Bang on a Glass Can: Maya Beiser’s New Album


This is not a Philip Glass album. This is also not a tortured Magritte metaphor. It is a Maya Beiser album. Yes, she is playing her transcriptions of several of Philip Glass’ pieces: (Piano) Etude No. 5, Etude No. 2, Mad Rush, Music in Similar Motion, and four movements from Glass’ score to the third of Godfrey Reggio’s trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaaqatsi, Naqoyqatsi): Naqoyqatsi, Massman, New World, and Old World.

It was after my second hearing of the disc that it occurred to me that Beiser’s transcriptions for cello with electronic looping and layering are in fact her own recompositions of these works in her own image, so to speak. Think Stravinsky’s Tchaikovsky transcriptions in “The Fairy’s Kiss” or Henze’s reworking of Telemann in his Telemanniana (other examples abound). Of course Beiser is working on a smaller scale but she is recomposing these works from a very personal perspective much as those composers did. I had been expecting to not like this album but once heard…

Beiser, a founding and long time member of the Bang on a Can All Stars, cut an elegant figure even when she was at the back of that venerable performing ensemble (got to be good looking cuz she’s so hard to see?). She has always been a highly skilled and accomplished cellist and a thoughtful, intelligent musician. That is true of all the members of the All Stars who started as highly skilled musicians with an interest in new music. Beiser is certainly also a member of the “glam classical” musicians following in the traditions of performers like Nigel Kennedy, Yuja Wang and, well… back at least to Liberace and perhaps Chopin and Liszt. The appellation, “glam classical” is descriptive rather than pejorative in intent. The reality is that all the aforementioned artists remained fine musicians throughout their careers. An imposing physical presence, after all, does not necessarily detract from the music. Quite the opposite sometimes.

Amazon lists this release as Beiser’s 14th album and she comes out strong on all fronts. Her playing, her interpretive skills, and her arrangements make for a very strong, complex, but listenable album. The first two etudes will be familiar to most listeners and are perhaps the most methodical with clear structures though very different from the piano originals. “Mad Rush” (also originally a piano piece) and “Music in Similar Motion” (originally for the Philip Glass Ensemble) both come off as driving ritual symphonic pieces, thrilling new readings of the original compositions (Music in Similar Motion a personal favorite for this writer and this version really rocks). The last four excerpts from Naqoyqatsi are the most lyrical and easy listening works, but again Beiser creates the music in her own personal context, glamorous but authentic and with a warmth that lasts long after the last tones fade. Fabulous album!

Longleash: Incorporating the Modern


longleash

The strikingly beautiful cover art reminiscent of Magritte is eye catching and make this reviewer nostalgic for the days of the 12×12 format of LP covers.  (Album Artwork: Pink Lady (2015), Scarlett Hooft Graafland, Album Design: Laura Grey).  It is, perhaps by virtue of its nod to modernism, a metaphor for the content of this album as well as being its title.

Longleash is apparently the oh so clever operations name of a CIA project whose goal was to help proliferate American modern art in the cold war era.  These days I guess that would be “weaponizing” art.  And this modern piano trio has (curiously) elected this for their stage name.

Well the content of this album is nowhere near your traditional piano trio and may even seem subversive to some listeners.  Longleash are modernist throughout.  Pala Garcia, violin; John Popham, cello; and Renate Rohlfing, piano self-identify as a group with “traditional instrumentation and a progressive identity.”  Indeed they have chosen a rather young and pretty much unknown group of composers: Francesco Filidei (1973- ) is the oldest of the group followed by Clara Iannotta (1983- ), Juan De Dios Magdaleno (1984- ), Christopher Trapani, and Yukiko Watanabe.

Despite the varied backgrounds these composers seem to share a particular segment of a modern aesthetic.  They seem fond of judicious use of extended instrumental techniques and quasi-minimalist cells but their styles are quite listenable.  They seem to have aspects of pointillism, the occasional terseness of Webern, some rhythmic intricacies and the occasional nod to a melody.  In short they seem schooled in the variety of techniques which rose largely out of the twentieth century but seem beholden to none of them seeking instead to judiciously use their skills to create their own unique sound worlds.

There are five works on eight tracks and none of them can be easily described except to say the the combination of listening with the aid of the liner notes can be helpful.  That is not to say the works cannot stand on their own.  That is a useful experience in itself.

I suppose it might be best to say that these works will likely evoke a variety of reactions from various listeners.  This is the sort of album, at least for this listener, that benefits from a direct concentrated listen without distraction but it is also worth experiencing as background music, letting the experience creep in where it might while you do other things.  And then a read through the liner notes to try to divine the composers’ intents.

I’m not being facetious here.  I think this is a very intriguing album but one which is difficult to characterize in words and one which is beyond this writer’s expertise in terms of any useful analysis.  Also the newness of these voices does not allow one to place these works even within the contextual canon of each individual composer’s work.  We have free floating modernism which, as was thought in the cold war days, may invade one’s intellect in subversive ways.

The review immediately preceding this one, Soft Aberration, features this piano trio on it’s first track.  Now Scott Wollschleger is very closely associated with the Manhattan School of Music.  What is curious here is that Longleash has managed to find the present disparate group of emerging composers with no directly discernible connections to the Manhattan School but with a clear affinity for the same sound world.  It is the luck of the draw that these reviews have appeared in this sequence but the similarities are striking.  So if you like the spare sounds of the New York School (John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff) and their successors in people like Scott Wollschleger, Reiko Futing, and Nils Vigeland (who, along with Pala Garcia provides the useful liner notes) then this will be your cup of tea.  But even if you don’t know these folks you are still in for a fascinating journey of cutting edge ideas by emerging composers.  And even if it is not “weaponized art” subverting your mind to western ideology you can be assured that it is genuine and uplifting work done by some wonderful performers of composers you will likely hear from again very soon.