by Jill Kimball
One of classical music’s worst faults is its superiority, all too often on display. Many of those who perform and listen to classical music believe there is nothing more beautiful, more sacred. Some even believe everything else is noise.
Perhaps that’s why cellist Maya Beiser felt guilty and a little dirty after she heard rock music for the first time. As a child growing up in Israel’s Galilee Mountains, she listened to classical music and practiced on her cello diligently. But “the first time I heard Janis Joplin I felt shaken to the core,” she told her recording label, Innova. “Somehow her unique, raw expression snuck its way into the inner shrine where, until then, only the likes of Bach and Schubert were allowed to enter. It felt so sacrilegious that I was giddy with guilt.”
It was that feeling that inspired the cello diva’s latest album, “Uncovered.” It’s ten tracks of beautifully deconstructed classic rock songs, as spectacular a find for die-hard Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd fans as it is for those who know absolutely nothing about classic rock.
Beiser has never shied from experimental music and has in fact made cross-cultural genre-bending her mission. She’s worked with the likes of Philip Glass, Tan Dun, Brian Eno and Steve Reich on new compositions. She’s the founding cellist of New York’s Bang on a Can. Her hometown was a cultural melting pot of Christians, Jews and Muslims, and she was born of a French mother and Argentinian father. With that kind of background, it’s no wonder her music resonates with people all over the world. (Her TED talk has been translated into 32 languages.)
“Uncovered” is another excellent chapter in Beiser’s genre-defying book, proof positive that traditionally classical instruments don’t always have to sound prim and polished. In the Nirvana cover “Lithium,” for example, Beiser’s cello scrapes rudely across the strings to channel Kurt Cobain’s gritty, slightly out of tune singing voice. She bends the notes perfectly to capture Jimi Hendrix’s essence in “Little Wing.” And she does a hell of a good AC/DC electric guitar impression on “Back in Black.”
Channeling, rather than imitation, is really what she’s going for in this album, and thank goodness: straight-up covers are often mocked, panned and condemned for their lack of creativity. The covers that everyone remembers are those that shed completely new light on a song, like Janis Joplin’s bluesy take on the Gershwin classic “Summertime.” That track inspired Beiser’s own cover, where she shreds and wails on the cello to create a melody that so accurately imitates Joplin’s raspy vocals.
Other tracks seek to imitate the mood of the original song rather than the vocal quality, such as the balladic “Wish You were Here,” a Pink Floyd cover, and the mournful “Epitaph,” by King Crimson.
In short, the cello diva has done it again. Without giving up her own originality, cellist Maya Beiser captures every rasp, every scream, every bit of edginess and ugliness…everything that made these rock songs so legendary. “Uncovered” is the ultimate homage to the perfect imperfection of rock music.