A conversation with Maya Beiser

Maya Beiser plays the Bijou Theater today (Sat., April 2), at 2 p.m. 803 S Gay St, Knoxville, Tenn.

Photo credit: Photo by ioulex
Maya Beiser is an accomplished cellist who has worked alongside everyone from the Bang On A Can All-Stars to Brian Eno, Philip Glass, and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. She brings a bold and unorthodox presence to contemporary classical music by experimenting with various musical styles, and always defying expectations. 

Today, (Sat., April 2), at 2 p.m., Beiser performs at the Bijou Theater in Knoxville, Tenn., as part of the Big Ears Festival. Steve Reich’s “Cello Counterpoint” featuring film projections by Bill Morrison, David Lang of Bang On A Can’s reinterpretation of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” and her own take on Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” are part of the program. In the midst of the festival, Beiser took a few minutes to talk about today’s performance, how she came to the United States, and her critique of the classical music world.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Israel at a Kibbutz — a self-sustaining commune. My father is from Argentina and my mother is from France. They both kind of landed there in the middle of nowhere at the Galilee, where idealists wanted to change the world, apparently.

How did you make it to the States?
I started playing music when I was very young. I was classically trained in the beginning, but I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of music. When I was 12 years old I was discovered by a violinist named Isaac Stern. He’s a world famous violinist. He came to Israel and there was a big competition, which I won. Then he became sort of my mentor. He tried to convince my mom to let me go to the United States. At the age of 12 I knew classical music, and I was a child star, but there was something about that world that never agreed with me. It wasn’t the right thing for me. So I stayed in Israel. If you live in Israel you have to spend some time in the army — two years for girls and three years for guys. By the time I was 17, I was performing in Europe, and getting involved with avant-garde theatre and film. I decided to cut high school short and go into the army and matriculate and get into a university early. I wanted to get my degree and get the hell out of Israel. By that point things weren’t so great politically. I needed to leave. I was lucky to get into the Israeli Army String Quartet, which was a super cool gig. It was basically two years spent playing mostly Beatles arrangements, and some light classical music. We played for the President — it was kind of a representative thing. As soon as I finished I went on a tour in the United States. My teacher was at Yale at the time, and I got a full scholarship to go there.

That’s where you got involved with the Bang On A Can All-stars?

When I was at Yale I was already involved with experimental rock, but it was on the side. No one knew about it. In my professional life I was playing a lot of Haydn and Dvořák. All of that kind of stuff. God forbid, if Isaac Stern had known what kind of music I was really interested in playing .... In the classical music world you were either a serious artist who’s devoted to the classical repertoire, or you’re not someone to be taken seriously.

The time frame you’re talking about is the late ’80s/early ’90s?

Exactly. While I was at Yale I met Julia Wolfe. She’s one of the founders and composers for Bang On A Can. She was a classmate of mine. I met all of them and we became friends. Then I moved to New York and had a watershed moment: I decided I was taking some time off. I was offered a chance to work with a big agency and continue going the concerto route. But it was something I didn’t want to do. So I did some work with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and stuff like that. I was exploring, trying out a lot of different things.

You worked with Brian Eno along the way, too?

Yes. When we started Bang On A Can the group became successful. We did an album based on Music For Airports. I met him during that time. We worked together, and that’s how I met Philip Glass. We were doing a lot of Philip’s stuff. And then he invited me to come and play Naqoyqatsi with his ensemble. We went on a world tour with the qatsi trilogy, all over Europe and Japan. It’s only recently that he made that arrangement for an orchestra, and I’m really happy about that. The music is so great. It doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.

Because that film Naqoyqatsi was a hard pill to swallow.

Exactly. When they’re shown as a trilogy Naqoyqatsi kind of falls short. But when you do the music as an orchestral piece it gives it the weight it deserves.

I always felt bad for that score because the music is great, but the film doesn’t live up to the atmosphere the music creates.

It’s definitely a hard film.

For your performance at the Bijou Theatre (today Sat., April 2), you are performing Steve Reich’s “Cello Counterpoint” along with a few other pieces — David Lang from Bang On a Can’s take on the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.” Is there an underlying theme that ties the whole performance together?

It’s starting off with a piece by Osvaldo Golijov called “Mariel.”

Steve Reich is a dear friend of mine. At some point I said to him: “You have to write a cello piece, come on …” So he finally did. The one cello piece he has written is “Cello Counterpoint,” which is great. For his 70th birthday, which was 10 years ago, we did a big concert at the Barbican in London, and got Bill Morrison to create this film. The film was kind of our 70th birthday gift to Steve.

There’s not really a theme. It’s more like what I thought would be cool to do in this context. Laurie Anderson is here, doing Lou Reed’s drones. The arrangement isn’t so much an arrangement. David Lang took the lyrics from “Heroin” and used them to write a new piece, and it’s just stunning. It’s on my new album that’s coming out in July, so I wanted to do that for the show. The show is relatively short — about an hour.

The drone has always been a major part of Big Ears’ programming ...

Yes, and the drone is a huge part of me.

Does the term minimalism apply to what you do?

Absolutely. I’m not big on labels, but I love Philip Glass, I love Steve Reich, and I love Terry Riley. I could listen to their music at any moment, day or night, and perform it, too. I love it.

One thread that connects all of these people — Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and others, La Monte Young — is that that they digested Indian classical music and it became part of their DNA.

Absolutely, but not just Indian music, but Balinese, African music — Steve Reich has a lot of African influences in with his music.

The other piece is called “Just Ancient Loops.” It’s a masterpiece by Michael Harrison, who was an apprentice of La Monte Young and Terry Riley. He’s a Buddhist, and he went to India to study classical music. “Just Ancient Loops” is about just intonation and loops that build into this insane piece. It’s on my album with Cantaloupe Music from 2012. It’s called Time Loops - Music in Pure Intonation.

It’s a 25 minute-long piece that has all of those elements within it. Michael is a super humble guy who lives in New York and studies Indian music.

I’m ending the show with “Kashmir,” because we had to do a Led Zeppelin thing. But “Just Ancient Loops” is sort of the big piece on the program, and it has a film that Bill Morrison created. Bill Morrison is a friend of mine. I invited him to the recording sessions, so he got his inspiration about the idea of music of the spheres and the concept of just intonation. So he made this film which is about all these different views of heaven.

You mentioned “Kashmir.” You strike me as an artist who regards classical music and the avant-garde on a level playing field with rock ‘n’ roll. Your album Uncovered opens with “Black Dog.” I didn’t expect something so bombastic the first time I heard it.

Mozart and Beethoven were the rock stars of their time, right? As a classical musician you do covers all your life. One of the things that I find so funny is that purest classical music people will come to me and say “Oh, you do rock covers …” But for me the idea of taking this music that I dig personally, and have been listening to all my life, and figuring out another point of view with it is something I love. When you do an instrumental cover it’s a whole different thing. You’re not involving the lyrics. You can get into the core of what the music is and try to come up with something new. Also, I’ve been on this road of exploring what I can do with a cello, and I love taking these guitar solos and making them on a cello. A Jimi Hendrix solo on a cello — all you have to do is put a fuzz box on it, and there you go. The cello just does it. It could be super high, or super low, and you can do all of the bass guitar stuff. That’s what I explored with that album. It explores the cello and how I hear those pieces, and treating them like masterpieces, which I think they are. For me, they have just as much as any of the 200 year-old or 300 year-old pieces that people play. So I don’t want to say one is more valuable than the other. And if you’re talking about my critique of the classical music world, it’s that it’s stuck in this sort of ivory tower of one way to do everything. I just don’t think that’s true, and I don’t think it was true when those things were written. A lot of it is about untying all of these knots and letting go of the baggage.

That’s also one of the great things about minimalism, it moves away from the cult of the composer.

Right, but you would be surprised by how many people within the concert and orchestral world think that minimalism is a bad word. But for me, none of those labels mean much. I care about the music that I gravitate toward, and I love changing things around, exploring something, and then doing the complete opposite of that. It’s not the smartest marketing thing, because you do catch people off guard, and it’s more fun like that.

Maya Beiser plays the Bijou Theater today (Sat., April 2), at 2 p.m. 803 S Gay St, Knoxville, Tenn.