Dave Eggar is the modern-day equivalent of a medieval musician, who moved from court to court. But now he has a jet set mentality, trilling in China for an Adidas commercial, or Alaska for a video of American Idol winner Philip Phillips’ latest hit single, or, our favorite, returning to Pittsburgh and Attack Theatre.
He is a superhero kind of cellist, at ease as much with local transport as he is with airports. We’re glad when he touches down in our fair city to play, perform and, in this instance, to compose.
Dave was on hand for Attack’s encore production of Stravinsky’s monumental chamber work, Histoire du Soldat (The History of a Soldier). It was a big hit its first time out two years ago (relish Jonathan Eaton’s updates like “subprime mortgages” and “FDIC-insured”) and is even better now. Opening night was as tight as it could be, with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians merrily chewing on the impossibly tricky score. With a few new tweaks to be had, the Attack dancers transformed this parable into a devilishly smart, entertaining and absolutely delightful performance.
Dave came in, though, to compose the music for the world premiere of A Tiny Droplet of a Portrait in collaboration with Chatham Baroque. Featuring the blossoming duo of Kaitlin Dann and Brent Luebbert, the piece, conceived and choreographed by Peter Kope and Michele de la Reza, was a Baroque relationship study in, according to Dave, 5 1/2 movements, using structured musical elements like the gavotte and sarabande and injecting African rhythms and electronica.
The latter innovations signaled the underlying emotions of the relationship, imbuing it with a contemporary patina. Along that end, both wore plush Baroque pants costumes, giving the piece the illusion of time travel. Kudos to Chatham Baroque, who plunged into the Eggar mix with verve and a sense of adventure.
Whenever Dave comes to town, it’s always fun to catch up on his own latest adventures. So read on to capture his own version of time travel.
Q: It’s been almost a year since you’ve been in Pittsburgh. Bring us up to date.
A: This year has been insanely exciting. After I did Attack’s public art project, I toured with Phillip Phillips, winner of American Idol two years ago. Gary Wattenberg pulled me into the studio to listen to his mega hit, Home. Within 5 minutes I was completely mesmerized. I wound up on the tour and played the Super Bowl right before the game at a tailgate party. I also wrote the score for the Mark Jackson film, War Story, and Difret, which won the audience award for best dramatic foreign film at Sundance. And I’m doing a new ballet doing created by Bylle Redford, performance artist and wife of Robert Redford who will star. Based on the four elements, it’s choreographed by Desmond Richardson and premiere in Miami in March.
Q: So you’re finally back in Pittsburgh. Tell us about your latest project.
A: When the idea first came to the table, it was kind of challenging for me. I thought, well, how do I write for Baroque instruments in a way that flatters the incredible virtuosity of these players on their instruments in that style, while making it something contemporary? I just didn’t want to write classical contemporary music on Baroque instruments. So what we ended up doing was something really interesting, a mixture of them playing a modern look at Baroque dance suite movements fused with various African rhythms and electronica.
Part of what I was thinking a lot about was the relationship between France and Africa in the Baroque period. Obviously France colonized Mali. So when you listen to the music of Senegal and Mali, a lot of the music seems related to the French Baroque because the musicians had to play that music for the French royalty when they were there. So I thought it would be fun to cross-pollinate those worlds and bring some of that rhythmic energy.
The choreography looks at a relationship between two dancers. At the beginning and the end, the dancers have a certain decorum, as if everything is okay in the relationship. As these primal rhythms take over you start to see the ogres and the shadows and the darkness come through the relationship.
Q: What was the process like?
A: At Attack we’ve always had a process where the music and dance talk to each other. I’ll inch a few steps forward and they’ll inch a few steps forward.
It’s an introverted piece and it’s nice that it’s on the program with L’Histoire, this incredible masterpiece that’s so theatrical and extroverted. When I was writing it, it was sort of intimidating. Who wants to be on the same program where the other composer is Stravinsky? I mean, like no one.
So I decided to go the opposite direction, try to do something that was more vulnerable and fragile. You could almost wonder if the Chatham Baroque players are accompanying the dance or if they might be the players in the bedroom where this is going on in Louis XIV’s court, the way that my predecessors might have played for royalty in that day.
And in another through-the-looking-glass kind of thing, it starts with Baroque, then everything starts to go awry. The electronica shows the passion and the energy that connects these two dancers. When they go back to putting their masks on, it’s probably with a little bit more intelligence and knowledge.
I wanted it to feel like a Baroque dance suite, but the electronic and tribal components started interfering with them playing these very specific movements. It let me explore things like the Courante and Sarabande and the tarantella and kind of like a Gigue — to explore these rhythms and explore them in a more rhythmical sense. That was exciting to me.
Q: How did Chatham Baroque respond to the score?
A. They were very good about trying things. With the first draft I told them not to freak out, because it might be completely non-thematic. They were been great at learning it, and adapting it when it needed it. Now my goal for the piece in a lot of ways is the two dancers and three musicians as one band, really as a unified little world where the electronic is an exterior and the two dancers and three musicians are an interior. I love to juxtapose contexts and make people think. I love artists who think outside the box.
Q: How do you shift musical gears so effortlessly?
A: I’m very organized in my head, which is very good. I have a lot of pragmatic Swiss genes from my Swiss ancestors.
I used to wrestle with multiple hats a lot, but then I started to embrace it. Am I a producer? Am I a cellist? I say I’m going to do chamber music again. Then I’m asked to compose this amazing action film score. Eventually all of these different worlds started to connect in really fun interesting ways. It’s quite magical. I feel very blessed and very lucky.
It’s made me very empathic, because I have to understand people from all sorts of traditions — written music people, pop stars, Middle Eastern musicians, Chinese musicians. Every style I’m playing with, I’m dealing with a different kind of personality, a different kind of approach to music. It’s made me away better musician just to have that breadth.
One day I’m working on how to have a hit song for an artist, another refining chamber music. I wish more musicians would have more diversity.
I went from playing the Super Bowl to teaching 3000 kids in Chicago the next day. I went from playing before 89 million at the Super Bowl and in the next day was able to touch a bunch of school kids with music. It’s a beautiful thing. None are better than others – they’re just all different.
Yes, it’s been a really interesting time. I’m also exhausted.
Q: Do you ever take a vacation?
A: I had this vacation time planned, saying there’s nothing that’s going to get in the way of this. Then Phillip Phillips called, asking if I want to be in this video in Alaska around his next big single. Then I got a call to play for a commercial for Adidas sneakers in China. Two massively paid gigs. Two incredible experiences.
Life throws you a lot of curve balls and a lot of unexpected stuff. You have to look at it and sort of move and bend and turn.
Q: So it keeps you flexible.You say that the first week of March changed four times in three days. What keeps you coming back to work with the Attack Theatre?
A: There’s a lot that I love about Attack, but what I really feel is it that they’re not afraid in the creative space of the performance, that they’re not afraid to go through a period of the unknown to redefine the performance space. And for me as a versatile musician, that is very exciting. So when you look at the final project, it’s nothing like what you imagined when you first started. You end up finding out more about yourself through the collaborative process.
That philosophic outlook continues to pay off. In the weeks ahead, in addition to the Redford ballet, Dave will appear on PBS’ Emmy Award-winning Bluegrass Underground and will be finishing up the new Phillip Phillips record. He also plays on an average of seven or eight records a week, some of which he records on tracks from the road, including Grammy-nominated jazz saxophonist Chris Potter.
Dave is also addicted to his mobile devices. Another message come through and I reluctantly bring the interview to an end. He admits that living on a tour bus for six months will do that to you.
Catch it through Sunday. Click on Attack.