Sharps & Flatirons

Zack Reaves has had a lot of free time since March

Former Altius Quartet cellist has new skills, and online posts to prove it 

By Peter Alexander Sept. 14 at 3:55 p.m.

Zack Reaves did a lot of traveling until the pandemic hit.

Cellist Zack Reaves

The former cellist of Boulder and CU’s Altius String Quartet moved to Los Angeles last year. “I was still playing with Boulder Phil, but then I began a temporary teaching position at Oklahoma City University,” he says. “I was flying back and forth between LA and Oklahoma City while I was still playing some concerts in Colorado, so it was kind of a crazy year.”

All of that came to a sudden halt in March. Like most musicians, he no longer had work. And like many others, he started recording himself at home and posting the results online—but he had one big advantage over most classical musicians. The cello can play from the bass register way up into the range of violins. Cellists have always taken advantage of their wide range by arranging everything from Rossini overtures to Sousa marches for cello ensembles.

Reaves took the obvious next step: arrange pieces for five or six cellos, and then record all the parts himself. So far, he has two pieces posted online, with more to come. Currently available are Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor, op. 23 no. 5, arranged for six cellos, and the Passepied from the Suite Bergamasque by Debussy, arranged for five cellos, both performed entirely by Reaves.

“It’s definitely a lot of work,” he says of the process of creating videos. First he has to arrange a piece for cellos, then learn and record all the parts, then do the editing to pull them together into a single tiled video, with all of his performances perfectly synchronized.

Zack Reaves x 6, playing Rachmaninoff

“The first few videos that I did, I was l just home,” he explains. “I didn’t have any work that I had to be at, so I [thought] ‘I’m just going to do this until it‘s done!’ I would start recording in the morning and work on it all day, and a couple of videos I worked on until 4 in the morning.

“It was completely unreasonable,” he admits, and with his wife’s urging he has cut back. “Now I take a couple of weeks on a project.”

The first album by the Altius Quartet; Zack Reaves on the far right

The arranging part of the process was something Reaves had done before. He had made arrangements for the Altius Quartet, in particular for their first album, Dress Code, and in other contexts over the past seven years. “I really enjoy it,” he says. “To me it’s kind of like putting together a puzzle.”

So will there be more completed puzzles showing up online? “I’m hoping to build up an online presence, so I definitely plan to do more,” Reaves says. “I try to pick songs that I enjoy, and ones that I think will work. The next one that I plan to do is ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen.”

Reaves’s string sextet version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” was presented by the Altius Quartet and guests several years ago in a Dairy Center concert, and he created an all-cello version last year for his students in Oklahoma. They never got to perform it publicly, but his last visit to Oklahoma before the pandemic included a rehearsal with the entire cello studio.

At this point in the process of learning to make online videos, Reaves sees positives as well as the obvious negatives of the pandemic. “I will say that the pandemic is forcing musicians to think outside the box, especially classical musicians,” he says. 

“We are not always known for our creativity. I for one am enjoying learning some other skills: working on my arranging, and learning the technical skills. The more I perfect that skill, more opportunities it opens for me in the long run.

“You need to improve as many things are you’re capable of. That’s what I’ve always been about.”