Maya Beiser is a certified cello goddess not only because her Twitter handle is actually @CelloGoddess, but because she redefines every aspect of what it means to be a cellist in the contemporary context. In true deity form, she dedicates herself to creating new realms in which concert music can exist.
Beiser’s latest project, in collaboration with composer Evan Ziporyn, is an immersive arrangement of David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, in its entirety. In advance of her upcoming performance at MIT, where she will perform it in full alongside the Ambient Orchestra, Beiser and Ziporyn caught us up to date with what it means to be a classical musician in 2017.
DIG: What first drew you to the cello?
BEISER: I always loved the sound of the cello. My father had all these recordings from great cellists, especially Pablo Casals, and I always loved it. I think there was this immediate connection that I had with its sound. And then there was the fact that it was a unique instrument. Nobody else played that instrument, and I was desperately looking for something to kind of way to be able to express my own individuality.
Growing up in a commune [in Israel], you’re always expected to conform, and you don’t own anything personal, and you share everything. I think my individual self, as a girl, was just looking for something, and when I found the cello it was this wonderful gift. It was this way of being and of expressing myself that was just bursting in me. It was like that from the moment that I started to play the cello.
DIG: Through your music you’ve proven the cello to be more versatile than many assume. What opened your eyes to that versatility?
BEISER: When I think about my career now, I can make all these connections to my upbringing and that need to try to find a center for my expressivity, which is what art is about. Through my journey with the cello and with music, I always looked for that. The cello is a vehicle. You learn an instrument and you master it to the degree that it becomes a part of you. I never wanted to settle for the things I was told. I was always wanting to find my own truth.
Obviously, I had to go through the whole learning the instrument through the mainstream classical repertoire because as far as I know, there’s no better way to kind of master the technique part of it, and there’s a huge amount of technique. But when I discovered rock and especially progressive rock and art rock and classic, it became something that I was interested in musically and artistically.
I could never reconcile with only playing music of the dead composers from 200 years ago. I have the utmost reverence for these composers, but as an artist living now, I felt the need to work with composers who are not necessarily only looking at that very specific part of musical history. I wanted my art and my music to be something that is more than new. I’ve always been interested in the idea of not accepting the status quo. That’s when you get to an enlightened place. That’s very much part of art.
DIG: What is it like working with your colleague Evan Ziporyn in this capacity?
BEISER: Evan and I have collaborated for over 20 years now. We did this album together two years ago which was called Uncovered, which was my first expressive exploration into rock music on the cello, and it was just such a satisfying experience working with Evan on this album. We always felt that we were going to do more together and somehow [Blackstar] just feels even more meaningful and deeper.
ZIPORYN: When we met she already had this great reputation as this Israeli classical virtuoso and I was this scruffy composer-improviser. In the early years in Bang on a Can, the amazing thing was how much we were able to learn from each other, and that we were able to find common ground at all because our backgrounds were so different. Now, it’s just like a really nicely symbiotic relationship. Nobody does what she does the way she does it, and I know that whatever I ask her to do she’s not gonna be afraid to take it to an extreme.
DIG: What spawned the idea to do Bowie and, specifically, Blackstar?
ZIPORYN: It was just this flash. I was listening to Blackstar and I realized the uniqueness of Bowie’s voice, that his vocal range is similar to a cello. It all just kind of clicked and that’s the project. Doing Blackstar as an orchestral piece with Maya kind of playing the role of Bowie. I knew immediately that it was the right project.
BEISER: After [Bowie] died, Evan had this idea to do a tribute concert for him at MIT and put together the Ambient Orchestra and they did a Bowie show in memoriam to him. That kind of sparked this because, all of a sudden, there was this orchestra that was really into playing Bowie. At some point Evan just said, “Well, why don’t we do the entire Blackstar album as a cello concerto?” He literally just threw it to me at some point in one of our conversations and I basically said let’s do it without hesitation. We trust each other that way.
DIG: To what extent is the project a Bowie cover and to what extent is it an original composition?
ZIPORYN: I would never claim that it’s an original work. The songs are by David Bowie and they stay that way. It’s like translating from one language to another or adapting from a novel to the stage or to the screen. I’m completely aware that it’s his work, but I feel like I have a vision for it in this idiom. But certainly it’s not an original composition; it’s a translation.
BEISER: I’m embodying David Bowie with the cello, his voice and his vocals. That’s one aspect of the concerto. Then I’m also taking on all these crazy solo licks from the album, so whether it was an electric guitar solo or a sax solo, all these solos that those jazz musicians who collaborated with Bowie on the album did. this album is just a work of genius, and so just taking the entire album and creating it as an orchestral piece, I don’t know if that’s ever been done.
MAYA BEISER, THE AMBIENT ORCHESTRA. FRI 3.3. MIT KRESGE AUDITORIUM, 48 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. 7:30PM/ALL AGES/TICKETS $10-25. ARTS.MIT.EDU