Zoë Madonna is a writer, amateur accordionist, and yarn hoarder based in Boston. A 2015 graduate of Oberlin College, she was awarded the 2014 Rubin Prize for Music Criticism. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe and on icareifyoulisten.com.
Cellist Maya Beiser Spans Imogen Heap to Michael Gordon in 'TranceClassical'
Monday, August 01, 2016
Very little is understated about cellist Maya Beiser. When she takes a stage, she does so in towering spike heels and flowing hair, bright white pops of light flashing on her black sequins, video projections glowing behind and around her. Her playing is similarly theatrical — she spins out notes like a spider spins silk, each phrase suffused with dramatic tension. Amid the haze of glamour and processed signals enveloping the music of TranceClassical, her unadorned voice stands out in potent relief. Low and plaintive, with little vibrato, she sings inward while the cello sings outward, and so she invites us through the veil.
The founding cellist of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Beiser was born in Israel and raised on a kibbutz in the northern Galilee. Her previous solo outing, Uncovered, explored her fascination with classic rock music; fellow BoaC alumnus Evan Ziporyn’s satisfyingly meaty arrangements and Beiser’s ferocious musicianship kept it on the other side of the planet from Vitamin String Quartet elevator-Muzak territory. At first glance, TranceClassical appears not to share a similar unifying core. Listening reveals the connections beneath the surface: filaments stretching through styles, through time, through culture.
Some of the album’s tracks continue in the spirit of her previous album. Hellhound by David T. Little is irreverent, indulgent: blues studded with black metal, a pounding, distorted riff hitting like a train with guest vocals by Morean from German black metal heavyweights Dark Fortress. British singer-songwriter Imogen Heap’s spooky Hide and Seek is a pop song from after the artificial intelligence takeover of society, and Beiser’s arrangement threads a warm cello seam through her chilly vocodered vocals. David Lang’s reimagining of Lou Reed’s Heroin is the only bad trip; its ambient arpeggios start out interestingly shifty but don’t hold up for nine minutes, and absent is the jagged languor that made the original so mesmerizing. It especially slumps following former Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche’s also heavily arpeggiated Three Parts Wisdom, where agitated phrases overlap as delays phase in and out.
Prayer and devotion (particularly the Jewish liturgy) is the root of the album's best pieces. Julia Wolfe’s Emunah is a teetering crisis of faith translated into music illustrating an unrestrained, stormy stream of consciousness. Michael Gordon’s All Vows takes its name from the first prayer of Yom Kippur, the Jewish year’s day of atonement, after which all sins are said to be forgiven. He makes the cello a lonely voice in a vast world, the soaring reverb of an old church lending the notes crucial extra moments of resonance. In Kol Nidrei, by Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz, Beiser chants the words of that prayer in Aramaic. Simply the act of presenting and performing such a composition could count as quiet defiance, and the expansive, variegated interweave of cello and voice makes for the album’s most haunting offering.
Her rendition of Air on the G String is Johann Sebastian Bach through a sepia filter, static artfully overlaid. I predict either that or her arrangement of Hildegard von Bingen’s O Virtus Sapientae will waft through the first panoramic shots of a post-apocalyptic film within the next decade, with wind blowing through skeleton buildings and flowers blooming in cracked concrete. Flashy virtuosic fireworks are few on TranceClassical. The music most often moves slowly, inviting the imagination to fill in its own stories in the spaces between the notes. In today’s information-saturated, hyperactive world, to slip into slower rhythms becomes a luxury. These trances are short enough to take with you through the streets, or on the subway. Pick one and adjust your walk, slow your breathing, move to a different beat. Your heart will thank you.
Maya Beiser: TranceClassical
Innova | Released July 29
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