written by Kevin Max
TTHE VOICES OF YOUNG KIDS bounce along the turning leaves of Lithia Park. A man submerges a cylindrical wire frame into a bucket and pulls it out, wet and dripping. He makes a slow arc with the wet frame, and an oblong bubble fills and trails behind it, growing to a size equal to the child waiting to chase it into the sky. The bubble separates from the implement and floats out of reach of the small saboteur. The smooth tenor of a cello follows the bubble’s plight as it rises slowly, soon to burst on an oak branch above. The notes subtly gain pitch as the bubble rises like Icarus to its certain demise. The cellist sees all of this and is, at once, sympathizing with the plight of the Icarus bubble while taking in the kid commotion and reading the emotion on the faces of those seated on park benches across from him.
With great expectations, the bubble touches the overhanging branch and explodes to somber decrescendo notes—the resolution of a plot.
Cellist Daniel Sperry has played this spot in Lithia Park over the past decade, bringing musical improvisation to moods, emotions and floating bubbles.
“Of all instruments, the cello has the closest range to human voice and has the closest approximation to human feeling,” Sperry said. “Its voice appears to drop like a ton of soul on people in the park.”
Sperry, 64, was born to a musical mother in Tampa, Florida. She was a classically trained cellist who studied in France, played in various orchestras in the United States and eventually earned a chair in the State Orchestra of Mexico.
Of all instruments, the cello has the closest range to human voice and has the closest approximation to human feeling. Its voice appears to drop like a ton of soul on people in the park.
— Daniel Sperry, musician
As luck would have it, Nelson Cooke, a world-renowned cellist and principal cellist in the London Symphony Orchestra, was teaching at nearby University of Southern Florida. His mother realized this opportunity and got her son lessons with one of the best. Young cellist Daniel Sperry benefitted mightily.
Life as a musician took many turns thereafter. At age 19, Sperry, won a chair on National Symphony, but said he “lost heart” and wanted a life that was more stable. Eventually he began working in sales and marketing in Iowa. That life brought him marriage and a family of his own, but burnout, too.
“I decided that if I was going to do music, I was going to play for anyone who asked,” he said. He did just that for a friend who invited him to play at a gathering at her house in Fairfield, Iowa. There, he performed improvisation pieces around poetry that he read—feeling the crowd and interpreting the poems. He played beautifully, one woman said, but, if he were to go further along that path, he would need a proper instrument. Sperry couldn’t afford his own cello, so he had rented a cheap one for the evening. She bought him a $10,000 replacement.
With a new cello, Sperry found himself in Lithia Park in the fall of 2008, visiting his son and throwing around a football. His son asked him if he wanted to play his cello instead. He opened his case, sat down, closed his eyes and began to play. “That cello was almost like a mythical instrument, and after about thirty minutes, my son said, ‘Look in your case,’” he recalled. More money than Sperry could have imagined was strewn about.
For the next two years, Sperry took up an ersatz residence alongside the quietly gurgling Lithia Creek and beneath the maples and Port Orford cedars, improvising around, delving, crying with and healing his audience with the assuring voice coming from his new cello. While his music was a salve for others, it was increasingly stressful for him to find viable work during winters.
In 2010, he put together a plan to leave Ashland and take his music on the road in a tour of intimate gatherings. From home to home he traveled, couch surfing and bringing music to poems and personalized compositions for paying patrons. “It was incredibly intimate and precious, and people were deeply moved by the music,” he said. “But it was also destabilizing and disorienting. After a while, I had to come to grips that I was a homeless musician.”
He returned to Ashland to face another existential moment in his musical pursuits. “In early March 2014, I came to the park with the question, ‘Am I going to do this again?’’’ A Leonard Cohen song and a choir helped Sperry with his dilemma. Unsure whether he was making the right choice, the cellist began playing Cohen’s soul-searching “Hallelujah.” By chance, a visiting college choir entered the park and spontaneously began layering vocal harmonies over Sperry’s rendition. “I was stunned and overcome,” he said.
This February marks the sixth year since Sperry and his cello returned to Lithia Park, bringing a tenor continuo to passersby and time—a connective tissue between rising bubbles, children chasing them and parents gaping at their rainbow refraction.