This interview originally ran in the Burning Ambulance weekly email. You should subscribe. (It’s free.)
Cellist Maya Beiser operates in a zone all her own, encompassing classical music, adaptations of rock songs, avant-garde performance pieces, and much more. She has collaborated with Steve Reich, Brian Eno, Philip Glass, Evan Ziporyn, and Shirin Neshat, among others, and has released more than a dozen albums, including 2020’s Bowie Cello Symphonic: Blackstar, a re-interpretation of the late singer’s final album as a cello concerto, arranged by Ziporyn.
Her latest release is Maya Beiser x Philip Glass, a collection of pieces that she has reworked for cello. It includes two of his études, versions of “Mad Rush,” “Music in Similar Motion,” and four sections of the score to Naqoyqatsi. It’s a swirling, hypnotic release on which she lays down multiple lines that weave together and overlap in order to recreate the stacked harmonies and cyclical patterns of Glass’s music. I sent Beiser five questions by email; her responses are below.
Who are you, and how did you get to where you are now? (This is a broad question, I know; answer it in any way that feels right — discuss your musical development, your overall life path, or anything else.)
The best way I can describe my path is as a series of surprises. Almost every turn in my artistic life was unanticipated, unplanned and in a way only loosely related to the project that came beforehand. The one constant impulse in my life journey is the need to create, and I am open to trying anything that I can do with a cello. Being open to the unpredictable has taken me down many paths that eventually cohered into where I am today: I “morphed” from being a person who plays the cello to utilizing the cello as a tool, to serve in my larger artistic pursuits. Expanding the possibilities and transcending the obvious as it pertains to cello performance, has become the focus of what I do.
I am not bound by any convention or tradition. Making music for me is an act of connecting to a visceral powerful space where you can totally lose yourself and be free and vulnerable. Being there without precedent or clear path has allowed me to dream up new central roles and possibilities for my artistic work.
What equipment did you use on this record, and was there anything about the recording environment that particularly impacted the process or the final album? Is the music reproducible as-is live, or will it require additional reworking for performance?
We recorded during the COVID winter, in Hudson, NY, at the old Opera House. We needed a large space so we could be safe. It was clear that the album would be a solo album. There was only me and Dave Cook, my sound engineer. Everything in the album involves overdubbing and looping. I have a pretty rigorous process, both in the way I make the cello arrangements and in how I record them. I produce the album myself and it is really a process of diving deep into a state of mediation and extreme concentration. A process of discovery. The music can be performed live in different iterations. For now, I wanted to perform it live with other cellists. So I recreated my overdubbing and looping as a cello ensemble for the live performance.
When you’re creating loops for some of the parts, is something lost? It seems to me that part of the challenge of Glass’s music is to play these intensely repetitive little cells without going insane…
I don’t feel that anything is lost. I actually love what happens with the looper and how the piece keeps building, as I am adding voices. There are many nuances in how one can construct the looping structure and since Glass didn’t write these works as “loop pieces” I needed to be creative in how I constructed it.
Which piece was the most difficult to arrange, either in terms of the number of layers, or the difficulty of transposing it from piano to cello, or something else?
The Naqoyqatsi pieces were challenging because they are in essence a cello concerto and there is a whole orchestra that I needed to recreate with my one cello. So I had to make a lot of decisions — where to place the voices, articulations, timber, octave range, and more.
In any kind of “classical” music, there’s a struggle between following the score/honoring the tradition and making whatever room you can for individual interpretation. Where is that zone of struggle between score and expressed individuality located on this album?
I never feel that struggle. For me it is a very fluid process: Internalizing the music and recreating it in my own voice. I don’t believe that there is some kind of unshakable truth about music and one way it needs to be performed. I’m not even sure that we hear music the same way. It’s very possible that each of us hears the same music differently, right? And regardless, I never play the same piece in the same way twice. Everything affects how I play it, how I feel it, how I hear it. So, I try my best to just be true to how it feels in that moment that I play it. I just dive in.