by NPR STAFF
May 28, 2010
The sound of the cello has been firmly entrenched in Western classical music for hundreds of years, but its roots trace back to the Byzantine lyra and the Arab rabab from the ninth and 10th centuries. Now, a new record called Provenance from Israeli cellist Maya Beiser explores these Middle Eastern roots in pieces by Armenian, Kurdish-Iranian, American and English composers.
Beiser grew up in a progressive Jewish village, nestled in the Galilee Mountains between Nazareth and the Jordan River. She lived alongside Jews, Christians and Arab Muslims. She says that in recording Provenance, she sought to find a period of history that mirrored her childhood experience. Beiser chose the golden age of medieval Spain where, under Muslim rule, Jews and Christians lived together and collaborated on visual art and music.
“I decided that I wanted to explore all kinds of music with my cello, not just the Western classical tradition,” she says. “I just wanted to try and expand my vocabulary and bring that different kind of music to my audience.”
Beiser brings years of classical training to the music of Provenance. While “Only Breath” continues with the album’s Middle Eastern theme, it’s reminiscent of a classical concerto. The piece is a collaboration with American composer Douglas Cuomo, and it’s complex, too; they even worked with an Iranian sound designer.
“In that piece, [Cuomo] really took it … to the classical roots. The end could really be Bach,” Beiser says.
The last track of the album covers Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” It wasn’t originally intended to be part of Provenance, but Beiser says it needed to be included.
“Kashmir is that one rock tune that goes to the Middle East,” she says. “The Led Zeppelin guys went to Morocco to explore the music of the Middle East, and the whole second part of the song has this long improvisation … in this Arabic scale. I thought, what a great way for me to rock with my cello.”