When Maya Beiser was fifteen years old, her mother took her shopping on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street for a pretty frock and a pair of dress shoes. To the young cellist, it should have felt like a treat: growing up in Gazit, a predominantly Argentinian kibbutz in the Lower Galilee, new clothes were a rarity. Moreover, it was for a special occasion: her first solo appearance at Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium. But, says Beiser, now 45, “it was all too boring and predictable. I wanted something cool, edgy. Pants with boots, or a short dress with colorful stockings.” Still, her mother stood firm and Beiser wore the dress to the concert. But just before going on stage, she kicked off her shoes. The next day, newspapers ran photos of the teenage prodigy — barefoot.
“The codes, the whole formality of the classical music world just never felt right for me,” says Beiser, sipping fresh mint tea in a café on New York’s Upper West Side. Thirty years since her shoeless debut, she is one of the most fiercely individual cellists on the new-music scene, collaborating with composers and artists from other art forms in projects that, no matter how forward-looking, always reveal her roots.
On February 1 she presented her most recent one, Cayengue, named after an earthy form of street tango, at (Le) Poisson Rouge, the former Village Gatehouse nightclub transformed into an innovating performing-arts venue. Dressed in a black sequined tunic she looked part mermaid part cellist, her Medusa-like hair tangled in the pegs, plumes of resin dust floating up into a shaft of light whenever her bow dug into the string. Every now and then, she flashed a grin in the direction of pianist Pablo Ziegler as if sharing an inside joke.
The daughter of an Argentinian father and a French mother, Meiser’s childhood was flavored with tango music. “My father had a vast library of tango music, from street tangos to the more sophisticated Nuevo Tangos of Carlos Gardel and Astor Piazzolla,” she recalls. “This music was my connection to my father’s family and history in Argentina. Though we were in Israel, we would spend weekends drinking Maté and grilling Asado, listening to my father’s stories of Gauchos and riding horses in the Pampa. I love the immediacy, rawness and earthiness of this music – as well as its sensuality and melancholy.”
Amid the restrictions of kibbutz life, she says, “the cello was my ticket to the world.” She excelled at her classical training and came under the mentorship of Isaac Stern early on, but chafed at the notion widely held in the classical world “that this is the only music that’s good.” The dress code was only part of it: ultimately, she looked to new repertoires for self-expression.
“I wanted to approach the music directly, to be involved with the creative process,” she says. In 1992 she became a founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, an ensemble of new music virtuosos dedicated to premiering works that often defy musical genres. Branching out on her own, she commissioned works tailor-made for her theatrical persona: a “cello-opera” by Eve Beglarian based on poems by the Belgian surrealist Henri Michaux; a haunting multi-layered work for solo cello from Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov, in which Beiser plays several electronically sampled voices at once; an arrangement, by Evan Ziporyn, of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” The latter forms part of her CD “Provenance,” which re-imagines the Golden Age of pre-Expulsion Spain. Characteristically for Beiser, she did not try to reconstruct ancient musical texts, but rather commissioned contemporary composers from Armenia, Iran and Israel, and recorded with Lebanese-American musicians in the studio.
In playing tango, she says she is more interested in reviving the genre than celebrating the music of Piazzolla, who, at his death twenty years ago, had elevated it to a new level. “Piazzola’s music is so beautiful, everybody wants to play it and you can’t blame them,” she says. “But there are a lot of not-so-great interpretations out there. One of the things I love about working with Pablo [Ziegler] is that even though there are heart-wrenching moments, we try to always keep the rhythm going, to never become self-indulgent. What makes that music really strong is the power of it together with the beauty. If you take out the power, it just becomes this sentimental shmaltz.”
Finding that elastic sense of timing unique to tango music, she says, “you have to feel it in your body.” It helps to have grown up with it, as does having a large family in Argentina where “there is always a cousin who pulls me onto the dance floor.”
“It’s a very different thing than playing Brahms,” she says. “The timing and the way that the accent falls – everything is against the beat, nothing is straight. It’s what makes that music so exciting.”