Eric Cecil is a classical guitarist who has been using his videography talents to develop “Resonant Portraits,” a video series on his Youtube channel, devoted to capturing performances of many New York-based classical guitarists, including David Leisner, Bradley Colten, Steve Cowan, and Rupert Boyd. The series is certain to be a delight the front row fingerboard-and-technique obsessed who can, at last, put down their pocket-sized binoculars and cease to worry that their hot-breathed proximity may throw anyone off a performer’s playing game. It isn’t possible to view a performer’s fingers any closer than what Cecil has provided with a flourish of cinematic showmanship and gutsiness on par with a wildlife cameraman. When not engaged in filming, the Manhattan School of Music graduate is performing with his wife, Kaori Fujii, in their flute-and-guitar duo.
Cecil launched his dual guitar and videography career a few years ago as a rock, blues and jazz session player who also filmed and recorded performances at Gibson Guitar Studios in New York. He has also shared the stage with the late, great guitar legend Les Paul at The Iridium as well as sitting in on a session with Chicago blues guitar ace, Linsey Alexander at Kingston Mines.
Cecil, who first picked up the guitar at age 13 to learn Nirvana tunes, initially discovered classical guitar via a copy of John Williams’ Lute Suites album at his local library in Billings, Montana. “That album made a very deep and lasting impression on me,” he says. “At first, I didn’t think the opening ponticello lines even sounded like guitar. I’d never heard a timbre like that and couldn’t fathom how all of those lines could come from one guitar. The beauty and depth of the music also moved me. I didn’t pursue classical until years later but I had it in mind as something I would like to do.
“Music was my impetus,” he says, explaining his move to New York City at age 18. “I had two older friends who moved to New York before I did and we shared a dream of forming a band and becoming rock stars. There really wasn’t too much of an outlet for music in Billings at that time. It certainly was a culture shock and an education to adjust to New York. We lived in Bushwick in the infamous McKibbin Street Lofts. These were former factories owned by a slum lord, located down the street from the projects in an area rife with rats, muggings and burned out, stripped down cars set upon cinderblocks. We could do whatever the hell we wanted. I was so young and naive that I just thought that this is what New York was supposed to be like.
Two years later, Cecil found himself playing onstage with Les Paul. “I had a friend who managed the Iridium, where Les played every Monday. I saw the show a couple of times and got a chance to meet Les Paul. His backup guitarist, Lou Pallo, encouraged me to bring my guitar. I was extremely nervous at the prospect. To make matters worse, I was playing a 1970’s SG at the time, so I thought it was better to borrow my friend’s Epiphone because it was at least a Les Paul model. I sat in on an up-tempo blues tune in G and got my 24 bars to solo. After the show, Les, who seemed to like my playing, signed ‘Keep Rocking’ on my friend’s guitar. It was a short and sweet moment but one I’ll never forget.”
Cecil also cherishes the opportunity he was given to play onstage with blues guitarist Lindsey Alexander, during a brief visit to Chicago. Alexander is well known for his sideman work with B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Magic Slim. “The blues scene on Halsted is full of fantastic players and they’re very competitive. Growing up, I listened to and loved blues greats like Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. So it was a pleasure to get a chance to play at Kingston Mines. I didn’t think the band was going to let me up but toward the end of the set, Alexander held out his Gibson ES-335. When I stepped onstage, he whispered the wrong key in my ear! But I wasn’t thrown for more than a couple of notes and all was very well received by the crowd.”
“At age 21, I decided to study music formally,” Cecil says. “The two viable options for me seemed to be jazz or classical. Jazz certainly would have been an easier transition because I was already a decent electric player but the style didn’t speak to me the way classical guitar did.
“My girlfriend at the time, who attended Columbia University, obtained a couple recommendations for me from the faculty and that is how I came to study with Arthur Kampela. I had to start over on the guitar from the very beginning again with both technique and learning to read music. I was very naïve because I had no real concept of how late I was starting with classical guitar and how much the odds were stacked against me. I learned all these basics quickly and discovered I could play pieces beyond my initial reading abilities so Arthur devised a system of tablature and chord charts to convey these pieces. In fact, I still use all of Arthur’s fingerings, which he admitted were atypical. We worked on a lot of Brazilian music, from Villa-Lobos to traditional choro. On a personal level Arthur taught me to fight for what I want and not care what others think. We shared that nonconformist spirit right away. With Arthur’s encouragement, I applied to several conservatories in New York. My first audition was not successful but it permitted me entry, thankfully, into the extension division of Mannes, where I was able to work with Michael Newman. Michael cares deeply for his students and it shows. My time studying with him was a period of expanding and refining my guitar studies.
“I reapplied for undergraduate studies again after two years at Mannes and this time I was accepted at Manhattan School of Music, where I studied with Mark Delpriora. We worked on standard conservatory repertoire, ranging from Tárrega, Bach and Albéniz, and I built programs for flute and guitar under his guidance. Mark even composed the title track to our album, Aubade.
I’ve filmed Mark playing live and also made a video of him playing his set of etudes. Mark teaches fretboard harmony, a guitar history class and a performance class with an insight that only someone who is entrenched deeply with every aspect of classical guitar can have. I filmed Mark’s performances with an older camera so the quality doesn’t compare to what I create with the gear I now use. I am planning to feature him in a new video soon for “Resonant Portraits.”
“I took a couple years off after graduation to teach, travel and play concerts with my wife, Kaori, as a flute and guitar duo. Kaori and I have played all over Japan as a duo and with her family, who are all amazing classical musicians. Through the Live On Stage presenters, we toured across the U.S. for a couple seasons. The flute and guitar duo that Live On Stage presented before us was The Cavatina Duo, with Denis Azabagic and Eugenia Moliner, so you can imagine the impossible shoes we were attempting to fill. For a couple of years, I also had a rock band called Woodbine Falls. We played all over in Manhattan, in places like Rockwood Music Hall, Cafe Wha, and at the CMJ festival. In recent years, I’ve been focusing exclusively on playing classical, studying privately with Jorge Caballero.
“This has been as humbling of an experience as when I first switched to classical guitar. Jorge is incredibly generous with his time and ideas and studying with him has spurred on new growth in my playing. I may never become a player of his equal but I know that I have my own personal potential to actualize and that he can guide me in this process.”
When Cecil realized he needed promotional content for his playing, he borrowed a camera from a friend and used it to shoot his first video with his wife, performing the Allemande BWV 1013 by J.S. Bach. “The video now has over 400,000 views on YouTube, he says. “I learned how to use a camcorder and the editing software out of necessity because this is what we needed to book concerts. In time, video-making and photography became a real passion for me and this past year, I founded Resonant Portraits.
“I’m putting my electric guitar down and focusing on classical guitar now and want to continue performing with my wife as much as possible. As far as carving my own personal niche, that is truly the question and I’m in a transformative stage now. I was in the same position as the vast majority of classical guitar graduates—namely, I was not the best player my conservatory had seen in a 5-10 year period and I was never going to be an international competition winner or the next great soloist. I graduated with debt in a recession into a desperate and hurting music industry. So, where to go? For now, the future holds performing with the duo, making more videos and building “Resonant Portraits.”
“I was asked recently if it was difficult to transition from music to learn video-making. There are many parallels, really, between both. At minimum, a video must follow the tempo and character of the piece. It must have an arc or direction, and, like sounding a note, the difference of 1/10 of a second can make or break a convincing edit. Mood and pace must be made very clear to the viewer in order for them to go along for the ride. At best, a video can actually become a visual interpretation and compliment to the music. When a video achieves this, it becomes a successful piece of multimedia art. Hopefully the video allows the observer to understand and experience something more about the player and the composer.”
“The creative impulse is essentially the same, whether making music, visual art, writing, painting or any other art form. I think it’s important for musicians to explore other disciplines because they actually can enrich one another, as well as our lives in the process.”
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Two more videos from “Resonant Portraits”: