Maya Beiser: TranceClassical. Innova.
In her 2011 TED talk, the cellist-cum-performance artist Maya Beiser said, “I want to create endless possibilities with this cello.” That credo lives on in “TranceClassical,” Beiser’s ninth solo album, in which she continues to push her instrument to new places via a broad range
of contemporary composers and songwriters.
“TranceClassical,” like several of Beiser’s other albums, is built by Beiser alone — only cello and voice. She constructs “sonic canvases” with multilayering techniques and special effects.
In her arrangement of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” (a song famed for its peculiar appearance in “The O.C.” and a subsequent “Saturday Night Live” parody), cello harmonics trigger software that allows Beiser’s processed voice to sing three parts in real time.
Similar effects are deployed in “Three Parts Wisdom,” a new work composed for Beiser by Glenn Kotche, the Wilco drummer. With whiffs of John Adams’s “Shaker Loops” and the aid of computer-generated delays, fragments of melody split into layers, vibrate intensely, dip and soar.
Amid all the electronics, “TranceClassical” takes on something of an Old World devotional tone. Bach’s sublime “Air,” with a scratchy LP effect placed loudly underneath, opens the album, while Beiser’s ethereal arrangement of “O Virtus Sapientiae,” by the medieval abbess Hildegard von Bingen, seals it serenely.
In between are two disparate reimaginings of the Jewish prayer Kol Nidrei. Michael Gordon’s meditative “All Vows” sends the cello wandering pensively in a minimal landscape. The young Arab American Mohammed Fairouz takes a more literal, and emotive, approach, getting Beiser to chant the text in Aramaic, while bowing dramatic, cantorial responses.
A different kind of prayer altogether is “Heroin,” David Lang’s austere arrangement of Lou Reed’s angst-filled classic. Beiser’s breathy, processed vocal and squirming cello figures lend the raw confession a surprisingly beatific glow. It’s followed by Julia Wolfe’s “Emunah” (Hebrew for “faith”), a Beiser commission that feels short on substance and long on tremolo.
The odd man out, so to speak, is David T. Little’s gloriously thunderous “Hellhound.” Inspired by bluesman Robert Johnson, the six-minute assault, trudging like a metal anthem, ignites in blistering electric guitar riffs from Andrew McKenna Lee and equal voltage from Beiser’s squalling cello.
“I hope to arrive at new territories to discover sounds I have never heard before,” Beiser told her TED audience. With “TranceClassical,” she has arrived at her destination.
J.S. Bach, The French Suites. Richard Egarr, harpsichord. Harmonia Mundi.
J.S. Bach’s keyboard suites should leap off the page and tickle the ear. The challenges are more pronounced on the harpsichord than on its modern equivalent, and one of the best at making the older instrument sparkle is Richard Egarr. Continuing to work his way through Bach’s keyboard works, Egarr has released a new recording of Bach’s “French Suites.” The poor cousins of the longer, more complex “Partitas” and “English Suites,” these “little” pieces, Egarr says, “are simply a collection brought together with no particular through story.”
Egarr takes considerable rhythmic freedom. He adds ornamentation, and not only on the repeats, making this a fine primer for pianists in how to embellish. Furthermore, the disc offers a mini-lesson in how to create a performing edition. The dances gathered in this collection probably began life as educational pieces for members of the Bach family. Bach’s wife, Anna Magdalena, his sons and his students copied some of them into their notebooks, providing a range of variants to be chosen from and studied. Following the “straight” versions of the six suites, Egarr has recorded four alternative tracks for the C Minor Suite, one variation of the Menuet and three versions of the Courante.
If this sounds like a dry academic exercise, it’s not. Egarr plays on a relatively new instrument, built by Joel Katzman in the Netherlands, modeled on the Joseph Johannes Couchet harpsichord owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has a broad range of possible registrations, all beautiful, increased because the player can divide the sound between the treble and bass halves of each keyboard, and Egarr seems to use all of them. Aficionados may be interested to know that in his tuning, Egarr has backed away from the Bradley Lehman “hidden temperament” that he used in his recordings of the “Goldberg Variations” and “Well-Tempered Clavier” in favor of his own modification of the Vallotti temperament, although the difference is probably imperceptible to most listeners.
Most important, Egarr’s interpretative choices follow the sunny arc of Bach’s set, in which three suites in minor keys are succeeded by three in major keys. Bach creates a sort of crescendo of variety in the dances, increasing the number of optional dances (those falling between the sarabande and the gigue) from one in the first suite to an eclectically diverse four in the sixth suite. Egarr’s approach becomes more virtuosic and varied as he nears that final piece, especially in the ebullient gigues of the last two suites.