Dallas — Cellist Maya Beiser will perform two shows this weekend at Dallas City Performance Hall, presented on the TITAS season. Her current production, “All Vows,” begins with “uncovers,” Beiser’s term for her versions of classic rock songs reimagined for cello. She is also collaborating with Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, who not only performs, but also has composed a piece for Beiser. The second half of the program explores “the inherent desire for ritual and meaning,” with a focus on music inspired by some of the world’s major religions, including Beiser’s own Judaism and Buddhism.
We caught up with Beiser to chat with her about her musical journey so far and about the “All Vows” production.
TheaterJones: Your early training as a cellist was pretty conventional, right, including a degree in cello from Yale School of Music?
Maya Beiser: Yes. I started playing very young. I grew up in Israel in a kibbutz, and at 12 I was discovered by the late violinist Isaac Stern. He became my mentor. Throughout my adolescence, I explored all the big classical repertoire. So my training has been very strictly classical, and it wasn’t until I came to Yale, and really after I graduated, that my playing took a left turn, if you will [laughing]. I decided to explore different ideas with my instrument, and in some ways reinvent the classical cello concept, and find new ways to perform my instrument, going into a lot of different genres, as well.
Do you feel that your Yale experience encouraged you to go in this new direction? Of course [your mentor] Isaac Stern was a more traditional player.
At Yale, I was studying in the classical tradition with a really good teacher. The thing that happened there was not so much in the music department. What was wonderful was all the other people, in theater, art. I was opening myself up to all the things that interest me. My journey as an artist was to always question, find connections. I fell in love with rock ’n’ roll when I was a teenager, but obviously I couldn’t talk to Isaac Stern about rock and roll [laughing]. But Janis Joplin became my hero when I was 16, and I always wanted to play the cello like she sings. So I was playing Dvorak and Haydn and Beethoven, but I was listening to Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin and Brian Eno and all of these great rock classics, and I wanted to find a way to connect all those dots. I think that the time we live in now is a really great one because it’s possible to do that. Having technology that is so rapidly evolving, and being able to incorporate technology into my performance, opens up a whole new world of possibilities for me in terms of multi-tracking, looping, processing, and exploring all kinds of ideas. I started out [my career] by—not rejecting, but just deciding I’m not going to go the conventional way. So when I graduated from Yale, I started to commission work and collaborate with indie rock people and even “big rock” people, as well as avant-garde artists from different disciplines. I moved to New York and developed this whole world I’m immersed in now.
What were your original aspirations as a cellist? Did you assume that your career would take a more traditional path?
Yeah. There are all these female artists who became my role models. At a very early age, when I started to play the cello, I wanted to be like Jacqueline du Pré, who was my idol at the time. She came to Israel to play when I was very young and I was just in love with her playing, her personality.
You actually got to hear Jacqueline du Pré play?
I did! I did! Then a few years later I got to play for her. It was already the end of her career, but she was a big first inspiration for me. But then, I discovered Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, and then later Janis Joplin, and she was my idol. I wanted to have that kind of career, not that I had any idea about how to make that happen. And then when I came to the U.S., Laurie Anderson was one of my big inspirations. I loved the idea of being a storyteller with music. Madonna was always a strong inspiration to me, in terms of the kind of person she is and the breadth of the things she has done and the career that she’s had.
I never had this kind of concrete idea—never wanted to be the principal cellist in an orchestra or the cellist in a quartet, although I’ve done both. I had to serve in the Israeli Army, and my service was in the Army string quartet. I’ve always created precedent—it was not easy, because the kibbutz is a commune, and I was an individualist. When I was 17, I heard that the army was auditioning for the string quartet, and I realized that this was my only opportunity to continue to play while I did my army service. So I applied, then got a letter that they were not accepting women. I was pretty determined, said I’d go to the newspapers, so they did open it up, and did accept me, which was a really great thing. They ended up accepting another woman as well, so we kind of paved the way.
When you know something really strongly and you have the passion, you need to go for it! We can’t just follow the path that’s already there and still make something important. You need to find the path that hasn’t been carved and carve it yourself.
What about the designation “crossover”? How do you feel about that label?
I don’t mind the crossover term. It doesn’t mean anything to me, but if other people want to use it, that’s fine. Those designations don’t mean anything to me because I’ve always crossed over [laughing]. I listen to a lot of different genres; I’m interested in a lot of different genres. The concerts I’m playing in Dallas are good examples—I’m playing rock and blues and classical, and Buddhist influence and Jewish influence, all together. So I guess “crossover” is one way to classify it, if you want to. I play a classical instrument, but I play contemporary music, music that is relevant to me and I think to my generation and our culture. But I’m fine with the “crossover” label. I think the reason that the label “crossover” has a bad name is because it’s sometimes used as a marketing tool, trying to sell albums. But I think when artists themselves are naturally those who have a wide range, then crossover is a wonderful thing. I try to look for different ways to express my cello, with music that I love, be it Led Zepplin or Steve Reich or Stockhausen.
Let’s talk about some of the projects you do and some of the artists you work with. You’re playing with the drummer for Wilco now. You’ve worked with some pretty well-known composers. You’re known for projects such as your video of [Led Zeppelin’s] “Kashmir,” which has 75,000 YouTube hits. What’s the most innovative and fun project you’ve done so far?
Uncovered, my latest album, has been an incredibly fun project because it was completely self-produced—along with my friend Evan Ziporyn, who did the arranging. It was a great exploration of the possibilities of the instrument—how could I make it sound great, cool, different, but also relevant? And maybe reveal some of the possibilities of this music. I never think about whether an album will do well or not; I just dive in and do my best. So when something does really well, [as this project has], it’s just an extra reward.
“All Vows,” the production I’m performing in Dallas, I’ve been touring with all year. The first half is music from Uncovered, and the second half is a more spiritual world. It’s been a great ride. Performing live with Glenn Kotche [the drummer from Wilco] is just amazing. Such amazing energy. And I’m playing an original piece that he wrote for me. I think that a lot of people who love Wilco will be surprised—they may not know that he’s such a fabulous composer.
What will the experience of “All Vows” be like for concertgoers?
I am Jewish. But my life is much more about living a spiritual experience rather than practicing one religion. The idea of “All Vows”—it’s a translation of the Kol Nidrei, the Yom Kippur prayer. Historically there’s been a lot of research about the Kol Nidrei, in which you make a sort of deal with God. Because Jews were minorities for thousands of years, they couldn’t always freely practice their religion, so they might make a deal with God [explaining that they were still devout Jews despite surface appearances]. Prayer is about the notion of personal spirituality. So I wanted to play music that is inspired by that. For me, rock music has that as well. I’m kind of bridging those gaps. Music is an amazing spiritual practice. Through music, we can connect as humans. It can take you to that deep part of yourself.