Maya Beiser‘s aptly titled new album indeed casts a spell. Opening with her stunningly lovely multi-cello-part arrangement of Bach’s famous “Air” (“on the G string”) caked in the crackling of an old vinyl record, TranceClassical plunges into something like a real trance with Michael Gordon’s “All Vows” for solo cello, drenched in churchy reverb. (How this instrumental piece connects with the Kol Nidre – “All Vows” – declaration from Jewish liturgy isn’t explained. I presume it’s an abstract meditation on the text. And it’s echoed five tracks later with a piece called “Kol Nidre” by Mohammed Fairouz.) Gordon’s melody meanders for eight minutes before dropping into a thoughtful lower register for a final passage.
Beiser draws surprising emotional power from a highly processed vocal and cello arrangement of a song by Imogen Heap, then uses computer processing to ghostly, neurotic effect on a solo cello line in Glenn Kotche’s “Three Parts Wisdom.” Essential to the success of these somewhat mechanistic performances as human statements are a confident tone and a oneness with the instrument. Beiser excels in both, her unassailable musicianship earning her the indulgence in artsy promotional self-imagery she’s prone to. (And of course, classical and crossover artists, however talented and innovative, need all the marketing savvy they can muster.)
Beiser sings again on a nearly unrecognizable, highly abstracted arrangement of Lou Reed’s “Heroin” by David Lang, layering her spectral vocals over insistent cello arpeggios. Without the original’s grim, drugged-out aura, it feels like an exercise that goes on too long despite the strong playing and lovely vocal tone.
Julia Wolfe’s “Emunah” creates a deeper, more anxious trance. This drone for tremolo cello and wordless voice in A-B-A form writes a spatial language of its own, moving through expressive dissonances to jangle the nerves. The spell breaks wide open with David T. Little’s “Hellhound,” inspired by Robert Johnson’s song “Hellhound on My Trail.” Here Beiser harks back to her rock album Uncovered, dueting with Andrew McKenna Lee on Alomar-esque electric guitar and pounding out ogrish percussive samples. It’s like Led Zeppelin filtered through Nine Inch Nails, and it seriously rocks.
The disc closes with Beiser’s setting of a Hildegard von Bingen melody, peaceful and meditative but faintly quizzical too. It’s the capstone on an intriguing plunge into the many sharp and woolly possibilities of the cello in the age of electronics and genre-blending.