Maya Beiser: TranceClassical

Maya Beiser's 2014 release, Uncovered, and her latest, TranceClassical, are both concept albums of particular kinds, yet beyond that are dramatically different creatures. The former saw the one-time Bang on a Can All-Star cellist audaciously covering rock classics, “Back in Black” (AC/DC), “Kashmir,” (Led Zeppelin), and “Epitaph” (King Crimson) among them; the new release, on the other hand, continues the idea with a version of Lou Reed's “Heroin” and a David T. Little re-imagining of Robert Johnson's “Hellhound On My Trail” but expands on the concept by including works by J.S. Bach, Michael Gordon, Imogen Heap, Glenn Kotche, Julia Wolfe, Mohammed Fairouz, and Hildegard von Bingen. Of the two releases, TranceClassical thus functions as the more encompassing portrait of Beiser's artistry and interests.

If Bach seems a tad out of place amidst a predominantly contemporary grouping of composers, he turns out to be the project's most critical one as far as Beiser is concerned, given that the recording grew out of a memory of herself as a mesmerized little girl sitting on her parents' sofa and hearing Bach for the first time; his music has had such an impact on her that no matter how far she might sonically travel away from him, he's always a central presence. With that in mind, no one should be too surprised that the sixty-five-minute collection begins with Beiser's heartfelt rendering, her multi-layered lines smeared with the crackle of a dusty vinyl LP, of Bach's stately “Air.”

As mentioned, the recording presents a broad sampling of Beiser's musical interests, with some pieces leaning in an overtly classical direction and others reflective of her boldly adventurous side. Exemplifying the latter, Heap's “Hide and Seek” seamlessly threads Beiser's electronically transformed vocals into its soul-stirring framework, and whereas much of the material is pitched at a prayer-like level (e.g., von Bingen's “O Virtus Sapientiae”), Little's wild “Hellhound” verges on punishing headbanger.

Though Beiser no longer plays in the Bang on a Can All-Stars, her ties to the organization remain strong, with pieces by Gordon and Wolfe included and David Lang credited with the arrangement for “Heroin.” With breathy vocal accents accompanying sinuous cello patterns, Beiser delivers a haunting solo performance of Gordon's “All Vows” (based on the Kol Nidrei, the Jewish Yom Kippur prayer); Wolfe's “Emunah” (“belief”) courts a meditative effect in pairing wordless vocalizing with undulating cello lines; and in a daring re-imagining that sees Beiser softly singing over cello arpeggios, Reed's still-startling “Heroin” becomes a plaintive confessional. Fairouz offers his own hypnotic take on the “Kol Nidrei,” by the way, with in this instance Beiser uttering the text in Aramaic and conveying mournfulness through her instrument.

Except for “Hellhound,” which includes Andrew McKenna Lee on guitar and guest vocalist Morean, the album is all Beiser and thus an especial treat for cello fans. Adding to that, she often uses computer software to multiply her playing, the most extreme case being Kotche's eleven-minute “Three Parts Wisdom,” where seven layers of computer-generated delays appear. Beiser has been releasing superior albums for a good many years now, and TranceClassical certainly upholds the high standard she's established. As a portrait of who and what she is circa 2016, it's an immensely flattering portrait indeed.

August 2016