Maya Beiser has been pushing her cello to the edge of avant-garde risk-taking since the early 1990s. Composers as diverse as Steve Reich, Osvaldo Golijov and Tan Dun have written works especially for her, and she was a founding member of the Bang On A Can All-Stars. Her Twitter account is called "Cello Goddess" and one of her crossover successes is an arrangement of the Led Zeppelin tune "Kashmir."
Yet Beiser's biggest calling cards these days are theatrical works that involve videos, electronics, lighting effects, spoken poetry and all manner of sounds from her instrument. Many tackle dense literary themes or social-political issues.
The latest is "Elsewhere: A CelloOpera," a commission from the Carolina Performing Arts series which arrives at at BAM’s Fisher Theater on Oct. 17. Scored by Eve Beglarian, Michael Gordon and Missy Mazzoli, the piece is directed by Robert Woodruff and incorporates film, dance, spoken text and vocals.
"Elsewhere," was partly inspired by a poem by the surrealist Belgian poet Henri Michaux called "I am writing to you from a far-off country," about a woman witnessing the end of the world. Beglarian wrote a piece for Beiser in 2006 that incorporates the poem and it turns up here. The other main influence is the Old Testament tale of Lot's wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt. Four dancers portray the stories, while Beiser speaks portions of Michaut’s text along with those of Erin Cressida Wilson.
"The whole idea is of a woman who is taking destiny in her own hands,” Beiser told host Jeff Spurgeon. “It’s been a theme throughout my life, maybe because I’ve lived elsewhere.”
Beiser's comment is something of an understatement. She was born in 1963 and raised in a kibbutz in Israel by a French mother and Argentinean father. She reveals that her iPod remains heavy on Middle Eastern folk tunes and songs by the Israeli singer Ofra Haza.
In the WQXR Café, Beiser presented a portion of Khse Buon, by the Cambodian-American composer Chinary Ung. The piece is a dark threnody drawing upon Cambodian folk melodies, sustained drones and otherworldly sounds. "He wrote this piece in the aftermath of the Cambodian genocide after the Cambodian genocide after the Khmer Rouge tried to destroy the culture,” she said. “He spent ten years trying to collect all these tunes that were lost. This was the first piece he wrote after that time.”
Among Beiser’s upcoming projects is a concept album of rock songs from the 1970s, including Pink Floyd’s "Wish You Were Here." “I’m trying to do it in a different way,” she said. “It’s not going to be symphonic Pink Floyd.”
Listen to Jeff Spurgeon’s full interview above.
Video: Amy Pearl; Audio: Wayne Shulmister and Merritt Jacobson; Text & Production: Brian Wise