Music

Spotlight On: Israeli Cellist Maya Beiser

The renowned musician and feminist pioneer performs at New York’s Jewish Museum. Read More

By / February 2, 2015
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“Where are we? What the hell is going on?”

These lyrics filled the 180-person hall at New York’s Jewish Museum on Thursday evening, as Israeli cellist Maya Beiser launched into the fourth piece of her performance—an original interpretation of Imogen Heap’s chart topper Hide and Seek.

It was an unorthodox choice for a classically trained cellist, but Maya Beiser has always been bold: that’s why she plays the cello, and why she took to the stage for the museum’s Bang on a Can series, which is dedicated to promoting innovative music.

On the small kibbutz in northern Israel where she was raised, every child was given an instrument to play at the age of six. Most kids asked for violins, Beiser remembers, but “being the rebel that I am, I asked for a cello.” She wanted an instrument that no one else on the kibbutz played.

This choice set her on her path towards becoming the world-renowned cellist that she is today. Beiser, educated at Yale University, trained on the classical masters—Brahm, Bach—but then she started to listen to rock and roll.

The music she composes, arranges, and plays is inspired by the varied musical influences she’s had throughout her life. “I was always fascinated by different kinds of music,” she explains. “Schubert, Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd. One of my earliest memories was hearing the muezzin’s call to prayer.” Her kibbutz, Gazit, is located near many Arab villages.  Plus, growing up, her Argentinian father instilled in her a love of tango music, and her French-born mother ensured she had an appreciation for the French musical greats.

“Spin me around again / and rub my eyes / this can’t be happening”

This Imogen Heap lyric captures the spirit of Beiser’s performance. All of her aforementioned influences and more crept into her Bang on a Can concert, making for an eclectic, somewhat disorganized recital. But then she jolted the audience with her debut performance of her arrangement of ‘Hide and Seek’ on the electric cello. It was bold, risky, and startling; totally different from classical cello compositions, and even from Beiser’s more experimental work. The fact that she played this electronic hit on a cello was unique in and of itself, but she went above and beyond by singing along with the robotic song. She played dubstep on the cello, and sang using a Vocoder. “It’s almost like the cello is controlling my voice to the computer,” she explains.

As evidenced by her music, Beiser very much marches to the beat of her own drum—or to the pluck of her own cello. “I always had a very strong personality,” she tells me. “The classical music world is kind of too strict and stiff for me. I always wanted to do things my own way.” And she has.

In addition to her unique compositions and rock covers, Beiser is an Israeli feminist hero. When she was 17 and conscripted to the Israeli army, she insisted that she wanted to audition for the elite army string quartet. Until that point, in the early 1980s, women weren’t allowed into the unit. Beiser recalls being told she couldn’t audition. “I said if you don’t let me audition, I’ll go to the press,” she explains with pride. “I fought my way,” she remembers, and she won. That year, the army accepted Beiser and another female musician into the quartet, bringing an end to the ban on women.

Since then, she has continued to promote women in her industry. On Thursday, Beiser’s repertoire consisted exclusively of female composers, going all the way back to the medieval composer Hildegard von Bingen. “It’s crazy, it really is insane, that in the twenty-first century we still have to be in that place where we have to make an effort to actually make a program that would include women composers,” she reflects. “It’s a sad reality.”

(Image care of Christina Jensen PR. Credit: ioulex.)