A fun review to research, especially all that original/cover side by side listening, and fun to write, even though I was distracted with other projects. And as I say in the piece, it’s a really good recording. http://on.wsj.com/1tNTXwB
Cellist Maya Beiser’s new album features covers of works by Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. ioulex
It seems likely that “Uncovered” (Innova), the new recording by cellist and composer Maya Beiser, will be the only classical record this year that starts with the lyrics “Hey Hey Mama/the way you move/gonna make you sweat/gonna make you groove.”
The words are from “Black Dog,” a song written by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin and a big hit for the band in 1971. The Zeppelin repertoire isn’t new to Ms. Beiser; she covered “Kashmir” on her previous recording, “Provenance” (Innova, 2010). But “Uncovered” is the innovative cellist’s fullest foray into the repertoire of classic rock and blues. The recording features Mr. Beiser’s take on works by Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Howlin’ Wolf and seven other essential tracks. She will tour the material starting next Thursday in New York.
Ms. Beiser has achieved renown in the classical music world for her facility with a wide range of repertoire. She has also deftly integrated such technological innovations as multitracking and video seamlessly and intelligently into works like her 2012 opera, “Elsewhere.” Her 2011 TED talk, “A Cello With Many Voices,” has been watched more than 800,000 times, and she has commissioned work from or collaborated with many of classical music’s leading figures, including Louis Andriessen, Tan Dun, Philip Glass, Osvaldo Golijov, Michael Gordon, David Lang and Steve Reich. In addition, she was the founding cellist in the groundbreaking new music group Bang on a Can All-Stars.
Ms. Beiser, who is 49, has said that this project takes her back to her roots. She grew up on a kibbutz in northern Israel, and while the cello works of Johann Sebastian Bach affected her as a child and inspired her to take up her instrument, she was also moved by chants from Arab prayers in nearby villages, and by the music of Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin, which her parents played on the family’s stereo.
She performs Joplin’s riveting and distinctive cover of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” and in the press materials Ms. Beiser explains that the famed singer was a special inspiration to her. “The first time I heard Janis Joplin I felt shaken to the core. Somehow her unique, raw expression snuck its way into the inner shrine where, until then, only the likes of Bach and Schubert were allowed to enter. It felt so sacrilegious that I was giddy with guilt. Just imagine a young acolyte of any dogma, experiencing her first transgression.”
“Uncovered” succeeds because of Ms. Beiser’s ability to make well-known material her own. For instance, she doesn’t try to mimic Robert Plant’s pungent yowl. Instead, she murmurs the opening lyrics and employs her multitracked cello to play Jimmy Page’s guitar riffs.
Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moanin’ at Midnight” works because the cello covers the range, world weariness and menace of Howlin’ Wolf’s voice as well as his fleet, piercing harmonica licks. In addition, the spare arrangement allows percussionist Glenn Kotche to give the tune a different vibe; it’s a Chicago blues standard, but you hear the Delta fields lurking in the background.
Maya Beiser, a classically trained cellist, plays songs by Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin and others on her new album “Uncovered.” Photo: Jennifer Weiss for The Wall Street Journal
Some of the tunes that work best—Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” Muddy Waters’s “Louisiana Blues” and the AC/DC classic “Back in Black,” which was written by Angus Young, Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson—showcase Ms. Beiser’s ability to reach signature stances like Hendrix’s gruff vocals, Waters’s warm growl, and the Australian band’s searing guitar riffs with just a multitracked cello, bass and drums. Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” seems made for a stringed-instrument cover, but Ms. Beiser’s gritty intro deepens the sense of loss in the piece and makes it even more elegiac. Similarly, King Crimson’s “Epitaph” lends itself to the setting nicely, and Ms. Beiser captures the mood and intricacies of the tune.
Not everything works. Nirvana’s “Lithium” simply never sounds like Ms. Beiser—even as I listen to her cello, I’m hearing Cobain singing the lead vocals. Also the recording closes with a version of “Kashmir” that now feels like old news. It isn’t different enough from her 2010 version.
The overall triumph of “Uncovered” is that it never sounds novel. The Vitamin String Quartet and the pop group Nouvelle Vague often recast rock classics into string-quartet or bossa nova settings, but it’s always done with a wink. In Ms. Beiser’s hands the cello can capture a wide range of voices, and with multitracking it can effect the sound of a power chord. On “Uncovered,” the cellist plays classic rock with the unbridled passion that she brings to her other repertoire; she doesn’t cover Sly Stone on this recording but she wants to take us higher.
Mr. Johnson writes about music for the Journal.