Maya Beiser’s TranceClassical: A Therapist at a Punk Hotel

Maya Beiser’s September 13, 2016 concert at Le Poisson Rouge was like seeing a therapist at a punk hotel. She invited the audience into a defined setting and then unleashed a ride of strobe lights, film projections, and prayer. The program was a live performance of her newest album TranceClassical, inspired by her earliest childhood encounter with Bach. His Air in G opened the program and set expectations for the evening: Beiser’s thoughtful and calm persona unified a lot going on. A record player provided a scratchy and somewhat uneven orchestral backdrop, and a round rotating film of dancers shown on two screens was more mesmerizing than the cello. Was this on purpose? Hard to say, like many similar moments throughout the evening. But Beiser seemed content to share the stage with machine collaborators, and whatever she chose to present, the audience got in full.

Her straightforward comments before each piece mixed subtle politics with a who’s-who list of “dear friends” and “close collaborators.” They were engaging, and seemed to grow from sincere curiosity and commitment to expanding her field. The program could have felt trendy with its trance theme, constant film projections, and an electronic drone on audience cell phones, but Beiser’s regal persona and strategic execution lent maturity to the show. In fact, she was so successful at establishing boundaries that when she invited the audience to sing along they didn’t bite.

All Vows by Michael Gordon is one of Beiser’s commissions exploring the Kol Nidrei, a Jewish declaration recited on Yom Kippur. It reimagines the prayer’s feeling rather than adapting a melody. Beiser played Gordon to accompany a film and evolved the program into transcendence. In the film, a preoccupied Beiser walked through a forest; her indirect gaze avoided the close camera. As Beiser layered amplified cello and meandered through her instrument’s range, the film opened into a wider landscape and perspective. It inserted a surprising physical depth into the intimate Le Poisson Rouge space. Later in the program, a setting by Mohammed Fairouz interpreted the same prayer with a dancing liturgy that was lovely in spirit and a refreshing contrast.

Maya Beiser (photo: ioulex)

Maya Beiser (photo: ioulex)

Beiser’s virtuosity was obvious and she played rock and classical with equal conviction, even if some pieces were less than inspiring. Her Bach was pure but impersonal, and her vocoder version of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” on electric cello was interesting in theory but made an ache for the original. Three Parts Wisdom by Glenn Kotche of the band Wilco was seven different kinds of delayed rhythm and the sort of melodic material made by a bunch of cymbals toppling over; Beiser brought maturity to the piece’s emotional scope and shredded both her bow and the music. David Lang’s arrangement of Lou Reed’s “Heroin” sidestepped the original’s physical rush and explored its psychology, showing off Beiser’s dexterity as she sang and played with equal independence and sensitivity. Hellhound by David T. Little left meditation behind–Beiser was never melodramatic, but her hair tosses, red strobe lights, and distorted cello dubstep were just a damn good time.

Despite the constant influence of rock, Beiser restrained her rocker persona for this show and displayed her versatility in stage presence as much as in repertoire and technique. She was fearless, not aggressive. The audience easily engaged the multimedia elements, melded genres, and complex collaborations with Beiser as a stable guide. She produced this same stability in her instrumental tone, which was less varied and nuanced than expected. There were few moments of that earthen, intimate poignancy a solo cello can give. Beiser played every piece with conviction, but they were best taken within the whole show; her nuance and color seemed restrained. Was this a choice? The polished unity of the program implies yes.

TranceClassical in concert was a fearless and fun erasure of expectations. Beiser aims to redefine her instrument’s boundaries, and she did that by an intelligent humility. She deflected attention away from her powerful virtuosity toward a broader understanding of genre. She was unreachable, but her care was obvious in the meticulous preparation of the program and caliber of the final product. Meditation can be a loud psychological experience, and Beiser’s program was true to that. Her show was artful in both performance and in integrity to her greater goals.