Maya Beiser: Rara Avis Redux Nov 18, 2006
Solo instrumentalists are a rare breed of bird. And of that select species, those who champion new and new-ish music are seldom spotted in Seattle, so I was pleased that OtB brought Maya Beiser back for a solo cello concert.
Incorporating video, an appealing stage set of multiple monitors, and spoken word, Beiser’s concert featured a slew of new music. In two works accompanied by Bill Morrison films, Michael Gordon’s Light is Calling and Steve Reich’s Cello Counterpoint, the films almost upstaged the music. Light is Calling matches a sweet, almost sentimental, cello melody against a sepia-toned silent film that gorgeously decays through warpage and striated disintegration. Cello Counterpoint projected seven slivers of Beiser scissoring her way through Reich’s urgent, interlocking melodies. Alas, Cello Counterpoint steers clear of the surprisingly ravishing shifts in timbre that make the other, stronger “Counterpoints ” in the series (e.g. Electric Counterpoint for electric guitar and the best of the bunch, Vermont Counterpoint for various kinds of flute) sure winners.
The weakest piece of the concert was Joby Talbot’s Motion Detector. It’s fine to layer and sequence short loops in real-time but those melodic cells must coalesce into a new timbre, a surprising rhythmic figure, an astonishing melodic web, or, ideally, all of the above. Instead, the bluntly stacked series of loops—some of which suggest second-rate techno licks—came off as a lazy imitation of Steve Reich. The background sampled chorus, a needless afterthought, acted as all-too-convenient padding for an incomplete dramatic idea.
I was delighted with Tan Dun’s Feige/Antiphonal Song in which Beiser duets with a projection of an astounding female Miao singer whose voice sounds like a cross between an oboe and a boy soprano. The video unpredictably stops and stutters, elegantly deferring attention back to Beiser, who glides along the strings in gorgeous accompaniment.
The bravest work of the concert, I am writing to you from a far off country, comprised the second half of the program. I like the Henri Michaux text (spoken by Beiser) and plaintive melodies. Yet the weakest aspect of the work is the video, which is too scenic—confined to distant cliffs, long-shots of a lone cellist (Beiser, I assume) on the beach, and other generic images that do not evoke the remoteness of distant geography.
To my ears the most effective piece, Chinary Ung’s Khse Buon (1980) was the most moving, and not just for the broken bow-hairs and dramatic puffs of rosin powder that emanated from Beiser’s lashing, ferocious bow strokes. Pining harmonics, suddenly hushed little lullabies that almost appear to be hiding out on the higher strings, and a sure singing melody place Khse Buon in the realm of other great 20th century works for cello, such as Scelsi’s legendary Trilogia.