Israeli-American cellist Maya Beiser talks to the BJV about her iconoclastic career and her recent recording of Bach's Six Cello Suites
By Albert Stern / BJV Editor
Maybe a surfing analogy comes to mind because I’m writing about Bach’s Six Cello Suites while in the middle of a two-week working vacation along California’s central coast – what the history of this musical masterpiece makes me think of is the story of Jeff Clark, who as a teenager in 1975 noticed giant waves in the distance near his family home in Half Moon Bay and decided to paddle out to them alone to see what was going on. The spot was Mavericks, which boasts immense Hawaii-sized waves of the kind that were not supposed to exist in California. His friends were nervous about surfing there and the established big wave riders were skeptical, and so for the next 15 years, Jeff Clark went out just about every day and surfed the massive, perilous waves of Mavericks all by himself, obsessed and addicted. Mavericks was discovered by other surfers in 1990 and today attracts the best big wave riders from all over the world. But for a decade-and-a-half, the ferocious waves were Jeff Clark’s and Jeff Clark’s alone.
In 1889, 13-year-old cellist Pablo Casals discovered sheet music for Bach’s six suites for unaccompanied cello in a thrift shop in Barcelona. It is thought that Bach composed the suites between 1717 and 1723, but they were little known and infrequently performed. For the next 47 years, Casals explored these works and, for the most part, played them only for himself. In 1936, he finally recorded Suites Nos. 2 and 3 – he was 60 years old. Over the next three years, he recorded the remaining suites, introducing to the world compositions that are among the supreme expressions of Bach’s musical imagination. In the decades since, Bach’s suites became part of the core cello repertoire, a demanding solo undertaking that seemingly every great cellist has to record to validate their status within the pantheon of great performers. But for nearly half-a-century the sublime music was, by-and-large, Pablo Casals’s and Pablo Casals’s alone.
Casals’s recordings of the suites are Maya Beiser’s favorite of the multitude of great interpretations she has enjoyed. Beiser is an Israeli-American cellist best known for her work in new and avant garde music, a founding member of the Bang on a Can All Stars whose solo albums include acclaimed interpretations of the music of Philip Glass and a reimagination of David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar. In May 2023, Beiser released her 14th solo album, Infinite Bach, which she recorded in the studio she and her sound engineer, Dave Cook, created in her barn right here in the Berkshires.
She says that while her career has focused on new musical expressions and multidisciplinary explorations, Bach’s cello suites have been a part of her meditative practice and warm-up routine throughout her life. Tackling the six cello suites as a recording artist has been something, she explains, she put off over the years, until the serendipitous convergence of moving close to nature, having time off from her busy touring schedule during the pandemic, and, yes, turning 60 years old.
Infinite Bach is a unique recording of Bach’s work – Beiser and Dave Cook set up a studio space in which multiple stereo microphones were situated in the barn to capture the sound of Beiser’s cello from different points in the room. The varying sound profiles of her performance captured by these mics were then multitracked into a finished recording.
Infinite Bach is a rich, nearly 3-hour-long musical journey that Beiser undertook during a time of discord, anxiety, and social fraying: the pandemic year. It might also be a journey that listeners might want to take during the current time of pain, brutality, and anxiety, in order to find solace in the beauty and truth of Bach’s music and Beiser’s masterful interpretation of it.
In November, Beiser spoke to the BJV about Infinite Bach and what it was like growing up as a musical prodigy in Israel. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.
The BJV Interview: Maya Beiser
How did Israel nurture you as a talented young musician during the time [the 1970s] when you grew up?
I grew up in a small Argentinian kibbutz in the Lower Galilee in Israel, a beautiful spot. It's very liberal and artsy community. My father was from Argentina, and my mom was French. But, as most Jews, they were both originally from Eastern Europe. My father was one of what they called the Jewish Gauchos. His family immigrated from Russia at the turn of the century after the pogrom, and there was a Jewish guy by the name of Baron de Hirsch who bought land in the middle of the pampas and planted these poor intellectual Jews there. My father was a devout Zionist and socialist, and so he moved to Israel.
And my mom's family was actually all from Poland, but her parents ended up in France, being partisans and part of the resistance, and she was put in a monastery. She was two years old when the Nazis occupied France and her entire family in Poland was killed. So, there was all that baggage behind us. But the kibbutz was this beautiful community and everybody started to play an instrument when we were six years old, in the first grade. It was part of the education. I was already very much exposed to music because my father, even though he wasn't a professional musician, was a great lover of music. From the day I was born, he would play music and he had a secret agenda – he wanted me to play the cello because he loved the cello. I was his eldest daughter; we were four girls. He had perfect pitch, and we all got his musical inclinations. They did a test when we were six, and they realized that I had perfect pitch. So, the people in the kibbutz suggested that I play the violin, but I said, no, I really want to play the cello, because nobody else played the cello at that point.
It took a little bit of convincing, but eventually they found some pretty crappy instruments for me. My father convinced the family in Argentina to send a cello. Within a year, it became my refuge. I took to music and to the cello in a very powerful way from day one. I didn't think I wanted to live in the kibbutz, even though there were a lot of really great things about it. Pretty much from day one, I was very much an individual and a rebel and wanted to express my own point of view. So, the cello was just a way for me to express my individuality and to have something that was mine. Because growing up in this environment in the kibbutz in the 70s, you didn't own anything. I didn't even have a doll that was mine. For me [the cello] was just this way of just expressing my being in that moment. Even as a child, they never had to tell me, go practice.
I was lucky enough to have some amazing teachers early on. And Israel at that time was an incredible place in the sense that Isaac Stern would come to Israel. He ‘discovered’ me, quote unquote, when I was twelve. He was single-handedly responsible for my early career. He had this wonderful gathering of young Israeli teenage musicians at the music center in Jerusalem in Mishkenot Sha’ananim. It became this amazing supportive community that I was exposed to at the age of twelve. I started to perform and I guess the rest is history.
Did you go to conservatory in Tel Aviv?
When I was 17, Stern wanted to bring me to the United States and my mother said no and the kibbutz refused to let me go to study. I was very much bound by what they decided was okay and not okay. I was allowed to go and study in Tel Aviv at the Rubin Academy of Music. I would go once a week to Tel Aviv on the bus and do the trek of two-and-a half hours. When I was 17, I found out that there was an opening at the Israeli Army String Quartet that Isaac Stern had founded. He convinced the Israeli president that it was important to create some sort of forum for Israelis who had to go to the army so that they don't have to stop playing, because that age is a very crucial age for your career.
It was a really amazing opportunity for the top musicians, and it was a very hard. You had to audition, and the best people would get in. The issue was that there were no women at that point in the quartet. It was only for men. But I found out that the cellist was leaving and I started this whole campaign asking them to allow me to audition, even though I was a woman. It took some convincing. I wrote some letters. I was a girl with a lot of chutzpah. I wrote to the newspapers, and I said, at that point, mind you, women in the army weren't doing much more than being secretaries or making coffee for the generals. I managed to get invited to the audition and I got the job. I ended up leaving the kibbutz in the 11th grade. I was with the Israeli Army String Quartet, going around the country, playing for soldiers and whenever dignitaries would come to the president's house, that kind of stuff. Then after graduating, on the invitation of Stern, I came here. I met my teacher at Yale University and ended up moving to the States.
So, about the Berkshires, I know it was the pandemic that brought you here, but where were you at personally and professionally? I imagine you were touring a lot, traveling a lot. You were living an urban life. How did you connect with the country?
As a student at Yale University, I was a Tanglewood Fellow for two summers, and absolutely loved it here. I was there in the very last year that Leonard Bernstein was there, so I got to meet him, which was a pretty amazing thing in and of itself. I met so many of my musician colleagues here at Tanglewood. But my artistic journey took me towards the avant garde, even at the time when I was here. I started to do a lot of other kinds of things and produce and create my own work and do a lot of multidisciplinary work. I really didn't come here to Tanglewood after those two years and hadn’t been to the Berkshires much since that time, which was in the late 1980s.
When the pandemic started, I was in the midst of this big international tour with a production for piece that I created with two amazing artists, Wendy Whalen, the famed ballerina from New York City Ballet, and Lucinda Childs, who's a phenomenal choreographer. We actually premiered the piece here at Jacob's Pillow in the summer of 2019. While we were in Paris in February 2020, things already started to look pretty grim. Everything, of course, came to a halt in March of 2020. And so, I found myself at home.
I have a home in Riverdale, in New York City, where I built my studio overlooking the Hudson River. I've been there since 2000. My husband and I raised our two kids there, and to tell you the truth, I never really thought that I would want to be anywhere else. When I was not on the road, I really wanted to be there with my family. My husband is a doctor, a psychiatrist. We never really thought about anything else but New York. But all of a sudden, being in Riverdale during that time and not traveling for the first time in 20 years, I started thinking, well, maybe I do want to be in another place. We were looking in the Hudson Valley, and then this place in Lenox just came on the market right around the corner from Tanglewood.
The moment I stepped into this property, I just knew that it had to be. It has two different buildings, and one of the buildings is a converted barn that has the most incredible acoustics. I brought my cello in, and I started to play. It's surrounded by glass all over, so you're kind of in the woods. I felt like I could breathe. It was this incredible thing. Infinite Bach. This was literally a Berkshire experience for me because I was here, I was in this space, and I thought I needed to record the Bach cello suites here. I immediately started to think about how I wanted to do it.
Had the suites been on your radar before you moved here? For an accomplished cellist like yourself, I don't know if it's something you do early in your career or as a mid-career kind of statement or a mature artist kind of statement. I know that Pablo Casals was 60 before he made his first recording.
Well, first of all, I always admired the fact that Casals took a lot of time before he felt that he could make a statement about a masterpiece. My point of view was somewhat different in the sense that the suites were part of my daily meditation practice. Early on, in my mid-20s, when I started my career as a grown-up artist, I decided to explore a different way of being a classical artist. I wanted to explore the connections between music and other kinds of arts. I wanted to explore a different way of getting to my audience, relating to the listener, creating a different environment. I took myself out of the traditional concert experience. Also, all my recordings were very much of new music. I felt that my interest was about creating, being a creative performer, and creating something new.
There are so many fantastic cellists out there who all want to record the Bach cello suites. It is the core repertoire to every classical cellist. All my life, I thought if and when I record this work, there needs to be something that takes people on a different kind of journey with this music. And so, yes, it was on my backburner. And it's funny because when I was 40, I said, okay, when I'm 50, I'll do it. And then when I was 50, I was like, oh, maybe I missed it. And then I turned 60 in that year that I came here to the Berkshires. So, as you're saying, because Casals recorded it when he was sixty, there was that on my mind. The way I operate as an artist is that I respond to something visceral and often to something that is in the environment that takes me into a space that allows me to create something that is meaningful. I always hope that whatever is meaningful to me could be meaningful to other people, as well. I had this feeling that I wanted to create the piece, the suites, here in that barn. The whole idea of it was to take it out of the sterile environment of the studio. All the recordings that everyone is familiar with have been recorded in beautiful studios in a very pristine kind of way. And I wanted to do something that was not pristine. I wanted to do something that would really bring the environment into it.
I made the decision to spend a year here because I also wanted to go through the entire cycle of the seasons, and record things in different times of the year. So, my sound engineer Dave Cook and I outlined different times during the year where we could both be here to experiment. It was an open experiment, and it was such an incredible experience for me to try to find the sound of the reverberation of the room and how that alters what Bach wrote. I didn't change the notes at all. It was still the Bach cello suites, but it was just surrounded by this soundscape of all the stuff that came into the room as we were recording it.
Through this process, did you discover something new in these pieces you've been playing all your life, or is the process, the technology, the sound, the approach, enabling you to convey something different about Bach? And if so, what do you want a listener's ears to be open to when they start listening to Infinite Bach?
First of all, I wanted to come into it from a very personal point of view. I think that the most personal is the most universal. The thing about Bach’s music is that it can be experienced in so many different ways. The thing that I thought about a lot was, ‘Do we all hear music in the same way, the way that I hear that music?’ Is it the same way that you would hear the music? Even if we sit in the same room and listen to it, we don't really know if your brain processes things differently than my brain. What I do know is that we each bring our own life experience, from the most beautiful experience to the most traumatic experience to everything in between, to who we are and to how we process things.
I wanted to come to a point of view where I disengaged from the dogma to unlearn all the things that I was taught about this music. And there is a lot of dogma in classical music – ‘this is how you have to do it,’ or ‘this is how Bach thought about it.’ There are infinite possibilities of how to play this music. There are infinite possibilities of how to hear this music. It's not about, oh, look how brilliant, mathematically, Bach created this phrase. I'm not trying to teach the genius of Bach in any way, but rather to allow it to exist according to how I hear it. And then I hope it becomes a very personal experience for anyone who comes into this.
It's interesting. In preparing for the interview, I listened to more than ten different versions of the Suite No. 3, and just to see how different people did it. One of the notes I had about yours is just less mathematical, more romantic and expressive. You slowed some of the sections down.
I felt like I wanted to slow everything down and I've taken some criticism for that, but that's okay. The criticism is part of the dialogue. I wanted to convey is there's just no way of one way of playing this, and there's not one way of listening to this or of experiencing it. So that's the idea of the infinite part of it – you need to unleash this music and let it be.
We recorded many different versions of the same thing, but then I decided that what I wanted to do is record it and then analyze the reverberation of the room and analyze just the different harmonic structures that came out of the recordings. Natural. Everything was a natural thing in that space, and then we started to find all these points we could accentuate.
I kept thinking that I was doing some female or a feminine version of Bach. I was thinking about the fact that all the recordings that I know, all the recordings that I was taught, and all the teachers that I had were always men, and they had a particular point of view. It wasn't that there was no gentleness, because I think men have a wonderful gentle side to them, as well. But there was something a little macho sometimes about the way that I was taught to play Bach. Just to imagine this idea of the experience through a lens of a woman as opposed to a man.
I was also thinking about the idea of recording in this environment where you're not in a professional studio. I often think about how we're kind of erecting all these perfect environments for classical music and creating these perfect acoustic spaces and bringing people together to fit in a hole. And for me, I want to take the music much more into our personal spaces.
We recorded in multi tracks. I played one solo part, but we had eight different sets of stereo mics around the space. Some were way up far, some were behind me, some were below, and, of course, some close to me. Every time that I would play a note, it was captured by 16 tracks of the same note, but each one had a different sound. Not only that, because the distance [of each microphone] was different, it created natural delays. Some of the very far mics would accentuate the overtones in the room.
I remember the quote by Glenn Gould: “First and last, Bach was an architect, a constructor of sound. And what makes him so inestimably valuable to us was that he was beyond a doubt the greatest architect of sound that ever lived.” If Infinite Bach could be a building, what building would it be.
Maybe the Parthenon. I don't know if I think about it so much as a building, as much as I think about it as a universe, because I really think about it more in the sense of nature and how it exists in nature and how we tap into this infinite power that is out there. But of course, architecture is very much related to nature. The first thing that came to mind is the Parthenon because I think of something that was somehow erected to convey the power of the Greek goddesses. I love the Greek goddesses because they were related to the idea of nature and the power of nature.