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Philip Glass (b. 1937)
Maya Beiser x Philip Glass
Étude No. 2
Étude No. 5
Mad Rush
Music in Similar Motion
Naqoyqatsi (excerpts)
Maya Beiser (cello, electronics)
rec. 2021(?), Hudson Hall, Hudson Opera House, New York
All arrangements by Maya Beiser

I happened upon this album when looking at a list of recordings of Philip Glass’s Études, and while I hadn’t heard of the Israeli-American cellist Maya Beiser, I was curious to hear how the works translated to the cello. I then found that she used multi-tracking and loops (small fragments of the performance recorded and played back as accompaniment) to create a layered texture of sound far beyond the scope of a single cello. Rather than being put off by this, it actually encouraged me, as I was already familiar with, and enjoyed the results of, these techniques from the music of Canadian-American “one-woman cello orchestra” Zoë Keating. Now before you hit the Back button, this is not just electronic fakery. It is really not that much different to having an ensemble of cellists; technology has simply made it possible for one person to do it all and in real time.

When I looked a little further into Beiser’s career – she was born in 1963 – I found that she was a founding member of the Bang on a Can All Stars, a New York-based cross-genre ensemble playing a mixture of amplified classical and modern instruments. Beiser has released a number of albums with sources ranging from Bach and Hildegard of Bingen to Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin and Pink Floyd. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first single-composer album that she has recorded.

Philip Glass wrote his two volumes of études for piano between 1991 and 2012, to “explore a variety of tempi, textures, and piano techniques” but it is also reported that he wanted to become a better pianist. I became aware of them via the album of Glass’s piano music performed by the brilliant Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson (review), whose recordings have totally captivated me. Beiser’s arrangements of the two études are not at all showy, almost to the point where I felt they could have benefitted from a little more contrast. Admittedly, both pieces are at the quieter, more reflective end of the spectrum of emotions found in the twenty études. They are both around nine minutes, which for No. 2 is almost half as long again as Ólafsson’s. I feel that programming these two pieces to open the album was a mistake; it would have been better to separate them with a more energetic work, or to have replaced one with a more up-tempo étude (I’d love to hear her arrangement of No. 6).

Mad Rush was written to celebrate the visit of the Dalai Lama to New York in 1981, and the composer played it on the organ as a processional. Listening to its swirling rhythms, it is hard to imagine walking in a dignified manner to it. Beiser’s arrangement uses her full range of electronic wizardry, and the result is very effective, quite reminiscent of an organ, which seems extraordinary, when one considers we are only hearing a cello. The seventeen minutes rush by (almost), and this is clearly the album’s standout track.

Music in Similar Motion was written in the same year as Mad Rush, but where the latter feels the start of Glass’s melodic phase, Motion is very much of his earlier, harder-edged, repetitive and very minimalist phase. The music slowly evolves, and I emphasise slowly, as extra voices are added, and the intensity increases. With a “normal” arrangement, for chamber ensemble for example, these voices can obviously have quite different tonal signatures, but here Beiser is restricted to what she can gain from the cello. That she does achieve this very well speaks volumes of her ability both as performer and arranger. At over ten minutes, it does require a certain mindset, as the music changes very little within a two to three minute timeframe until the next voice comes in. I really only came to Glass’s music as a result of his sublime soundtrack for The Hours, and am ambivalent about some of his earlier music, but this came as something of a revelation.

Naqoyqatsi is the third movie in a trilogy by filmmaker Godfrey Reggio, each with scores by Glass. The movies are collations of images (still and moving) which explore the natural world and the human condition – there is no narrative or indeed narration. The “storyline” is carried by the visuals and the music. The soundtrack for Naqoyqatsi reflects Glass’s change to a more melodic style and features a substantial role for solo cello, and Glass reworked the music for his second cello concerto. It is therefore an obvious choice for Maya Beiser to work her magic on. The four excerpts – Naqoyqatsi, Massman, New World, Old World – form a sort of concerto, with the solo cello being accompanied by a virtual orchestra of cellos. There are moments in the New World movement where she conjures up the sound of the didgeridoo, and in Massman, one can almost hear a soprano (Bachianias Brasileiras No. 5 comes to mind). Much of the music is quite austere and intense, and seems appropriate to close out the album.

Beiser’s playing, when considered purely in terms of a conventional cellist, is exceptional. She shows the full range of the instrument, from the quietest, most delicate textures to full-scale virtuosity. Added to this is her imagination to use the technology to create the various soundworlds for these very different works. The sound quality is very immediate, but without the sniffs and other extraneous noises that often result.

When it comes to the booklet, I am returned to my days buying rock albums: all graphic design, no content. It comprises six pages, including the cover, and has nothing other than the bare bones of the track titles and who produced it and where. The rest is “atmospherically grungy” monochrome photographs of Beiser looking moody: a complete waste of printer ink, or in my case, four megabytes of disc space.

But it is the music that is the important thing here. It won’t be for everyone, but I suspect Glass enthusiasts will enjoy it greatly, as I did.

David Barker

Published: October 6, 2022

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