by Maggie Molloy
Johann Sebastian Bach’s influence on the classical music tradition is immeasurable. Even now, nearly three centuries after his death, he remains one of the most performed composers of all time. Bach was the first of the three B’s, he was the golden standard against which all future composers would come to be measured—he was the undisputed king of counterpoint.
And he was also among the first composers that cellist Maya Beiser ever heard as a child, quickly becoming a central pillar in her musical development. Bach’s influence on Beiser extended far past her studies of the Baroque tradition or even the classical tradition—clear into her musical interpretations of 21st century compositions.
Beiser’s new album, TranceClassical, features the cutting-edge works of an incredible cast of contemporary composers: Michael Gordon, Imogen Heap, Glenn Kotche, Lou Reed, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Mohammed Fairouz, and David T. Little.
And yet, the album is not wholly a product of the 21st century. TranceClassical is bookended by Beiser’s own arrangements of classic works by Bach and Hildegard von Bingen—and every 21st century work in between draws from the style, sensitivity, and skill of the early classical music tradition.
“TranceClassical started from a washed-out still photo in my mind,” Beiser said. “Me, as a little girl curled with a blanket on her parents’ sofa, hearing Bach for the first time, hanging onto every mysterious note coming out of the scratchy LP. TranceClassical is the arc my mind sketches between everything I create and Bach—David Lang and Bach, Glenn Kotche and Bach, Michael Gordon and Bach.”
The album begins with Beiser’s own wistful arrangement of Bach’s famous “Air on the G String,” recreated as she first heard it in her childhood: the melody singing sweetly above the sounds of a distant, crackling LP.
Composer Michael Gordon’s “All Vows” features another meandering melody, this one echoing in churchlike reverberations. Interlacing cello motives transport the listener straight into a meditative trance, evoking a somber and nostalgic glance backward in music history.
It’s followed by a glance forward: Beiser’s rendition of synth-pop superstar Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.” Here we find Beiser singing in ghostly three part harmonies above a solemn cello accompaniment—all heavily processed to create an unshakable sense of eeriness and desolation.
The cello moves back to center stage for rock drummer Glenn Kotche’s contribution, “Three Parts Wisdom.” Densely layered to showcase Beiser’s remarkable cello chops, the piece features one fiercely challenging melodic line plus seven layers of computer-generated delays—and all happening in real time.
And speaking of rock stars: the album also features a rendition of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” arranged by composer David Lang. But don’t expect the hypnotic drone of Lou Reed’s original two-chord tune—Lang’s arrangement is almost unrecognizable, layering Beiser’s despondent, breathless vocals above jagged cello arpeggios in this haunting rendition.
Composer Julia Wolfe’s “Emunah” is a different kind of haunting: the droning, dissonant, and anxiety-driven kind of haunting. Wordless vocals whisper above cello tremolo, relentlessly pulling the listener back and forth in time.
Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz’s “Kol Nidrei” is perhaps the most striking and evocative work on the album. The piece echoes of ancient cantorial styles, with Beiser singing sacred Arameic text above ominously deep, dark cello melodies.
The trance is broken, however, with the onset of composer David T. Little’s “Hellhound,” a metallic rock ‘n’ roll tune inspired by blues legend Robert Johnson’s song “Hellhound on my Trail.” Andrew McKenna Lee steps in on electric guitar, but Beiser shreds hard enough on her cello to rival his raging solos.
And in another unexpected musical turn, the album ends with Beiser’s own cello arrangement of Hildegard von Bingen’s choral work “O Virtus Sapientiae.” (Yes, as in Hildegard the 11th century composer and Christian mystic you studied in music history class.) Beiser’s rendition, however, features no vocals at all—it doesn’t need any. The sacred, solemn melody of her cello is music enough.
And although medieval choral music seems a far cry from the metallic drone of the Velvet Underground, Beiser manages the full range of music on the album with skill, precision, and charisma. Because whether she’s playing Julia Wolfe or Imogen Heap, Michael Gordon, or even Lou Reed—there’s a little bit of Bach in all of it.
“No matter how far I venture, how rebellious, or avant-garde or electronic, my artistic mooring stays with the creation of this immense genius,” Beiser said. “The pieces I bring here give me a sense of trance—a reverie and meditation on his place in my heart.”