Name: Maya Beiser
Occupation: Cellist, producer
Current release: delugEON on Islandia Music Records on August 30th
Recommendations: Henry Michaux: selected works; Maya Deren: Meshes of the afternoon
If you enjoyed this interview with Maya Beiser, visit her homepage for more information and music.
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
My father had old recordings of Pablo Casals, and he would play them for me since the day I was born. As early as age 3, we would listen to Casals’s performances of the Bach solo cello suites, and my father would analyze them. I wanted to play the cello the way he did. I grew up in a commune and didn’t live with my parents but rather in community houses for the kids. Every day I could spend a few hours with my parents, and in those hours, we would listen to music. Music became synonymous with happiness; with a visceral feeling of love and safety. These were the moments I looked forward to every day. There was all kind of music, from Bach and Mahler to Astor Piazzolla and Carlos Gardel, Edith Piaff and Mercedes Sosa. There was also the sounds of the Muezzin (the Muslim call to prayer), from the nearby Arabic village, permeating through the windows at dawn and at dusk. As a little girl, I internalized all these different types of music as one, as profound human expression, as art.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
One needs to develop one’s craft first, create a vocabulary, learn how to communicate in this abstract and visceral form of art. And that is a process that takes time. It takes years. The art happens after you’ve mastered your craft, when it becomes ingrained in your body. At the point where you can let go and just be. That’s when I started deconstructing and reinventing.
I think for me, music was always about communicating this burning fire that is inside me, the silent screams, the tearless cries. It was always very personal. I was a shy and introverted girl, and music and the cello provided an outlet to speak and find my power.
What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?
My main challenge was to get to that juncture where I could let go of all the doctrine that I was taught. In particular, letting go of the pursuit of perfection. You start creating at the point where you find your power in surrender. It’s counterintuitive but that is the road that allows discovery.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
I built my studio as a sanctuary. It’s in the lower level of my house. I have a yoga and dance studio and a gym which leads into my music studio. The windows overlook the Hudson river and there is a soft, calm light. The design material is light wood and metal and stone, and it’s designed from repurposed material. It was really important to me that there is a sense of peace and open space. I don’t work well in clutter. Scent is also very important for me. I always have candles burning everywhere.
Tell me about your instrument, please. What was your first instrument like and how did you progress to your current one? How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results, including your own performance?
I love experimenting with the different instruments that I own. Every cello has its own personality. My main “old” instrument is a beautiful 17th century Italian cello. It has a rich and warm and full-throated sound. It’s very easy to play on. It gives back. I also play on a Yamaha electric cello, and I love running it through a bunch of analogue distortion pedals, connecting it to the amp and going wild.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I begin every morning with a yoga practice. If I am home, I go down to my yoga studio. If I’m on the road, I do some sun salutations in my hotel room. The first thing I drink is a glass of warm water with lemon. Then I make myself a matcha latte with almond milk ... That gets me through the morning. My “non-artistic” life is not that separate from my “artistic” life. My family is such an integral part of my musical life that I prefer to work and practice and think about my work surrounded by them. They are obviously a powerful part of the totality of my life. Except for travel, I am a very present mother and do whatever any other working mother does: juggle all tasks. I am fortunate to have a very supportive partner in my husband, and I have never felt limited creatively by my personal life nor has my personal life have ever been limited by my work.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
I have always thought of making music as an act of mining. Somewhere deep, there is a vein of music. It is the observer that makes it cohere into a certain shape. The music is discovered as it is being created. It becomes a direction.
Like many, I have been preoccupied in recent years with the impending ecological disaster unfolding in front of our eyes. I have been thinking of seasons, and water, and the accelerated extinction of helpless species. Bound to a decaying world, it is easy to become despondent and helpless. But thankfully, the music is not subjugated to the folly of man; it belongs to the universe. There is no one way to be an observer of music. Each of us is entitled to their journey.
My new album - delugEON - began from the sounds of melting icebergs; A group of environmentalists recorded ten-hours of sounds of the melting arctic icebergs. As I was listening to these sounds, I wondered what would happen if I layered my multi-cello arrangements of centuries-old classical music masterpieces with the sounds of our dying world. In “Slow Seasons” I juxtaposed multi-cello layers of each of the slow movements from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” with sounds of melting icebergs, desserts dunes, oceanic winds, and the sounds of the wind on Mars as recorded by NASA. In the process of making this album many serendipitous events occurred. It was truly miraculous how the desert dune sounds that we recorded in Morocco, fit within Vivaldi’s score to “Summer”.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I often have the opposite problem: how to tear myself away from the creative to the ordinary. As such, the distractions are mostly my reactions to the urgent matters affecting us all, especially the destruction of the natural world by our vanity and greed. My personal resistance to evil has always been music: I overcome distractions by consoling myself that dictators and plutocrats have an expiration date while music and art is eternal.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Humans excel at imperfect chaos. Unpredictability, vulnerability, sensuality. All these qualities are really important in music. Technology, if used well, is great at expanding on these capabilities.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through playing together or just talking about ideas?
Collaboration is wonderful when there is a true and honest exchange of ideas. It’s a wonderful way to grow and evolve.
How is preparing music, playing it live and recording it for an album connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
When I learn a written composition, I go through a process where I need to internalize the composition and “own” it. Every time that I perform it, I need to literally recreate it anew. It needs to always sounds like I have just composed with these notes now, like they are flowing from within.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' and 'performance' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre?
I don’t make that distinction. Music is an organization of sounds. It’s about our perception. It exists at the moment that we pay attention to it, organize it in a certain way.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
I have always been drawn to an artistic expression that is larger than “just” the sonic experience. Along with my cello, my artistic “canvas” includes visuals, (stills, films, live projections), lighting, electronics, storytelling, movement, singing and acting - often times by myself or in collaboration with other artists. I don’t see it as “multimedia” as much as multisensory experience, one that does not prefer one sensory input to another.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Art is life. Life is art.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music and performance still intact. Do you have a vision of music and performance, an idea of what they could be beyond their current form?
I think we will go further into utilizing technology to create an ever more immersive and interactive art experience. I think in some ways we are going backwards to the beginning of humanity when the experience of art was very basic and visceral. There was no separation between the musician/performer and the audience. Music was created and experienced by the same people.