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Coffee Conversation: Maya Beiser

Maya-beiser-uncovered-300x300Cellist Maya Beiser wants to change the way people look at rock music. Or, more accurately, music in general. Raised in Israel, Beiser was groomed for a career as a concert soloist until she had an awakening of sorts at 15, when she heard Janis Joplin for the first time.

"It blew my mind," Beiser says. "It was this revelation, that someone could be so raw and leave it all out there."

Not long after, Beiser moved to the States where she embarked on a more unconventional career path, first as a founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, then as a globetrotting soloist whose multimedia performances have altered the way audiences think about the cello. But, Beiser never really shook the rock bug, so two years ago, she approached fellow Bang on a Can alum Evan Ziporyn to see if he'd arrange some of her favorite songs by Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Pink Floyd and others. The resulting Uncoveredreleased on Tuesday, is less of a cover album (think Portland Cello Project or 2Cellos) than a total reimagining of these classics, using the expressive capabilities of the cello (along with some subtle electronics) to peel away our embedded notions of how these songs should sound. It is, according to Beiser, "a journey into the inner layers, untouched surfaces, nameless colors, dazed images." 

Beiser will be performing selections from Uncovered next Thursday (9/4) at LPR, along with additional works written for her by Glenn Kotche, David T. Little and David Lang. I had the chance to chat with Maya on the phone earlier this week about the new album, as well as her thoughts on music in general. Check out her responses below.

On Discovering RockI was 15 or 16 when I heard my first rock album: Janis Joplin's Greatest Hits. It blew my mind. First, the fact that this was a woman singing rock was daring and revolutionary to me. But also the way she totally put herself out there was so appealing, so fascinating and amazing. It was a watershed moment for me. I immediately wanted to do that with my cello. But, I kept it to myself. It felt almost subversive. 

On Categorization: I don’t fit into any of those categories: classical, rock, new music, etc. Those categories are irrelevant to me. This is all music. My only category is Good or Bad. The album art for Uncovered has a dual image of me. It's a play on those classic album covers from the 60's, but it's also very appropriate because I feel there are really two sides of me.

“Black Dog”, the first track on the album, is about this woman who is trying to break out of her shell. When I speak the opening lyrics, it's as if I'm talking to myself: “Hey, hey, mama, said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove..."

On Crossover Projects: I don’t get the word “crossover.” It’s just some kind of marketing ploy. The reason most crossover projects aren’t successful is because they’re driven by the wrong motivation: “You need to reach out to this audience, so why don’t you do some pop music?” They don’t change anything about who they are as an artist, so it just comes out sounding wrong. My entire journey has been about exploring music that I love on the cello. Music that has a deep meaning for me as an artist. I've never been driven by some secondary, commercial concern. What drives my work is the need to dive into what these musicians were trying to express. For me, this music is just as amazing as Bach or Schubert.

On How To Play Rock: It never sat well with me that there are all these rules about how to play this music, just like in the classical world. What’s important is to find something new, powerful, meaningful. Wherever I find a beach, I want to stay there.

I wanted to emulate aspects of each song, without “covering” them in a traditional sense. Much of it required completely undoing my classical training: in order to assimilate Robert Plant’s gritty, throaty vocal quality, I had to do a lot of scratching on my cello.

On Why the Cello Works So Well: First, the voice of the cello is in the vocal range, so it can simulate vocals. But, it also has this depth to it that, say, the violin doesn’t have. I can do the bass line just by tuning my low C down. Or, I can tune high like a lead guitar. Or I can slap the body and get a percussion sound.

Cellos have been in rock bands for a long time now - I did that myself early in my career - but it’s usually in the background, some pretty woman sitting somewhere in the back. This album is about putting the cello front and center. 

On Picking the Music for Uncovered: Evan and I didn't start out looking to do an album. We started with (Led Zepplin's) “Kashmir”; I was exploring Middle Eastern music at the time. It was just perfect and fun to do. Then we did "Black Dog": I really just wanted to play that Jimmy Page solo at the end. After that, I realized there was a whole album in me. I knew that we could do something meaningful, but that it would work on a broad scale as well. 

We then did (Nirvana's) "Lithium", which Evan and I used to play as an encore with the All-Stars. Back in the 90's, we were on a mission was to make classical music relevant again, and we were all so blown away by the chamber music nature of Cobain’s music. It’s the most extensive track on the album in terms of multi-layering, with up to 30 or 40 tracks at times. We were trying to create a haze of sound, with all these random sounds and clusters of chords on top of each other.

Later, we did Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, which I thought was just necessary to understand where all of this music comes from. I kind of want to do a whole album of blues now!

On Feedback: Unfortunately, a lot of the artists on this album are dead now, but I did actually send the album to Robert Plant. I'd love to hear what he thinks!