Cellist Matt Haimovitz has a knack for showing up in the unlikeliest of places. In 2002, he gave the first-ever classical music performance at the legendary punk rock club CBGB's on Manhattan's Lower East Side. And in the last few years, he's toured all 50 states, stopping to play some of Bach's solo cello concertos in venues like the Cactus Cafe in Austin, Texas, and The Palms in Davis, California. Haimovitz's new CD is a concoction called "Goulash!" music inspired by the cultures and rhythms of Eastern Europe. Matt Haimovitz joins us from the studios of member station WHYY in Philadelphia.

Welcome to the program, Matt.

Mr. MATT HAIMOVITZ (Cellist): Thanks for having me. Great to be here.

HANSEN: It's a real pleasure. "Goulash"--I mean, it's sort of already tells us what we're going to hear. It covers territory from Bartok to actually rock 'n' roll. Was there a specific inspiration for the CD?

Mr. HAIMOVITZ: There was. First of all, I would say that the CD is inspired by the spirit of Bela Bartok, the great 20th-century composer and really one of the first ethnomusicologists to go out into the field and notate and document all the folk cultures around him in Romania, Hungary. He himself was born in Transylvania, this disputed region between Romania and Hungary. And he was very much an internationalist, came to the United States, lived here the remainder of his life; the last few years of his life, spending time in New York City and Asheville, North Carolina. And he really absorbed folk cultures from around the world. And he started to realize that a lot of Eastern influence made their way from Turkey, from other parts of the world on the music that he was hearing--folk music that he was hearing in Romania and Hungary.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HAIMOVITZ: At a certain point, virtually every piece of his to some degree incorporates this folk connection, this very instinctive music which he really adored and felt that it was an art music of its own.

HANSEN: You do include Bela Bartok on here, particularly Romanian folk dances. And it's your wife, Luna Pearl Woolf, who did the arrangements?

Mr. HAIMOVITZ: That's right.

HANSEN: And now these were originally written for piano. So what is the challenge for her and for you and for your group, your cello, in adapting stuff that's written for a piano for cellos?

Mr. HAIMOVITZ: Double challenge, actually: one, what was in the composer's original conception of this piece, what you're trying to get to the heart of, of what the music is about? But, also, this particular piece is probably Bartok's most famous work. In fact, it's already been arranged for virtually every instrumentation that you can think of. I haven't heard it on four cellos before, but violin and piano, cello and piano, full orchestra and so on.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HAIMOVITZ: It's not a stretch, really, to think about arranging it for different combinations. But what Luna actually did--and coming from her compositional point of view, she really brought out colors that you simply can't bring out on the piano and really trying to get to the heart of the folk element of these pieces and the kinds of sounds--the flute sounds, the raw, Gypsy string sounds--that you would have heard back in Romania.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HAIMOVITZ: And, in fact, I remember my mother telling me that these pieces--well, we played them together. She's a pianist and--when I was 10 years old. And she would tell me about how they were danced, so this was really refreshing to have a completely new sound that Luna brought to these works.

HANSEN: Is there something about the region that attracts you, though, as a performer?

Mr. HAIMOVITZ: There is. In fact, my background is Romanian. My family is from Romania: parents, grandparents, going back a ways. And I've been very interested in that region. I grew up in an essentially European household idolizing the music of Bela Bartok. And it was only about two, three years ago that I went for the first time to Cluj, Transylvania, and performed there as part of an American music festival. I was actually playing American music. I met a wonderful Transylvanian composer, Adrian Pop, who I ended up commissioning for this new album. He wrote a solo cello piece for this. And at that moment I think the seeds were planted for me to try to do something with this music that I've grown up with. And actually, amazingly, the Middle Eastern connection's also on that region, where an important part, too--I was also born in Israel. So you have sort of this Middle Western-Romanian-Hungarian connection.

HANSEN: Tell us about the piece you commissioned from Adrian Pop.

Mr. HAIMOVITZ: "Gordun," yeah. And it's--a gordun is a Hungarian-Romanian instrument that is like a bass, and you find it in a lot of Gypsy bands. That was the inspiration for the piece. Adrian quotes many of these Transylvanian folk tunes in the piece. At the end, it's--in fact, he quotes a tune that his grandmother sang to him, a really haunting, beautiful Transylvanian folk tune. But the heart of the piece is really this very propulsive, unstoppable velocity, really, this middle section.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HAIMOVITZ: And that is really composed, but in the style of Transylvanian folk music.

HANSEN: Was it difficult to play?

Mr. HAIMOVITZ: Well, you know, he finished it only a week or two before the recording, so I kept sort of sending him e-mails to--there was no other way to reach him over in Transylvania. And he said, `Oh, yeah, I've written another page,' and he would send me via e-mail this page. And I would keep encouraging him and saying, `Oh, this is'--and really was--`tremendous music.' And finally it came through. And it turned out that I had forgotten that he's actually a cellist also, so he gets really haunting sounds. But the piece came with a lot of wonderful bowings and fingerings and a lot of direction to the players, so it was very, very clear what he wanted.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: I have to ask you about the first cut on this CD. This is actually a cover--acoustic, all-cello version. In your group, you cello, do the Led Zeppelin song "Kashmir."

(Soundbite of "Kashmir")

HANSEN: Now this isn't the first time that you've done, you know, a cello...


HANSEN: ...version of something like this because you did Jimi Hendrix's...


HANSEN: ..."Star-Spangled Banner." Are you always on the lookout for songs that will work on the cello? Rock songs--do they really lend themselves to this kind of interpretation?

(Soundbite of "Kashmir")

Mr. HAIMOVITZ: Well, I'm always on the lookout for music generally. I don't--for me, I don't classify so much. For me, it's like something that I either connect with or I don't. I hadn't actually come into connect with "Kashmir," with this song before. And when I heard it, in fact, I was on tour with a bunch of rock 'n' roll musicians and jazz musicians, and they wanted to do it one night as a cover. So here was Charlie Hunter sort of showing me some of these licks, and I'm trying to figure it out. And all of a sudden I realized, `Wait a minute, there's this Turkish mode in this piece. This fits perfectly on my Turkish-Hungarian-Romanian triumvirate for "Goulash."' So I thought it would be wonderful. And I also feel like the cello can--has such a wide range. Not only can it emulate the voice closer than any other instrument, but it really can emulate the electric guitar and the drum set, which we do completely acoustically on this rendition of "Kashmir." I have no idea why they call it "Kashmir," though. I really feel like it should be some town in Turkey, really.

(Soundbite of "Kashmir")

HANSEN: The Romanian dances are adapted again for the track that's called "Goulash," the title track. Now here you're featuring a laptop artist, the computer artist DJ Olive. Now how did this collaboration come about?

Mr. HAIMOVITZ: DJ Olive--I met him, again, on this tour with all these other rock 'n' roll musicians. And, in fact, this was a situation where I began the program playing works of Bach and Hendrix and David Sanford and others. And then every night you'd be joined by another artist, and then gradually the stage would be filled with people and, without stop, the music would continue and you'd have to improvise. Coming from the classical music world, we no longer really do a whole lot of improvisation, generally, and this is something that's been lost, really, in the tradition because when you go back to Bach, Mozart, even Bartok, these were some of the greatest improvisers of their times. They were the Zeppelins and the Hendrixes of their times.

So basically that day in the studio we just spent a couple of hours and came up with some material. And you can hear on this "Goulash" title track this improvisation with DJ Olive and me. DJ Olive was actually playing LPs of Bela Bartok from the field, but he actually discovered these folk cultures. And you can even hear Bela Bartok's own voice singing a Hungarian folk tune to his children.

(Soundbite of "Goulash")

Mr. BELA BARTOK (Composer): (Singing in foreign language)

HANSEN: Every time I hear you, every time a new CD comes out, every time I hear about a concert that you're giving, you seem to really be creating these new frontiers for your instrument, the cello. Are there places you still want to go with it?

Mr. HAIMOVITZ: Well, I think there are people that I want to reach with it. In terms of places, for me places that--it's a way to reach and connect with people. And I guess right now I feel very, very fortunate that, for me personally, I've reconciled the concert hall and the rock 'n' roll club in the more intimate space, alternative venues. Yeah, I mean, I guess there are many places that I still haven't been to, but to me it's really a matter of connecting with an individual or a group of people or a large hall full of people, no matter what it is, and somehow communicating this music and communicating how valuable and important and moving much of this music is.

HANSEN: Cellist Matt Haimovitz's new CD is "Goulash," and it's out on Oxingale Records. He spoke to us from Philadelphia.

Matt, thanks a lot.

Mr. HAIMOVITZ: Oh, it's been great. Thank you very much for having me.

HANSEN: Tonight Matt Haimovitz, cello, and violinist Andy Simionescu play at Iota Club in Arlington, Virginia. And if you're not able to catch Haimovitz in concert, you can hear cuts from the new CD on our Web site,

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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