By Jonathan Blumhofer
Some tracks work better than others, but Maya Beiser’s larger effort succeeds in presenting Glass’s music in a more nuanced – and musically complex – light.
Purists may wince at the suggestion, but J. S. Bach and Philip Glass have at least one thing in common: their music transfers wonderfully between instruments. Cellist Maya Beiser easily demonstrates this in her new album, Maya Beiser x Philip Glass. In it, she adapts for her instrument three of Glass’s keyboard pieces – the Etudes nos. 2 and 5, and Mad Rush – as well as Music in Similar Motion and a set of four movements from the score to the film Naqoyqatsi.
All of Beiser’s arrangements here were created through looping and multi-track recording techniques: suffice it to say, she plays with and accompanies herself in each selection with remarkable efficiency. And, even if some tracks work better than others, Beiser’s larger effort succeeds in presenting Glass’s music in a more nuanced – and musically complex – light.
The two most successful adaptations, Etude no. 5 and Music in Similar Motion, fundamentally transform their original materials.
In Etude no. 5, Beiser’s voicings are captivating: she uses them to illuminate different strands of Glass’s lyrical and motivic writing (such as the slowly unfolding melodic cells over the Etude’s latter two-thirds).
Her take on Music in Similar Motion is enchantingly shaped and, as a result, hypnotic. There’s a strong sense of direction to Beiser’s playing (as well as the discreet, but effective, percussive cello sounds she incorporates), which culminates in a throbbing, ritualistic dance. It’s thrilling stuff, this.
Beiser’s account of Mad Rush offers some bracing timbral contrasts between upper and lower voices (you could be forgiven for mistaking her high-tessitura playing for that of a clarinet) and good, clean layerings of rhythmic textures. As in Music in Similar Motion, Mad Rush builds to a hazy, mesmeric apotheosis; its closing melodic line soars. What’s missing, though, are the bold divergences of dynamics, energy, and attack present in the original keyboard version.
Much the same goes for Beiser’s otherwise fluent reworking of the Etude no. 2: her rendition is too monodynamic, its acoustic overly reverberant.
Completing the disc, the Naqoyqatsi excerpts are warmly sung, Beiser drawing out the singular qualities of each to differentiate between the (broadly speaking) stasis of texture, tempo, and mood of the four movements.
The title track and “Massman” brood fervently. In “New World,” Beiser uses contrasts of sonority and various audio recording techniques (like reverb and distortion) to craft a beguiling sonic space. In this context, the concluding “Old World’s” soulful lines provide a kind of comforting refuge.
This last tetralogy makes for a striking set – at once Romantic, modern, and timeless. Glass admirers will surely love it. And for the rest, there’s nothing to quibble about regarding Beiser’s technique or advocacy for this repertoire: you’re in sure hands throughout.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.