Q&A with Maya Beiser



Cellist Maya Beiser’s latest album, TranceClassical, is deeply imbued with meaning — she describes the album’s inspiration being partly an image in her head of herself as a small girl hearing Bach for the first time. We took a moment to chat with her about TranceClassical, what the songs mean to her, and about her upcoming performance at LPR on September 13th — one that is not to be missed.
You are known for pushing the boundaries of your instrument to new places. What piece on TranceClassical do you think best displays this?
I don’t know that there is one piece on the album that is more demonstrative of this concept over another. My way of thinking is to approach the art of making music — with my cello, with my voice, with my mind, with my entire being — without seeing or struggling against any boundaries. And so for Bach’s Air or Mohammed Fairouz’s Kol Nidrei, I have the same approach as I do for David Lang’s arrangement of Lou Reed’s Heroin or Glenn Kotche’s Three Parts Wisdom. It’s a strange thing, with each piece, I am searching for the physical sounds that I visualize in my mind. It’s like going on an adventure looking for a place you saw in your dream. When you find it, you know, even if you have never been there. So I try not to worry about how possible or impossible it would be to get there. As such, TranceClassical is my way of finding my “personal Bach” in other works and presenting them in a way that would make sense to the listener.
What is the most challenging piece on TranceClassical to play live? What piece do you most enjoy playing?
I know it sounds corny but I love performing all the pieces I play in TranceClassical. I don’t really play music that I don’t love… 🙂  That’s the freedom I have as a solo artist. I suppose the biggest challenge in a live setting is in controlling the technology and not letting it dictate the “boundaries” (here’s that word again). In that context, Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek is probably the most challenging, because it needs to be very precise and there is no room for any technology to act out…
Michael Gordon’s All Vows and Mohammed Fairouz’s Kol Nidrei are both inspired by the Jewish prayer for Yom Kippur. Is there something about Yom Kippur that inspires you? How do you think it has influenced these two pieces differently?
Having grown up in the epicenter of monotheism, in the Galilee region of Israel, liturgy and ritual were never far away. I used to think of Kol Nidrei as a plea for retrospective annulment of all vows that were not fulfilled on a day where Jewish people atone for their sin. But another interpretation is that a person, weak against oppression, asks God to forgive him about any transgression and vows he would make in the future under duress. As the Jewish history, and in many ways most minorities, has been marked by forced conversions or acts against one’s own beliefs, this is a particularly poignant piece for me. It is a testament to its universal power that Michael and Mohammed, a Jewish and a Muslim composer respectively, can delve into the emotional depth of the prayer and produce such a compelling unifying lament.

You described TranceClassical as “the arc my mind sketches between everything I create and Bach.” What gives Bach’s music such a unifying power in your mind?
Bach was my first encounter with genius. At an age that I could barely read, let alone appreciate literary and artistic masterpieces, Bach was immediately magical and sublime. So in a way Bach represents the first encounter I had with the power of music to reach one’s soul. I am fortunate that my early childhood was adorned by the magic of Bach. It affected forever how I understand music: something that is reaching my soul.
David Lang says about his arrangement of Heroin by Lou Reed, “For this song I wanted to see if I could recall that feeling of danger by setting Lou Reed’s lyrics with my new music.” Is this element of danger something that drew you to include the song in TranceClassical? Is it unique on the album in this sense?
I don’t think of danger as something that inspires or motivates me. One can argue that men, even sophisticated and highly intelligent as Lou and David, are often attracted to danger or thrill. In that context the paean to Heroin is very masculine. But I chose to present it as tragic and hopeless. To me, Heroin, the substance and the song, are devastating and heartbreaking.
TranceClassical features your arrangement of English singer-songwriter Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek. This is probably the album’s greatest venture into the world of popular music — what drew you to include the song on the album?
Popular music (whatever the term means) has always influenced my repertoire. Some pieces I play are popular in other cultures, and some are my renditions of very popular rock and blues music (as was my last project, Uncovered). In many ways I identify with brilliant musicians like Imogen Heap. She is a soloist who creates her own work, governed by her sense of avant-garde and artistic freedom. I was always drawn to women artists who charted their own terrain, be it Charlotte Moorman, Maya Deren, Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson… The list is long. I love the work of Imogen Heap and have long sought to present a piece of hers. As I was thinking about TranceClassical it somehow sprang into my consciousness and felt just right in that context.
Your recording of Bach’s Air on G on TranceClassical features the sound of an old vinyl record, and many fans and critics have said they love the effect. Will the vinyl sound feature in your live performance?
Yes definitely. I go even further (but I leave it to the audience to discover). All of us who were born in the pre-digital recording can see pluses and minuses in both formats. But Bach to me is a scratchy old LP vinyl: I can still reconstruct the brief excitement I felt as the “scratches” started sounding. They became a sort of prelude to the massive pleasure of the music. The noise is ingrained and is part of the magic. This is how I think of my early memories of Bach: they anchor my musical center of gravity and give me the freedom to fly without fear of getting lost.
Maya Beiser - TranceClassical