere. Even if you don't know the title, you'll surely recognize it from its use in film and television - everything from that movie "Master and Commander" to the TV show "The West Wing" - even the Gatorade commercial.

(Soundbite of "Suite No. 1 in G Major")

SIMON: A quick scan of YouTube will pull up versions of the piece played on banjo, marimba...

(Soundbite of "Suite No. 1 in G Major")

SIMON: ...and north Umbrian pipes.

(Soundbite of "Suite No. 1 in G Major")

SIMON: And the electric guitar.

(Soundbite of "Suite No. 1 in G Major")

SIMON: But of course a lot of those things weren't around when Johan Sebastian Bach was writing. He wrote it for the cello, and this is the prelude for the "Suite No. 1 in G Major"

(Soundbite of "Suite No. 1 in G Major")

SIMON: "The Six Suites for Solo Cello" are the latest CD by Zuill Bailey. He is also the artistic director designate of the Sitka Summer Music Festival and Series that's now underway in Alaska. He joins us from the studios of our member station, KCAW, there.

Mr. Bailey, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ZUILL BAILEY (Musician): Good morning. You've really kind of taken me off of my feet with all of the electric guitar, and I've never heard anything like that in my life.

SIMON: Yeah, no. I hadn't either until just this second. But it does underscore the vast appeal of this music. And is it true that although they were written in the 1720s, the solo cello suites were more or less unknown until the 20th century?

Mr. BAILEY: Absolutely. I mean, the thing that was the most interesting to me through research, even Bach as a person, as a professional, was that he was mostly known as being an organ technician during his lifetime. He produced such mass amounts of music and a lot of it was kind of not organized as well as it should have been, and there were stories that even some of the violin partitas and sonatas were found with meat wrapped in them in delis.

And then, of course, we have Pablo Casals coming around in the late 1800s and he essentially took what were considered warm-up exercises and - or etudes -and discovered that not only were they not that but they were probably the greatest things ever written and still written for solo cello to this day.

SIMON: Let's listen, if we could, to the prelude to "Suite No. 3 in C Major," because I gather it's technically a favorite, favorite piece for cellists to finger and play.

(Soundbite of Prelude to "Suite No. 3 in C Major")

SIMON: Now, for cellist, is this - forgive the homey analogy - but is it a bit like a great race driver behind the wheel of a Maserati?

Mr. BAILEY: This is probably the most favorite suite for cellists to perform because, as I like to describe it from an organ standpoint, which is probably where Bach spent most of his time, you would have all the stops out - which means all the pipes open - in the key of C major. And in this one in particular, the cello just rings full throttle - open strings covering from the top to the bottom. And also it really shows Bach's awareness of the organ, especially the middle section. You could definitely tell and feel where the pedals were used. And then you have the two manuals - left hand on one, right hand on the other - the keyboards, and the feet pumping the low bass tones out. And it all kind of combining in this swarm of sound.

(Soundbite of Prelude to "Suite No. 3 in C Major")

Mr. BAILEY: My cello was born when Bach was eight years old. Bach was born in 1685. My cello was born in 1693, built probably as a church bass. The lower part of the cello is much larger than the upper part. It was built to plume those low bass tones. And it's interesting for me to realize that maybe this is the reason why Mischa Schneider of the Budapest String Quartet chose this as his career instrument. Mischa Schneider had it for about 40-something years and produced most of the recordings in the Budapest on it.

SIMON: We're speaking with Zuill Bailey about his new CD, "Bach Cello Suites." So forgive me for fixating on this, but could I get you to repeat how old your cello is, when it was born?

Mr. BAILEY: Of course - 1693 in Venice, Italy. A man named Matteo Goffriller -this is a little too much information, but you know, we're so accustomed to - I buy a seat for it on the airplane. The name is Cello Bailey. It's always with me...

SIMON: I've got to ask. What happens in air(ph) security? Do they insist on a ticket that says Cello Bailey? Hold on, there's no date of birth here, Bailey.

Mr. BAILEY: Oh, they always ask me for that. They always ask me for the passport, and they think it's the funniest thing they've ever said in their life, and I'm like ha ha ha - and it's not funny.

SIMON: But you must be worried about slipping and falling and having the thing - something happen...

Mr. BAILEY: Well, I don't, because it's always - I've been carrying a cello since I was four years old. And so I - the worst part - and it just happened to me recently - was when I was playing in Israel and I was coming through the airport and they had - they took the cello away from me and they took it in a back room out of the case to inspect it...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. BAILEY: ...for for - for things. So...

SIMON: Do we hear a small child in the back?

Mr. BAILEY: Yes, my son.

SIMON: Introduce him, by all means.

Mr. BAILEY: Oh, he just left, he just left. This is his first time (unintelligible) and he's already noticed the beauty, as I have. With all the -he said: Can we go fishing? The first thing he said was: Can we go fishing?

SIMON: Aw. How old is he?

Mr. BAILEY: He is four yesterday.

SIMON: Ah. Well, Happy Birthday. What's his name?

Mr. BAILEY: His name is Alexander.

SIMON: All right. We're not going to have your son on the show without introducing him to everybody. Well, we'll try and finish up this interview so you can take him fishing, right? Least we can do.

So is there a section in any of the suites that's the equivalent of hitting the high note in "The Star Spangled Banner"? (Singing) Da da - you know.

Mr. BAILEY: Oh. I think though - the example you just gave is kind of a moment of - with your hand in the air. The example that I would give to Bach would be where you go to that magical place inside, the exact opposite, and the first thing that comes to mind is the allemande from the Sixth suite. And there's something about that allemande that does something to your spiritually. This is why musicians play Bach and feel Bach the way they do and talk in such spiritual terms.

It's not about the high note. It's about the inner note. It kind of exposes and expresses what's in someone's - I say soul, because I've never felt this kind of exploration of myself or why music is so important in other composers as much as Bach.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: So what do you do for an encore?

Mr. BAILEY: You play more Bach.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAILEY: You don't, and it's very funny. A lot of times when I play other composers, I'll play a Bach Sarabande as an encore, because it is really the only composer that can put any piece in perspective. But then there's really nothing else to be said once you play Bach.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Mr. Bailey, I think your son wants to go fishing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAILEY: And so do I. I can't believe I'm in this paradise here.

SIMON: Don't hook your fingers though.

Mr. BAILEY: Guarantee I won't.

SIMON: Zuill Bailey, artistic director designate of the Sitka Summer Music Festival and Series. His CD of Bach cello suites is on Telarc. He joined us from KCAW in Sitka, Alaska. Thanks so much.

Mr. BAILEY: Thank you so much. Take care.

SIMON: And you can see a video of Zuill Bailey playing Bach here in our offices at NPRMusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(Soundbite of music)

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.