As cellist Maya Beiser prepares to perform The Day with dancer Wendy Whalen in Nashville with OZ Arts, she has also released her album Blackstar, which reimagines music of David Bowie into a cello concerto. She also took the time to answer six questions about how she sees music, how she breaks away from all perceived constraints, and how the September 11, 2001 attacks gave perspective to The Day.
Tell us how September 11, 2001 contributed to the artistic idea behind The Day
I was commissioned by Carnegie Hall to create an entire show of solo cello music for their inaugural season of Zankel Hall. One of the commissions was a large-scale multi-track piece by the composer David Lang. We started to work on the piece and then September 11 happened. We were both in New York city. The piece became suffused with the disappearance of these thousands of people who woke up in the morning, went to work and a few hours later were gone.
The idea of breaking out of a mold seems to be an artistic idea that all of the participants in The Day have in common. From what have you sought to break away?
I am always breaking out of something. I just don’t subscribe to dogmas. If I feel constrains, I break away. For me, art, as life, is about the freedom to be yourself, to define yourself as you wish and keep redefining and evolving – constantly evolving in the quest to find my inner truth.
When you work in music that, while specific, may be more abstract than literal, how do you work to connect to the subject matter?
I see music. It’s very visual to me. So the connection is in my head and is with images that come through. It’s like a slow-motion movie. While obviously abstract it still tells me a story that evolves and becomes increasingly coherent to me.
When paying tribute to an artist in a new piece of music how do you find balance between maintaining a connection to their work while still being creative?
Music is incredibly personal. We probably all hear music in a different way. We have words, language that allows us to talk about what we hear, and can agree on certain communal perception. But ultimately music is very primal, and it is pre-verbal. So, when I play music of an artist I admire, I don’t try to emulate them or become them: i let the music permeate through me, enter my being, and then I just create the sounds that come out of my body and my mind. It’s very intuitive and very visceral experience.
How do you know when you’re ready to go back to a big historic event like 9/11 and put those feelings into a work of art?
The 9/11 connection was not intentional. The Day was not meant to be a memorial or a commemoration. But for us living our everyday life at the epicenter of this horrific day. Knowing people that died or their relatives, that had a lasting effect on us. Life may have returned to its usual routine, but the memory suffuses and informs every artistic expression since that day.
What is the main thing that you feel should be added, in the 21st Century, to the standard conservatory musical curriculum for an instrumentalist?
We need to think more clearly about what we mean by “interpreting the music while performing it.” Young instrumentalists are still imbued with the primacy of the “flawless performance” and it often leads to unnecessary homogeneity of performance in lieu of bold and creative interpretation. Over a hundred years ago, R&B, jazz and other inventive and less restraint types of music making, have made being subversive part of the daily creative process. Why not loosen the restraints a bit? Try to subject the style to individual expression and not the other way around. This sort of openness is admittedly risky. There was one Jim Morrison much like one Beethoven. Most those who dare take an enormous gamble with something that is tantamount to their life – being a musician. But being safe is impossible for some musicians: therefore, I think, and the conservatories need to teach also the importance of taking a risk.