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Conversation: Cellist Maya Beiser’s ‘Elsewhere’

With its elements of music, singing, theater, dance and video, “Elsewhere” is described by its creator, cellist extraordinaire Maya Beiser, as a “CelloOpera.” It’s a collaboration of Beiser and theater director Robert Woodruff that tells the Biblical story of Lot’s wife and will be performed Wednesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of its 30th Next Wave Festival.

Yesterday, I spoke to Beiser as she was making final preparations for the performance. She joined me by phone from her home in New York:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. “Elsewhere” is described as a “CelloOpera.” It’s being performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and it’s a collaboration of theater director Robert Woodruff and cellist extraordinaire Maya Beiser, who joins me now from her home in New York. And welcome to you.

MAYA BEISER: Thank you, Jeff. Really happy to be with you.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you describe “Elsewhere”? What does that mean, a “CelloOpera”?

MAYA BEISER: Well, “Elsewhere” is a piece that integrates music, theater, dance, visuals, and my aim was to try to make it into kind of a new whole. I like the term “CelloOpera,” because it’s different, never been used and hopefully will make people curious.

JEFFREY BROWN: The story is based on Lot’s wife from the Bible?

MayaBeiser-500x353_homepage_feature.jpgMAYA BEISER: The premise of the opera is these two women who are talking to each other, they are bearing witness to their world as it’s coming to an end. And I’m portraying a woman, who is based on a rather long poem by the Belgian surrealist Henri Michaux called “I’m Writing to You From a Far Off Country,” which I discovered in this little book that my mom gave me when I was 19 years old. Later on I came across a translation into English and reworked that together with composer Eve Beglarian. This whole project started from my wanting to expand that piece, which we initially performed and I recorded actually in 2006. I wanted to expand that and to make it into a complete theatrical experience. Looking for the response for that woman, I just thought of this woman in the bible, Lot’s wife, and thought that she would be a great woman to kind of be juxtaposed, and that’s how we started to build this piece.

JEFFREY BROWN: This idea, I think you said, “a new kind of whole,” of music, theater and dance, video — where does that come from for you as a cellist? You don’t like sitting still?

MAYA BEISER: Well you know Jeff, I mean, I grew up in Israel, and I grew up learning and performing classical music, strictly classical music, at a very early age. I started to perform professionally when I was 12, and you know, I don’t know, something happened to me. I think from the very beginning I always wanted to find new forms of art, if you will, in music, and I felt that I needed to be involved in the creative process and I needed to also generate new music. When I started to commission new music after I graduated from Yale, I realized that the visual elements and the text and the ideas are just as important for me as the music itself, and to tell a story and to try to convey a large canvas, if you will, it was really important for me, so that’s where it comes from.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you get involved in every aspect of that?

MAYA BEISER: I do. In this piece, I just kind of thought about something I wanted to do and then I go after the people I think can be the best collaborators. The fun part is the process, because I have amazing collaborators in this project, the director Robert Woodruff, the screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, who ended up writing the libretto for the Lot’s wife part, composers Missy Mazzoli, Eve Beglarian, Michael Gordon, all of whom are great friends of mine, so it’s really great.

JEFFREY BROWN: So just to make it even more concrete, what’s the hardest thing about putting it together? Give me an example of a tough thing to crack in “Elsewhere,” for example?

MAYA BEISER: Because we started from a piece that already existed, I wanted make that text by Henri Michaux, I wanted to make it communicating because it’s a very ellusive and illusive text. The first thing was to really contextualize it and to also make interpretive decisions about what is this woman saying. The next thing is to decide who are the people that would really be able to realize the ideas that we had, finding the right designers to work with us on this video design, set design. Probably the toughest thing is to decide on the composers, and we always take a chance that way. All the music I play I commission, and I love that process. Inevitably not everything comes out as you hope it to be, and that’s fine because that’s part of what happens and that’s part of the risk you take, but you hope that by the end, when you bring it to the audience and when you bring it to the world, then it’s close to you what you hope for.

JEFFREY BROWN: But this is your life, right? I should say, you and I met through a mutual friend last year, which was a real pleasure, and I remember asking you about — because a lot of musicians of your class, they have their lives planned out many years in advance, right? — you have that, but you also are looking for so much looking for new things, that must complicate everything, I guess, to try to figure out what projects you want to be involved with and who you want to work with and what kinds of things you want to do.

MAYA BEISER: It does. It does, but that’s the fun thing for me. I mean, right now, Jeff, as I’m about to premier this, I am deep into two new big, big projects, one which involves a completely new technology for the cello, which at some point I’ll be happy to tell you more about, it’s big arts music installation, and then I’m developing a brand new kind of conceptual piece for the new Stanford University hall, and at the same time I’m also going and performing concertos and working on two new albums. But that’s kind of what you do. I love that, and I love the process of generating the music from the beginning and working with the composers and thinking of how to make something that didn’t exist before. It’s not to put down any of the old beautiful music, which I still love. I mean, I play Bach every day, but there is just something about the idea of connecting to the world today and making a statement with music that is relevant to our cultural and to our world that is really important for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: The “CelloOpera,” “Elsewhere,” is being performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and hopefully “Elsewhere” will be elsewhere that we’ll all have a chance to see, and certainly my Maya Beiser will be elsewhere. You’ll have a chance to see her in many different guises and lots of new music. Maya, real nice to talk to you. Thanks so much.

MAYA BEISER: Thank you so much Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thanks for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.

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