5 Questions to Maya Beiser (cellist)

Cellist Maya Beiser has captivated audiences all over the world by reimagining the sonic possibilities of the cello and redefining the concert experience. She will be a featured performer at the 2015 Ojai Music Festival (June 10-14). We spoke with her about her longtime friendship and musical collaboration with this year’s Music Director Steven Schick and the arc of her career.

How does it feel to be joining your longtime colleague Steven Schick at Ojai this year?

Steve and I were both founding members of the new music collective Bang on a Can All-Stars. We met in the early 90’s and have been collaborators since. Steve is also a close friend of my family, a frequent guest at our home, and the godfather of my children Dorian and Aurielle. Over the span of more than twenty years we have known each other, we both have evolved as artists in many different directions. Our artistic friendship often manifests itself in long hours of discussions about ideas, new pursuits, interesting writers and composers, artistic decisions and even Yoga practice and fashion! After I left the All-Stars, Steve and I formed a cello and percussion duo and commissioned new works for the project. Not too many people know about the album we recorded 14 years ago, Caught By The Sky With Wire. It was released on a small independent label that doesn’t exist anymore. I love this album. We should re-release it one day.

What is on your agenda to perform at Ojai?

The first piece that Steve and I commissioned as a duo was Osvaldo Golijov’s Mariel, a heart-wrenching, lyrical piece for cello and marimba. I will perform it with Steve at Ojai on Friday night, followed by Michael Harrison’s Just Ancient Loops, a work that I recorded two years ago on the album Time Loops. Just Ancient Loops is performed with a film created for the music by Bill Morrison. It’s an epic piece that unveils every aspect of the cello—from its most glorious and mysterious harmonics to earthy, rhythmic pizzicatos—all using “just intonation,” an ancient tuning system in which the distances between notes are based upon whole number ratios. In a bit of breaking news, on Saturday, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and bass player Gyan Riley will join me in performing some wonderful classic rock and blues “uncovers” that were arranged by composer Evan Ziporyn for my latest album Uncovered. I’ll be performing on both acoustic and electric cello, and it’s loud! It’s certainly not what you would expect from a cello recital. Sunday, I will perform chamber pieces by Tan Dun, Gabriela Lena Frank, Bright Sheng, and more solo music.

You’ve carved out your own unique artistic life; how have you managed that?

I grew up at a crossroads of many different religions and cultures, in the Galilee Mountains of Israel. That had profound influence on me. The Kibbutz where I was raised was a self-sustaining communal farm with great idealism about changing the world. The community had strong, valid ideas, but they weren’t mine; from early on I felt the need to define my life for myself. I managed to mitigate the opposing pulls of the communal and the personal by becoming an individualist who values community, and a rebel who appreciates history and tradition.

The cello was an integral part of my personal liberation. Through music I paved my journey to independence and passion, self-reliance, and the constant striving to be a fearless explorer. While I have deep respect for reinterpretation of the old masters, I felt a need to be involved in the creative process on many levels. My personal evolution as an artist has been tied to my interest in the reimagining of the performance practice. For me, performing music has a kind of sacred/spiritual quality. I love the ritual nature of the performance and I am interested in every aspect of that ritual, not “just” the music. I never felt connected to the rules that were created in classical music performances. I needed to free my mind so that I can think and approach any music in the most direct and honest way.

How has the Bang on a Can community helped sustain you?

Bang on a Can has been my “family” since the day I graduated from Yale and moved to New York City. Julia Wolfe and I met at Yale and through her I met Michael Gordon and David Lang. They were the first composers I commissioned as a soloist. It was a big thing for me! In 1992 we formed the Bang on a Can All-Stars; the group was a rich and exciting platform to make something new that people wanted to hear and be a part of. I left the All-Stars after 10 years to pursue my solo career, but I remain very close to the organization and its mission. On a personal level we are best friends. I understand their language and vocabulary, I get them as composers, and I think that we always challenge each other and it makes a better art.

Maya Beiser (photo: ioulex)

Maya Beiser (photo: ioulex)

What new projects do you have underway?

My latest recording, of Paola Prestini’s Room No. 35, was just released on a beautiful new album called Labyrinth from VIA Records, and I am currently working on a new album for release in the fall. We’ve recorded about 30 minutes of music so far and I am so happy with where it’s going. I am self-producing it and working with my longtime sound engineer Dave Cook. We are exploring different ways of recording the cello, looking for something that feels ethereal and raw at the same time. Sounds like an oxymoron right? But I think there is this magical place for the sound where you can hear the breathing and the bow and how it caresses the strings, but you are also in this beautiful cavernous place that feels very ancient. So these opposites—ancient and modern—is what this album is about. Also this fall, I am excited to bring my All Vows project to New York and will be part of a weekend-long marathon festival at the Barbican in London. Two new concertos are on the horizon as well – one by Mohammed Fairouz, commissioned by the Detroit Symphony (for January 2016), and another by Mark-Anthony Turnage, commissioned by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, premiering later in 2016.