Emery Report: Technology will not kill live concerts, says cellist Matt Haimovitz

October 31, 2011

Classically-trained cellist Matt Haimovitz is known as a musical pioneer, bringing Bach to rock venues and interpreting multiple styles and genres on the cello. His recent album, “Shuffle. Play. Listen,” a collaboration with NPR “From the Top” host Christopher O’Riley, includes interpretations of music as diverse as Igor Stravinsky to pop group Arcade Fire.

An Emory Coca-Cola artist in residence, he performs free concerts on Nov. 2 at the School of Medicine and Nov. 3 at the Marcus Hillel Center, where he will be playing pieces with religious themes and discussing their themes with Music Department chair Kevin Karnes and religion professor David Blumenthal. Haimovitz answers questions from Jessica Cook about his latest recording, his audiences and the upcoming Emory programs:

You’ve said you played “the cello like a guitar” for your Jimi Hendrix version of “Star-Spangled Banner.”  What’s different between playing pop like Arcade Fire vs. Bach?

Matt Haimovitch: I can certainly make my cello sound like an electric guitar. The idea of effect in Bach, that the performer is intended to interpret the music to move the listener toward a specific emotional state, is remarkably close to the raw power of a great pop song to inspire the listener into a transcendent state. In the Bach Suites, one must keep track of the various roles, bass, melody and inner voices. If you look at our arrangement of Arcade Fire’s “Empty Room,” I play the electric guitar part at times, the vocals at other, and string parts in between. So the multiplicity of roles, the cello wearing several hats is common to both worlds. Of course, there are also profound differences.

Your venues range from prestigious recital halls to coffeehouses. Are you finding the audiences—whether in concert halls or rock clubs—getting more diverse?

Because of what I have been up to in the last 10 years, my audience tends to be wonderfully diverse in age and musical background. The concept of “Shuffle.Play.Listen,” for example, celebrates the fact that most audiences today have a wide variety of genres on their iPods. We have heard for a long time that technology is the death of the live concert experience. It’s proving to be just the opposite. People need community and inspiration more than ever. I am finding that there is an adventurous spirit out there that is seeking and open to an enriching artistic experience.

Do you think younger classically-trained musicians are mixing up genres now? Getting in front of different audiences?

Shuffle.Play.Listen

My students at McGill University are aware and experimenting with different genres and improvisation. But there is much work to be done to evolve the standard conservatory curriculum, which is still much too conservative for the realities of the 21st century. The younger generation knows this and many of them are seeking these tools on their own. My hope is that these resources will eventually be available in a more overt and structured way so that the path we paved will be easier for classically-trained musicians in the future.

Describe your program for the Marcus Hillel Center on Nov. 3. Why did you choose these composers?

I put together a program that embraces spirituality. I begin the program with a meditation, a Bach “Allemande.” This is one of the most beautiful movements in all of the Bach Suites; I see it as a prayer, a human conversation with divine beauty. Robert Stern’s “Recitative” transforms the cello into a cantor and uses the three calls of the shofar, heard on Rosh Hashanah. Composer Gilles Tremblay laments the tragic recent history of Lebanon, and unites the three religions—Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The microtones at the start conjure the modal world of maqam used in Arabic music with hints of the cantor. Only at the end of the work do we realize all has been inspired from a Christian hymn from Easter, stated with eerie simplicity in harmonics, a ghostly flute.

“Hebrew Melodies” by George Perle returns to cantorial melismas that confront the 12-tone serialism of Arnold Schoenberg. And finally, a piece that I commissioned in 2001, African American composer David Sanford’s “Seventh Avenue Kaddish” responds to the tragedy of Sept. 11, inspired by the transcendent spirituality of John Coltrane’s form in “A Love Supreme.” Sanford imagines the cellist, a hybrid between a saxophone and a cantor, continuing to play as the buildings of the World Trade Center collapse, because that is all he can do.

What are you looking forward to in your upcoming Atlanta visit?

Emory University and Atlanta have a rich and diverse cultural history. I am looking forward to getting to get to know the Emory community and to the exchange of ideas and reactions to the programs I have put together.

by Jessica Cook

View at Emory Report

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