I have a diverse range of skills as a journalist, but one thing that I am not is a classical music critic. I think that helps me approach and evaluate the music of Maya Beiser. I just hear it as mostly interesting and engrossing sounds without regard as to where it leaves the genre. I suspect that there are jazz artists like Esperanza Spalding and Robet Glasper that are better analyzed by people who are not jazz critics. Anyway, here’s me on Beiser’s most recent recording.
‘TranceClassical’ by Maya Beiser Review: A Cello Bows to All Genres
Synthesizing diverse influences ranging from Bach to the Velvet Underground.
Maya Beiser’s new album is ‘TranceClassical.’ ENLARGE
Maya Beiser’s new album is ‘TranceClassical.’ Photo: Ioulex
By Martin Johnson
Aug. 1, 2016 5:02 p.m. ET
During her lengthy career, cellist and composer Maya Beiser has explored sacred songs, the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, Woodstock-era rock, and numerous pieces by contemporary classical composers ranging from Philip Glass to Michael Gordon. On her new recording, “TranceClassical” (Innova), she brings these disparate interests together in what amounts to a philosophical retrospective and a career-spanning playlist. Rather than deliver a pastiche, she unites her interests with characteristic flair.
The recording begins with a plaintive rendition of Bach’s “Air” (from Orchestral Suite No. 3). In the liner notes to the recording, Ms. Beiser cites the music of Bach as the inspiration for her eclectic pursuits. She aims to present the piece as she first heard it, from a worn record on her parents’ stereo when she was young, and the track begins with the sound of a needle landing in the scratchy grooves of an LP. Many hip-hop and dance recordings employ sonic elements from the vinyl era to underpin their authenticity, and Ms. Beiser’s use of the same techniques serves to make the 18th-century composition seem very of the moment.
Her cover of Lou Reed’s “Heroin,” one of the signature tunes of the Velvet Underground, is similarly fascinating. David Lang’s arrangement for cello and voice deftly remakes the tune. In the original version, Reed is alternately defiant and submissive about his relationship to the drug; John Cale’s viola trails Reed’s vocals with a menacing sound. Ms. Beiser dials down the defiance and menace without losing the ambivalence in the lyrics or the attraction of the story. It’s an ambitious gambit; most of the Velvets’ catalog is rarely covered, but Ms. Beiser makes the piece her own, escaping its long shadow.
Other highlights include Glenn Kotche’s “Three Parts Wisdom,” a densely layered showcase for Ms. Beiser’s virtuosity. The cellist’s arrangement of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” features triple-tracked vocals that are at times reminiscent of Laurie Anderson. Mr. Gordon’s 2006 work “All Vows,” a solo cello piece, was recorded in a church with multiple microphones enhancing the reverberant environment. In 2014, Ms. Beiser released “Uncovered,” a recording of canonical rock and blues songs. David Little’s “Hellhound,” which was inspired by Robert Johnson’s cornerstone blues song “Hellhound on My Trail,” is reminiscent of that recording, with pounding drums and snarling guitars augmenting Ms. Beiser’s cello.
Ms. Beiser, who prefers not to disclose her age, was born in Israel and raised on a kibbutz near Galilee. While growing up, she was enraptured by classical music, rock, and religious music both from Israel and the surrounding Arab countries. After graduating from the Yale University School of Music, she became a founding member of the adventurous new-music collective Bang on a Can. She has become known not only for her wide-ranging repertoire but for her stellar use of multitracked performances and multidisciplinary presentations. “TranceClassical” is a look back at various chapters in Ms. Beiser’s career, and it suggests that each phase is still evolving.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.