Cellist Maya Beiser: Creating Music, the Mantra to Move People

Lisa Houston on March 12, 2014
Maya Beiser
Maya Beiser
Photo by Merri Cyr

It might seem unlikely that someone raised on a non-religious kibbutz in the Galilee Mountains, who trained as a classical cellist and graduated from Yale, would become an innovator, a collaborative artist who commissions and stars in unusual and never-before-seen combinations of sounds, visuals, and text — but cellist Maya Beiser is exactly such an explorer. Her upcoming concerts are at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on March 21 and March 22.

Beiser set out on her trailblazing path early after her college years when she was the founding cellist with the new-music ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars, in New York City. That path, which has included collaborations with well-known artists such as Brian Eno, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and film composer James Newton Howard, has been full of acclaim, including top-selling albums on the classical and world-music charts, performances at many of the globe’s greatest concert halls and festivals, and an ever-evolving series of performances such as her cello opera, Elsewhere, and next year’s performance of All Vows at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

What would you say was the key turning point for you as an artist, when you realized that you wanted to do something more than play Bach’s Suites or be in a traditional string quartet?

Well, I think there was more than one moment. It was more the overall trajectory of my life that brought me to that. The moment I think where everything crystallized for me was the moment that I graduated from Yale. That was that moment you look in the mirror and you say, “OK, now life begins, and why am I doing this?” We each have our path that life takes us on, and music became my passion at a very early age, for many different reasons. But I think probably the strongest one was that it was just this gift that I found. I grew up on a kibbutz in the northern part of Israel and it was a pretty scary time and I wasn’t particularly happy there, for all kinds of reasons, although it was a very special community. But I was a very individual-minded kind of person and it was a commune and you had to kind of follow everybody else’s rules, which was very hard for me. So when I first played the cello and I found this world, it was this incredible thing. But of course as a child you don’t really get to make decisions in the same way and I was classically trained and I was playing all the classical repertoire during my childhood.

But throughout it all, for me, there was always this sense that I wanted to do something that nobody else did, and I think that was a lot of it. I felt like I needed to make something new. And I guess when I was at Yale and after graduation I just realized that what I wanted was to be a part of the creative process. I didn’t just want to be quote, unquote, an interpreter and I do say “quote/unquote” because being an interpreter is a fantastic and beautiful thing. But for me, I wanted to take the cello on a new path. I wanted to connect with other kinds of music. I wanted to make a statement as an artist. So that was really the beginning.

What do you think is the root of your interest in the visual arts? Or do you think modern audiences are simply more visual because of their constant exposure to video? Why do you think that element is included in so much of your work?

Well, I actually think both. I’m a visual person. Aesthetics and visual art has always been a very strong part of my interest. And I’ve always imagined music; whether it’s new music or as a child playing the classical repertoire, I always created a story in my mind and I always saw visuals, except that back then I didn’t think I could make those visuals come alive except through the music. And there’s something wonderful about that, because when you just play the music, each person can make up their own visual story, and I think we do. But I think that for me what I want to do is bring my audience to my own narrative and present something that is more encompassing. And in that context, I do think that we live in a world that is visual. Everything is visual these days, and I also think that we respond to visuals in a very powerful way and I think we connect to music in a very powerful way, and I think it’s very natural. So the idea to create visuals that either express elements in the music or that have their own life, or just create a world that includes visuals, is just very natural and always a part of how I saw it.

You know, I started very small. My debut concert in New York after graduating from Yale — I think it was 1992 at the 92nd Street Y — was a concert with some contemporary music, and the first piece I commissioned, it was from David Lang, but also had some more-mainstream repertoire. But in that concert I just thought maybe we’ll just change the lighting a little bit, because it just felt unnatural to me to have this one harsh light through the whole thing, the standard concert light that we always had; and to be honest it was just my reaction. I just came off stage and said, “Do you guys have a lighting designer? Is there something we can do? I’m starting with this Lutoslawski piece and I just want to start in the dark.” And we did that, and at the time it was completely unheard of to even have a lighting designer in a “straight” concert hall. I think to this day a lot of places don’t. If I’m coming to play, then they would, because I ask for it.

I think the issue is that in the classical music world we’ve been stuck in these rules about how things “have to be.” Because the trajectory of my life has always been not to accept rules and to question them, probably because of the way I grew up in this very restrictive society and because my personality is really about questioning everything and trying to find other ways, those rules just never really felt right to me. So I wanted to create my own rules and the rules about how to create music in a live performance. And what’s still driving me today is “what does the music tell me?” or “what does the idea tell me?” And I go from there to decide what it will be, who my collaborators will be. And sometimes the music just really doesn’t need anything, or sometimes the music is just about being there completely naked, and that’s fine, too.

You include on your website some of your sources of inspiration, which include Rumi and Gandhi. How do you see your work on a larger scale — what you feel your deepest intention is with what you’re creating? Do you want to move people in a certain way? Is there something about the evolution of art that you want to be a part of, or is there something more human you want to achieve, or is it more abstract than that?

I have several guiding mantras. What I love to do is connect with people, and I believe strongly in the power of music to make changes. I don’t know if I can do it alone, but I’m doing what I can. And what it’s about, for me, is promoting humanity and the things I think that are great about humanity, because I feel like there’s so much bad stuff out there and I think it’s about balancing that. I think each and every person in this world needs that. We need music that will move us. We need music that will change us. We need music that will open us up to new worlds that we haven’t seen before so that we will evolve.

What I love to do is connect with people, and I believe strongly in the power of music to make changes. … We need music that will move us. We need music that will change us.

A big part for this, for me, is that this journey is about evolution. I’m discovering things every day. About myself. About the music. About the people around me. And I like to do that with the people that come to hear my music or the people that listen to it online. And I very much want to connect with my generation and the younger generation because they desperately need good music; they need art. I think a lot of people know that we have all this formulaic junk out there, from reality TV shows to music that’s basically made by computers. So I think we need to counter that with art that is meaningful but that is also beautiful, and I think one does not negate the other.

In reference to collaborating with other people, what is the difference in the collaborative process for a work such as Linked Verse and the collaborative process of, say, a cello sonata or a string quartet?

The big difference is that you’re creating something from the beginning, that you are part of making that happen. And it’s, of course, quite different than if I would take a Shostakovich piano sonata that is something that’s already there; of course you’re making something from the beginning as well, because it isn’t there until you play it. But when I make new music with composers, it’s just a wonderful thing, because you’re going on this journey that you don’t know where it’s going to lead you.

I think there are several elements to it. There’s the risk taking, which I find absolutely essential, because all the music that I play, I commission, and I collaborate with people and you never know what the end result will be. So you’re taking a lot of risk and you’re putting yourself out there and that’s important. And then it’s about bringing several minds together. And so, for example, with the All Vows collaboration that I’m doing at the Yerba Buena Center, I’m collaborating with film maker Bill Morrison on all these pieces, and it’s a very long process of thinking about the music, thinking about what it means, and making the whole thing come alive. There are all these composers that have written music just for me and each one is different because each composer has their own voice. But it’s a process because I learn so much. I learn, often, something I’ve never known before. It’s always something that brings me to another level and by extension that’s something I can give back to the audience.

With Linked Verse it’s interesting because it’s not a kind of typical piece for me. It’s an hour-long meditation, and Jaroslaw Kapuscinski is a composer who I’ve never worked with before, and in this case he asked me to be a part of this project, which is not usual for me (usually I’m the one to go to the composer). And I’ve gotten to know the artists the OpenEndedGroup, and in that process it was more me coming into his world and trying to understand what is it that he wanted to achieve here. He wrote me this beautiful letter last week when he was in Japan. The piece is a meditation about the idea of connections between different culture, and the cello represents Western culture and the shō is a Japanese instrument and all the visuals were shot in Tokyo and in New York, so you get this juxtaposition of two universes.

First and foremost, for me, it’s about music that is emotional, that is moving, and that takes you somewhere.

Jaroslaw is fascinated with Japanese culture, and particularly ancient culture, and the one thing he wrote to me — the thing that really endears that society to him — is that they have such reverence for their elders, that incredible respect for the 70-year-old musician. And even though they can’t play as well, because of the life they’ve lived in that society, you really have respect for people who have lived and been on earth for a while. Whereas we live in the complete opposite society, where youth is idealized to no end. And he said to me, “Maya, I know that you are used to playing rock and roll and all these things, but in this piece I would love for you to try to be really old!” And I thought it was just so beautiful, because it’s just this kind of thing that you would never get when you play a piece by someone who’s no longer with us — a dead composer as wonderful as he is.

If you are someone who cares about music, you must experience the music that is written today … in reaction to our human experience in the 21st century.

So this piece is as close as I get to being an “interpreter,” because it’s not a piece that I’ve conceived; it’s a piece I’m a part of, but still there’s this wonderful thing because you work with this living performance. Not only that, he builds the piece around my sound. He came to my studio in New York and we spent a week basically exploring the sounds on the cello and it’s this really kind of funny way of doing this and we really started from nothing. The wonderful thing about this piece is that there’s really not even one time that there’s a melody, a recognizable Western-like melody. And all these different sounds are sounds I created for him, and he took them and created the piece. That’s just one way. When you make collaboration, it’s just such a wonderful kind of diving into someone else’s world and this whole thing emerges. With All Vows it’s an idea that I wanted to do, that I’ve been thinking about as a conceptual idea about my connection to spirituality. I’ve commissioned all these composers and I’m in the thread in all of that. I’ve come to all these composers and asked them to write this for me. And that work has all these worlds that I hover around in the spiritual world, and my love of rock and roll.

The readership of SFCV is a classical music audience, largely. If something comes to mind, could say something that would invite these people into this particular concert hall, when perhaps they’re considering something more traditional. What would you say to welcome them?

I think what people need to remember is that classical music is the genesis of all of this, in many ways. The thing that I have done is not to throw away that at all, but rather take that as the beginning and introduce new elements that are more from our current culture. And sometimes that might mean world-music elements or rock or jazz or whatever that is. But first and foremost, for me, it’s about music that is emotional, that is moving, and that takes you somewhere. It’s not about just doing something that would make you want to run away, and I think that’s very important to say.

People need to remember … that they can go back to the concert hall and experience music today that would leave them with a wonderful experience, and sometimes even a life-changing experience.

We all know this but I think we need to repeat it because something happened after World War II in the classical music world, because people were very disillusioned about all the terrible things that happened to humankind. They just said, “OK, we can no longer embrace this beautiful music of the Germans and the Austrians, because look at what that has done to us!” So you had all these composers come out and just say, “We’re gonna do something horrible, we’re gonna do something that’s not gonna make you guys like it and we don’t care if you don’t like it because we’re not really interested in people liking anything.” So we went through this really difficult time where music was really not meant to be experienced in the same kind of way. And, as hard as it was, I think it was an important part of our evolution because it was a reaction to something, and it was an important reaction.

But what it did, of course, is it scared everybody away from the concert halls, and of course with the revolution of rock and roll things have changed so radically. So we just kept playing only the 19th-century music and backwards. And the thing that was always the case back in the 19th century and even the early 20th century was that the majority of music that was played was music that was created at the time. It was music that was relevant to people. But none of that exists anymore, so I think the wonderful thing that has happened is that now, in the 21st century, we’re back to a place where we have fantastic composers who are writing beautiful music, important music that will undoubtedly survive many generations, hundreds of years from now. But people need to remember that we are no longer in that period where everything is so complex and difficult, and that they can go back to the concert hall and experience music today that would leave them with a wonderful experience, and sometimes even a life-changing experience. And that’s not saying, “Don’t go see a Beethoven symphony,” because Beethoven is a genius and we need to have Beethoven played and Schubert played and Bach and all of these people played. But if you are someone who cares about music, you must experience the music that is written today, because you can’t separate yourself from that. Because that music is written in reaction to our human experience as it is today in the 21st century.