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Monday, October 12, 2015

Maya Beiser on All Vows

This Wednesday, cellist Maya Beiser is joined by bassist Jherek Bischoff, filmmaker Bill Morrison, and others in All Vows, a convention-flouting survey of her musical personality, featuring music by Nirvana, Michael Gordon, Glenn Kotche, and more. A note from Beiser follows.

Photo: Justin Knight for MIT

In All Vows, I explore the dichotomy and multifaceted interaction between the physical, external world we inhabit and the landscape of our mysterious inner selves. A humble, intensely personal lament, Kol Nidrei—translated to All Vows—is a prayer about human imperfection, about stumbling and making mistakes. The words of the prayer are meant for no one other than the person who utters them, but the melody of the prayer is aimed at everyone—the words divide, and the music unites. My show, All Vows, is an exploration of that idea; language, words, actions, can bridge or separate us—music, any music, is purely spiritual, as it has no obstacle in entering the soul. In juxtaposing the ancient prayer of the Kol Nidrei, with reimagined Classic Rock, I aim to show that tradition is not sacred. That if there is a heuristic value to the music, whether rock or ancient laments, breaking away from its original form will strengthen its inner emotional meaning, rather than detract from it.

The first half goes deep inside the music of Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Janis Joplin, and Howlin’ Wolf to “uncover” and reveal the core of each song as a musical masterpiece—a totem of our collective consciousness forged by our shared, popular culture. Deconstructing the rock idiom, the cello takes on the part of both the lead singer and lead guitar, with many other layers created by my cello in the studio and regenerated live with electronic processing. These “uncovers” are the result of my collaboration with composer Evan Ziporyn, who created all the arrangements for me. Evan’s unique, complex, and masterful musical language, and the many sounds that we have created with this versatile instrument of mine, are the lens through which this music unveils.

Alongside these rock and blues masters, I am performing two new compositions, by Glenn Kotche and David T. Little—both inspired and influenced by this vernacular. Glenn writes: “My own musical life is a constant shift between my hermetic experiences as a composer and solo performer and the polar opposite of that experience as the drummer in a six-piece rock band that tours extensively. I love Maya’s approach to solo performance, using multi-tracked cellos, which enables her to shift between those two experiences. In playing with various ideas of how to approach my piece for her, I found myself gravitating towards a more layered and rhythmically complex sound. (I’ll always be a rhythmically obsessed drummer at my core!) I like to begin writing a piece on the drum kit when I can, so I began investigating possibilities for ‘Three Parts Wisdom,’ by taking some solo drum kit ideas that I was working on for myself and experimented with adding pitches to the rhythms. I then layered and collaged these elements into something that rhythmically resonates with me and that will ideally fill a void in Maya’s repertoire.”

Describing his new piece for me David writes: “‘Hellhound’ was composed for cello virtuoso Maya Beiser for her project, All Vows. The title is a reference to legendary bluesman Robert Johnson’s 1937 song ‘Hellhound On My Trail,’ considered to be among his greatest, which tells the story of a man pursued by demons, unable to rest. In the Johnson mythology, this song reinforces the famous tale of the crossroads, in which he reportedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical abilities. ‘Hellhound’ is a meditation on the emotional elements of this story—the terror, the inability to stop, the soulless emptiness—and on the notion of having crossed a point of no return, pursued by demons, likely of one’s own making.”

Photo: Justin Knight for MIT
In the second half of All Vows, I delve into our inherent desire for ritual and meaning, conceiving the concert experience as a spiritual journey. I begin with Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz’s interpretation of the Kol Nidrei—the ancient Jewish Yom Kippur prayer—in which the full text of the Kol Nidrei, sung in Aramaic, also engages echoes of ancient cantorial styles. Mohammed, a Muslim Arab-American and I, a Jewish Israeli-American, share a vision: We believe in the power of music to heal and unite. We believe that what connects us as humans is far greater than what tears us apart. My extensive collaboration with film artist Bill Morrison is reflected in the final large-scale work on the program. Morrison uses archival footage, chemical process, and animation to create a stunning visual tapestry that illustrates, in his words, “the implication of an unknowable future as reflected through a dissolving historical document.” Michael Gordon’s All Vows (the literal translation of the Aramaic words), takes the Kol Nidrei prayer as its starting point, and reimagines it entirely. Gordon’s piece is a quiet meditation, a heartbreaking lament exhibiting his masterful ability to create full-blown expressivity with minimal and subtle means.

Michael Harrison’s Just Ancient Loops (subtitled Views of Heaven at 24 Frames per Second), is a 25-minute epic piece that unveils every aspect of the cello—from its most glorious and mysterious harmonics to earthy, rhythmic pizzicatos—all utilizing “just intonation,” an ancient tuning system in which the distances between notes are based upon whole number ratios. The title refers to (a) the ancient and contemporary forms of “just” intonation tuning used in the work, (b) the “ancient” musical modes used throughout, and (c) the “looping” process used as a compositional technique. Morrison’s film explores the many spiritual beliefs and views of the heavens, an ancient philosophical concept of the “Music of the Spheres,” that regards proportions in the movements of celestial bodies as a form of music. The film is composed of three interconnected movements. Section one opens with shots from the observatory at the Vatican and ends with an extended sequence of rare eclipse footage. Section two, based on research by Walter Murch, relates orbits to harmonics; computer-generated imagery (CGI) and data from NASA is used to create a harmonic visualization of the four moons of Jupiter. Section three, compiled from deteriorating archival footage, begins with an evolution sequence, including Adam and Eve, and ends with rare footage from a 1907 French film, Life and Passion of Christ.

Maya Beiser's All Vows comes to the BAM Fisher Fishman Space Wednesday, October 14—Saturday, October 17. Tickets are still available.

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