Maya Beiser and the Ambient Orchestra perform David Bowie’s Blackstar
March 3, 2017 / 7:30pm
MIT Kresge Auditorium, W16
48 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA
It has been just over a year since the news of David Bowie’s death on January 10, 2016 stopped the world momentarily in its tracks. Evan Ziporyn, faculty director of MIT’s Center for Art, Science & Technology, remembers feeling shaken. “I was much more freaked out than I expected to be,” he says. “And I was trying to figure out what to do with that.”
A memorial concert seemed fitting; Philip Glass’s Bowie-inspired Symphonies No. 1 and 4 even more so. But in the days and weeks that followed the initial tribute, Ziporyn found himself yearning to dig deeper into the pop icon’s material. He settled on a project of appropriately epic proportions: the entirety of Blackstar, Bowie’s 25th and final album, arranged for a full orchestra.
The concert, which is part of MIT’s Sounding Series and will take place on March 3 at Kresge Auditorium in Cambridge, features the genre-bending cellist Maya Beiser and arrangements by Ziporyn and Jamshied Sharifi ’83. Ziporyn and Beiser share a decades-long collaborative history, starting in 1992 when they became founding members of the innovative alt-classical ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars. Most recently, Ziporyn composed the arrangements for “Uncovered,” Beiser’s album of rock ‘n’ roll tunes adapted for the cello.
Though the concert will not feature any vocalists, a new app by MIT professor and Harmonix co-founder Eran Egozy, called NoteStream, will deliver lyrics, program notes and other content to listeners’ phones in real time. But the immense task of embodying Bowie’s voice falls to Beiser and her cello. Ziporyn says she is more than up to the job. “She has that kind of distinctive voice that you normally think of as being associated with soloists in jazz and popular music,” Ziporyn says. “There’s no anonymity in her playing.”
The ambitious homage is also a deeply personal one, for both Ziporyn and Beiser. “Bowie represented, to my generation, in a way that is hard to explain, this kind of model for what it meant to be an artist or creative person,” Ziporyn says. At the peak of his influence, Bowie was unapologetically futuristic, as much a champion of radical musical ideas as boundary-breaking personas. “He was so versatile, and he was always exploring and evolving as an artist. He never settled for the easy path,” Beiser says. “And he himself, as a person, was the totality of his art.”
Even for Bowie, “Blackstar” is a singular achievement. Ever a shapeshifter, the former glam rocker slides as easily into the album’s jazz-inflected mise en scène as he did into Ziggy Stardust’s formfitting pants. The drums on “Blackstar” skitter with syncopated precision while saxophones slither their way through a dark electronic fog. Archetypal rock ‘n’ roll instruments—electric guitar, bass—are deployed as tools of texture and experimentation, unleashing murk and mayhem in equal measure. Bowie himself is something of an enigma, a voice that merges with the haze as often as it penetrates.
“[Blackstar is] built around a much wider palette and colors and sounds than you normally get in most pop records, or even jazz records,” Ziporyn says. “When I heard it, it had the same feel to me that I get from an extended, substantive piece of quote-unquote ‘concert music’ or ‘serious music’ or classical music. It has this arc.”
Along with “Blackstar,” the program will include a novel arrangement of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies. Ziporyn was inspired to arrange the trio of famous solo piano pieces for orchestra after stumbling upon a Soundcloud track by Brooklyn musician Brendan Landis, who performs under the moniker Hey Exit. The track, titled “Every Recording of Gymnopédie 1,” rests on a dazzlingly simple conceit: that by layering every recorded version of “Gymnopédie 1” on top of one another, something magical would result. And indeed, in Landis’s hands the spare, wistful piano piece becomes a blurry, slowly cascading dream.
In composing his own ambient, rippling orchestrations of the three Gymnopédies and pairing them with the new arrangements of Blackstar, Ziporyn is seeing a long-held hope come to fruition–what he calls an ‘ambient orchestra.’ “[It was] an idea I’d had for a long time, to start an orchestra that played the ‘classics’ of recorded music, not in a kitschy ‘Led Zep with strings’ way, but in a way that had some legitimacy,” Ziporyn says. “It fits in exactly with what I’m trying to do with this project, which is really take things that were conceived of electronically and figure out a way to do them acoustically.”
Blackstar, with its flickering moods and cosmic soundscapes, offers a rich playground for an orchestra to explore. But the greatest pleasure will be in honoring and connecting with Bowie himself. “It’s like a devotional act of some kind,” Ziporyn says. Last year, at the first tribute concert at MIT, “we all had a shared purpose, and we all had this way of being together and moving together and harmonizing together and being in rhythm together with this larger central idea of this person–who we admired, who we had lost.”
To some, the idea of a tribute concert likely evokes certain cliches—of the healing power of music, of an artist living on after death. But the Blackstar concert offers something much more meaningful, to performers and audiences alike: the chance to commune with Bowie, and to know him in a new way.
Maya Beiser is the Inaugural Mellon Distinguished Visiting Artist at the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST).