Maya Beiser has made her cello into another of those vessels that, as Emily Dickinson said of books, can take us lands away. She’s always crossing boundaries, evoking other times, places, and cultures, calling up memories, dramas, reflections. Though this is an obvious thing to say about a lot of music, and it risks painting her work as a travel documentary, it has its truth. Kinship (2000) carries whiffs of the Arabic Middle East, Georgia (the country), Cambodia, and Bali. The lyrical plaint of “Mariel,” an Osvaldo Golijov piece on World to Come (2003), can be taken as depicting a person, the city in Cuba, or even the boatlift, but to me it sounds just as much like music for an imaginary film scene. Instead of merely crossing boundaries, though, Beiser manages to speak from two places at once. In all of her work (that I’ve heard, which is hardly all of it), there’s a sense of the familiar crossed with the foreign, though sometimes what we recognize is only the basic sound of her instrument.
Her most recent album, Uncovered (a collaboration with arranger Evan Ziporyn and a handful of guest performers, which was released in August), devotes 10 tracks to another hybrid form—treatments of classic rock songs. “Summertime,” in Janis Joplin’s rendering, is here; Beiser really tears it up, as Joplin’s vocals did, but the piece also has reminders of Joplin’s backing band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. Beiser’s wordless version of “Epitaph,” originally performed by King Crimson, is more mournful, layered, and elegiac than the band’s version, as if the singer’s fear that “tomorrow I’ll be crying” has now come to pass.
Unsurprisingly, Led Zeppelin songs appear twice, framing the rest of the album. The band’s mixed meters and other influences were Beiser-like to begin with, and she has already done a pretty rockin’ version of “Kashmir,” on Provenance (2010). That number appears again here, along with “Black Dog.” The latter opens the album, casting all these pieces as a kind of interior experience: traces of the music and the words come back like a memory finding its subject across time.
My first reaction on hearing Uncovered—I played it in the background while working—was to want to hear the originals again. A second, more attentive hearing convinces me that the album lives fully on its own.