CELLIST Maya Beiser remembers when, as a teenager in Israel, she first heard Janis Joplin’s voice.It more than moved her.
“It just shook me to the core,” says Beiser. “It was this revelation, that someone can be so raw and give it all.”
Living on a kibbutz at the time, she adds: “Right then and there, I thought, ‘This is how I want to be playing my cello.’ ”
Today, Beiser, 49, is not only playing the way Joplin sang but also is playing the singer-songwriter’s voice on her cello.
This week the label Innova Recordings released the cellist’s latest album, Uncovered, a collection of covers — although Beiser stresses they are artistic reimaginings, not imitations — of rock tunes by artists such as Pink Floyd, Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, Muddy Waters and, of course, Joplin.
While there are limited appearances by other instrumentalists, most of the album is only Beiser, in arrangements by her frequent collaborator Evan Ziporyn. By layering as many as 20 cello tracks on top of one another, he turns one acoustic cello into a rock band.
In her living room in the Bronx neighbourhood of Riverdale, Beiser effortlessly demonstrates the practical differences between classical and rock.
“All of this insane perfectionism that we’re taught, none of that exists in rock,” says Beiser, hugging her instrument. “When you’re analysing this big electric-guitar solo in Jimi Hendrix, it’s so out of tune,” she says of an intricate, wistful passage in Little Wing.
“You have to learn to bend and sort of be around the note.”
She moves on to the voice of Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain and plays the opening of Lithium. A grimy, fuzzy howl emerges from her cello, created partially by placing her bow close to the bridge.
“His voice is raspy and out of tune and not clean,” Beiser says. Playing his voice on the cello “is about letting go of all that and diving into that world”.
Throughout her career, she has largely sidestepped the traditional repertoire and performance routines of mainstream classical musicians. She began playing the cello at eight and fulfilled her compulsory army service through a gig in the Israeli Army String Quartet.
She moved to the US in 1985 to attend Yale University. She is a founding member of new-music ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars. She has given a TED talk, starred in a “cello opera” and composers including Steve Reich, Osvaldo Golijov and Philip Glass have written works for her.
These days, she spends about half of her time on the road and half at home with her two children; her husband, a psychiatrist; and her purebred havanese.
Ziporyn, a clarinettist, composer and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, describes arranging classic rock tunes for cello.
In some songs, such as Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, he strips the tunes “down to their essence, to expose this really beautiful thing,” he says, but in others, like Lithium, he uses the original tune in a structural sense.
“It’s too perfect if you just imitate,” he says.
The original melody becomes like “almost a cantus firmus”, or a chant that medieval composers would turn into entire church masses.
Ziporyn also uses contemporary music techniques, such as detuning the cello and certain kinds of plucking, to create a rock-band palette of sounds.
“With Maya, I can get an entire orchestra out of the cello,” he says.
“It’s definitely gutsy to do because I think it will be easy for people to criticise, ‘Oh, cello trying to do rock songs,” says drummer Glenn Kotche, of the band Wilco, which performed on two tracks.
“But I think it’s not so much a commercial concept to do this, but an altruistic attempt to convey what she does on her instrument with material that is emotionally resonant for her.”
Beiser draws a distinction between pop (“formulaic”, “makes lots and lots of money”) and what she considers the progressive, art rock played by Nirvana and Hendrix.
“Each and every artist on this album is anything but formulaic,” she says. “I think this music is just as valuable and important as Bach and Schubert.”
By Corinne Ramey
With thanks to The Australian
Above clip: Maya's version of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir," from her album "Provenance".
Below: the original:
Glyn Johns: Defining That Classic-Rock Sound
Led Zeppelin Physical Graffiti Remaster Coming February
Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant And Jimmy Page Face 'Stairway To Heaven' Trial
The Weirdest Musical Instruments
Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page Denies Stealing Stairway To Heaven Riff
Led Zeppelin To Pay Copyright Legal Costs