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Like so many others, Maya Beiser was "obsessed" with David Bowie's final album, Blackstar, when it came out in January 2016. "It was just a brilliant masterpiece," the cellist says. Devastated by Bowie's death two days after its release, she decided to pay tribute with Bowie Cello Symphonic: Blackstar, whose video renditions of the title track and "Girl Loves Me" are premiering below in front of the album's Jan. 10 (the fourth anniversary of Bowie's passing) release.
The project is a collaboration between Beiser -- an artist-in-residence at MIT at the time of Bowie's death -- and arranger/conductor Evan Ziporyn, a fellow Bowie fan and a co-founder with Beiser of the Bang On a Can All-Stars ensemble. Ziporyn had formed the 30-piece Ambient Orchestra to pay tribute to Bowie, and that performance hatched the idea for a recording project.
"One day we were talking and Evan was like, 'Why don't we put together this show and just completely reimagine the entire Blackstar as a cello concerto and orchestra piece, where the cello embodies Bowie's vocals and the orchestra kind of does everything else?'" Beiser, who was raised on a kibbutz in Israel, recalls. "It was really just going to be this one-time homage to this artist who was so meaningful to so many of us." But when the first concert, during 2017 at MIT's Kresge Hall, sold out "in a hot second" and requests for the show started coming from as far away as Barcelona -- where it was performed with a full symphony orchestra -- Bowie Cello Symphonic began to take on a life of its own.
"We had no idea if it was going to be successful -- which is the best kind of project," says Beiser, who also played a version of the piece with Ensemble LPR at New York's Central Park Summerstage. "I just always love to dive into something and see if it works or not." Bowie Cello Symphonic became a touring show for the Ambient Orchestra, while friends at MIT helped Beiser and Ziporyn develop visual accompaniment that includes triggered projections behind and on the floor in front of the ensemble, as well as onto a special white cello Beiser plays during the concerts.
"One thing led to another, and at one point we said, 'Why don't we just record it?'" Beiser recalls. "So last February we decided to record an entire thing and I decided to put it out on my own record label (Islandia Records) that I started earlier this year, and that's pretty much the story."
The album also includes renditions of earlier Bowie favorites "Life on Mars" and "Ziggy Stardust," but Beiser says Blackstar is her true creative statement.
"There's so much to it -- not just by Bowie but other people involved in (the album)," Beiser explains. "They're not your typical kind of rock songs; It's pretty complex and very broad, and there are so many fantastic orchestrations on this album already it just felt really natural to adapt them this way and open it up to make it into this abstract piece of music. It just feels really right." As for the challenge of providing Bowie's "voice" with her cello, Beiser explains that, "He has this incredible range that matches the cello in a great way. It sort of validates the way that I approach playing the cello. For me a lot of those things are very intuitive; I didn't know if it was going to work but it felt like it would, and it turned out it did in a really special way."
Beiser, who's also continuing live performances of her dance piece The Day, says she's received positive response to Bowie Cello Symphonic: Blackstar from the Bowie camp, including his management and some of the musicians who played on the Blackstar album. She'll perform the piece again on Feb. 15 in Strathmore in North Bethesda, Md., and is always looking for more opportunities to put it on stage. "There's definitely a lot of plans for going to jazz festivals and other places in the summer," Beiser says, "a lot of things in the works for continuing to tour with this, with the orchestra and different configurations. I want people to hear it. I just wish David Bowie could have heard it."
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