Speaking for herself

More music I loved this summer: Maya Beiser‘s new album, Provenance, on the Innova label. If you know her playing, of course you want to hear the album. She’s a soulful cellist, to say the least, and powerfully so. She wails. But there’s also always a marvelous sense of both exploration and control.

This album is based on a vision of medieval Spain as a place where cultures coexisted — Christian cultures, Jewish cultures, Muslim cultures. And so the music evokes the Middle East, with haunting pieces by composers from Iran, Armenia, Israel, and the US. But what gives this extra personal depth is Beiser’s deeper reason for making the album, as I heard her talk about it on Soundcheck, the daily music talk show on WNYC, New York’s public radio station.

Beiser is Israeli. When she grew up, she felt some sense of the three cultures coexisting all around her. She heard Arab calls and music. So the album is a way of connecting with her past, and, I might guess, a gesture toward healing the intercultural horrors going on now.

I’ve listened several times, and I’m always drawn in, by the melodies probing over drones, by the rhythms, by (again) the soul. But for my purposes, in this blog, there’s another story, too. Typically, classical musicians play the repertoire for their instrument. So by orthodox lights, Beiser should be focused on the Dvorak concerto, and the Bach suites.

In an era when that approach to music ruled without challenge, Dvorak and Bach are exactly what Beiser might have played. But our era has wider horizons, coming into the classical world from other kinds of music. In pop or jazz, or world music, someone might say, “I’m a musician, and I play the sax [or the oud, or the guitar, or fill in your favorite]. But that’s just a beginning. What kind of music do I want to play on my oud?”

That’s the approach Beiser takes here, as she does in all her work. So she finds composers to collaborate with, in a sense becoming their co-creator, or to use a film analogy, becoming the auteur of her album, even if others write the music. (Though as she explained on Soundcheck, she herself had creative work to do, since one of the pieces was supplied to her simply as a melody, leaving her to decide how it should be presented.)

And for final proof of how personal an album this is, just listen to the last track, a killer arrangement (by Evan Ziporyn, a terrific composer and the clarinetist in the Bang on a Can All-Stars) of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” which of course also has a Middle East vibe, and fits perfectly with everything else on the record, bringing it to a close with an electric shock of rock & roll.

And why “Kashmir”? Because, as Beiser said on Soundcheck, when she was growing up in Israel, learning Bach and Dvorak, and hearing Muslim calls around her, she also loved Led Zep. So this record brings her back to many places in her life. You won’t believe what she does with “Kashmir,” until you hear it. Electric shock isn’t the half of it. She takes the song over, singing, wailing, roaring it on her cello, in a way that’s fully Middle Eastern, and fully rock & roll. Maybe she even outdoes the original.

Things like this, I think, will be a big part of the future of classical music. Classical musicians drawing on everything they know, everything they are, to speak not only for Bach and Dvorak, but for themselves.

(Which does not mean that many of them won’t find ways to use Bach and Dvorak when they do that.)

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  1. says

    I love Maya Beiser’s work, too, and look forward to hearing this new album. And I totally agree with your concluding point. The future of “classical” music (I find I increasingly dislike the term “classical”), will be similar to its past with a return of composer/performers and composer-allied performers. New music, closely associated with particular performers, who, since they have their own repertoires, are not in the same type of competition with each other that everyone playing the classical standards are.

    I’ll probably download “Provenance” as soon as I finish this comment. I’m not going to be buying any more recordings of the Dvorak concerto or the Bach suites or Beethoven symphonies, because I already have way more of those than I need.

  2. says

    Thanks for your thoughtful words on the disc, Greg. More and more, I see composers and performers bringing everything in their musical DNA, regardless of genre, to bear on what they do without saddling it with loaded/tainted terms like “crossover.” Especially among emerging artists, the future you speak of has already arrived.

  3. Greg Sandow says

    A comment was accidentally deleted:

    It would take a lot for Maya Beiser to beat the Ordinaires’ 1988 version of “Kashmir” – a truly killer blast of Lower East Side classical/art-rock fusion. But I’ll give it a try.

    — Myke