“From the 9th to the 15th centuries, the area which is now modern Spain was home to the greatest peaceful agglomeration of cultures ever known in the post-literate world…Even more remarkable than the flowering of art itself was the confluence of cultures that produced it: under the rule of Islam, Muslims, Jews and Christians lived and worked together in relative harmony.”
-Maya Beiser, Provenance liner notes essay
Cellist Maya Beiser’s latest CD for the Innova imprint seeks to craft music that celebrates the rich multiculturalism of the Iberian peninsula. Using medieval Spain as a jumping off point, Beiser has commissioned a collection of works that celebrate Christian, Jewish, and Muslim musical traditions. The participants frequently interweave stylistic and ethnic boundaries. The results are frequently engaging musical hybrids.
Iranian kamancheh composer and master Kalyan Kalhor’s “I Was There” features Beiser alongside oud performer Bassam Saba and percussionists Jamey Haddad and Shane Shanahan. This rhapsodic piece allows cello and oud each to negotiate long-breathed melismatic cadenzas. Eventually, Beiser and Saba come together, duetting in supple, then increasingly rhythmically incisive phrases.
Armenian dudukahar Djivan Gasparian’s “Memories” is a haunting and evocative piece. While Gasparian is not necessarily a household name, his performances on duduk (a double reed instrument) have populated a number of Hollywood films, including Blood Diamond and Gladiator. “Memories” captures the essential flavor of Armenian folk music, all the while bearing in mind the cello’s proclivities for generous-toned lyricism. Above an omnipresent drone, Beiser unleashes keening, ardent modal melodies.
Israeli composer Tamar Muskal took Ladino folksong as the basis for “Mar de Leche,” her collaboration with Beiser. Sung by Sephardic Jews in Spain, Ladino is a linguistic hybrid of Spanish and Hebrew. Muskal’s piece, a work for chamber ensemble that features the same musicians as the Kalhor work, abetted by the dynamic vocalist Etty Ben-Zaken. Beiser and Saba once again exhibit considerable musical chemistry. Beiser also incorporates some of the undulating vibrato and pitch-bends of Ben-Zaken’s vocal style, creating an organic set of timbral ensemble interactions.
In the summer of 2009, Beiser travelled with composer Douglas J. Cuomo to Cordoba and Granada: a field trip to do research that would abet the composition of his contribution to Provenance: “Only Breath.”
Inspired by the work of Sufi poet Jellaludin Rumi (one of my favorites!), the piece finds Beiser in collaboration with sound designer Shahrokh Yadegari. Seeking to evoke the sound of wind passing through the prevalent minarets in Andalusia, Cuomo has crafted a work that plays with mobile filigrees and reverberant echoes. It makes good use of looping technology too; rather than using it to fashion a pad of repeated utterances, the loops instead allow for slow-building counterpoint of phantom cello Doppelgängers. The final result is a series of dovetailing, angst-filled melodic lines amid ghostly, floating verticals. I’ve heard many vocal settings of Rumi that have had much less to say than this more abstracted, yet tremendously thoughtful, instrumental meditation on his work.
Evan Ziporyn’s arrangement of the Led Zeppelin song “Kashmir,” for Beiser and prog-rock luminary drummer Jerry Marotta, closes out the disc. While its clear that this is the piece with the most accessible crossover appeal on the CD, that awareness takes nothing away from its inclusion. It points up another kind of hybridized music-making – the influence of Eastern signatures on Led Zep’s rock-oriented sound. What’s more, Beiser and Marotta just plain tear it up!
Sometimes, a concept album contains a creative inspiration that is far better than the reality it imagines. In my view, Provenance extolls a wonderful collaborative atmosphere: a model for many future cross-cultural projects. Alas, this type of music-making is a relatively recent innovation and, in many venues, is still far from prevalent. One wishes Maya Beiser were able to make multicultural music without extolling the virtues of dhimmi under Muslim rule. During the Middle Ages, dhimmi – “people of the book” (Christians and Jews) – were sporadically allowed limited religious freedom in Iberia. But there were significant legal and cultural restrictions placed upon non-Muslim citizens; these were terms of surrender, not of collaboration or accommodation. Thus, my reading of history doesn’t allow me to share Beiser’s utopian view of medieval multiculturalism. I’d rather listen to Provenance as a hopeful and tantalizing glimpse at what music-making and, indeed, cultural coexistence, may increasingly look like in the future than to revise or rewrite our spotty attempts at getting along in the past.