At one point she described for us her awakening to music as a small child in Israel, when she first heard Bach. Appropriately enough she opened the concert with her arrangement of Bach’s famous “Air” (“on the G string”).
Not avant-garde like much of her work, it’s deferential, beautifully arranged with prerecorded accompaniment and a video of abstract choreography. She followed it up with Michael Gordon’s “All Vows” (the English translation of “Kol Nidre” from the Jewish liturgy), with plenty of layered reverb and a melody that wanders like we saw Beiser herself doing, walking about in the woods, in the rather too-precious video that went with it. Viewing self-consciously artsy imagery is a price one pays for letting oneself get swept up in the sonic storm that is Maya Beiser.
Just as I began to wonder whether the meditative “All Vows” would ever end up anywhere, the cellist added her wordless voice to the mix. The piece becomes multi-dimensional, building, swelling, subsiding, swelling again, ultimately repaying attention to its roaming, yearning melodies.
Just as strong and appealing was Beiser’s vocorder-aided arrangement of the Imogen Heap song “Hide and Seek,” where a computer manipulated sounds from her voice and electric cello to create dense, beautiful harmonies. She then employed various delays in Glenn Kotche’s “Three Parts Wisdom” to create a wall of sound with interesting undulating textures, though the effect wore thin after a while.
David Lang’s arrangement of the Velvet Underground song “Heroin” made more sense to me in concert than it does on the album, mostly because the vocals seemed more prominent. Their effect isn’t directly emotional, though; Beiser delivers the lines with an ethereal chill that contrasts with the cello’s warm tones, as if to say: My voice says the words, but my “real” instrument carries the meaning.
“I guess that I just don’t know,” goes the famous line from “Heroin.” No such doubts were felt in the next piece, a crashing performance of a work called “Hellhound.” Against its industrial-rock sheets of sound I was not the only audience member who had to partially block his ears. A thunderous assertion of creative power, it read as a kind of declaration of independence: This former member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars needs no collaborators – none on stage with her, anyway – to dominate a room.
“Hellhound” made Mohammed Fairouz’s haunting “Kol Nidre” – probably the first setting of that text ever written by a Muslim composer – all the more evocative. We are all in our own ways, it seemed to say, wanderers in the desert. In concert, I liked this piece best of all.
The set closed with Beiser’s lovely arrangement of some music by Hildegard von Bingen, that medieval darling of the contemporary avant-garde, followed by an encore drawn from Beiser’s previous album, Uncovered. Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” was a sweetly melodic way to end a muscular show.
It was nice to see a warmer side to Beiser’s chill, hyper-modern aesthetic as she introduced songs and asked the audience for vocal and smartphone participation; complimented her composers, arrangers, and behind-the-scenes collaborators; and sent us out to wander the crowded desert of Greenwich Village inspired by her musicianship, but even more so by her distinctive dark aesthetic. There are many fine cellists among us. There is only one Maya Beiser.