It was during a visiting-artist residency at MIT’s Center for Art, Science & Technology that Maya Beiser listened to a recording of Antarctica. More specifically, the Israeli-born cellist heard a recording of the Antarctic polar ice caps melting—a full 10 hours’ worth of melting, without pause.
The audio recording evoked a strong visual of the disappearing natural world for Beiser, and became the starting point for delugEON, which will be released on August 30. The album’s centerpiece is a recording of the four slow movements from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, performed by Beiser and set against four natural drones. The midsection of “Winter” is performed in multiple cello layers, permeated by the sounds of the melting ice caps. “Spring” is juxtaposed with NASA’s recordings of the winds on Mars, “Summer” intermingles with the sounds of desert dunes in Morocco that Beiser recorded herself, and “Autumn” is cast against strong ocean winds.
Much in the way that this original seed of an idea came out of layering cello onto this found element, Beiser layered other reinterpretations of canonic classics onto the currents of the natural world, picking repertoire like Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata and the piano-cello duet, “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus,” from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. The overarching result is a multisensory gesamtkunstwerk that serves as Beiser’s response, as a classical musician, to our current climate crisis. Or, perhaps more accurately, it serves as a chance for Beiser to ask more questions: Does music belong to us, as humans? Or is it part of the universe that we’ve tapped into along with other natural phenomena?
Beiser also draws connective lines between the climate crisis (it’s poignant that this album is released as thousands of fires still plague the Amazon rain forest) and humanitarian crises (our conversation came just a few days after a weekend that saw mass shootings in Texas and Ohio). While she doesn’t pretend to have any answers with this recording, she does have hope.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Just hearing about the concept for the Vivaldi recordings and the thought that went into each arrangement, it sounds like there’s a lot that’s lingering just beneath the surface with this album.
MAYA BEISER: It’s really miraculous with how it [all] fits with the music—it’s just kind of mind-boggling. I don’t necessarily think that it’s important for people to know all these things, what’s behind the scenes, but I’m also happy to share it, of course. It’s important for us as artists to find ways to express all those issues and find an artistic way to do it.
That approach seems to complement the idea of having these drones underscore the works. They’re not editorializing Vivaldi or speaking directly to current events, which leaves them open to individual interpretation.
Absolutely, that’s really true. And it’s also really true of the way this album has sort of evolved… I think it’s true in general that, [with] the way I work, nothing is very predetermined for me. I start, usually, from some sort of idea and that kind of takes me somewhere [else]. And from there, things just sort of emerge. So really, it wasn’t like I thought, Oh, I’m gonna do an album, and I’m gonna arrange “Moonlight” Sonata for multitrack cello with my heartbeat. That was, for example, something that happened as a reaction to something else. And in fact “Moonlight” Sonata is the last thing that happened in recording the album for me, even though it’s the first thing you hear.
It’s hard to think of a more classical-with-a-capital-C piece to start with.
It really wasn’t going to be part of this album. I’ve experimented with doing things with that particular piece on the cello, some improvisation on that. [But] when we were recording, again, it’s one of those things—I don’t even know how this came about… well, I do know how it came about. I’m married to a doctor, and I have a son who just started medical school, believe it or not. This stethoscope was laying around in the house, and I thought: I wonder what I can do with this? Is there a way to put mics in the stethoscope, and to record some of the things that you get? The stethoscope is basically an amplifier, right? It’s like a mic.
So I brought it to my sound engineer, Dave Cook, and started to mess around with it. We found that we can record my heartbeat. And at that moment, it was like, okay, I want to try to record my heartbeat while playing “Moonlight” Sonata, and just see if there’s a way to create a drone of my heartbeat. It was really an experiment, in that I had no idea if it was gonna work. A lot of it was about kind of a biofeedback situation, where you’re just in a really deep meditation. I wanted the heartbeat to become sort of a drone track to the entire piece. And it just worked.
So then I decided, Okay, we’re gonna do that. And it ended up being the first thing that was released on the album. I really love it. It starts with seven heartbeats, and then seven heartbeats at the end. The way that we laid the track, I was trying to find a way that worked with the rhythmical pattern that Beethoven created with those arpeggios, and it works in such an amazing way.
Can you speak a little more to how some of these other pieces came into the mix, like Quartet for the End of Time?
[“Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus”] is a piece I’ve always wanted to do, but to arrange for multitrack cello versus cello and piano. It’s not that I don’t love the cello and piano movement; I love it dearly. But I just felt that it would sound really powerful to have it surrounded by cello sound as opposed to by the piano. The cello plays this low, painfully beautiful, soaring melody. You really feel like it’s the end of the world in that moment, it just feels so powerful. And the piano just plays those chords.
And then I started to research and I discovered – I was kind of shocked that I didn’t know this already – that the cello and piano movement in the Quartet is an exact arrangement of a piece that Messiaen wrote earlier in the ’30s for ondes Martenots [1937’s Fête des belles eaux]. And in that piece, there was a movement called “Water,” which was this music. And that’s the kind of thing that happens all the time with this album. It was all these crazy, serendipitous things that happened.
A sort of unifying ecology of existence?
Yeah, I think you could say “unifying ecology”…
Or perhaps synchronicity?
So then how do drones factor into the Messiaen?
We took a lot of care to imagine, to create the right environment for each piece in the recording, but arranging it was actually pretty straightforward. The only thing that I added for this piece was the sounds of my breath. It only comes towards the end of the piece, where it soars into this other world. I recorded my breath, but we recorded it in a different kind of way, through a retrofitted stethoscope.
So the stethoscope was pressed against my lungs, and instead of it going into a doctor’s ear, that part had two mics inside of it. So what was recorded was the sound of the breath as it is in the lungs, which are 80 percent water. We got this really magical sound from the breath, and that’s what you hear in the recording..
You mentioned creating the right environment for each piece in the recording.
The entire album was recorded in upstate New York. In Hudson, there’s this beautiful place, the Hudson Opera House—it’s called Hudson Hall. They were really generous with giving us the space. I didn’t want to use any artificial reverb in this album; I wanted it all to be natural, sort echoing of the natural sounds of the cello. But I wanted to also create those different perspectives, those different reverb qualities as they were coming through.
I worked together with my longtime sound engineer, Dave Cook, who is fantastic. He and I have been working together for 15 years now on all my albums, but also live, so there’s a real synergy between us. We created this environment where we put many different types of mics throughout the entire space. So there were some up in the balcony, some in the main hall, some really close. And we recorded on all of those mics, so it’s almost like you can imagine a multi-multi-track recording. Every sound of the cello had a lot of different qualities, so depending on which mic and the distance of each mic from my instrument, it would sound different. You would get all of these different reverbs at the same time. And they’re all natural.
In the process of mixing, I would just make the choice with each piece, how much reverb we wanted. Each piece has a different quality to it, depending on the space, but the space is very much in it. We wanted the silence of the space in the recording. It’s almost its own track, in a way.
Is there a way to listen to delugEON from the idea that the space is its own track?
The album’s coming out, of course as [a digital release]. But we’re also releasing a vinyl album, and the vinyl’s going to be really special. In the vinyl version, the drones lead from one piece to the next, and they extend. So whether it’s the heartbeat or the great breath or the melting iceberg or the desert dunes, they’re there the entire time, and they extend from one piece to the next. You can’t really have that in a digital release, but in the vinyl, it’s really quite cool.
I wanted to go back to the Messiaen for a moment. One thing that strikes me most about including Quartet for the End of Time is that, on the one hand, delugEON as an album looks at the climate crisis with The Four Seasons and natural sounds. But by bringing in the drone of your body, you’re also bringing in a very human element that seems almost amplified by the context of Quartet, which was written during World War II in a POW camp. I guess where I’m going with this is that we have this symbiotic relationship in history between the climate crisis and humanitarian crises, the idea that the threat of one multiplies the threat of the other. And it seems like you’re alluding to this by including the Messiaen specifically.
Oh yeah, absolutely. I think our universe is threatened by both, you know? And both are human-made. I don’t have to tell you what’s going on here in this country. But not just here, everywhere. That part of humanity that is constantly threatening us — threatening to really obliterate us, humanity, and the world we live in — is very much connected.
So, in the end, do you think there’s hope for humanity?
I do. I mean, I hope. I guess my biggest question, which I don’t have the answer to, is who does music belong to? Does it belong to us, or does it belong to the universe? Is it all coming from our perception? Or is it just there, and we’re just kind of connecting to it? I think that’s one of the biggest, one of the important questions for me.
I don’t necessarily look for answers. I think it’s okay to have questions and go in different directions. In terms of the environment and in terms of humanity, I go back and forth with being really pessimistic about things, particularly right now. It’s really hard to stay optimistic. [With] my background, I come from the Middle East. I grew up in war all my life. And when I was a little girl, in Israel, everybody has to go into the army. And my father would always say, “By the time you’re 18 and you have to go into the army, there’s gonna be peace.” My parents were idealists who went to Israel from the place where their families were murdered by Nazis. And they believed they could change the world by creating this common commune, living in peace with the surrounding, different cultures that were there.
But here we are in 2019, and things are not really that great, to say the least. There’s terrorism, there’s Russia, there’s Gaza—and then here we are in the United States with these horrific situations and people being in cages and people being shot in the streets. There’s a lot of bad, I guess, DNA in us as humans. But that being said, I am hopeful because we also have music, and we have art and we have amazing people doing amazing things.
I’m not a scientist, so from the scientific point of view, I don’t know whether to tell you if it’s too late or not [for the environment]. But I think that, if each and every one of us take responsibility for their lives and their communities, I think we can turn things around. And I hope so. And I do think that as long as there’s music, there’s hope.
Maya Beiser appears in The Day, a collaboration with David Lang, Lucinda Childs, and Wendy Whelan, at the Joyce Theater Oct. 22-27; joyce.org. delugEON will be released August 30, 2019.
Olivia Giovetti has covered music and arts for Paper, the Washington Post, NPR, VAN, and beyond. She’s previously served on staff at Time Out New York and WQXR/Q2 Music, and her writing has been heard onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival. She combines her love of the arts and meditation practice on The Meditation of Art.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
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