I had the great pleasure of first encountering Maya Beiser's artistry in a live setting, specifically at the 1994 Meltdown Festival (curated by Louis Andriessen), where she gave a searing performance of Michael Gordon's solo cello piece “Industry," and her subsequent contributions to the Bang On A Can All-Stars releases proved to be just as satisfying. As rewarding, however, is this latest collection of solo and ensemble pieces (Beiser accompanied by oud player Bassam Saba, drummer Jerry Marotta, and percussionists Shane Shanahan and Jamey Haddad) by contemporary composers from Armenia, Kurdish Iran, Israel, the US, and the UK. There's an underlying political theme to Provenance, specifically one celebrating the glory that comes when cultural traditions intertwine, and the richness that accrues when different peoples peacefully co-exist (Beiser comes by such inspirations honestly, as she grew up in an Israeli kibbutz at the foothills of the Galilee Mountains).
One of the recording's major strengths is that all five of the musical works allow the emotive side of Beiser's playing to come fully to the fore. Her tone is splendidly showcased throughout Kayhan Kalhor's “I Was There” where her cello is given ample space to cry and moan poignantly (Kalhor, in fact, composed the piece for Beiser). Based on a melody by the ninth-century Persian Kurdish musician, poet, singer, and former slave Ziryab, the sixteen-minute meditation alternates between moving statements by the cellist and oud player Bassam Saba; their respective solos become progressively shorter until they conjoin halfway through in the work's main theme, which in turn triggers the piece's more rhythmic, percussion-driven second half. Though Armenian musician and composer Djivan Gasparian is renowned as a virtuoso of the traditional double-reed wind instrument, the Duduk, his “Memories” provides a haunting and mournful solo setting for Beiser's playing. Drawing on an ancient love song in Ladino (an ancient language that mixes Hebrew and Spanish), “Mar De Leche” (Sea of Milk) by Israeli composer Tamar Muskal begins with an impassioned vocal by Etty Ben-Zaken which Beiser follows gracefully. Muskal's piece is perhaps the most episodic of the disc's pieces as it flows between rhythm-based sections and thematic statements, with much of its lilting drive coloured by the aromatic scents of Arabic and Jewish musical styles. Douglas J Cuomo may have composed the theme to Sex and the City but his “Only Breath” is sonically a world apart from Carrie Bradshaw's Manhattan base. Though it's a solo piece, electronics allows Beiser to multiply herself into a cello ensemble, all the better to navigate a path through the piece's chant-like melodic lines. There's a free-floating and dream-like quality to the material, as if its labyrinthine melodic tendrils are caught swirling back in upon themselves. Well-intentioned but less satisfying is the reading of Led Zeppelin's “Kashmir” where a multi-tracked Beiser mimics Robert Plant's vocal melodies and Jimmy Page's guitar lines while studio vet Marotta assumes the John Bonham role. While passable enough, the cover can't help but seem like a crowd-pleasing move of the kind The Kronos Quartet indulged in when it featured a version of “Purple Haze” at the end of one of its discs. If the recording ends on a slightly disappointing note, it hardly argues against the project as a whole, as Provenance nevertheless provides ample evidence of Beiser's playing and artistry.