Diversity is a goal that many in the Boulder music scene try to achieve. But rarely is so much of it found in one person, as is the case with Beth Quist. A connoisseur of sound, she sports a resume that seems more like a U.N. mediator's than an entertainer's.
"I sing in Bulgarian, Turkish and Greek, and in choirs I've sung in Italian, French and German," she says. "And during a show, I'll often play piano, voice, two different dumbeks, hammer dulcimer, guitar and maybe a flute or a pennywhistle. I've formally studied Bulgarian singing, Greek and Turkish singing, and I've learned a few Arabic songs--so there's a lot of Arabic rhythms in my drumming."
As a child, Quist, who's now 30, was something of a musical prodigy. "I was two when I started playing piano," she says. "We had a piano in a house that was my great-grandmother's, so I just started figuring out things, like the themes from Batman and Star Trek." When she learned the title song from Dr. Zhivago simply by watching her grandfather's hands as he played it, her parents decided it was high time they gave her lessons. Quist has been performing ever since.
These musical interests snowballed in public school, where her music teacher, Judy Jones, taught her to play the flute. She subsequently mastered the guitar, and her membership in a choir inspired a love of singing in a wide variety of styles. As she tells it, "I've listened to a lot of different music. A friend played me the Bulgarian State Women's Radio Choir, and I just loved it. Then he convinced me to go to a Bulgarian music and dance camp that was in Mendocino, California. That's when I first started doing a little Bulgarian singing, and it just came really easily. I just love the sound of it. The instruments send chills up my spine."
At its best, Quist's music can have the same effect. She delivers lush, gorgeous, richly layered performances whether she's surveying classical Indian raga or traditional Macedonian folk songs. And regardless of the varied ethnicity of her sources, she is able to make them sound as if they've always belonged together.
Listeners should be prepared for anything when they attend a Quist gig. "It depends on what show you see me at," she explains. "Some shows are mostly original. I'll do an occasional Bulgarian song, maybe, but most of the piano stuff is original, though I might throw in a little Bach. But other shows are done with seven other musicians, and we'll do mostly traditional Macedonian with Greek and Turkish songs."
A small portion of this repertoire appears on Quist's first CD, Lucidity, a disc recorded last August under less-than-ideal conditions. "It was hard," she concedes. "I did the engineering and production, so there wasn't an engineer back there setting levels." To make things worse, she was visited by an uninvited fan: "A squirrel snuck into the recording studio, got stuck in the house, and peed all over the Mackey Eight Deck. He didn't go for the couch or the rug--he went for the most expensive equipment he could find."
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Despite this attempted sabotage, Lucidity turned out well enough to attract the attention of jazz/pop vocalist Bobby McFerrin, who invited Quist to add her voice to a recording session in New York City. "It was twelve singers, two days in the studio, and we had three of each: soprano, alto, tenor and bass," recalls Quist, who was designated a soprano for the taping. "Bobby would give one group a part and come up with some other parts around it, improvising. He used to be a dance accompanist, so he knows how to do improv. We'd chant the parts and then he'd solo over it, or he'd pull one of us out to solo over it."
She recalls, with a look of mock terror: "He picked me first. I was so nervous already, but Bobby was an absolute sweetheart, incredibly kind and wonderful." Joining Quist on the album (which does not yet have a working title) were the Manhattan Transfer's Janis Siegel and the Hilliard Ensemble's Paul Hilliard. Nonetheless, this relative newcomer made a strong impression and won herself an important admirer. "Bobby's manager, Linda Goldstein, said that she wanted to represent me solo," Quist says. The deal was finalized a few weeks later--and now Quist is wondering what step to take next.
"She asked me if I would be willing to move out to New York," she says. "I said I would for a little while, but it would be hard having grown up here to be so separate from nature. But it was so stimulating, and I met so many incredible people. It's the dance mecca, and I'd love to work with some of the companies out there. So we'll see."
Beth Quist. 8 p.m. Saturday, August 31, the East End Cafe, 2116 Pearl Street, Boulder, 417-9383.