I stumbled across Maya Beiser quite my accident. A day out at the Barbican to enjoy music free and ticketed in honour of composer Steve Reich's seventieth birthday. As we entered the building, good and early, a rather attractive woman with a cello and detachable sleeves was soundchecking and I think recording parts for her later multitracked performance in the foyer. Just those twenty minutes as she prepared were magnificent
normally I'm not one for solo cello - at least, it wouldn't really occur to me to listen. The day began with Balinese Gamelan; a group loose attached to the London Symphony Orchestra entertained greatly, all the more so for Gamelan being an unknown musical form to me. Immediately following was Maya Beiser. Sitting alone with cello, the composer of the piece stood forward and explained Maya Beiser had asked him to compose a piece for cello based on the rhythm and form of Gamelan. Clearly, he accepted and the piece, in keeping with the Reich theme, was like many of Reich's 'counterpoints', being pieces originally recorded as CD fillers that then became a part of his repertoire. Each piece is multitracked, a solo performer recording each part individually then playing live accompanied by the multitracked performances already recorded. This was the form of the piece played for free by Maya Beiser at the Barbican that day.
Why this introduction? Well, first off I was surprised the extent to which I enjoyed the performance; secondly, because the music on World to Come is mostly multitracked. The performances are all by Maya Beiser and each contain the same haunting beauty that accompanied Beiser's performance the first time I saw her.
Listening to the CD for the first time, I rather expected it to be a listen-to-it-once-or-twice-then-pop-it-into-the-rack CD, one that I might take out and listen to now and again when in the mood. But with the second listen it became clear that this was not the case. There is something about Beiser's playing that immediately gets under the skin. Perhaps it is the fragile, quivering moments of oscillating cello that opens. The first piece of four, Mariel by Osvaldo Golijov (admittedly this composer is entirely unknown to me), is one of delicate plangent beauty. Beiser's holds long notes in the air that shimmer with delicious fragility. Haunting, again, is a word that must be used, as is spiritual. Unsurprisingly, consider two of the pieces are composed by Arvo Part and John Taverner (considered part of the spiritual minimalist school), the music on World to Come often has a very spiritual feel. This is expressed in Mariel. Running but seven and a half minutes it is perhaps the perfect length. Beiser keeps us enthralled and wanting more but never drags the performance out beyond the bounds of listenability. A gentle middle-eastern stridency underplays the performance. The multitracking is quite simple, for the most part it seems Beiser performs twice: below, long, delicate bowing across the cello; above, the more strident, trembling haunting stridency. The middle-eastern influence is hardly surprising. Though of Franco-Argentinean parentage, she grew up in Israel.
The piece that is longest is the titular World to come. Composed by David Lang, he of Bang on a Can, the New York collective of composers and musicians (musicians, of which Beiser is a founding member, known as the Bang on a Can Allstars) hailing from Yale university and heavily influenced by rock and the minimalist composers such as Reich, Reilly and Glass. World to Come is a piece in four parts for Cello and voice. The voice, intriguingly, is mostly an air, breathed softly over the cello, similar in tone to Brian Eno's Music for Airports (of no surprise then that part of Bang on a Can's repertoire is a performance of Eno's ambient masterpiece).
Not all of World to Come is multitracked, and not all as noticeably as the beautiful Mariel. The first part opens with simple, strong swathes of cello and Beiser's voice echoing the notes that are left to resonate, almost as if her breathing reflects the effort of each bow. Without realising it, beneath this a more rhythmical second track enters, then a third, each different in tone and texture and adding layers of depth and richness. At first the music is sparse and strong. Suddenly it is stronger yet and deeper, each track plays itself off against the others so that you can almost feel yourself travelling across the lines of the music, slipping from one rhythm, tone or sound to another, dropping onto one bar then another. There is of course circularity, just as the piece becomes more complex as it nears its end it simplifies again with the same delicate strength and segues into the deep beauty of the second part, which feels more tremulous, more subtle. Short, strident bowing is matched against drawn out notes and you feel as if floating upon a sea of music, buoyed up by a sense of complexity beneath you that though complex is never convoluted or irritatingly smug or clever. The notes and rhythms again flow together into a recognisable whole. None of the layers of music standout but reinforce the others. A little like with Philip Glass, we slowly move through patterns of tones and textures, only more slowly than Glass might, and with a distinction that the music truly belongs to Beiser. The third part contradictorily is both more playful and more melancholic; it opens with a quicker layer, that suggests the possibilities of moving off almost into a carnivalesque mood but this is matched by the long, melancholic bowing of the cello that streaks over it. Not content with such matching of tone and sound, Lang and Beiser adds a third solid texture, where Beiser plays her cello more like a hand plucked double bass: a single note drone beating through the multitracked layers. Part four begins with Beiser's vocal air, again suggesting the third part of Eno's Music for Airports, though less synthesised, and slowly Beiser multitracks this, with air overlapping with air, creating a sense of ethereal airiness, before delicate cello enters, long notes sliding with precise stridency through her vocal airs. Slowly, the piece builds, contrasting sounds, tones and rhythms, like the culmination of the piece as a whole. Again, we have the hand plucked cello, the vocal airs and a strong rhythm that is reminiscent of the cello solos in Glass's Naqoyqatsi (unsurprisingly Beiser played with Glass' ensemble when they toured Naqoyqatsi). It is a beautiful end to a beautiful, haunting piece of music, which is sophisticated and accessible, all the more so for Beiser's expert playing and ability to hold together conflicting and contrasting rhythms and tones that beguile the listener.
Frates for 4 Cellos, by Arvo Part, naturally suggests multitacking! With Beiser playing all four parts it is hard to go wrong. It is a simpler piece than either Mariel or World to Come and reflects much of Part's usual aesthetic. It reflects the sombre and reflective tone often found in ancient music and glides delicately along on waves of long bowed notes that hint at contemplation. It is a quietly beautiful piece that could so easily have become boring, as little happens; unsurprisingly, being almost like a modern church piece, there are no crescendos or attempts to up the pace. Rather Beiser again keeps us enthralled by her mastery of her craft. Each long note slowly slips under your skin and without you realising you are listening rapt and attentive, carried along until we slowly float away into Taverner's Lament To Phaedra, the last piece on the CD. Is it is perfectly place, and constructed. We enter with Mariel, a piece that is a perfect opening as it grabs the attention with its tremulous, quivering, haunting beauty before Lang's more complex work. Then, we reach more careful, floating works that would not work at the beginning because Beiser uses the first two pieces to draw us in before giving us access to the more thoughtful Part and Taverner. In fact the flow of music into Lament To Phaedra is completely seamless. Like Part's Frates, Lament is a slow, contemplative work that is held together by Beiser's beautifully slow bowing. At first it is almost ambient in its simplicity, then Beiser enters with slowly layered notes of haunting and delicate beauty. There is a quietly subtle magnificence about them - again it gets immediately under your skin; it is music where you feel your head leaning back, eyes closing involuntarily and the Beiser's long notes gliding over you. Again, nothing much happens exactly but that is beauty of it. Fifteen minutes of beauty - not serene beauty - rather a feeling of more haunting delicacy, a sense of tension under the surface; passion that that cannot be define in extravagant tones or hues. In that sense it is slightly reminiscent of baroque, where the passion is never overplayed.
What is so wonderful about World to Come as a whole is that the music is accessible on every level, whether like me, you're more of a fan of minimalism (and Baroque, admittedly) and more traditional classical music, it cuts across both strata without ever selling out to bland platitudes or being made overly-accessible, like performances of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata with string accompaniment: i.e. classical music for people who don't like classical music. Rather, the sophistication and skill in Beiser's playing is haunting to remains with you. Certainly, the opening to Mariel is one of the most beautiful moments in music, classical or otherwise, that I can recall. From being a CD thought of as nothing more than I'm-interested-in-this-but-we'll-see it has reached the point of essential listening in my CD player.
Time will tell if I am listening to this in five or ten years, but like my favourite pieces by Glass and others, I have no doubt that I will.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 World to Come
3 World to Come (Continued)
4 World to Come (Continued)
5 World to Come (Continued)
6 Fratres (For 4 Cellos)
7 Lament to Phaedra