Chapter One

Eve Beglarian2017

This email exchange between Eve Beglarian, in New York, and Linda Norton*, in Berkeley, took place in March and April 2017.

 

Linda Norton:
Introductory note
I first met composer Eve Beglarian on a warm Sunday afternoon at a salon on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1994. She and pianist Kathleen Supové (as Twisted Tutu) performed a piece by California composer Arthur Jarvinen, with Kathy sitting on the floor at the toy piano and Eve doing vocals. Our host, composer Jerome Kitzke, read some of my poetry aloud, and Eve and Kathy—headed off to Bellagio as I packed up to move to California—asked if they could take the poems with them. A few months later I received a cassette tape in the mail; it was my poem “Landscaping for Privacy,” but now it was no longer just “mine”—Eve, with her music and her voice, had made this piece about mortality, romance, and a road trip all her own, in her generous way. After the spoken word ends, the virtuosic piano emulates the purr of a car engine, and vibraphone chords evoke the stars in the sky and the mystery of love and loss. “Landscaping,” along with the other tracks on Eve’s CD, “Tell the Birds,” is a wondrous expansion of words on a page into the celestial and revelatory realm of music.
For twenty-two years I have watched and listened as Eve collaborates with musicians, writers, choreographers and theater directors, video and visual artists, and the people she has interviewed on her recent trips down the Mississippi and in the American South. Her music and her voice are highly idiosyncratic, at once brainy and emotional. Her upbringing in a musical family and her training at Princeton and Columbia, combined with her voracious passion for art of all kinds, have allowed her to become a masterful engineer and architect of sound, thought, and feeling. Eve’s range, imagination, and technical skill astound, from her work with Lee Breuer’s Mabou Mines and the LA Master Chorale to seemingly simpler pieces like “Not Worth,” based on her adaptation of a Confucian ode, and the propulsive one-minute marvel, “The Sirens of Plaquemine.”
Beglarian’s current projects include Lighten Up, a multimedia song cycle about visionary visual artists in America; the long-term undertaking A Book of Days, text/music/visuals, one for each day of the year; and Brim, the ensemble and repertoire she has created in response to her 2009 journey down the Mississippi River by kayak and bicycle. She is also beginning a collaboration for an evening-length piece with performer Karen Kandel about women in Vicksburg, MS.
Here, in celebration of her Herb Alpert Award, Eve and I continue our decades-long conversation.

 

LEN:
I think of you as the Walt Whitman of contemporary composers—you contain multitudes and embody a democratic spirit. He nursed Civil War soldiers and that seemed to be part of his poetics. You travel America and take time to talk with people you meet, and you work with other cosmopolitan dancers, musicians, directors, and all of this infuses your music. I’m wondering about the spirit and practice of collaboration in the development of your music.
 
Eve Beglarian:

Collaborating is my natural state of working. Every piece is a collaboration. “Pump Music” is about a love affair with the hand pump at Wanagan’s Landing. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” is a collaboration with a long-dead British guy [William Blake]. Whitman was collaborating with all of America. He is most fully himself when he is embracing the whole country in some amazing oceanic enthusiasm. 

 

LEN: 
Collaboration is a lot of work. You do it so well, and you have “Grace / to be born and live as variously as possible," as Frank O’Hara put it. How do you do it? Any notable problems and satisfactions, lessons learned, advice you’d give to others about working with others?
 
EVB:

It maybe sounds corny to say this straight out, but I really do feel that art is the mechanism for bringing us together, for bridging the gulfs that exist between us. For me, the core experience of making something is making a bridge between me and not-me, so I guess it makes sense that collaborating with others would feel like the natural extension of that. The people I’ve worked with are not me, but as we work together we find a way to think together, to make something new together, and that intimacy, that bridging of the distance between us gets embedded in the work and brings texture and meaning and depth. There is wonder and energy in the distances between us, and if I have the humility and the confidence to know my own strengths and weaknesses, I can then be open to the strengths and weaknesses of others. I think my most important strength is my comfort with being a beginner. It means I don’t have to defend myself. Every real collaboration starts from ignorance: we don’t yet know what we can make together until we make it.

The first time I worked with Lee Breuer, a fresh young conscientious stage manager had been assigned to the project, and that first day she said to Lee, “Please let me know your prop list as soon as you can so I can get to work on gathering what’s needed.” And Lee said to her, with a certain amount of heat, “If I knew the prop list I need on the first day of rehearsal, we would have no need to rehearse.”

 

LEN:
Your “River Project” and now “Lighten Up” take artistic collaboration and logistical planning to a whole new level. You described your Mississippi River odyssey as your “unofficial WPA project.” Can you expand on the way the WPA mission informed your travels, your angle of vision, at that moment in time in American history, in 2009?
 
EVB:

One of the interesting things about the WPA is that it expanded an individual artist’s work into different fields: Eudora Welty was hired to make photographs of River Country Mississippi; John Lomax, the ethnomusicologist, collected ex-slave narratives. Part of what I like about the WPA metaphor is that it expands the idea of a composer's job way beyond sitting in a room writing music. I'm doing documentary work of some kind. Investigative reporting? Anthropology? But from the perspective of an artist, not a journalist or social scientist. So the outcome becomes “In and Out of the Game” instead of a monograph or an article. 

This next project takes that urge a step further. It will be based on women’s stories connected to Vicksburg in different moments: Civil War 1860s, Jim Crow 1910s, Civil Rights 1960s, Trumpistan 2010s. There’s a huge amount of reading and research for the older stories, and interviewing and building relationships for the more recent ones. The reading and research and interviewing and relationship-building doesn’t look like composing, but it sets me up so that eventually a piece will come. The materials for the music aren’t musical materials; they’re stories and relationships.

 

LEN:
I remember meeting you in New Orleans at the rainy conclusion of your journey. So many of us traveled vicariously by reading your blog. Any advice for artists planning ambitious WPA-type expeditions?
 
EVB:

I never traveled more than a week totally alone. I set it up as parallel solo days. My partner and I separated in the morning: one person kayaking, one person driving (and one person biking, if there was a third). However many of us there were, we always gathered in the evening to camp.

Be careful of too much alone time. Build in time to hang out with people at coffee shops/cafes, libraries, bars, churches, AA meetings, whatever your thing is. This will deepen your project. Leave time for the unexpected. You will meet people, they will want to tell you stories, and you will want to hear them.

On my whole four-and-a-half month trip, I never felt unsafe physically. People told me they thought I was insane, but I traveled completely unarmed until a man gave me a super sharp knife in southern Illinois. I had it with me, but never came close to needing to use it. I wonder if being a middle-aged woman maybe made me safer, because I wasn’t perceived as a threat to anyone. I don’t know. But I don’t think you need to have any fear at all. It’s a pilgrimage you’re doing, and you will be protected because your aim is true.

 

LEN:
Wayfaring is a spiritual and practical matter and it seems to make you more aware of place and history. I note a feel for landscape—waterscape—Poverty Point, the South in general—and Long Island in our collaboration, “Landscaping for Privacy”—that you seem to translate into music for earth, sky, river and road, and centuries of souls. Can you talk about landscape and geography and travel in relation to your work?
 
EVB:

“The River Project,” “Lighten Up,” this new Vicksburg Project, they are all part of the same big project, really. Going down the river sort of changed everything for me.

The artists of “Lighten Up” are all answering questions about community, about politics, about spirituality: What is an American Dream you can actually sign on for? What is the place of God in human life, and the place of an individual life in the divine unity? People are addressing those questions in very specific places, in response to their own visions and their unique communities. They are doing the real work of art.

They are my role models.

I don't have the same sense of place they have. I am a rootless American, part of the global elite when you come right down to it. I've traveled the world. I can go anywhere I want. Compared to them I am rich and deracinated. For me to emulate them directly would be false and ridiculous. I have to figure out how to use my own characteristics with honesty and humility.

I think my obsession with the South, its hold on me, is because I feel that the unresolved contradictions of the American experiment are so much clearer there.

For me, Vicksburg is a "thin place," a place where the pain of racial violence and white supremacy is right on the surface. During the Civil War, Lincoln said, "Vicksburg is the key!" He was talking about its strategic importance as the last holdout on the Mississippi River. But it's more than that, I think. The whole place was cleared and built by slaves. Thousands of people died there fighting over slavery. Thousands more were killed because they were black. That reality is palpable; it's in the ground and in the air and in the water. Everything is right on the surface there in Vicksburg, in ways that are hidden or obscured in Los Angeles or even Pittsburgh (thinking of August Wilson, of course.) Because it's so palpable, there's a possibility that the keys to healing and reconciliation might possibly be forged there.

Poverty Point is certainly a thin place…in a different way, of course. But when you go there, when you climb up the giant bird mound and face the immensity of the west and feel the protection of the Mississippi River twenty miles behind you, it’s perfectly clear that a whole community of people created a culture and a relationship to the land there, perhaps as long ago as when Abraham was entertaining angels in Ur. You can feel it still. Human culture and physical geography are much more intertwined than we generally acknowledge, and places hold emotions for millennia.

When you're an outsider, a traveler, maybe it's easier to commune with the ghosts of a place.

Landscaping for Privacy (text by Linda Norton)
Eve Beglarian (Performer), Lisa Bielawa (Performer), Patti Monson (Performer)
 

Riches and glory,
everyone loves riches and glory.
But if you can't get them the right way
They're not worth winning.

Poverty and obscurity,
everyone hates poverty and obscurity.
But if you can't get rid of them the right way
They're not worth losing.

Confucius: Analects 4:5

Not Worth (1999) Karol Bennett (live)
 

"It has a tendency to go through just anywheres you can call for."

Why, then, had the Mississippi not jumped the bank and long since diverted to the Atchafalaya?

"Because they're watching it close," said Rabalais. "It's under close surveillance."

John McPhee: The Control of Nature 

The Sirens of Plaquemine


All U Got 2 Do
footage: parishioners at Juanita Leonard’s Church, Montgomery, LA & St. Matthew’s MB Church, Houston | Oct & Dec 2015 & May 2016 • text: Reverend Milton Brunson • music: Eve Beglarian (and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis) • clarinet: David Steele • video: Matt Petty


Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looks with its sidecurved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.

Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments . . . . I witness and wait.

Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass


In and Out of the Game
performed by the Guidonian Hand Trombone Quartet

 

Pump Music. Performed by Mary Rowell and Guidonian Hand

source: a hand pump recorded near the headwaters of the Mississippi River, 1 August 2009
 


 

I Am Really A Very Simple Person
Performed by BRIM: Mary Rowell and Eve Beglarian

 


“The intimacy of working collaboratively becomes embedded in the work and brings texture and meaning and depth. There’s wonder and energy in the distances between us.”


 

Wayfaring Stranger
Performed by BRIM: Mary Rowell and Eve Beglarian
 
 

“I think the role of an artist is to be completely engaged in the world as it is and also to stand outside it and give voice to things that people - who are in the midst of it - either can’t see or say, don’t want to see or are afraid of seeing.”