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Composer Jim Cockey and Cellist Dave Eggar Pioneer New Sound for Cellosong


In the front room of Surel's Place in Garden City, artist-in-residence and Grammy-nominated musician Dave Eggar bent over the neck of his cello, playing a piece of classical music that had never been played before. His bare foot tapped against the hardwood floor as, nearby, composer Jim Cockey thumped out a beat on the cajon (a Peruvian box drum). The small space filled with sound as the two musicians built castles of intricate, precise melodies that swelled to a crescendo, then collapsed as Eggar bowed the final note.

"Not bad for a first run!" Eggar said as the music died. It was the understatement of the century; Everyone in the room burst out laughing.

The song they'd just played was "Border Crossings," a version of Bach's "Minuet 2" Cockey wrote for viola but adapted for cello. It's one of four never-before-heard works that will premiere at Cellosong: Dave Eggar and Friends, an all-ages show on Saturday, Feb. 3, at the Sapphire Room in Boise. According to Eggar and Cockey, it's also the first piece of chamber music to include parts written for both tap dance and cajon, which aren't often associated with classical music.

"As far as we know, there's no piece that has put together cello, guitar, violin, cajon and tap dancing," said Cockey. "And just the cajon—when I bought the cajon the other day in Seattle, I was telling the guy about what I was up to and he said, 'I think you're breaking new ground here.'"

Because he couldn't find any references, Cockey has been creating his own notations for the cajon, and although written parts for tap dancers exist in other genres of music, when Eggar asked world-renowned tap dancer and former Surel's Place artist-in-residence Andrew Nemr whether he wanted a PDF showing his part of "Crossings," Nemr responded with, "What's that?" He had never needed to see a written tap dance part before. Cockey took that extra step for "Crossings" because Nemr will have to tightly coordinate his dancing with the melodies of the other instruments for the song to fit his vision.

Joining Eggar and Nemr on stage for Cellosong are percussionist Chuck Palmer, classical guitarist Mario Diaz and violinist Heather Mastel-Lipson, who will travel to Boise from around the country. For Eggar, merging these diverse instruments and styles is key to the message he wants to send with Cellosong, which will mark the end of his second month-long residency at Surel's Place.

"There's something interesting about the tension created by fusing those ideas, and being like, 'Well, what if we create a chamber music dynamic for tap dance and for cajon that's not what they're used to? What happens?' I like those spaces because I feel like they're spaces of innovation," Eggar said.

Eggar—a musical prodigy who began his career at age seven—was on Broadway before he hit double digits, and later attended both Harvard and Juilliard. He has traveled around the world seeking out those "spaces of innovation."

"There's a pioneer aspect to being an artist, where a part of it is having the courage to grow from being with other artists, especially not in your discipline. And [another] is being able to strike out into life," Eggar said. "...I wanted to break myself of the formalism of cello. Like, I wanted to put a cello on my back and go to Azerbaijan and Mindanao or these places where no one even knows what this is."

His drive to explore and grow led him to a tropical island in the Philippines, where he was surprised to find people who wanted to jam with him to songs by Air Supply and Pat Metheny because they were "the only records that made it there," and to the heart of American Appalachia, where someone told him after a performance, "Man, you go crazy with that big fiddle!"

It also led him to Boise, where Surel's Place welcomed him back as artist in residence because, as Program Coordinator Jodi Eichelberger said, "[Eggar] made a connection with other artists in our community ... he has relationships he's picking up with from last time he was here, and [he's] reconnecting and building on those."

Cockey is one of those connections. He and Eggar met in 2016 when Cockey gave Eggar a ride to Salt Lake City, and they bonded over a shared surprise at the other's skill. When Eggar was accepted for a second residency, he knew working with Cockey would be a top priority.

"I feel like this is a city where there is a very active and non-compromising arts scene on many levels, from music to tattoo art," Eggar said, explaining his attraction to Boise. "...There's a lot of individual thinking going on here, which I think is really powerful and interesting."

While in Boise the first time around, Eggar worked with local dance company LED and this time, in addition to collaborating with Cockey, he worked on a film score with a local studio. Cellosong will be the crowning achievement of his residency and feature original works as well as older collaborative pieces like "Mentors and Masters," a song he and Nemr co-wrote with two other artists in honor of their respective mentors, Aaron Copland and Gregory Hines.

In the future, Cockey and Eggar hope to collaborate again, potentially on a project exploring Native American tribal music. After the curtain falls in Boise, Cockey will get to work on a new cello concerto, and Eggar's next stop is the Sydney Opera House, where he'll rejoin rock band Evanescence on an Australian tour. For Eggar, more exploration is always on the horizon.

"The cello was invented in what, 1570, maybe?" he mused, idly bowing a few notes. "And even, you know, these 500 years later, I think it still has something to say."