EXCLUSIVE: Classicalite Q&A with Cellist Maya Beiser on 'Uncovering' Floyd, Zeppelin, AC/DC, Nirvana and Howlin' Wolf

By Maria Jean Sullivan on Aug 27, 2014 06:26 PM EDT

Be it the Bang on a Can All-Stars or Pink Floyd or even Howlin' Wolf, multi-talented cellist Maya Beiser is not only transforming the way classical music is heard, she's also changing how it's being interpreted. Curious about Beiser's latest cello experiences, we chatted with her via email. Here, just a few days before her gig at (Le) Poisson Rouge, are Beiser's explanations on making a love child with classic rock and classical cello. She calls it Uncovered (Innova Records).

Classicalite: Let's start with your new album. How does your style of "re-working" these classic hits differ from the traditional sense of a cover?

Maya Beiser: The idea behind Uncovered was to recreate this music with my cello, in a way that reveals its many layers--that takes us to new places with these great classics. In that way it’s not much different than “covering” Bach or Beethoven. It’s about getting to the core and revealing my own voice through this music that we all share and love. My “uncovers” are riffs on songs that are in a way both familiar and different--a journey into untouched surfaces, nameless colors, dazed images. Much like with classical masterpieces, we tend to develop expectations about how a certain legendary rock piece should be performed. Attempts tend to vary considerably from the original are often perceived, almost unconsciously, as offensive. But whether one likes it or not, no one expects a multi-cello track to sound exactly like the original. That is my privilege as an outsider.

Clite: How was the concept of Uncovered born?

MB: Evan Ziporyn (my co-producer and arranger on the album) and I have worked together for many years as founding members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars. We have done several projects together exploring the range of my cello. On Kinship, one of my previous albums, we did a piece where we recreated a whole gamelan orchestra on the cello with multi-tracking and detuning. A few years ago, Evan sent me a multi-cello arrangement he did of Led Zeppelin’s "Kashmir." I recorded it in my studio and loved the process. We decided we needed to do a whole album together. Thus, Uncovered was born.

Clite: What was the driving force or specific importance in creating this kind of a cover album?

MB: As with every project I do, I am always interested in finding beauty and power and discovering something new in the process. For me, it’s often about changing the lens, or dimming the light, or simply turning things upside down. Or just breaking them apart and then putting them back together in a new way that feels new and magical. With Uncovered, it was like making a painting; taking these rock and blues classics--deconstructing them and building them one layer at a time. You start with a white canvas and then add some blue, then red, then purple and so on, until the picture starts making sense and the colors are cool and interesting.

Clite: The classic rock songs you choose to include in your work differ in style but not in quality or longevity. Do these huge songs hit home for you in a certain, perhaps personal, way?

MB: Very much so…all these songs were an essential part of my musical landscape as I was growing up. They shaped me as a young girl. This is music that is part of my inner core.

Clite: Tell me why you picked Zeppelin's "Black Dog" and "Kashmir" out of their long discography?

MB: “Kashmir” was a natural choice because of my Middle Eastern origin. It is one of the first and most successful “world music” fusions in rock 'n' roll. There is a fantastic melody in the middle of the song that incorporates the Arabic maqam scale. After I recorded "Kashmir," we knew we wanted to make another Led Zeppelin track. “Black Dog” became the one for many reasons: in particular, the interesting structure and the many fascinating layers felt like a great challenge and fun exploration.

Clite: Is there any specific reason for the female "uncover" of Janis Joplin?

MB: Janis Joplin has been my hero since my early teens. I remember the first time I heard her on the radio. I felt shaken to the core. 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. Just imagine a young acolyte of any dogma, experiencing her first transgression. The cello, the earliest serious choice of my life, destined me for years to be an outsider in Janis Joplin’s world. Her place in blues and rock, and the blur of electric guitars, percussion and bass...that world seemed barred to me, a classical cellist. With time, as I forayed into different sound worlds, developed my personal vocabulary and “unburdened” myself from the weight of the classical tradition, a whole new universe emerged. It made it possible for me to take on, with my cello, the voice of Joplin. She is the inspiration for this whole album.

Clite: How about Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here?"

MB: I love this song, and I knew we could make something really interesting with it. It was one of the easiest tracks to record because everything just “gelled” and fell into place. I especially loved creating the drone-like introduction, which is stacking up many layers of my cello’s natural harmonics. The whole track feels like an ethereal soundscape.

Clite: Nirvana, Howln' Wolf, Jimi Hendrix? How did you choose these artists?

MB: Southern Blues is the music that informed classic rock, so it needed to be part of this album. But the one motto for me was the iconic, unique, singular voice of the artists we took on in this project. With Howlin’ Wolf, it’s his vocal expression; the shades and turns in it. I wanted to find a way to make my cello sing like that. With Jimi Hendrix it’s his brilliant guitar playing, but really it’s the totality of his artistry. Like Janis Joplin, he is an early inspiration to me: iconoclast, revolutionary, original genius. And with Kurt Cobain, well, when I first heard Nirvana I thought at last, someone did it. Someone found a way to make chamber music out of real rock 'n' roll. It was like hearing late Beethoven quartets--all the power of larger forces, packed into something intimate and personal. Kurt Cobain’s voice is like a cello, like Pablo Casals--the combination of grit and beauty, going from a whisper to a primal scream on a dime. The chord progressions are unique and unexpected, but as soon as you hear them, it’s like they’ve been around forever. And the song structures are a perfect combination of architecture and emotion. Cobain died in April 1994, right as my collaboration with Evan Ziporyn in Bang on a Can began to heat up. At that time, we were still searching for the key that would bring us out of ourselves, break the boundaries of our training, etc. We were looking everywhere other than right in front of us, and his death made us see that there was something in pure rock that had to be part of the mix.

Clite: Tell me about your experience working with Jherek Bischoff. He's one of our favorites here at Classicalite?

MB: On this album, Jherek contributed bass lines to three tracks. It was very straightforward. I am looking forward to doing a more extensive collaboration with him in the future.

Clite: Bang on a Can All-Stars...tell me juat a little bit about what must have been an incredible experience back then?

MB: Bang on a Can was one of these magical moments in one’s life when you meet people who are on a similar trajectory and when the communal experience becomes life-affirming and trail-blazing. I was looking to change the way cello, and classical music, is performed, wanted to create new repertoire, to rethink all the conventional wisdom I was taught in years of conservatory training. And when I met Julia (Wolfe), Michael (Gordon), David (Lang), Steve (Schick), Evan (Ziporyn), Mark (Stewart), Lisa (Moore) and Robert (Black), it was electric. We were having so much fun in those first few years with the All-Stars.

Clite: Anything else you would like Classicalite's readership to know?

MB: Just that I hope every music lover out there will continue to buy music! I mean, it is important to know that if you want to continue and have great music from the artists you care about, you need to invest the $10 it costs to buy an album. So...go buy the Uncovered album. For yourself or for someone you love. I think/hope you will not be disappointed…

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TagsClassicalite Q&A, Maya Beiser, Uncovered, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Howlin' Wolf

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