Arts Beat

A Human Voice From a Cello's Strings

(Lili Almog - Bernstein Artists)
By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 19, 2006

Cellist Maya Beiser defies the stereotype of a classically trained, pitch-perfect, Yale-educated musician. She wants her career to resemble that of a pop star rather than a classical artist. She cites Led Zeppelin and Nine Inch Nails among her influences.

So expect her "Almost Human" concert Saturday at the Kennedy Center to challenge tradition. The show's title refers to how Beiser, 42, believes that the cello most resembles the human voice. She plans to use her instrument to "sing" new works from Jewish, Muslim, Cambodian and Chinese cultures.

"I just love it because it takes cello to an interesting place," she says, with a hint of an Israeli accent. "That's what I'm interested in, exploring new territories for the instrument."

One new territory is a "cello opera" called "I am writing to you from a far-off country." It requires Beiser to play cello and recite poetry simultaneously, while onstage monitors show a video, and recorded vocals play from a computer. The multi-tasking is "really cool and really nerve-racking at the same time," she says.

The piece is based on the poem of the same name by Henri Michaux. Beiser first read it at age 19 while she was on a surrealism kick. She interprets the poem as a woman describing the sky, sea and trees as a metaphor for her inner landscape.

Filmmaker Shirin Neshat, who created the program's video component, used footage of the Israeli desert, the ocean and Beiser playing cello. Neshat wanted the video to stay in the same unworldly space as the poem, she says.

Beiser, who is Jewish, collaborated with Neshat, a Muslim, and Christian Armenian composer Eve Beglarian on the piece, which was commissioned by the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts Society. Beiser says her intention wasn't to make a political statement, but she does like how having the three religions represented on the same stage shows how music can transcend differences.

Neshat also sees the Muslim-Christian-Jewish collaboration as a coincidence and says it shows "the global moment that we live in."

Beiser grew up on a small kibbutz in Israel and first played cello at age 8. She chose the instrument because the warm tones reminded her of a singing voice and because she was so small that she felt safe behind the huge instrument.

She improved quickly and was discovered at age 12 by the late violinist Isaac Stern, who became her mentor. Her French mother and Argentine father never pressured her to be a star; rather, her dedication to music emerged organically.

For her mandatory stint in the Israeli army, Beiser served as a member of the string quartet, traveling all over the country entertaining soldiers. At 22, she moved to the United States to attend Yale, and she now lives in New York.

She used to play with the genre-bending ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars. And while some classical musicians consider amplification blasphemous, Beiser loves to play with the technology.

"You can get this really lush, warm, beautiful sound of the wood of the cello, and the next moment you can hear it make drum loops or make it sound like an insane grunge guitar," Beiser says.

Up next, Beiser will travel to London to record the score for a new Leonardo DiCaprio movie called "Blood Diamond." She's been doing more and more Hollywood-type projects.

"I love it. I think we should try to do as many things as we can with the instrument," she says. "This moment seems to be a renaissance for the cello."

Maya Beiser performs Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, 2700 F St. NW. $30. 202-467-4600.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company