Solo Cello Albums

Three Cellos, Multiple Personalities

Justin Davidson

By Justin Davidson

on 12.02.14 in Features
‘In their separate solitudes, these cellists share a joint mission: to make many out of one.’

The title of Alisa Weilerstein’s latest recording, Solo, is both ironic and literal. Yes, she’s alone in the studio — or rather, alone with her cello—but she conjures a whole world of bristling sound. In her hands, the cello can be intimate and stentorian, a team player or a four-string orchestra. She is not alone in exploring the cello’s multiple personalities: Maya Beiser enlists pre-recorded versions of herself; Jeffrey Zeigler brings along an entourage of electronics. In their separate solitudes, these cellists share a joint mission: to make many out of one.

From at least the time of Bach’s suites, the cello has spoken with a distinctively human voice. In Solo, Weilerstein grabs the opportunity that Zoltan Kodály gives her to soliloquize on a Shakespearean scale. The opening of his Suite for Solo Cello peppers the performer with stage directions—“resolute,” “majestic,” “passionate”— intensifying from loud to louder. Weilerstein barely needs a nudge. In any one stroke of the bow, she packs enough resolute majestic passion to power a small town. With her baritone sound, her muscular bow and her extroverted brooding, Weilerstein draws orchestral shadings from her instrument, creating space around each note. At the end of the slow second movement, the tune glides, weightless and sinewy, above a stark landscape of pizzicatos, before exploding into the finale’s lunatic dance.

The mercurial intensity continues through every track. In Osvaldo Golijov’s Omaramor, she amps up the sensuous lurchings and smoky tunes of his fantastical tango into a raw confession. In Bright Sheng’s Tunes Heard in China, she draws an astonishing range of sounds and expressive nuance from the tiniest unit of music. The first notes, a rising fourth with a grace note, could hardly be more basic, but she infuses them with vastness and melancholy. The quick upbow, the rapid vibrato, the slight skid of flesh on string — these technical minutiae transform a simple melody into an exile’s resonant memory, a tune heard long ago and made more vivid by the passage of time.

Weilerstein draws on a rich but finite repertoire of solo cello classics; in Uncovered, Beiser has recruited the clarinetist and composer Evan Ziporyn to adapt classic rock numbers for her idiosyncratic skills. Classical do-overs of classic rock constitute a pathetic genre, whose nadir may be the London Symphony Orchestra’s grimly decorative version of “Another Brick in the Wall.” But Beiser and Ziporyn are both veterans of the Bang-on-a-Can All-Stars, an electroacoustic semi-classical group that continually make fools of purists, and here they do it again. Uncovered is not an album of cheesy covers, but frank recompositions.

Listen to “Lithium,” and forget about the original’s bleak irony (“I’m so happy / ‘cause today I found my friends. / They’re in my head”), delivered in Kurt Cobain’s stunned rasp. Beiser enfolds the hypnotic tune in billowing arpeggios, pizzicato bass lines and wheezing harmonics, supplemented by complicated percussion. She sacrifices the song’s psychotic abandon, and replaces it with a different kind of delirium. The track doesn’t only prove that cellists can rock out — instead, it shows that an uprooted tune can populate a range of sonic worlds.

‘In Beiser’s rendition of “Wish You Were Here” it becomes an incantatory tune, like a half-remembered lullaby.’

Ziporyn and Beiser also have a distinctive take on Led Zeppelin, one that treats the group’s creations with genuine respect rather than sheepish reverence. Despite all the multitracking, there’s something stripped-down about Beiser’s rendition of “Wish You Were Here.” It becomes an incantatory tune, like a half-remembered lullaby or a fragment of liturgy.

Jeffrey Zeigler has returned to solo status after his years with the Kronos Quartet, the group that more or less invented the chamber music-ification of rock when it recorded Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” in 1985. (That was before Zeigler’s time.) At the center of Something of Life are two pieces for unadorned cello, John Zorn’s hyperactive Babel, the Confusion of Tongues, and Philip Glass’ Bachian Orbit. But solitude is a temporary condition here. The recording begins and ends with the cello wandering through more intricate thickets of electronics. Felipe Perez Santiago uses those tools to chronicle the history of faith, a tall order for a ten-minute piece. Glenn Kotchke brings us back to the physical world, a place of sensuously dirty sounds. We hear footsteps crossing a hard-floored room, a case being snapped open, then shut, a zipper, elevator announcements, a moving subway train, all gradually piling up into a scene that’s both familiar and strange, as if we were listening in on a drugged haze. By the time the cello starts strumming and groaning, we sense that the instrument is our proxy, a helmet-mounted GoPro camera documenting our course through strange terrain.