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On Making Movie Music: Meet "Cello Goddess" Maya Beiser

Photo by Merri Cyr used with permission.
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Maya Beiser, described by the New Yorker as "a cello goddess," made some time to chat with us last month. She was in town to record a featured cello part for the film "Snow White and the Huntsman" (starring Charlize Theron and Kristen Stewart). In the film, the cello portrays the evil queen and the score was composed by James Newton Howard, whom Maya has previously collaborated with on "The Happening," "The Great Debaters," and "Blood Diamond." If you want to check her out in California, she is performing on the 28th in Davis.

LAist: Most of your work has to do with the more eclectic and contemporary music scene could you tell us a little about yourself and how you got into recording film music?
Maya Beiser: I'm originally from Israel, Classically trained, strictly doing Classical music until I went to Yale here, in the US, and I've since dedicated a lot of my work to contemporary music, not just Classical. That's what I've been doing in all of my albums and performances. I collaborate a lot with visual artists and my concerts are not your usual straightforward concerts, I try to do a lot to more to create an event on stage. Along the way I was invited to go to Sundance as a mentor at the Institute to work with some film composers there and a few summers ago I met James Newton Howard, and I've collaborated with him a few times.

Since you've done this a few times, how do you prepare for these recording sessions and can you tell us about what goes on behind the scenes?
It's really cool. When someone like James calls me in, it's because they are looking for what it is I have to bring as an artist, so I come in at a point where he thinks a cello is needed. It varies, some of it is pre-written - there are cues (the way things work is things go cue by cue) and in this case there will be quite a bit of improvisation on my part and we're recording in the beautiful Sony sound stages for a couple days and it's a mix of both cues and improvisation to come up with the music for that particular moment. There's a lot that goes on behind the scenes in regards to composing - I come in a little later as a soloist so it's a little different. We have a good relationship and I know his music and he knows what I can do so when he imagines the things that I do in regards to my sound and sensibilities as a musician that's when he brings me into the film.

For anyone who's planning on watching the film, do you have any tips or hints on musical cues to listen for while watching the film?
Not really, it's still in production and being put together so it's hard for me to pinpoint for those things yet. (note: the cello comes in hereat 1:43 if you want to hear some previous examples of her work)

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And in the Happening you've mentioned before the big cello concerto style recording, when someone is watching a film, people usually don't pay attention to the music, what should they listen for in the score while watching a movie?
Music is the thing that where it has a huge impact on a film but you don't really notice it in the same way but music has incredible power to create the scene and the emotional context and there's so much that goes on. I have to say when working on the Great Debaters we recorded in London and Denzel (Washington) was there, there were some very emotional scenes that we tried different things with the cello and finally decided on a particular thing that was working. The music sometimes works as an antidote or to really help the emotional moment. People don't realize what a huge impact music does to a film. If you are ever able to tune out the music and watch the film without it you would realize how essential and integrated it is to help carry the plot and overall tone of the film in so many ways. (spoof trailers often use music to help change the tone too)

Like the film "The Artist"--people were complaining about the lack of ...

The film actually has great music. Yeah there's no text but the music is kind of the only thing that's there and it's a good example of when the music is more in the forefront so the only sounds you hear are noises or music. Music by the way belongs to sound effects, I do a lot of sound effects with my cello that might end up being in a score, that might not even be noticeable, but you can create a lot of different sounds. I'd love to do a whole film score with my cello, all the sounds, all the sound effects, it would be cool.

And speaking of projects... you're also working on a cello opera?
Yeah I'm calling it a cello opera, it's just a term -it's not really an opera, it's a piece that the cello does all the music and there's text but it's a big theatrical piece with music and many other elements, and I'm really excited about it. I'm hoping to bring it to LA eventually and I'm premiering it in the East Coast in the fall at BAMand hopefully take it on tour.

Seems like you've been to LA a few times and you have a better idea of the place, is there anything that you do while you're here...recreation-wise?
Yeah, my favorite places in LA - I'm vegan, so I can't decide which vegan places to go to, there are a few places that I love like Real Food Daily, Flore Cafe, M Cafe. There's also Exhale, which I go to in New York but there is one in Santa Monica and one in Venice.. Just wish it was easier to walk around here, it's a little bit demoralizing that anything you have to do you have to have a car. It would be nice to walk and bike everywhere but it's great, and these are probably the things I try to do every time I'm here, and hopefully I will be back again soon.