Chapter Two

Eve Beglarian2017

Linda Norton:
Eve, I never much liked poetry set to music until I heard what you do with texts, including my own. Your music doesn't feel like a "setting.” Each piece feels like a new poem. Can you talk about how you decide to work with a particular poem?
 
Eve Beglarian:

I think I end up choosing particular poems because I feel like they are expressing my thoughts, or thoughts I can make mine in some way. I'm a thief and a magpie. I think the core influence on how I think about text is the 60s and 70s American singer-songwriter tradition: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, all the usual suspects. If I could write great lyrics myself, I'd probably do it. Sometimes I do my own translating, which I realize in retrospect is the start of getting the courage to write my own words.

I do write my own words now and then; the little invocation to Esther Hobart Morris, the first woman justice of the peace in the United States, is an example.

But the way I work with other people's words, it's sort of a Pierre-Menard-author-of-Quixote situation, It's my goat, not James Tate's. "I own it, I have the deed by heart."

Some actors talk about emptying themselves to become another character. I don’t feel myself as an absence in that moment. For me, it feels like less like emptying and more like bonding. Merging voices across whatever gaps exist between us. I may be doing a bit of violence to the original poem: turning your “Landscaping” into a seduction and Tate’s “It Happens Like This” into a critique of orthodoxy. But I would claim that those threads were there in the original. I brought them forward because they were what I found in them, or what I needed to say, or some combination of those two things.

 

LEN:
And you make the poems your own because of music you write for them, and because of your performance and your voice, a very strong, pretty voice.
 
EVB:

I don't have much training as either a singer or an actor. I grew up taking piano lessons and cello lessons from strict European-style teachers, which for me was absolutely the wrong kind of musical training, and I am still recovering from the sense of insufficiency those lessons instilled in me. But I always sang. Singing felt free and unproblematic, just another way of expressing myself.

I never took acting lessons, either. Although I did take this kind of insane class in reading poetry aloud, from a chain-smoking heavyset Beat poet whose name I don't remember—sometime in the late 80s-early 90s this would have been—at HB Studios, with the most amazing cross-section of students. A subway motorman, a former stripper, a couple of Japanese exchange students with not much English, a Cuban émigré, an elegant middle-European woman (was she Austrian?) who drove a beautiful red convertible—she was the mistress of some banker or something. It was really great, this class. The first assignment was for all of us to memorize and recite Psalm 23. We spent at least two weeks on that. Everything was about the verbs. (Later in the course, the subway motorman told us he would practice his recitation of Ginsburg's “Howl” at full volume while navigating his train through the tunnels under the city. That image will stay with me forever.)

The other major influence on both text-setting and performance was all the years I spent directing actors for audio books. The really good actors (William Hurt, Roger Rees, Joe Morton) changed how I understand rhythm and pacing. Time is what makes meaning. All language is music.

 

LEN:
I’m fascinated by your family history and the way it has influenced your artistic path. You’ve been reading Humphrey Burton’s biography of Leonard Bernstein and thinking about his life and American musical culture of your parents’ era. What does it mean in the context of cultural change and music and your own work today?
 
EVB:

There's a huge shift in the last 50 years. I mean really from the 1950s to maybe the turn of the century. Bernstein was both the climax of middlebrow centrality of classical music, and a major engine of its decline. “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town,” “Candide,” “West Side Story,” even “Mass,” maybe, they embody the development of American music moving away from Beethoven and Mahler, and toward a merged hybrid culture that creates the world in which Sondheim musicals and Laurie Anderson and Glass and Reich become the replacement highbrow culture. Michael Jackson, Paul Simon, Prince and Public Enemy become equivalent in meaning and centrality, and someone like Elliott Carter becomes tangential. “Hamilton” and “Lemonade” are the outcome, and this is a good thing, a fine thing. How curious that the person who did most to embed Beethoven and Mahler in American culture also planted the seeds of that tradition’s decline. Interesting that Bernstein basically became a European at the end of his life. Instead of staying here to revel in the new hybrid he was instrumental in creating, he goes to Europe to do “West Side Story” and “Candide” with opera singers.

While I may never make anything that speaks to our condition as directly and universally as “Hamilton” or “Lemonade” or “West Side Story,” my goals head closer to those works than to anything Elliott Carter ever made. And I say this while totally honoring Carter’s rich and varied compositional vision.

 

LEN:
Your “Book of Days” is an online project with links to your work, now more and more often appended with video made by your collaborators. Can you talk about a few of the pieces on the calendar and their relation to their place (days, months) in the calendar and your collaborations with visual/film artists that “illustrate” the music? 
 
EVB:

“A Book of Days” was initially inspired by those inspirational day-at-a-time books in the recovery movement, modern-day missals, snippets of wisdom to concentrate the mind onto a fruitful path. As the Internet was taking shape, around the turn of the millennium, it occurred to me that the contemporary version should be text and music and visuals that would be delivered each morning into your inbox. Instead of an illuminated manuscript, you get a music video. The idea is that the texts and the videos (or images) are totally various. Some of the texts are from standard spiritual sources, but more are from corners of my reading over the years; the visuals are by various friends and collaborators. But because I’ve written or arranged all the music, there’s a certain coherence to the cycle.

Missals cycle around: you read Psalm 51 again and again over time, and each time you experience it differently. I hope the pieces I’ve put in “A Book of Days” have some of that quality, speaking to your condition in new ways each time you encounter them.

Days, too, are layered with meaning. As a child, maybe it’s your birthday and the birthdays of a few other people that are special days, and a few holidays, dependent on whatever spiritual tradition you’re brought up in. Some “Book of Days” pieces get placed on the day I finished the piece, or in honor of a friend’s birthday. By my age, a surprising number of days carry traces of my own history. March 27th, the day we sold the family house; April 19th, the day my brother died; September 2nd, my parents’ wedding anniversary. The pieces I’ve put on those days help me make sense of their personal meaning to me. But others are related to the piece itself. James Merrill visited the signing chimpanzee Miranda in Purgatory, OK on April 1st, so “Miranda’s Kiss” definitely belongs on that day. Medgar Evers was murdered on June 12th, so “Light Up Your Face” belongs there. Personal events, historical events, and mythological events all intertwine in the calendar of “A Book of Days.”

It’s a lifelong project. I’ll be lucky if I finish it before I die. And it’s unlikely it will have videos for every piece before I go. It would be fabulous to imagine people making new videos for the pieces in 2118.

 

LEN: 
In another interview you say, “My real creative work is simply to ‘pay attention.’ I want the things I care about, the things I love, to be absolutely freshly and passionately available to you, and my work is the channel that brings them to you.” This makes me wonder—have you read Simone Weil? Can you talk about other writers and composers, mystics and theologians, whose work about attention and spirituality has influenced yours?
 
EVB: 

Simone Weil, yes, absolutely. Teresa of Avila. HildegardKierkegaard.  Thomas Merton. Julian of Norwich. The desert fathers and mothers. Raimon Panikkar.
Also George Saunders and John McPhee. Anna Deavere Smith and Martha Nussbaum.
Frances Yates and Marguerite Yourcenar. James Baldwin and John Dos Passos. I LOVE this list with my whole heart, and anyone who has read any four of this list will know to read the others!

*******

 

some days
usually in the afternoon
you find yourself unexpectedly alone
and you know what you want
you tidy the bedroom, put on fresh sheets
plump the pillows, and run the bath
a long hot bath

Pierre Louÿs, adapted by Eve Beglarian

performed by Eve Beglarian

“I want the things I care about, the things I love, to be absolutely freshly and passionately available, and my work is the channel that brings them to you.”
 

...

Esther, teach me justice
Esther, bestow your peace
I'm longing for your wisdom
unfurled from west to east
you’re what justice looks like
and justice brings me peace
a righteous female standing strong
giving voice unto the least

Eve Beglarian

in honor of Esther Hobart Morris, the first female judge in the United States
words & music: Eve Beglarian • photo collages: Elena Eshleman • videographer & editor: C. M. Sasaguay
 

I was outside St. Cecelia's Rectory
smoking a cigarette when a goat appeared beside me.
It was mostly black and white, with a little reddish
brown here and there. When I started to walk away,
it followed. I was amused and delighted, but wondered
what the laws were on this kind of thing. There's
a leash law for dogs, but what about goats? People
smiled at me and admired the goat. "It's not my goat,"
I explained. "It's the town's goat. I'm just taking
my turn caring for it." "I didn't know we had a goat,"
one of them said. "I wonder when my turn is." "Soon,"
I said. "Be patient. Your time is coming." 

...

James Tate

It Happens Like This
Live recording by Mary Rowell (on mandolin) and Eve Beglarian. Commissioned by Mary Sharp Cronson and Works and Process, Inc. for a celebration of James Tate at the Guggenheim Museum


“For me, to write music is to investigate some set of issues that I’m struggling with as a human being, issues that I can only resolve by writing music.”

It was the dingiest bird
you ever saw, all the color
washed from him, as if
he had been standing in the rain,
friendless and stiff and cold,
since Eden went wrong.

...

Stanley Kunitz

Robin Redbreast
piccolo: Margaret Lancaster

L’acqua che tochi de fiumi, è l’ultima
di quella che andò, e la prima di
quelle che viene; così il tempo
presente. La vita bene spesa lunga è.

The water you touch in a river
is the last that has passed
and the first that is coming;
so with the present moment.

The well-spent life is long.

Leonardo: Notebook 1174 

Well Spent
live recording: Ron Blessinger

“What I’m really trying to do is figure out how to live, and playing with notes and rhythms is how I’m working it out.”

The Continuous Life

What of the neighborhood homes awash
In a silver light, of children hunched in the bushes,
Watching the grown-ups for signs of surrender,

...

Mark Strand

Reader: Spencer Beglarian

Between one floating realm unseen powers rule
(Rod upon mild silver rod, like meter
Broken in fleet cahoots with subject matter)
And one we feel is ours, and call the real,

The flat distinction of Miranda's kiss
Floods both. No longer, as in bad old pre-
Ephraim days, do I naively pray
For the remission of their synthesis.

James Merrill

Barry Salwen, piano
 

...

Everybody: It don't get you nowhere to take nothing from nobody unless you make sure it's for keeps, for good and all, for ever and amen.

Eudora Welty: Where is the Voice Coming From?

 
Light Up Your Face
In Memory of James Craig Anderson and Medgar Evers. Live performance by loadbang with Eve Beglarian and guests. Footage from The Metro Inn in Jackson, MS - the site of the murder of James Craig Anderson on June 26, 2011 with video by Matt Petty. Additional footage from the home of Medgar Evars with video by Bradley Wester.