Preview: Maya Beiser: Uncovering Art Rock

The queen of new cello music reimagines rock classics.

“Rock music,” declared Isaac Stern, “is not music.” His protege, the teenaged Israeli cellist Maya Beiser, blanched. During one of their infrequent lessons back in the 1970s, she had innocently and excitedly asked the legendary violinist, who frequently visited Israel to support various educational projects, what he thought about Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel’s band Genesis, Jimi Hendrix and other rock musicians she was beginning to discover outside her classical music lessons.

Stern’s curt dismissal “was the prevailing notion in classical music” at the time, Beiser recalls. “I decided I was going to keep listening because this is what I love — but not talk about it” among her teachers and classical types. “It took me awhile to close that circle.”

Maya Beiser performs at Portland's TBA Festival Monday.

Maya Beiser performs at Portland’s TBA Festival Monday.

With this month’s release of her new album Uncovered, the 49-year-old “cello goddess” finally closes that circle, performing music by classic rock and blues stars like Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, King Crimson, AC/DC … and, yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis and Hendrix. On Monday at the Time-Based Arts Festival, with help from Bay Area guitarist/composer Gyan Riley and drummer Matt Kilmer, she’ll play some of those songs, along with the Oregon premieres of Wilco drummer and composer Glenn Kotche’s “Three Parts Wisdom” and David T. Little’s “Hellhound,” plus a new take on art/punk progenitor Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground classic, “Heroin” by her fellow Bang on a Can All Stars co-founder, Pulitzer Prize winning composer David Lang, and erstwhile Oregonian Michael Harrison’s Just Ancient Loops, performed with a film by Bill Morrison. The Portland Cello Project will also join her on some pieces.

The new album also re-imagines tunes from not-so-artsy rockers like Nirvana, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC (guitar/composition genius Hendrix belongs in a category all his own) and rootsier musicians like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Janis Joplin, the whiskey-voiced, Texas-born belter who shot to stardom after moving to San Francisco and joining Big Brother and the Holding Company. “The first time I heard Janis in my early teens, it shook me to the core,” Beiser remembers. “It was such a monumental discovery for me as a classical music geek. I fell in love with her total immersion and energy and I’ve always looked up to Janis Joplin as the kind of artist I wanted to be.”

But if Joplin provided the role model, it was Pink Floyd and its proggy ilk who uncovered to Beiser the vast possibilities of rock. Born in Britain in the late 1960s and flourishing for the next decade, progressive rock or art rock often incorporated the instrumentation, virtuosic skills and compositional techniques of classical music, resulting in works that extended beyond the conventional short pop song structures, harmonies and rhythms.

“I fell in love with this music because of art rock,” Beiser says of Uncovered. “I was very much entrenched in classical music, and none of my teachers knew anything about Genesis, King Crimson, Brian Eno. It was not part of my education. I started to listen to this music and it completely transformed me. Pink Floyd were totally revolutionary, creating a symphonic-like piece. King Crimson’s ‘Epitaph’ [from the Robert Fripp–led group’s debut album] is one of my favorite songs of all time, and it lends itself to cello because their thinking was symphonic — classical.”

In fact, the album might be a kind of latter-day apologia — aimed at her teachers and the rest of the close-minded classical establishment — for Beiser’s love of art rock. “Part of my motivation for doing this album is for people to see how this is great music,” she says, “how the masters of our time are just as great as but different than Beethoven and Schubert.”

Not that covering rock tunes is just a vacation from playing more challenging music, Beiser says. “Playing Schubert and Bach is playing covers too. In that sense all of classical music performances are covers. This existed throughout music history — Mozart covered Bach, Bartok covered folk tunes — the whole history of classical music. In fact doing this kind of album is incredibly challenging. You’re re-thinking the whole thing and almost recomposing it.”

In the three-plus decades between her childhood exposure to art rock and Uncovered, Beiser, now 49, moved to the US in 1985 (she now lives in the Bronx), shot to fame as founding cellist of New York’s trailblazing new music collective Bang on a Can All Stars, and then rode her charismatic stage presence and cello chops to a solo career that’s included collaborations with (and often commissions to) composers from Steve Reich to Eno to Philip Glass to Tan Dun. She’s also brought her broad mindedness to her concept of performance itself, often collaborating with visual artists and filmmakers. But she never gave up her early affection for art rock, nor her determination to play it.

“I wanted to figure out a way to play this music that really had entered the core of my soul, but for years I didn’t find the right moment or time,” she explains. “I’m so invested in generating and creating new music that it wasn’t on my agenda.” The opportunity arose in the context of a very different album, Provenance, which celebrated Christian, Jewish, and Muslim musical traditions. Zeppelin’s classic “Kashmir,” which despite the title actually uses Middle Eastern modes, fit that album’s theme and excited Beiser’s audience, as I’ve seen it do in other cello performances by Matt Haimovitz and Portland Cello Project. Beiser’s old colleague in Bang on a Can, clarinetist/composer Evan Ziporyn, produced that track.

“After we did ‘Kashmir,’ the reactions were great and I enjoyed the whole approach,” she says. “In our collaborations, we’d been doing these crazy explorations of the cello, multi-tracking, experimenting with creating a huge range of sounds and timbres, trying to create all these different sounds. I love that process of overdubbing and creating. It’s an open canvas where you’re creating a painting: you start and try one thing and like it and add another color here and there.” Over the next several years, the pair would record a song or two between tours and other projects.

But they knew their re-imaginings needed to do much more than just a simple translation of vocal  and rock instrumental parts to cellos. “With songs, it’s not just about the music, but also about the words,” Beiser says. “That’s what’s missing when it’s a pure music interpretational approach to those songs.” But the different forces also provided an advantage. “The difficulty when a singer covers a known song is that we get really attached to the original, to what we are used to hearing. So when you hear a different singer sing it, it can be hard to take,” she notes. “What’s great about doing it with cello is that we’re coming at it from a completely different place. We’re trying to find the core of the music in it… to try to capture that in a way that’s not necessarily imitating what it was, but more about the feel, the vibe — uncovering, if you will, these other elements you wouldn’t necessarily hear on the original. Because it comes from the outside, not a rock band, I hope that people discover things they haven’t heard before.”

It happened to her on Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.” “I’ve known the song all my life but haven’t thought it about in structural way. You discover these amazing things. These people were and are great artists.” Nevertheless, on that song, she decided an instrumental-only approach wouldn’t work, yet “no way I would try to imitate Robert Plant!” she says, as if trying to re-create the singer’s signature flamboyant vocal style were even possible, not just wise. “How do I interpret it in a way meaningful to me? So we did a completely different approach, a feminine approach and it became about this woman who looks at herself in the mirror, a story I created in my own mind about the song and what it means to me. Then it became this completely different thing. It’s very much in the same way I approach classical music: internalizing it and making it something that comes from within me. Once that happens people can relate to that, too. The music gets transformed, in a way.”

Cello Chameleon

In dealing with the challenge of turning words into music, guitar rock into cello, Beiser had a not-so-secret weapon. “People always say the cello in many ways can be closest to the human voice,” she says. “There’s something in the timbre and incredible range of the cello that lends it to taking on songs because the range is so phenomenal. I can play bass notes with the low part of the cello and totally sound like a bass [guitar], and all you have to do is put a great analog fuzz box on cello and it sounds like a beautiful rich electric guitar, maybe even better. You can do whole electric guitar solos, not too high but high enough, and it when you put distortion on it, it sounds really great,” as on tracks like Hendrix’s classic “Little Wing,” Zep’s “Black Dog” and others, where she plays in the cello’s upper range. “Each one of the ten albums I’ve done covers so many traditions. It’s the ultimate chameleon instrument.” When she played the new album to some string-playing musician friends, they said “we didn’t know there were guitars on this album!” And there aren’t.

The Portland performance will be unique on this tour because she’ll be teaming up with fellow local cellistas. “I’m excited to play with Portland Cello Project,” Beiser says. “They invited me to a show when they came to New York at [the celebrated new music venue Le Poisson Rouge]. I love their approach and its great because most of the time, I’m often playing with own multi tracked recordings. What we’re doing with PCP is making new arrangements of some of those tunes for cello quartet.”

In typical multimedia TBA fashion, Beiser’s performance is more than just a concert, with one piece incorporating film by renowned avant grade filmmaker Bill Morrison (maybe best known for his film Decasia, a collaboration with composer Michael Gordon, whose Timber will be performed by Third Angle New Music on Friday). Collaborating with visual artists is nothing new to Beiser, either.

“I think of myself as a performing artist and not just a musician,” she explains. “I do think that ‘just music’ is an incredibly powerful medium, but in these days when you have the choice of how to consume your music, you can sit at home and close your eyes. That’s the wonderful thing about making albums: you’re giving people the opportunity to choose to experience it however they want, whenever they want. I approach making records differently than I do performance. What I love about making records is that it’s pure music, and you’re really diving in to that world.

“But when people come to the performance, it’s the role and responsibility of performer to bring them into my world, and that includes the imaginary visual world as well. It’s about the visuals and the drama of what a performance is. That’s why I was drawn to working with visual artists, filmmakers, crazy theater productions, my cello opera at [Brooklyn Academy of Music], lighting designers — it’s a wonderful way to bring people into the music and allowing them to experience things in a multi-dimensional way. If they say ‘I just need to close my eyes,’ that’s fine. Working in multimedia allows me to expand my artistic horizons and to show people what I’m about.”

Next month, she and Morrison will collaborate at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on an evening-length retrospective of films he’s created for original scores that Beiser commissioned for solo cello, including Time Loops, which will be performed in Portland to a dazzling score by composer, pianist and University of Oregon alumnus Michael Harrison.”It’s really one of my favorite works to perform,” she says.

Breaking Through Boundaries

Similarly, Beiser believes that it’s increasingly hard to find a distinction between pop and contemporary classical music today, unlike the times when many classical stars like Stern dismissed rock. “I think that we’re much closer than we think,” Beiser says. “These days you see a lot of people, like [Radiohead guitarist] Jonny Greenwood, Bryce Dessner, so many musicians in my circles, go between both worlds. I think we live in an environment now where these things are accepted and allowed much more. Even 20 years ago, just the idea of being a world-class soloist and doing those things was totally unacceptable. There was this artificial boundary between what was considered “serious” music and what you heard on the radio. All these borders and boundaries are arbitrary and unhelpful. These days there’s a lot more fluidity between all the different genres, which is a wonderful thing.”

Beiser has been one of the leaders among musicians forging a career based on playing the music of our own time — which is actually closer to what musicians commonly did before too many 20th century institutions confined “classical music” exclusively to a dusty historical museum. “What I love about the time we’re living in is that it’s like back toward Renaissance times, crazy and chaotic, and we expect musicians to be more creative to come up with their own voice and creative outpouring,” she says. “The reality is that there’s a lot more audience for that than for people who just choose to play Bach and Dvorak. I’m not faulting anyone who wants to to do that — there’s a place for those great masters and geniuses. But I think that actually there’s more audience out there, more of a career path, for people who want to create new things.”

But how do musicians find such listeners when so many backward-looking institutions — orchestras, presenting organizations — are mired in music of the past and have cultivated audiences who (they apparently believe) crave only the comfort of the old and familiar? “Creating an audience is such a complicated thing because nothing is as clear-cut as it used to be,” Beiser acknowledges. “You do have to find a way to reach people directly. That’s the great thing about today. With the internet and social media, its the wild west out there, which is good and bad. But if you figure out a way to work with it and remain honest to what you’re about and do things that are meaningful to you, eventually people find the connection. There really is a community out there that’s much more expansive in their thinking. So I’m really optimistic about the music world. We live in an amazing time in terms of what can be done.”

Maya Beiser performs at 8:30 pm Monday at Lincoln Performance Hall at Portland State University, 1620 SW Park. Tickets are available online or at 503.242.1419. A different version of this story first appeared on San Francisco Classical Voice.

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