Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Beiser bulldozes boundaries

Superstar cellist performs in Ketchum

Beiser bulldozes boundaries

Maya Beiser performs at the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood in Ketchum this Saturday. Photo by Miroyuki Ito

Israeli-born cellist Maya Beiser performs her newest work, "World to Come," in Ketchum on Saturday. An integral cog in the classical music revolutionary wheel that has bulldozed the industry over the past few years, Beiser's work redefines the boundaries of her instrument.

Her performances don't simply provide a fresh interpretation of the classical repertoire; they leave it in the dust. Piloted by her cello, listeners are transported through a creative journey of Eastern, Western and South American folk, jazz and rock and roll influenced concert music.

Beiser has commissioned and collaborated with many of the world's most renowned musicians, including David Lang, Simon Shaheen, Michael Gordon, Meredith Monk and Julia Wolfe. According to Sun Valley Center for the Arts Director of Performing Arts Kathryn Maguet, " 'World to Come' can be described as a sumptuous and sensuous evening of contemporary classical music. Ms. Beiser's level of talent and artistry is staggering."

Beiser's love affair with the cello began in the Middle East. "I grew up in a kibbutz, a commune in Israel. It was a community of Argentinean people and a very, very rich cultural environment, everybody played instruments," she says in a melodic, slightly accented, voice.

"At an early age I was found to have very good pitch, so I was offered the string instruments. I chose the cello over the violin because I preferred the depth of it. The cello's sound just drew me in; it really was love at first sight.

"Besides, it was something no one else played and I always liked to be like no one else!"

Although an idyll for many, life in a kibbutz was not for Beiser. "I wasn't an especially happy child. It (the kibbutz) was never the place I was going to live as an adult. I think it's a very beautiful way of life and I love going back there to visit, but it was not the way for me. I knew that I would go very far away from there!

"I was always attracted to life in an urban center, and at the age of 17 I left Israel for America."

Beiser talks to me from her Riverdale home in New York City, where she lives with her husband and two young children. She sounds tired, and numerous coughs interrupt our conversation. Touring the world is a hard job, she admits, but her passion for the instrument and the music compels her forward.

That progressive attitude, however, recently led her to discover the inspiration that exists in her past. "I was just recently in the kibbutz, for my mother's funeral, and at 5 a.m. I was awakened by the sound of the call to prayer from the mosque in the nearby Arabic village.

"It vividly reminded me of my childhood. Everyday at sunset and sunrise you would hear those musical sounds all through the kibbutz. It was a different time in Israel, when everyone believed in peace. We always had a close relationships with the Arabic village and I became very interested in that music during my adolescence."

The combination of these childhood influences and her later exposure to modern Western musical styles encouraged her to turn away from the traditional classical repertoire. "I wanted to find new territory. What I'm interested in is creating new music that reflects our experiences in the world today. My interest is quite wide. On a particular program I could be collaborating with a, so-to-speak, classical composer, a rock composer and a world music composer. For me those worlds really intertwine. I don't see those musical boundaries that exist; they don't exist for me. I try to present people with something that tears away the traditional boundaries."

Hastening to clarify, Beiser claims she doesn't dislike the classical repertoire, "I think its incredibly beautiful and I still play a lot of it. But I do think that, especially with the younger generation, when you come to hear concert music, you want to hear something that speaks about our experiences today.

"Why are we taking classical music written hundreds of years ago as an influence? Why not classic rock for example? To me, Brian Eno, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix have just as much influence as Beethoven and Bach, and I put them in the same category."

"World To Come," the performance Beiser is bringing to the valley this weekend, draws together her classical versus modern ideology.

"'World to Come' came about because I wanted to do a solo cello concert that extends the cello beyond just the one line. I was always jealous of pianists who can play the melody, the rhythm and the harmony all at the same time! I wanted to do that on the cello."

And she has succeeded. Using multi-tracking technology, Beiser and her cello accompany Beiser and her cello, and Beiser and her cello and Beiser... well, you get the point. The cellist's multi-tracked music segments create a sensuous, swirling atmosphere, "Even though it's solo cello there's a lot more sound than from just one cello, and I'm also vocalizing with the cello and using a lot of different elements to bring the whole thing together."

One other such element is the projected images that surround her as she plays, "I collaborated with visual artist Irit Batsey to create almost an art installation. We juxtapose Irit's visual images with the live cello play."

Her solo work is not her first challenge of classical norms. She was a founding member of Bang on a Can All Stars, a musical group that grew out of Beiser's college, Yale. "Our aim was to break down the barriers of classical music to create a group that was rock like in its appearance and style.

"The group had a very unconventional instrumentation, electric guitar, electric bass, drums, cello, saxophone and piano. It was a very rock like sound. It was a lot of fun."

After 10 years Beiser left All Stars to pursue her solo career, "I feel that my role right now is to do something big for the cello. I want to change the image of the cello as this somber classical music instrument. And," she asserts, "I've been doing it quite successfully."

World to Come

Maya Beiser performs "World to Come" at the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood in Ketchum on Saturday, Feb. 19, at 7:30 p.m.

Priced at $22 for members, $25 for nonmembers and $15 for a limited number of balcony seats, tickets are available at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts in Ketchum, online at, or by calling 726-9491.

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