Cellist Maya Beiser is the first Mellon Distinguished Visiting Artist at the MIT Center for Art, Science and Technology.

Credit: ioulex

New MIT Center Introduces Bowie-Inspired Classical Music

March 3, 2017

“Cello Goddess” Maya Beiser has extended the range of her instrument, through multimedia productions that employ electronics and computer processing to achieve a symphony of new sounds. As the first Mellon Distinguished Visiting Artist at the MIT Center for Art, Science and Technology (CAST), she’s been collaborating with Evan Ziporyn, the inaugural director of the new center, founder and Artistic Director of Gamelan Galak Tika, and curator of the MIT Sounding performance series. WGBH News' Arun Rath spoke with Beiser and Ziporyn about their collaboration and the intersection of art and science at MIT.

Can you talk about the new Center for Art, Science and Technology?

Ziporyn: Our purpose is to energize cross relations between those disciplines, which is something MIT has had going on basically since it was MIT. But there's now a situation where artists are looking to technology to answer some of their questions, and technology is actually looking to art to ask questions. So, one of the things that we're trying to do with our artists is say, “look, what is something that you've been wanting to do but just had no way to do, [something you] didn't even know how to start?” So for example, Maya’s collaboration with Skylar Tibbits’ works with self-assembling materials. I was very interested in how you could get a stage set or even her clothing to be part of a performance and to do that in a meaningful way that isn't just engineered for show, but where you’re really exploring the relationship between sound and material in a way that you couldn't maybe five or ten years ago.

Beiser: Right. So in that particular project today, for example, I visited the lab and I'm meeting with his team and we're developing ideas for it. And what's wonderful about it is that it's sort of an open-ended exploration. But I love this going into something that you don't necessarily know where the other side's going to be, as opposed to when you create when you are under a deadline of performance that you have to create something for a show.

Ziporyn: Yeah, one of the things about the MIT environment is that the scientific community understands lab culture, and understands that you don't necessarily have to do something that's going to lead to a result three months or six months from now, and a lot of artistic residencies at universities are organized that way often for good reason, because you want to have something to show for your work — but it's like ‘we'll have a performance and that'll sum up the work,’ and we've really tried to avoid that paradigm and more get more to, 'no, this is just about some part of the process, and the process could end up being a very long process,' but to take that pressure off of it being about a production so it’s really about engagement. And the reason that I think that's valid in this environment is not just for Skylar’s work, or for Maya’s work, or Eran's work, or for my work, but just because what you're doing is just adding to an academic environment of inquiry and investigation — and just adding artistry to that mix. Seems like a healthy thing to do.

“Blackstar”came out just two days after David Bowie passed away. What was your reaction at the time?

Ziporyn: When Bowie died, I was a lot more affected by that than I thought I'd be. Not that I hadn't been a huge Bowie fan, but I just was very upset in ways I didn't realize and then there was that period —  and we all went through it —  where you kind of realized, wait, it's not just me. Everybody is freaked out about this. And I was trying to figure out what to do about it. And for a classical musician, if loosely described, and I wasn't just thinking about me, I thought, 'There's really nothing for that community to do right with this music.' Because it was like we could just get a cover band together and do Ziggy Stardust. So my friend said, “Well, isn't anybody going to do this Phillip Glass’ Bowie Symphony (Symphony No.1)? Somebody be doing that like right now!”

This was days after his death and I suddenly thought, 'Wait, I could do that — I have access to a hall. I have a Rolodex.' You know, there was a new feeling in Boston among the musical community that I had been thinking had been brewing and I thought that we could get this together and just do it. And we organized it in a matter of like two weeks. We put this concert together a year ago and it was really healing in a way that I didn't expect. I mean, I really was just looking for something to occupy myself and was hoping I could get a ragtag orchestra together. I ended up with an 80-piece orchestra ... really some of the best musicians in Boston. Huge amount of local interest and just the event itself just felt really necessary.

Tell us about incorporating "Blackstar" into the concert.

Ziporyn: I was listening to Blackstar and it's such a rich thing you know but the colors — and the it goes a lot of places, even for Bowie it goes a lot of places. And I was just thinking about Bowie's vocal range and how was basically the same as Maya's range on the cello and just this kind of similar way that Bowie used his voice to go in so many different directions. 

Beiser: I think that the idea of embodying Bowie's vocals was just was just such a big challenge for me just to find to be able to to find all this all these nuances and all these different ways that he expressed himself in the cello. 

Tell us about the technology the audience will get to use in the "Blackstar" Concert.

Ziporyn: Instead of telling people to turn their smartphones off, we’re telling them to keep them on and they can type into a URL and then things will come to them during the performance. Sometimes it will be as simple as just lyrics or images but other times it'll be colors, so that they'll be actually lighting the room in a sort of ambient way with their phones without knowing that they're doing that. And just adding that element to the experience is something Eran's been working on for a while.

Eran Egozy is this really interesting guy who was an MIT student when I first got here 25 years ago. And then he went and formed a startup — which is what MIT students do — and they kind of struggled along and then made a little game called Guitar Hero, and then sold that company and made a game called Rock Band. Then, having done all that he decided he really wanted to teach, so he now runs our music technology program. He had the idea for this app and I think his idea was originally for the BSO (Boston Symphony Orchestra). I think orchestras are very interested in [live program notes] but with this we approached him and we said, “Look, why not think of it not as program notes but as just this added dimension to the concert?” So sometimes it does function as in a quasi-program no kind of way, but where it's more interesting to me is where it's images or just light and color. 

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