Flavorwire Premiere: Cellist Maya Beiser Transforms Nirvana’s “Lithium” Into Ferocious Classical Music


From Owen Pallett to Andrew Bird to Kishi Bashi, there’s no shortage of musicians incorporating classical string sections into rock and pop. Far fewer do it the other way around, or at least on a level that reaches classical neophytes. Brilliant cellist Maya Beiser’s reimaginations of rock and roll hits deserve the kind of mainstream recognition Kronos Quartet’s covers of Sigur Rós and the Pixies have received.

Beiser’s new album, Uncovered (out August 26), finds her frantically reinterpreting Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and “Black Dog,” Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” and more classic rock with help from Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, instrumentalist Jherek Bischoff, and composer Evan Ziporyn. Flavorwire is pleased to premiere her cover of Nirvana’s “Lithium” below.

The raging quality of Kurt Cobain’s vocals in the original is matched here in surprising and ferocious ways by Beiser’s cello, further proving to us laymen that classical music has more than two modes: pretty and eerie. “What might sound like a wailing electric guitar is in fact my centuries-old acoustic cello processed through a distortion pedal and re-amped,” she tells Flavorwire. Kotche’s percussion, simultaneously delicate and manic, makes for an interesting juxtaposition.

“When I first heard Nirvana, I thought: at last, someone did it — found a way to make chamber music out of real rock and roll,” says Beiser, who’s worked with Brian Eno and Philip Glass, among others. “It was like hearing late Beethoven quartets — all the power of larger forces, packed into something intimate and personal. Kurt Cobain’s voice is like a cello, like Pablo Casals’ — the combination of grit and beauty, going from a whisper to a primal scream on a dime. The chord progressions are unique and unexpected, but as soon as you hear them it’s like they’ve been around forever, and the song structures are a perfect combination of architecture and emotion.”

Main photo by Ioulex.