Boom Times for the Art Song: A HyperHistory of Poetry and Music

The Song Goes All Ways—Berio to the Pet Shop Boys

Eve Beglarian‘s song, “All Ways,” premiered by New York Festival Of Song last March, was a tour de force with metrical changes (15/16 to 4/4) and pointillistic cross-rhythms so tricky that the composer herself stepped in to play four-hand with the pianist, both of them listening to a click-track on headsets. The striking text was selected from Stephen King‘s novel It and read in full: “You don’t know you don’t always.”

After she received the song commission from NYFOS to write a song about the future, she began searching for a text in the file where she keeps poems that have attracted her and that she has clipped from the New Yorker or elsewhere.

“Very often, I’ll keep them in a file for years before I decide to set them to music,” she said.

In this case, she found no poem on the subject of the future in her file. She works (at what she terms her “day job”) as a producer of books on tape, or audio books. And for the past decade, she has had a close working relationship with the novelist Stephen King. At the time of the NYFOS commission, she was directing his Dreamcatcher, which refers over and over again to the novel It.

“So, I started reading It,” she said, “which put me in this very psychotic place where I would get up every morning, direct Dreamcatcher, and then come home and read more of It. Total immersion in his particular world. That line came into the novel when the kids are going on a dream quest, which is a completely poetic and fragmentary moment in the middle of the usual kind of straightforward Stephen King narrative and it had specific implications in the plot as well as raising existential issues.”

Syntactically fragmented, the phrase “You don’t know you don’t always” is rhetorically elusive. In the plot of the novel, the specific reference is that one boy is saying to another, in essence, you don’t know you don’t always stutter. The song was performed again recently at Egizio’s Project, in the series curated by Patrick Grant and this time, the composer (to her great relief, she admitted) did not need a click track.

Beglarian’s title, “All Ways,” is a pun on the semantic possibilities of the phrase, which she toys with by fragmenting and recasting elements of the syntax in her setting.

As she says, “There’s ‘you know’ and ‘you don’t know’ and there’s the idea of ‘always.’ There’s also a sort of dramatic through-line. It’s like when you’re walking down the street and you think of something really stupid you did or said and you talk to yourself in a nasty and soul-destroying way, that mean, niggling, undercutting voice is there, as well as another voice that says ‘yeah, I don’t know.'”

In this sense, the song can be heard as a dialogue between the different attitudes one might have to the state of not knowing. Beglarian describes the extremes of this dialectic as her feeling of absolute insufficiency as opposed to the sense of freedom in being open to surprise.

She is currently working on another Stephen King-inspired project, an opera, The Man in the Black Suit with co-librettist and director Grethe Barrett Holby. Funding recently announced from the Greenwall Foundation will be used to produce a workshop in New York under the sponsorship of American Opera Projects. Another text-based work is called The Bilitis Project, a collaboration with the composer Phil Kline. The poems, known primarily from their settings by Debussy, were published in Paris purportedly as translations into French of newly discovered verses by an ancient Greek Lesbian named Bilitis. But they turned out to be a literary fraud, having been written by a minor poet of the Parnassian school, Pierre Louÿs.

“There’s something fun about the falsification and the re-owning of these poems,” Beglarian said, “Because if I were to write Lesbian love poetry, it becomes real again—those questions of authenticity are built in.”

The collaborative composing process goes beyond Beglarian and Kline, as they have assembled a band with keyboardist Eleanor Sandresky and flutist Margaret Lancaster. Like a rock band, they get together to rehearse regularly and develop new songs. So far, half a dozen songs are completed, with the texts translated from French to English. In the best post-modern fashion, they are considering having some of the original French translated into ancient Greek, in a sense re-creating “original” versions that never existed.

Another large scale project that she has going is called the Book of Days, referring to the Commonplace Books in which quotations and memorable texts are recorded, as well as alluding to the medieval Books of Days or Books of Hours. The massive project will include some works that she has already written and that she deemed as fitting. The texts range from Zen meditations and Biblical verses to quotations from The New York Times. Her goal is to assemble 365 compositions, one for each day of the year and she anticipates that it will be a multi-year and perhaps a life-long project. The Book of Days will also have a visual component, with collaborations with visual artists and its progress can be traced through Beglarian’s Web site.

As to the future of the art song, Beglarian sees the 20-something composers as carrying on as well as changing the tradition. She said that young composers frequently contact her when they arrive in New York and she professed delighted amazement at the fact that they heard her work in school.

“Song is simply the locus of musical activity for this younger generation, the under 24 year olds,” Beglarian said. “The youngest and most ambitious composers are not hanging out with Masur to get their symphony performed. Instead, they are writing songs.” She allowed, however, that since she is currently on a “jag” of writing songs, it’s likely the young composers she meets are self-selecting.

When asked about the charge made by many critics that the art song is being diluted or degraded by the incursion of vernacular elements such as pop, rock, jazz, or blues, Beglarian drew a distinction between popular and art song composers.

“The thing that distinguishes the songs by these younger composers from those of their pop music brethren is education,” she said. “These composers studied 16th-century counterpoint as well as Boulez. So they take all that stuff for granted, as well as what I’ll call the vernacular canon. When you’ve got Berio and the Pet Shop Boys equally available to you, you do something quite different than if you only had Berio, or only the Pet Shop Boys.”