Liner notes for Eve Beglarian, Tell the Birds (New World Records)
A Bird’s Eye, a Wonderer’s Ear
By Josef Woodard
Most music, even the most cutting edge and willfully experimental, arrives before us with fairly pre-conceived parameters and conditions under which we should best appreciate it. We come to it knowing the proper set of aesthetic values and attitudes required in the mental dress code. The best means by which to find your way into Eve Beglarian’s music is to arrive naked to the party, more or less free of expectation. Expect only a musical head trip according to Beglarian’s creative world view.
That view involves manipulation of texts from wildly diverse sources, and the kind of cultural hunger and curiosity of one who studied and rejected the 12-tone orthodoxy of old and found in the “outside world”—the world(s) of dance, sampling, ensemble-specific chamber music, reinvented text-setting notions, etcetera--a dizzy playground of possibilities.
Much has been made of the expanded palette of new music thinking in the 21st century—a status of either emancipation from confining dogma or a rootlessness for a socio-cultural epoch in flux, depending on who you talk to (or listen to). Beglarian has been surfing for inspirations and fundamental materials for many years, and has now reached the point where the surfing itself, the endless searching, researching and remolding, is integral to the process and result of her work.
Tell the Birds is Beglarian’s latest sampler plate of ideas, a set of pieces both cohesive and pleasingly eclectic. It is the latest field report from the uncharted adventure of Beglarian’s musical life. Four of the six pieces here deal with texts, from such disparate writers as William Blake, Czech poet Czeslaw Milosz, and poets Linda Norton and Stanley Kunitz. Musically, Beglarian charts her progress in finding ways to combine her use of samplers and electronics with breathing, real time musicians, extant new music ensembles and an orchestral showpiece for good measure.
The compositions contained here represent a range of ideas and vintages in the Beglarian oeuvre, from the early ‘90s forward, with some revision of older works and the general maintenance of her continuing artistic saga. Beglarian continues to carve out a path in music not quite like any other in contemporary music, not so much breaking rules as ignoring the ones she has no use for, and nurturing ideas or combinations she finds useful and appealing.
The daughter of composer and academic administrator/USC dean Grant Beglarian, Beglarian the Younger came into close contact with a variety of notable musicians and composers in her youth, an experiential proximity to culture which no doubt influenced her creative process—if not very thought patterns--years later. After first avoiding the musical path, studying biochemistry at Princeton, she gave into the muse, fighting the academic fight with music studies at Princeton and Columbia, during the waning years of tone-row hegemony in academia.
But, once left to her personally expressive devices beyond schooling, Beglarian wasn’t buying into the serial creed. She found herself working in the less judgmental or dogmatically-minded dance scene, in theater, and other avenues peripheral to the pursuit of pure music-for-music’s-sake.
Even when in pure music mode, Beglarian keeps options and ears open. An impelling and playful sense of rhythmic energy in her writing might logically stem from that dance connection, as well as an ear kept to the “street,” picking up strands of pop, jazz and Latin music, among other things, for later tweaking and processing. Such basic instincts made her ripe for the so-called “downtown” scene buzzing in NYC as her work began in earnest in the ‘80s, and her aesthetic has steadily evolved and become more focused over twenty years. In the 21st century, she’s bringing forward the humor, the edge, the deceptive simplicity and the cautious accessibility of her musical language.
On this album, the first words you hear are Blake’s, repeated mantra-like: “opposition is true friendship.” The piece is The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, performed by the MATA Ensemble (commissioned by the Philadelphia Relâche ensemble in 1994), and with another composer-vocalist, Lisa Bielawa, in the vocalist role. Over the modular design of the thirteen-minute piece, Beglarian’s roving stylistic roadmap leads us between jazz-like syncopations, Afro-Cuban clave, Minimalist maze-building and nattering whole tone hypnosis.
Bielawa’s performance is both spoken and sung, in the Steve Reich-like melodic pattern of the Blake proverb “you’ll never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.” After the chugging rhythmic ruckus, the work glides, without apology (or need for it), into the Bach chorale “Es ist Genug (it is enough),” a graceful and soothing denouement. This piece is as fine an introduction as any to Beglarian’s modus operandi, and the complicated fabric of this recording.
Just as Beglarian seeks to find through-lines and new bridges between varied musical dialects in her work, her approach to text is similarly broad and non-traditional. Each of the four text-based pieces on Tell the Birds follows a distinct procedural pattern and language/music relationship. Just as she seems to address each new work as a unique problem requiring unique solutions and resources, Beglarian sets text perhaps more like a theatrical set designer dealing with varying contexts than as a latter-day practitioner of art song.
In Creating the World, the treatment of text—Polish poet Milosz’ “Creating the World—“ is at times comically theatrical. The text is affectively illustrated by the musical tapestry around and behind it, by the electro-acoustic Paul Dresher Ensemble (which commissioned the work in 1996) and Beglarian’s elaborate banks of samples. Actor Roger Rees reads the text in a British accent, sometimes quite chipper and overstated, sometimes moody and brooding, as when the emotional arc of the piece finally bows languidly into its final lines: oh, to have so little/nothing except feasts of love/how feeble your defense against the abyss/and the sun rises and the sun sets and the sun rises and the sun sets/while they go on running. Subsequently, a rock riff and an elemental piano solo turns a corner into a musical space, like a coda slapped onto the end credits of a Hollywood sci-fi film.
In Creating the World, the carefully laid out, furtive word fragments are enveloped in alternating sonic textures and fleeting swatches of genre—a Mozartean splash here, a Middle Eastern lament there, a Medieval chant there, a rock groove there… teasingly-recognizable bursts of clarity in the dream-like fog.
By contrast, Corey Dargel’s singing of the Kunitz text in Robin Redbreast, laid out in a fairly static, introspective melodic pattern, evokes an arid, world-weary sentiment. The vocalist plays the protagonist role, but with a chilling restraint rather than any overt emotionality, over a keyboard drone and piccolo twittering (performed by Margaret Lancaster), by turns antic and atmospheric. Commissioned by the Guggenheim Works & Process in 2003, the work--clocking in at just under five minutes--is the shortest on the album, but it also serves as an odd, intriguingly quirky and contemplative transitional piece.
Beglarian’s own easy-does-it narrator’s voice, lightly spiced with the proper ironic bemusement, gives proper form and flavor to Linda Norton’s poem in Landscaping for Privacy, a bittersweet and witty foray into yet another corner of the words-music realm. Originally written in Italy in 1995 for the entity known as Twisted Tutu—Beglarian, vocals, with keyboardist Kathleen Supové—the piece originally relied on the sequencing capability of a synthesizer for its rapid, fluttering tremolos, but later morphed into a piece for disciplined pianist.
In Norton’s deceivingly breezy poem, polarities of urban life in lower Manhattan versus the suburban yawn and sprawl of Long Island and imagined realities become the focus of a conversational flow of words and reflections on mortality. Through the narrative prism of a one side of a conversation, the implied character goes on an escapist drive with her lover, into an uncertain neighborhood and future. They head off under a canopy of impressionistic clouds, a “bouffant armada, fluffy but cruel, ushering last days for many,” before a long stretch of percolating, pointillist massage 16th notes on piano suggests another quasi-coda, an unusual touch of structural framing.
Elements of surprise, and of surprising juxtapositions of musical structure and content, line the course of the album’s sequence. Perhaps the most surprising track is also the most “traditional” piece, at least on first, superficial impression. One of two instrumental pieces here, Wonder Counselor was commissioned by the American Guild of Organists for the Biennial National Convention in 1996 and demonstrates the potentially liberating freshness of Beglarian’s creative approach, when invited into a particular, ostensibly alien musical setting.
The work’s title, and its conceptual underpinning, was inspired by a verse in the Jerusalem Bible, Isaiah 9:6: “…his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” Wonder is the subject and the turbine in this music, from spiritual and natural awe to the subtly implied realm of the erotic. (Beglarian has never been one to shy away from or lurk in euphemism when it comes to dealing with erotic texts or sounds in her work.)
Before any keyboard-based material is introduced, the piece eases into being with an introduction of found nature sounds: lapping water and tranquil birdsong, and the soft erotic moans of a female vocalist (also the last sound we hear). Taken in historical context, it’s as if these essential, pre-literate, pre-instrumental sounds set the stage for the feelings later codified in the church. Ecstatic swirls of arpeggios on the organ suggest ineffable--and musically unfettered--cosmic incantations, over a shape-shifting drone of a single synthesizer chord. Meditative or devotional music is given a new countenance and methodology here, right down to the final orgasmic sighs of the ending.
A different sort of crosstown musical traffic appears in the other instrumental work on the disc, FlamingO, originally commissioned and performed by Eric Grunin and the Crosstown Ensemble in 1995. In its first incarnation, the piece celebrated the qualities of compounded energy and layered ensemble forces, with three separate bands working in accord and in tension on the musical stage set by Beglarian. A much more elaborate sound world is laid out in the expanded and retooled version heard on this recording, which was premiered by the American Composer’s Orchestra at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall on January 21, 2005.
In this experiment in swarming sonorities and rippling post-Minimal cadences and motivic networks, Beglarian creates a big and engaging sound, with writing containing faint echoes of Charles Ives’ and Elliott Carter’s multiple-ensemble works and John Adams’ Harmonielehre. In the middle of the piece’s linear mesh, a pared-down complement of brass, winds, and a sampled woman’s vocal utterances (again suggesting sexual sonics, hinting at the title’s orgasmic reference of a “flaming ‘O’”) offers a “breather” between the thicker, more active orchestration. By work’s end, the cumulative aural effect, a undulant mass of lines and long tones, is at once bracing and mesmeric. A slow, swelling crescendo effect yields to a trailing-off into a not-unpleasant nothingness. The end of the piece—and the CD sequence--amounts to a manual fade-out in real time, a telling gesture for a composer who has gradually found new beauty in life beyond circuitry.
As of this writing, the composer is fully engaged in a series of new projects: a collaboration with cellist Maya Beiser, From a Far-Off Country, premiered at Zankel Hall in March, 2006; The Libation Bearers, for the Greek Patras Festival; a musical theater version of Stephen King’s The Man in the Black Suit; and a dance-theater project, EndZone, with choreographer David Neumann; and more. Another vast and definitively long-term endeavor is The Book of Days, a project germinated in 2001, through which Beglarian hopes to write a piece for every day of the year, using live performance and the virtual plane of the internet as forums.
If the music gathered for this recording can be viewed, in some sense, as a retrospective of Beglarian’s assorted creations over the past dozen years, such a backwards-glancing effect combines with a decidedly forward motion. With the album’s ambitious re-orchestration of FlamingO and other examples of revision and technological updating (or de-technologizing and semi-unplugging) of past works, Beglarian deals with her musical catalogue in a dynamic way. Ideas are subject to change and evolution in her mind. Fixity is anathema. Our ears remain naked.
--Josef Woodard, March, 2006
Josef Woodard is an arts journalist/critic, writing on music, art and film for numerous publications, as well as a musician and co-owner of Household Ink Records. He has been a music critic for the Los Angeles Times since 1993, and for Opera Now since 2000. He has also contributed to Down Beat, Jazz Times, The Wire, Option, Musician, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and other publications. He won an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Jazz Writing in 1998.