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Maya Beiser reimagines classic rock with her cello

The cello goddess rocks out to Zeppelin at Kresge


Maya Beiser

MIT Sounding Series

Kresge Auditorium

September 25

Last Friday, I made my way to the front row of Kresge Auditorium to witness Maya Beiser’s Uncovered concert. Jherek Bischoff stood on the left of the stage with his Hofner bass (similar to Paul McCartney’s but with F-Holes), the drummer, Matt Kilmer, was all set with his sticks, and Maya Beiser positioned herself in the center, with her electric cello.

Maya’s prerecorded voice wafted in, substituting Robert Plant’s unearthly scream on “Black Dog” with her spoken word rendition. The responding riff to her soft call was on acoustic cello. As a Zeppelin fan, It made me cringe. It seemed like a terrible idea to start off like that. Just as I was having second thoughts, the drums kicked in and the distortion went way up to eleven on the second variation of the riff. It was scary watching her play the solo towards the end — it was the same kind of fear you get listening to monsters like Hendrix or Page.

After the piece, Maya talked about how she was “shaken to the core” listening to Janis Joplin for the first time and how, as a classically trained cellist, this was utter sacrilege on her part. She then performed “Summertime” by Joplin (written by the Gershwin brothers). The trio then huddled together to perform “Moanin’ at Midnight,” one of Howlin’ Wolf’s earliest tracks. Kilmer belted out percussive patterns on his cajon adding new textures to the old blues song.

Next up was “Three Part Wisdom,” a newly written multilayered piece by Glenn Kotche, which Maya describes as “Bach on meth.” After announcing that all audio would be generated live, she started playing while the other two musicians took a break. With sound engineer Dave Cook’s help, Maya was able to progressively overdub her cello and create the illusion of an entire orchestra. On “Epitaph,” Evan Ziporyn joined in to play the clarinet. Maya kept toggling her cello choice throughout the concert, using the electric for pieces like “Black Dog” and the Acoustic for pieces like “Epitaph.” By now, the bow had taken quite some shredding.

The next cover was of “Little Wing.” The trio managed to capture the hauntingly beautiful tone of the original by keeping it painfully short rather than aimlessly rambling (*cough* SRV *cough*). Towards the end, Jherek went full John Cale by strumming and de-tuning his bass to descend fully into chaos, eclipsing Maya’s weeping solo in the process.

“Lithium” started out with Maya plucking out the iconic arpeggio from Nirvana’s 1992 piece. Before the concert, Evan said that he had arranged “Lithium” for Maya during their tour in the 90s as a tribute to Kurt Cobain, who had recently committed suicide. As the cover progressed, Matt went on an avant-garde cymbal play, and the cello’s tone dripped with Kurt’s rasp. They landed back on the initial motif and ended abruptly without resolving, a subtle nod to the unexpectedness of Kurt’s death.

The final track “Back in Black” was jaw dropping. The applause was so intense that they performed “Kashmir” as an encore. Extraordinary melodic phrasing coupled with a thumping bass line intermittently hitting higher registers made for an engrossing experience. It ended as layers of riffs each with a different delay overlapped continuously and disappeared into thin air.

Out of these “uncovers”, “Lithium” stood out the most to me, as they were able to translate perfectly the emotionally draining process of listening to the original.

Though on the surface these covers seem close to their original counterparts, the skill with which the trio brought out the unexploited portions of well-known masterpieces is commendable. Evan Ziporyn obviously plays an instrumental role, having written all (except one) of the arrangements. Generating live loops and overdubbing live is no easy feat, and it makes sense that Dave Cook received equal billing along with the three musicians.