Eve Beglarian: In Love with Both Sound and Language
A conversation with Frank J. Oteri
September 7, 2011—3:00 p.m.
Audio and video recorded and edited by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Edited by Frank J. Oteri, Molly Sheridan, and John Lydon
Some of Eve Beglarian’s pre-compositional strategies—whether it’s compiling a 21st-century web-based analog to a Medieval Book of Days or paddling down the Mississippi River—seem worlds away from the erudite combinatorial manipulations she learned during her training at Columbia and Princeton. But for her, all of these experiences have helped her to channel her inner muse. She gleefully proclaims that she will exploit the resources of any compositional method if it takes her music where it needs to go and, as a result, she has created some of the most stylistically diverse music of our poly-stylistic era. Indeed it’s hard to imagine that the crystalline processes of pieces like Spherical Music and The Garden of Cyrus, the extremely sensitive Stanley Kunitz setting Robin Redbreast, and the often in-your-face hip-hop and indie rock-inflected music for Twisted Tutu, the 1990s duo she formed with Kathleen Supové, are all the work of the same person.
Beglarian’s omnivorous eclecticism has its roots in something that is arguably even more telling about her as a creator—it all emanates from a profound love both for language and for sound in and of itself. Her aesthetic was shaped in part by her 15-year stint as a producer of audiobooks for the likes of Stephen King and Anne Rice. From this kind of production work, she also became comfortable working with technology and receptive to collaboration.
The deepest impact this had on her own creative output is that she began to treat language as sound, but also sound as language. It’s a duality that at first might seem difficult to reconcile. For most composers there’s a pretty clear line of demarcation between vocal and non-vocal music (in most cases, music with or without a text). In fact, many composers are more comfortable writing exclusively one or the other, and even those who regularly write both treat them as separate idioms. For Beglarian, some form of verbal narrative is inevitably what triggers her inspiration, whether or not it shows up directly in the resultant musical composition. But even a Beglarian piece with no text is never completely abstract. However, her works involving text also operate on a variety of levels to the point of not being completely literal.
A work like Wonder Counselor for organ and a pre-recorded soundtrack, for example, has a visceral and sometimes shocking impact on first listening because she incorporates, among other things, the sound of a woman experiencing an orgasm. Yet she decided to use that particular sound, not to convey a sexual meaning, but rather to illustrate spiritual awe at the miracle of nature:
I’m quoting Proverbs which says that there are four things that are too wonderful to believe: the way of a ship on a high sea, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of an eagle in the air, and the way of a man with a woman. […] I totally fell in love with the notion of God as your wonder counselor, dressed in a Boy Scout uniform, taking you around and saying, “Look at that tree. Isn’t that amazing? Look at that, the way the light hits the mountains. Isn’t that incredible?” That’s a wonder counselor, right? So the whole piece is about this sense of wonder.
After spending a couple of hours talking with Beglarian, she struck me as something of a wonder counselor herself and I left completely in awe of her creative process.
Frank J. Oteri: So much has already been said over the years about how your music has broken down stylistic barriers and how you create works in which all these seemingly unrelated musics coexist, so I don’t want to begin there. I want to begin with a different phenomenon that I hear in your music—a dichotomy between a fascination and care for language on the one hand and a real infatuation with sound, which is a very abstract thing that’s very hard to define and which often exists beyond our ability to verbalize it. Those two things seem to be polar opposites, yet they co-exist in your music.
Eve Beglarian: That’s a very nice dichotomy. I like that a lot. Yes, absolutely. I remember trying to articulate to somebody what it is I do and talking about the idea that it’s all about falling in love with something. I don’t really think of myself as someone who makes something up out of whole cloth. I always feel like I’m responding to something that I fell in love with. And I can fall in love with a sound, and I can fall in love with texts. But those are very different kinds of love relationships. One of them is really verbal and really talk-y, and the other is not. So I think that they really do require different things of me as the responder.
When I start working with texts, I’m really working in response to a text that I’ve fallen for. I feel like my job is to make that text available to others in a way that it might not be if I didn’t do whatever I’m doing. Of course the tools I’m using are musical tools, and so I’m making a musical environment in which this text becomes foreground. Whether it’s spoken or sung, it doesn’t really matter. When I’m working with sound, often it will be that I’ll find a sound in the world that I’ve fallen in love with, and I will explore that. But the tools I have to do that with are much more likely to be electronic tools. I’m much more likely to be sitting at the computer doing some sort of sculptural work on sound files. So the techniques I’m using are different.
FJO: In terms of where that initial spark of inspiration comes from, does it begin with language? Does it come from a text? Is there always some kind of verbal association?
EB: I think lately, yeah. Whether or not the text may appear in the piece, there’s generally a narrative idea at the very least. There may be a whole poem or a whole text, but generally I think there’s a narrative idea going on. That’s where I find the thing to bang up against. In that way, I sometimes think I’m not like a real composer. A real composer is really interested in musical techniques, how you put notes together and how you put rhythms together. Whereas for me, I’ll take whatever musical techniques are handy if they’ll do the job for me of telling the story I want to tell. I’m not in love with the techniques themselves. It’s the same, actually, with electronics. I’m not one of these people obsessed with the latest toy, or with toys that nobody else has. I’m perfectly happy to use commercial software, the standard stuff, if I can make it do what I want it to do.
FJO: I’m wondering how your background with doing audio books helped to shape your identity as a composer.
EB: I was an audio book producer for about 15 years. I retired sometime around the millennium. The neat thing about that was I was sort of in on the ground floor of the industry of audio books, which are now, of course, a completely mainstream thing. But in the early days, it was this really fly-by-night undertaking. Then all the major publishers started having audio book divisions. I was a freelancer. I never worked for one particular company, but I did end up working with certain authors over and over again. Among them were Anne Rice, who wrote vampire novels before vampires got popular again, and Stephen King. It was really fun actually, and in certain ways it’s had a huge influence on my work. Part of it was that I was able to buy ProTools in 1993, so I was really an early adopter of the stuff that’s now standard for anyone doing audio at all.
That was a really exciting time, because it was also right at the beginning of the internet and there were newsgroups associated with the early adopters of Pro Tools that cut across all commercial, non-commercial, and experimental lines. It was sort of whoever had bought this gear, and we were talking together all the time, trying to make it work. Then, of course, I was functioning as a director, a very specific kind of director because it was only the spoken part. But editing voices, directing actors, these kinds of activities really got me interested in the sound and the rhythm of spoken language. And definitely, you can see how that’s had an impact on my work.
FJO: Perhaps, in fact, it is why language and sound mesh together in your work the way they do. No matter what you do, once you give something a verbal meaning, it has a specific association that it otherwise won’t have if it’s just an abstracted sound. But language can also be abstracted through nuance; different people can interpret the same words in completely different ways.
EB: It’s an interesting thing because when you add music to a spoken text, you change how that text is heard. So just as if you add a story to a piece of music, you change how we hear the music, similarly, as you add music to a text, we hear different things in the text. It’s like a performance by an actor. I think of a musical setting as functioning the way an actor does in terms of an interpretation of the text. You can really transform it in very substantial ways that become incontrovertible. No matter who sings the song, there’s a certain interpretation of the song that’s built into the musical setting I’ve given it that the singer will communicate, whether they understand it or not. It’s really built into the structure of the music.
FJO: That’s something I’d like to probe a bit further, because a lot of your pieces use pre-existing text and then the music is developed around it. But then I came across Making Hey, a piece you created as a tribute to J.K. Randall, which sort of reverses your usual process. You took an early instrumental piece, messed with it a bit, and then you threw a hysterical text from an email spam on top of it. And by doing that, you hear the music in a completely different way than if it wasn’t there.
EB: Yes, for sure. But you also, by the performance, interpret this dictionary spam as having some story in it that you perhaps wouldn’t if you just read the text without the music. So it goes in both directions. But yeah, the new Making Hey is transformed by the addition of the text for sure.
FJO: So are there other pieces in which the music came before the text?
EB: Well there’s a recent piece, commissioned by the violinist Mary Rowell, where the title came after I made the piece—I’m Worried Now, But I Won’t Be Worried Long, which is a line from Charley Patton actually. I loved the title and I think the title is really right for the piece. But I actually tried a few different titles before I decided that that was the right title for the piece, and I think it’s actually a different piece than it would be if it had a different title.
FJO: What does that mean?
EB: I think that the performer plays the piece differently with the idea contained in I’m Worried Now, But I Won’t Be Worried Long. A very interesting thing happened with that. The violinist Ana Milosavljevic played the piece, and her partner, Take Ueyama, who is a choreographer, decided he wanted to use this piece for a dance performance. In the dance performance, the character commits suicide. But he didn’t know that the Charley Patton line in fact means I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long because I’m going to be dead. That’s the point. So this is what I mean. Embedded somehow in the piece of music is the idea that I won’t be worried long because I won’t be here. It is somehow in the piece in a way that it wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t called it that.
FJO: But the music you composed—the notes, as it were—all existed before that title. You said when we began talking that for you now there’s always a verbal association or a narrative that begins the piece, but that obviously wasn’t the verbal association this time around or even the narrative that began the piece. So was it considerably different?
EB: Well, I have to think about it. That piece in particular has a very strange network of associations. It starts with a recording I made in 1996 in Beijing at the brand new conservatory that had just been built. None of the pipes were connected correctly. I went into the ladies room, and there was this incredible symphony of water drops; everything was dripping. It was bizarre. And I was like, I have to record this. I was always like, I’ve got to make something with this, because it’s this beautiful rhythm with different sonic qualities and so on. So, the Beijing bathroom! Then I got really interested in this Armenian song, which is translated as “Apricot Tree,” which was leftover from the piece for Maya [Beiser] I was working on. So that somehow became embedded as part of the material I was working with. What this traditional Armenian song has to do with Beijing leaky faucets, I can’t tell you. I have no idea. And then, the final element was the Charley Patton. But it’s not like I can consciously connect the dots for you and explain at all why they all belong together, and where the death is as a thematic element. I don’t know. I have no idea.
FJO: That you don’t know and don’t go into a project with an overarching plan ahead of time is 180 degrees away from the way many other composers work, which is perhaps what you were alluding to earlier when you said that you were not all that interested in specific techniques for putting notes and rhythms together. You just don’t seem to think that way.
EB: Well, I have a newish piece called I’m Really A Very Simple Person, and that started with this little riff—it does C-G-D-G in all the different combinations of eighth notes and quarter notes that can happen. It takes 19 bars to loop through all the different possibilities. So on one level, it sounds totally relaxed and playful and easy, like there’s nothing to it. But I am doing some sort of combinatorial mathematics to get all the different possible combinations. I do like things like that. I mean you know, I did go to Princeton after all, and systematic, pre-compositional etcetera is always nice if it’s useful. I think that’s what I mean. I don’t fall in love with systematic stuff, but it does tickle me when I can incorporate it without doing violence to the ideas I’ve got going.
FJO: I’m about to go out on a limb here. I’d love to hear how you came to put a recording of an orgasm into your solo organ piece Wonder Counselor. To my ears this is also adding an element of language which makes the piece much less abstract. Admittedly it’s not language per se, but it has a specific syntactic and associative meaning for all people in ways that, say, a G major chord doesn’t. You could do a musical analysis and say a G major chord is here for all sorts of reasons, but it doesn’t really mean anything on its own, whereas the sound of an orgasm does. As a result, you’ve taken a purely instrumental piece and given it a whole new narrative dimension that it otherwise probably wouldn’t have.
EB: The reason the orgasm is there is because I’m quoting Proverbs which says that there are four things that are too wonderful to believe: the way of a ship on a high sea, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of an eagle in the air, and the way of a man with a woman. I had already decided that the title of the piece ought to be Wonder Counselor. I had found that in the Jerusalem Bible translation of that famous thing in Isaiah: “They shall call him wonderful, counselor.” But the way the Jerusalem Bible translates it is as “wonder counselor” instead of “wonderful” comma “counselor.” I totally fell in love with the notion of God as your wonder counselor, dressed in a Boy Scout uniform, taking you around and saying, “Look at that tree. Isn’t that amazing? Look at that, the way the light hits the mountains. Isn’t that incredible?” That’s a wonder counselor, right? So the whole piece is about this sense of wonder. Then, when I found this quote in Proverbs about the four wonderful things, I felt like those four wonderful things need to be in the piece. So for me, it wasn’t exactly that the orgasm has this particular syntactic significance the way you’re describing it. It’s one of the four wonderful things. And wonder counselor is the core idea that I’m really trying to embody in the music.
FJO: But it’s still sort of shocking, in a way. I’m curious about what the reception was to your having done that. This piece was written for the American Guild of Organists which is not the sort of organization that I would immediately associate with a piece that does something like that.
EB: Well, it created a little bit of excitement when I first turned it in. Actually it was a beautiful thing. It was one of the premieres I will cherish my whole life honestly, because it was really kind of a trip. At first I got a call saying, “Could you please just have three wonderful things and not four of them?” And I was like, “You know, I’m really sorry, but it’s in Proverbs, and so it’s in the piece. And I’ll take out all the wonderful things if you like, and not have the serpent on the rock, the eagle in the air, and the ship on the high seas.”—All those sounds are framing the beginning and end of the piece. And then the middle of the piece is all a set of variations on this 13th century Res est admirabilis, which means it’s a wondrous thing. So wonderful is sort of everywhere there—”We can do the piece without the four wonderful things. It’ll work. But you can’t have three. Sorry. I won’t accept that.” And so there was a bit of back and forth, and finally, the organist, Kyler Brown, went to the rector at the church where this piece was going to be premiered during communion. It’s a very High Anglican church that Schoenberg wrote an organ piece for, and Virgil Thomson went to this church. It’s St. Mary the Virgin in Midtown. They call it Smoky Mary’s because they use so much incense there that the place is just redolent. So the organist went to the rector and asked his permission, and played him the piece. And the rector said, “I don’t have any problem with this at all. We can play this piece during communion. No problem.” And I was so touched, and so honored that he understood that I wasn’t playing some adolescent game. I meant it utterly seriously, as these are four wonderful things. I mean, they are, aren’t they?
FJO: That’s a wonderful back story and it’s going to make me hear this piece in a completely different way yet again. So maybe you’ve totally refuted my hypothesis about syntax. But it also points out something important about how language works: We give it meaning through agreement. Once we no longer agree on those meanings, or once different people hear it in different contexts, the meaning changes. This makes me wonder, in terms of text setting, how sacred in your mind the original intent of that text is to what you are doing with it musically?
EB: Wow, I’m really sort of suddenly thinking about Clarence Thomas, and Original Intent, and what the Framers meant. Honestly, I have a hard time knowing that we can know whether we can know. I mean, the writer of Proverbs, when he spoke of the four wonderful things, he or she, do we know what was meant by that? I don’t know. And isn’t that what fundamentalists worry about all the time? Not to get into it all, but the fact is that text happens to be a biblical text, so there’s a whole long history of people killing each other over what that sentence means. In a way, as the composer when you deal with a text, you get to decide. You’re making an utterance that supports a way of hearing the text, or perhaps several ways of hearing the text. You get to do that because you’re the composer. It’s sort of like what I was saying earlier that when I make a decision about how it is, then the performer in a way can’t push that too far off the track of what I’ve done. Certain things are written into how the piece goes that the performers are going to have to do, whether they like it or not.
FJO: Even if it’s a subtle thing like a title of a piece, even if you don’t spell out anything other than giving the performer that title, it yields a certain result.
EB: It seems to.
FJO: Fascinating. But along the same lines, just like you can’t know what the original author intended and it’s open to interpretation, anybody who’s going to be hearing your piece isn’t going to necessarily know what went into it—and maybe they don’t need to know. But when I recently wrote a set of program notes for the Tanglewood performance of your piece Robin Redbreast and learned its backstory from you, I know that it made it even more poignant for me. I imagine this is probably why you include some backstories for pieces on your website. It was wonderful going onto your site and reading about all the anecdotal details that went into the composition of The Continuous Life. It’s so nice that you opened your life up at that level of detail so others can understand what all went into this piece. But most people who are hearing it, unless they’re lucky enough to have come across your site and are patient enough to have read everything you put up there—it’s quite a bit of material—probably won’t get the story from just hearing the music.
EB: I would claim that when you as the composer put your heart in something, your heart is there. And that’s going to be experienced by the listener, even if the listener doesn’t know the actual step-by-step, that in fact I was living in a house with a “For Sale” sign in front of it. The fact that that’s the story of where I was when I was writing Robin Redbreast isn’t necessary because, God willing, my heart has been put into that piece in such a way that the listener will hear that and hear that searing ending of that text. Something will happen to the listener; it doesn’t need to be the same thing. It doesn’t need to be even parallel to my experience at all. That’s what’s so great about music. You feel all these complicated emotions, and you are responding to the things that the composer put in the music, but it doesn’t have to be a one-to-one relationship at all. We all hear different things, and when we come back to pieces we know well, we hear them differently. That’s what’s so cool about music.
I grew up in a musical family, so I was surrounded by music all the time and I went to many, many concerts, and sort of knew the standard rep just as part of osmosis. One of the ways I knew I wanted to be a composer—I was maybe 17—was at this performance of the Brahms sextets being performed by Heifetz and Piatagorsky and their students. I don’t know that I had ever heard the Brahms sextets until that night. I was blown away. And I remember sitting there at intermission speechless and overwhelmed. Some lady sitting next to me and my mother started chatting about re-covering her couch or something, and I was like, “Wow! She just didn’t have that experience at all. We were in the same room sitting next to each other, listening to the same performance, and the experience that I had was not shared by her. How awful.” But it also made me think, “OK, this is where I need to be.” I guess I’m coming back to the idea that I think that what makes me an artist isn’t that I’m out there banging out the notes. No. It’s that I’m taking stuff in. I’m feeling stuff, and I’m translating that so that you can feel it. Or somebody else can feel it. That’s what my creativity is about.
FJO: You grew up in a musical environment, but you initially went in a different direction. You studied biochemistry. What was that about?
EB: What biochemistry was about was neurobiology and about understanding how the brain works. The last 30 years have been a really, really fascinating time for that field. If I could have bifurcated myself into two people, it would have been pretty interesting to be doing biochemistry and neurobiology these last 30 years for sure. Maybe in a way, it was another way of looking at what that experience of the Brahms sextets was, but in a much more deconstructive way.
FJO: Finding out through scientific analysis why that woman in the audience didn’t feel what you felt?
EB: What process is going on in the brain? When that happens to you, when you feel that, what exactly is really going on? I mean, in an ineffable experience.
FJO: You were surrounded by music. Your father was a composer and you grew up in an academic milieu, and then you went on to study music. But you still hadn’t found your voice in all of that. It’s fascinating to hear you talk about hearing a piece by Brahms as a major epiphany for you as an artist before you decided that you were going to pursue music for the rest of your life, because Brahms isn’t exactly your voice.
EB: You don’t hear Brahms in my music? What do you mean?
FJO: Who knows? This might be another example of the power of language and verbal association. Maybe now I’m going to listen to your music and hear Brahms in it. But I don’t hear Brahms yet. I hear early music, and I hear all the various pop music stuff that was happening in the ‘80s that got filtered into your mature music. I never heard any of the Princeton stuff except the reworked J.K. Randall piece. I never heard the original of that. I’m interested in how your sound evolved and where it went, how you felt you found yourself in this once you decided that this was what you wanted to do, after hearing Brahms and having that epiphany.
EB: Well, what I loved about Princeton was that there was this really excellent set of tools that you could learn so that you’d have something to bang up against. I think it’s very important to have something to bang up against, so that you’re not just sitting at the piano noodling away, writing pretty stuff, because in the absence of something to bang up against, it’s really easy to do that. And it’s not likely to be terribly interesting. So for me, having this really rigorous, mathematically sophisticated twelve-tone theory was really fun. I loved it. It was a wonderful, wonderful training. It’s the same as 16th-century counterpoint, or writing fugues, or whatever. Any of those things are really great to bang up against, in my opinion, because then you have techniques. You have skill because you fought with something that doesn’t make your life easy. And that makes you better at your job when that happens. For me, what that was about was spending enough time first doing it sort of by the book, and then fighting with it. I went and read Simple Composition by Wuorinen.
I made this [big] piece in the mid-’80s, of which Spherical Music is one piece. The whole piece is called Garden of Cyrus, and recently Dither has started playing a version of the last movement of it that I totally love. It’s like the apotheosis of what this piece needs to be. These are all strictly twelve-tone pieces, I mean they’re serial in every domain: notes and rhythms and everything. But I’ve manipulated the way they’re serial to make them accessible, or what I thought was as accessible as I could make them under the circumstances. I’m using a twelve-tone set, but basically every six notes is a diatonic collection. So you’re practically going through the circle of fifths. I very often take six notes at a time, rather than twelve, and then drop one, add one, so you get modulation. It’s all pretty tidy. It wasn’t brain surgery to make this twelve-tone set sound diatonic. But it also makes you do unexpected things that I wouldn’t have done had I not been grappling with this cranky making system. There are five movements to this piece, and it was an all-electronic piece. It was really what should have been my master’s thesis. Of course, my master’s thesis was a completely incompetent orchestra piece that no one will ever play, or ever should. But that’s because Columbia didn’t have the wit to see that this was what I should be doing, and at the time, it had to be an orchestra piece. But it was really fun and really hard. After that I got much less doctrinaire about the whole thing. I could leave it aside. I didn’t have to worry about it anymore. It wasn’t exactly that I had killed the father, or whatever those Freudian things are. It was more like I dressed up the father to become the dad I always wanted. And once I did that, I didn’t need to do it anymore.
FJO: So you eventually abandoned the twelve-tone approach. There are all these stories about George Rochberg and David Del Tredici abandoning twelve-tone music and going in a different direction with their music and becoming outcasts in certain circles. You were a generation later than them, but even then the academic milieu was not terribly interested in music that folks were doing who were outside of that milieu.
EB: They still aren’t.
FJO: But whenever anyone talks about uptown versus downtown to younger composers, they say that distinction doesn’t exist.
EB: Oh, it certainly does. OK, the fact is, in a way, downtown won. What we think of as the new music scene is the inheritance of downtown which got invaded by all us Ivy League types who had been trained to be uptown people, but who turned our backs on uptown. I mean, face it, that’s what happened, as far as I can see. All this fabulous activity that’s going on in New York now is the inheritance of that shift that my generation sort of took from saying, “There’s got to be more.” I mean, I was definitely part of what was the uptown scene. In my case, it was a little more complex than a stylistic problem, because there’s also the female problem. It’s really hard to know which of those trumps the other, but some combination of those was operating to the point where I was producing concerts, producing records, everybody knew me, I was completely part of that scene, I was on the board of three or four different new music organizations, and not one of them was playing my music. So at a certain point I’m like, I guess I don’t belong here. It was really heartbreaking, because I’d gone to school with these people. They were my friends. But I’d been out of school almost eight, nine years. It was time for something to happen. So I came downtown, and within days, I mean literally, people were programming my music. People were asking me to do stuff.
FJO: When you say came downtown, what does that mean?
EB: Well, it means literally I moved downtown actually, which is kind of funny because I don’t think that would have strictly been necessary. But I started hanging out with a different group of people. David First was one of the first people; he was programming concerts in those days. There were all sorts of people around who were organizing concerts in those days in downtown spaces—Kitty Brazelton, Mary Jane Leach. Almost immediately I was invited by those people, once they knew about me, and stuff just sort of snowballed.
FJO: Now was this around the same time you got involved with performance of your own music. Did this effect the kind of music you wound up writing?
EB: They do sort of go hand in hand, and I think that had a tremendous impact. Part of coming downtown was that I started performing my own music. I had never really thought of that before then, the sort of club scene and putting together informal concerts oneself which was predicated in a way on being a performer. It was also part of my blossoming. I think that becoming a performer was a really important part of my process of coming to maturity as a composer. It made me a way better composer for sure.
FJO: It also seems to have made you more open to the idea of malleability, to not be fixed on an idea of what something is. Once you’re involved with the performance of something, you see that it can go in many different directions.
EB: Yes, and I think, actually, it’s gotten to be ridiculous. Most of the pieces I’m writing now I write for one instrumentation, but I have no difficulty with the idea of them being for many different kinds of instrumentation. I’m constantly having to rearrange them for different performances because I’m open to that. The pieces change depending on the instrumentation, but there’s a core to what the piece is; it can be realized in multiple different ways. I’m completely down with that.
FJO: Now, the other thing that was such a different world, and I think it’s sort of a hallmark of what you’ve done over these years, is you’ve been more open to the collaborative process than a lot of other composers. I’m thinking early on, Twisted Tutu was really a duo where you and Kathleen Supové had equal billing, even though you wrote most of the music, but you performed music by other people as well. And then with Hildegurls there were four composers involved, plus a director, plus actually a fifth composer: Hildegard von Bingen. So it was not just about you. That sort of harkens back to something you said very early on—and I thought it was very interesting—that you don’t necessarily see yourself as somebody who says, “This is my work so pay attention to it.” Instead you say, “I like this. Check it out. I’m in love with this. You might be, too.”
EB: I really love collaborating across genres, and also with other composers, because everybody’s ears are so different and everybody’s ideas are so different. You know, it’s a really fun thing to do. It’s scary at first because it’s like, are you gonna get naked with this person? But it’s worthwhile. Lately I’m working with Mary Rowell a lot on The River Project stuff. It’s not something I do all the time, but it is something I like to do. And it’s different doing it with another musician than it is to do it, say, with a director or a choreographer. Because then there’s this built-in distinction, even though most of the choreographers I’ve worked with want to hear how I’m seeing the dance, or what I’m making of the dance, or whatever. But there’s still a sense that this is that person’s expertise, and this is my expertise. Whereas breaking down that boundary so that everything’s up for grabs is a really surprising and interesting way to make work.
FJO: Now, I want to talk more about The River Project, but before we do, we haven’t touched on the Book of Days at all. We were talking before about how music gets perceived and how composers present their work. When most composers list their works, they either list them chronologically or by category—you know, these are my chamber pieces, vocal pieces, etc. But you also group some of your pieces into this thing you call a Book of Days, which includes a lot of different kinds of pieces which are assigned to different days in the calendar year. How does a piece get to be in Book of Days? Why are certain pieces not in it? What’s the purpose of the frame? Ideally, I imagine you want to have 365 pieces in this, but maybe not, because you’re not necessarily concerned with completing systems.
EB: For me, the inspiration for the Book of Days was the recovery movement. They have these One Day at a Time books. You know, something to read each day, a little meditation that you do each morning. That is an outgrowth of medieval times, where each day you read a little chunk and meditated on it. So for me, a Book of Days piece needs to be a piece that wants to be mulled over a bit. So there is that element of it. There are certain pieces I’ve written that don’t feel like “mulling over” pieces in quite that way.
The other thing is that when I conceived of the idea of the Book of Days, I was working on a lot of big, long projects—a bunch of theater pieces and dance pieces and stuff like that—where very often you end up making something that doesn’t end up in the finished piece for one reason or another. So the idea that there would be a place where some of those things could live, that they wouldn’t be orphaned for life and would have a home, seemed to me to be a sort of neat thing.
I love that it’s not chronological. So as you go around the year, if you listen to each of the Book of Days pieces, you’re not actually listening chronologically to my work. I mean, there’s stuff in January that’s brand new, and there’s stuff in December that’s really old and vice versa. It’s all mixed up. So there’s this snapshot aspect of my life as an artist that I really enjoy. To me it’s really neat that I can go to the site and find equally easily a piece from 1985 and a piece from last month. At a certain point, I am going to worry if I’m not making progress. I have more Book of Days pieces than are actually on the website right now because I also got behind in terms of the web part of putting them up there. I do feel like I would very much like to end up with 365 pieces, and that that would exist as something you could set your browser to if you wanted to, so that each morning you would listen to this little piece. Or watch, if there was visual component to each of them, and that it would be some sort of a quotidian meditation for you as a listener.
FJO: What happens if you put something up for each of the days and decide that there’s another piece that belongs in there after you’re done with it. Would you kick one out?
EB: At the rate I’m going, it’s more likely that I’ll be gone before I’m finished than that I’ll finish and start kicking out pieces or replacing them saying, “You get demoted. You’re not part of the Book of Days.” We’ll see, but if I get to that point, and I’m worried about it, I’m going to call you up and ask your advice about which ones to get rid of.
FJO: Well, I would say add leap days! But this actually ties into something I wondered about when you had told me that The River Project has made you rethink the way you write pieces. Maybe a little backstory about The River Project, for those who haven’t read The New York Times article.
EB: Around the time of the election of Obama and the economic meltdown, I decided what I wanted to do was travel down the Mississippi River really slowly, human powered. I ended up paddling and biking down the river, from the headwaters in Minnesota, all the way down to New Orleans, in the fall of 2009. Part of it was that the election made me think that America is in fact my country, and I do live here, and it belongs to me. Part of it was the economic meltdown. I could stay in New York and bite my fingernails about how I was going to get through the next year, or I could do something interesting with that uncertainty. Also, I thought about the WPA and the CCC and all those things that were funded by the federal government for artists the last time there was a serious depression. I knew that even Obama was not likely to fund those kinds of projects. So I wanted to do a one-person WPA, sort of.
A lot of this came out of my response to Katrina. Spike Lee’s documentary includes an interview with this guy who wrote a book called Rising Tide about the 1927 flood. That flood had a huge impact on American culture because the destruction of the delta and so on meant that the blues traveled, because the African American folks who were living in the delta moved north to the cities. So the blues, which was a local thing going on in Mississippi, moved to all these different urban places and turned into the blues as we know it. Also, of course, rock and roll and everything else. American popular music would be a completely different thing without that flood. It’s really weird to think about. In a certain way, I would say that jazz would also be entirely different. Because if you think about it, there’s this local New Orleans-style jazz, which is quite different from what jazz turned into. In fact, the local New Orleans-style jazz is still there, just as the traditional blues is still there in Mississippi also. So this idea of the local changing as it goes to different places seems really, really powerful, and really, really instructive for what happened in American music. So I just wanted to sort of look around.
Also, I’ve been a composer in New York City for something like 30 years now. That’s a long time to be doing one thing. Even though I’m self-employed and I never have the same 1099s each year, in a certain way there’s this incredible stability to my unstable life. The flourishing that I see going on in the New York scene is totally thrilling, but there’s also the danger of a big city. There’s a certain kind of provincialism that happens in a big city that can happen nowhere else. When you’re in a big city, you really can believe that it’s where everything is happening. And you’re not far from wrong, so nothing corrects you. Everybody who lives in Kansas City knows they’re not in the center of the universe. They’re fully aware of that, and as a friend of mine from Kansas City pointed out, people in Kansas City know an awful lot about what’s going on in New York. But those of us in New York generally don’t know shit about what’s going on anywhere but here. And the more rich and fruitful and fabulous New York is, the more provincial it becomes, because this world seems that much bigger.
It’s this really weird, ironic thing. I love New York, and I love the New York scene and the next generations that are coming up, and the way that they have made sense of uptown versus downtown and Ivy League versus clubbers or whatever. It’s all great. But it is not the whole world.
So I went paddling down the Mississippi River and didn’t write any music for five months while I was doing the journey. I went with a tape recorder, very little agenda, and absolutely no schedule. I’ll get to New Orleans when I get to New Orleans. Different people joined me for different legs of the journey, so I wasn’t actually traveling alone most of the time. There was someone in the car, someone paddling, and if there were more people, someone would get on the bike. We would trade off, so I would paddle one day, and drive the next. The driver then could explore the towns along the river; if you were on the river every day, you really wouldn’t meet anybody. You’d be on the river having that experience, which was totally cool, but part of what I was interested in doing was exploring the country. I mean, it’s the spine of the country and I wanted to know what it was. And it’s richer and more full of things that I knew nothing about than I could possibly have imagined.
FJO: So to bring it back to music, and your music specifically—you’re back, you’ve had this journey, you recorded sounds, but now it has affected you indelibly as a composer. It has changed the way you think about music.
EB: I think what I’m finding is that I’m more stylistically dispersed than I was before. Rather than making me more coherent, it’s made me even less coherent. And I’m sort of welcoming that. One of the things that’s grown out of The River Project is a band called Brim that’s starting as a core duo between myself and the violinist Mary Rowell. We’re doing a first tour this fall. We’re not playing at the usual places that one would play, but really playing in informal and community-based places. The music we’ll be playing sometimes is music that can enlist the listeners as performers without being lame—at least I hope. Another strand is chamber music for new music groups. A third strand is an installation piece that I started, which is about the Sirens of ancient Greek myth, which has sort of taken on its own life and is becoming the groundwork for several pieces which are really pretty extreme and out there. That started from a recording I made of a warning siren in Plaquemine, Louisiana. I sort of sliced and diced that warning siren and then had the computer transcribe it, which it does quite badly, and then I got eight women to sing the transcriptions, which are sort of failed transcriptions of the siren. So there’s this whole thing about translation, and it’s really pretty complex and strange. It became part of an installation I did in Sheffield this summer. But sort of like a visual artist, I’m thinking of that as the source for multiple pieces. The idea of working in series the way Mark Rothko worked in series seems to me to be something really under-utilized by composers that may be something really rich and really interesting for me to explore. I’m very excited about the idea of having a core of material that then gets reworked in different ways for different purposes for different pieces and yet some of this core material is there tying them all together.
FJO: It’s funny to hear you talk about working in different styles for different pieces, not only because so much of your music has been about different styles co-existing in one piece but also because we seem to now be living in a world that is perhaps beyond divisions between musical genres, or at least the boundaries are far more porous. In the earlier part of our conversation, we really came to a point where the dichotomy between abstract music and narrative-based music wasn’t so clear either. So I’m not sure I comprehend how you can go back to compartmentalizing?
EB: Part of the reason that the genre distinctions have broken down, in my opinion, is because there’s no such thing as commercial music anymore. Nobody can make 80 trillion dollars except Lady Gaga. Therefore you might as well do what interests you. You can’t really sell out. So given that the genre distinctions aren’t really real, the fact is there still is a distinction between audiences. Who shows up to LPR is a different group of people than who shows up to Weill Recital Hall, which is a different group of people than who shows up to the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, which is a different group of people than show up to the community center in Little Falls or Bemidji. So while we don’t have genre distinctions, we do still have different communities. In fact those communities are more dispersed than ever in a funny way. The internet has not brought us together. That’s true in political terms, and I think it’s true in cultural terms as well. It’s very hard to reach different communities other than the usual suspects, whoever your usual suspects may be, to step outside of that box that you’re in and I’m in and each other person is in. We’re all in our own little echoing box. To really get into a different echoing box takes a huge amount of effort, and good will, and trial and error. I’m really interested to see if I can do that, and what it will mean to me and to others.