Maya Beiser: Musical Cubism, <i>Provenance</i>, and the Creative Performer

There is no doubt that cellist Maya Beiser is a dynamic performer. But her command is not limited to conventional concert stages.
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"[Music is] one of those beautiful forms of human expression that actually brings people together. I think if we all adopt music as our religion, we'll be in a really great place." --Maya Beiser

There is no doubt that cellist Maya Beiser is a dynamic performer. But her command is not limited to conventional concert stages. Video of her recent TED Talks presentation has garnered over 296,000 views online, no small feat for a performance of contemporary classical music. This seems right in line with the musician's career as a whole, which seems predicated on presenting music as the ultimate unifying experience.

Growing up in a kibbutz in Israel's Galilee region, Beiser's experiences, musical and otherwise, were characterized in part by a multitude of influences -- Jewish, Christian, and Muslim all among them. On her most recent album Provenance (2010), she explored the multicultural communication inherent in music by looking back to 9th century Spain for inspiration.

On Friday, November 11, she will join percussionist Evelyn Glennie in a concert at UCLA's Royce Hall, which will include the world premiere of Stuttered Chant for two cellos by composer David Lang. In 2012, the cellist will premiere a "CelloOpera" called
, a collaboration with director Robert Woodruff, librettist Erin Cressida Wilson, choreographer Karole Armitage, and composers Eve Beglarian, Missy Mazzoli, and Michael Gordon, among others. I recently spoke with Maya Beiser about
, her use of video in performance, and changing the paradigm of the solo cellist.

Daniel J. Kushner: The TED Talks presentation you did in March has gotten a lot of exposure online recently. How has video affected your approach to your craft?

Maya Beiser: Video opened up so many fantastic possibilities for me because I've always thought of music in a very visual way, and [I've] also very interested in visual art in general. So the ability for me to think of a presentation of a piece of music within that context of images that would help bring the audience into the music is just fabulous.

DK: In watching Bill Morrison's video for [composer Steve Reich's] Cello Counterpoint, it strikes me as very Cubist, in the sense that you're taking something that's aural and making it visual. Not only can you hear all the music elements, you can see all the musical elements from every possible angle.

MB: Particularly with the Bill Morrison video, when we did that, we really wanted to be very literal, in a way, because Steve's music is so precise and every note is thought-out and every counterpoint, and so we wanted to reflect that. Cubist is a good way of thinking about it -- it's very flat, it's not impressionistic at all. Basically [Morrison] just filmed me playing all the parts from exactly the same position, which was a pretty crazy task. So we were thinking Andy Warhol was one inspiration.

DK: There is something very Warhol screen test about it. What do you think video has to say about the current nature of solo performance and the use of multi-tracking and looping?

MB: My approach is that I want to tell a story and use every possible avenue that I have at my disposal. So I think that lighting and video projection are two fabulous tools to work with. I think always the challenge with video is how you bring that in as an element without taking away from the energy of the performance. There is something that happens live that is always the main thing and you can't have the video compete with that.

DK: What was the state of the solo concert in general at the beginning of your career, and what changes have you sought to make in that paradigm?

MB: When I started, I grew up strictly playing classical music, and the environment in which I grew up, there were no videos whatsoever. You basically were supposed to wear a suit or a 19th century gown of some sort and go onstage ... and just play the music and get away. One thing that I was told over and over again was, "You have to stay away from the music because you need to let the composer speak through you. Your personality is too big."

One of the reasons why I felt like I needed to get away from the classical music of dead composers -- some wonderful dead composers -- is that I wanted to work with people who are here now and who are alive and I wanted to get a sense of being part of the creative process. I call it a "creative performer" -- you can be a fabulous interpreter, but I believe that the greatest interpreters somehow internalize the music and bring it out through their own prism. I needed to do that with contemporary music, with music that I could relate to.

DK: Provenance has a really strong multicultural current running through it. Do you think the music has anything politically to say about how we relate to one another?

MB: I think it does. I passionately believe that we can really do so much through music politically, and that it really connects us underneath all those other artificial boundaries -- geography and culture, and all that kind of stuff. It's not really spoken but you can hear it in the music ... You don't need to dig too deep to see that the Jewish melodies and the Arabic melodies come from the same source. To me, music is the ultimate human expression. Underneath it all, that's what we are.

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