The hook for New York-based "cello goddess" Maya Beiser's performance at PICA's Time-Based Art Festival was blatant: hear boomer rock and blues classics—played on a cello! So transgressive! So TBA, busting those rigid genre boundaries and gazing at pop culture with an artsy (maybe even, some might have futilely hoped, arch) sensibility.
But though TBA patrons packed PSU's Lincoln Hall on Monday, Sept. 15, they saved their loudest applause for the music that wasn't rock covers—testimony to the power of today's sounds, and to the talents of two New York creators with Oregon roots.
After all, Beiser made her considerable reputation not for covering old music—rock or classical—but by playing and commissioning new music. As founding cellist of New York's Bang on a Can All Stars, second only to Kronos Quartet over the last three decades as a generator of new sounds, and in a stellar post-BOAC solo career, Beiser has become one of contemporary classical music's brightest stars, thanks to her charismatic stage presence (which includes a sexy-looking electric cello that she alternates with a 300-year-old wooden instrument), commitment to 21st century composition, use of technology like multi-tracking and looping, and an embrace of multimedia elements from narration to theater to film.
That last strategy, of course, is another hallmark of TBA, and it was the basis of the evening's longest and most appealing piece: erstwhile Oregon composer Michael Harrison (who grew up in Eugene and graduated from the University of Oregon) and filmmaker/former Reedie Bill Morrison's Just Ancient Loops. The word "just" refers to the tuning concept called just intonation, used in most of the world's music until the Industrial Revolution's imposition of the more convenient but far less beautiful compromised equal temperament that now dominates just about every Western musical instrument. Also touched by raga-style drones (Harrison was a student of the great Indian vocalist Pandit Pran Nath), modal and minimalist influences, Harrison's three-part suite gloriously demonstrated the alluring power of those mathematically and musically beautiful intervals. And it suited Morrison's spacey projections, which draw haunting beauty from the chemical decomposition of fading old film stock. It's a signature technique of his, and it eerily suggests the disintegration of the past. He also included clips from what appeared to be half-century-old instructional films about the solar system, as well as other old astral film imagery of telescopes, planets and the like. It was probably the most purely beautiful performance I've ever experienced at TBA.
They audience also applauded heartily for Wilco drummer and contemporary classical composer Glenn Kotche's tremolo-and-triads Three Parts Wisdom and the Portland Cello Project's appearance in AC/DC's "Back in Black," in which Beiser really shredded the electric axe. But the rest of the covers (with the exception of the opening "Black Dog," powered by drummer Matt Kilmer) seemed to fall a bit flat, despite Beiser's committed performances. Something about the space—not a rock venue by any stretch—made it feel sterile, and Beiser didn't help by switching cellos several times, sapping what momentum she'd built up. As intriguing an idea as it was to reimagine Nirvana, Howlin' Wolf, Janis Joplin, King Crimson and Jimi Hendrix for cellos (live and pre-recorded), I kept "hearing" the originals in my mind's ear. Far better were the pieces that weren't trying to be something else.