Eve Beglarian: Universalist ‘Downtown’ Musician


Eve Beglarian in her studio

By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — Eve Beglarian is a prolific composer and performer of music, active since the 1980s and well known for her innovative, experimental style of work. Beglarian plays piano, keyboard and the cello, and sings and speaks in her works, which combine electronics with traditional types of music and spoken word.

Over the years, Beglarian’s approach has evolved. She studied composing at Princeton University as an undergraduate, and went on to obtain her master’s degree at Columbia. She began to move away from the more formal “uptown” approach of these schools, which were often guided by mathematical formulas, and attempted to make it more accessible and organic. Beglarian explained on her website how she created her first major electronic piece, The Garden of Cyrus, after finishing school: “My goal was to wrestle the crunchy techniques of old-school modernism into something I could use, something I could love.” Many people now consider Beglarian a “downtown” or post-minimalist composer — and she does also live in downtown New York City.

She has often worked in collaboration with others and even in her own compositions, she has been very eclectic in her sources. She explained what motivates her when beginning a new project: “I feel like my job is to find things that are underrealized, not fully realized, for whatever reason, because they are in a corner somewhere and have been overlooked.” What Beglarian does is “to somehow make them available, to put them in a context in which they will be more available….I see something that is really beautiful, cool and amazing, and I want to make that available to you. That is where the urge comes from.” Naturally, she must be attracted to the music or text: “The first thing is for me to fall in love and the second thing is for me to find a way to have that connection, to bring that into focus by making something with it, that I can then give to you or whomever.” As a part of this process, she transforms the original music or set of sounds, and adds something to it of herself.

In addition to composing, Beglarian for some 15 years produced audio books for authors like Stephen King and Anne Rice, directing the actors that would do the readings and editing the result. If the budget was large enough, she would also compose music to add to the mix. However, she decided to retire from this field in order to devote herself completely to the composition of music: “I thought that something rich would happen if I were to give myself over to doing music fulltime. I think that is true to a certain degree. I can focus uninterruptedly on the things that are absorbing for me.”

Part of Beglarian’s oeuvre includes music for theater, such as for Mabou Mines’ Obie-winning “Dollhouse,” “Animal Magnetism,” “Ecco Porco” and “Choephorai,” all directed by Lee Breuer; “Forgiveness,” a collaboration with Chen Shi-Zheng and Noh master Akira Matsui; and the China National Beijing Opera Theater’s production of “The Bacchae.” She has collaborated with choreographers such as Ann Carlson, Robert LaFosse, Victoria Marks, Susan Marshall and David Neumann, and with the visual and video artists Cory Arcangel, Anne Bray, Vittoria Chierici, Barbara Hammer, Kevork Mourad, Shirin Neshat and Judson Wright. Beglarian exclaimed: “I love working in theater; I love collaborating. I’d be happy to work in film. I enjoy the give and take. It is a question of a balance. If I do too much work where I’m responding to what somebody else’s obsessions are, then I get tired and cranky — but most of the time I welcome entering somebody else’s obsessions.”

Over the past 20 years, much of Beglarian’s work has been commissioned. Though this means that she must comply with the demands of the commissioner, this still allows her room for choice and creativity. She explained, “I have a huge file of things that I want to do, and so when I get a call for a commission, I choose from that file what will fit best with the people who want to pay me. The order in which these things get done may not be the order in which I come up with them.” In addition to individual performers, her chamber, choral and orchestral music has been commissioned and widely-performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the American Composers Orchestra, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the California EAR Unit, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Relâche, the Paul Dresher Ensemble and Sequitur.

Occasionally Beglarian has been able to initiate projects on her own. One of the most recent, the River Project, involved a four-andone- half-month trip down the Mississippi River by kayak and bicycle in 2009 in search of the sounds and inspirations of America during these days of economic crisis and depression. A grant to work 60 days in Minnesota allowed her enough funds for the rest of the trip. She recorded the sounds of the river and composed music. The plan is to return in the fall of 2011 and retrace her steps, this time presenting the local communities and people she encountered in 2009 with music that they too can perform.

Another interesting ongoing project is her “A Book of Days” calendar, in which she presents music, texts and visual images. She continues gradually to fill up the days, and accepts commissions for individual ones.

Beglarian has used many elements from her own background in her work. She pointed out that “How we define kinship and otherness, this is where my interest lies.”

Recently, she has become more interested in her Armenian background. Her father, Grant Beglarian (1927-2002), was a prominent composer in his own right, who served as the dean of the School of Performing Arts at the University of Southern California (1969-82). Grant Beglarian was born in Tiflis, grew up in Tehran and came to the US as a young man in 1947. He married an American of English, Irish, Scottish and possibly Native American background, and made no effort to teach his two children about his Armenian heritage or use any aspect of it directly in his compositions. On the other hand, he was proud of some aspects of his heritage. Eve Beglarian recalled, “The first time I left the country was to go to Greece. I was 14 at the time. I was a little nervous. My father said that if you get into any trouble at all, all you have to do is to open the phonebook find a name ending in –ian, and they will take care of you. There was this sort of mixed message. My father would sometimes say to my mother that ‘we were Christians when your people were still painting each other blue.’ So the idea of being Armenian had a sort of cultural glamour as such an old culture. I pictured it as a society of monks and poets, these people who had kept culture alive.”

When Eve Beglarian studied at Princeton, she came into some contact with Armenian culture again and became a founding officer of the university’s Armenian Club (together with this author). However, this was a brief interlude and it was not until the last year of her father’s life that she again began to think about this seriously. He began to talk about his youth and his ancestors from Van. She explained, “And then I felt that he had given me an assignment. I felt that it was my job, after he died, to really learn something about this…. And so I started studying Armenian music with some seriousness. I’ve written several Armenian pieces now that started from Armenian melodies. There is almost something genetic that connects. And so I feel very lucky to have found and made that connection. At this point it is part of the source material of my musical life.”

Beglarian’s first work involving Armenian elements is called I Am Writing to You from a Far-Off Country (2005). Beglarian was commissioned to set 12 poems by the Belgian surrealist Henri Michaux to music, while Shirin Neshat prepared the accompanying video. Initially the plan was to use traditional music of 12 different countries — one for each text — but she realized that would be a bad idea. Instead, she said, “I decided then that it would be based on Armenian music. Part of the reason was my sense that Armenian music is both far off and familiar for the Western ear. I then spent many months listening to Armenian music and immersing myself in traditional music — both church and folk. The way that piece works is that there are 12 sections that divide into three larger groups. The first three or four are based on what I heard in the Armenian music and then the next three sections apply techniques I heard from African, especially North African music, while the melodic basis is still Armenian; and the last few sections use Indonesian compositional technique, again with Armenian materials. The last section ends up being a piece that sounds like it could be an Armenian traditional piece, but the last piece itself is not at all traditional Armenian — it is mine.”

Beglarian approaches her Armenian heritage as a cosmopolitan, not as a nationalist: “In a sense I am a universalist, saying that stuff that is emotionally powerful remains emotionally powerful across time and space, and that these objects have a richness to them that needs to be reenvisioned in order to have life.” For this reason, Sayat Nova, whose music straddles the Armenian, Azerbaijani, Georgian and Persian cultures, is particularly attractive to Beglarian.

Thus, the second Armenian-related piece she composed, roughly a year or so after I Am Writing to You from a Far-Off Country, was based on Sayat Nova’s I Will Not Be Sad in This World. Beglarian says that the process was a magical one: “Writing that piece was sort of a trance. There was a commission to write a piece for flute and electronics. I was at an artists’ colony in Umbria, where they put me up in this marvelous space, an old tobacco-drying barn. In the old days, they had put the tobacco up in the upper stories to hang down in sheets. There were windows in the upper stories that you could open with a hook. The view — you looked out over a vineyard and then the cultivated hills of Umbria. And it was hot. So you had to open the windows. I remember just hanging out with that melody, singing it and recording it in that atmosphere of that hazy Umbrian afternoon and then doing these electronic transformations. There was just something magical about it. It took place in an afternoon. It was the channeling of a particular emotion.”

A third piece, for violin and electronics, is called I’m Worried Now, but I Won’t Be Worried Long (2010). It is found as September 6 in A Book of Days. The electronic sounds were based on recordings from a bathroom in Beijing in a brand-new building where the plumbers had not done a good job of connecting all the pipes. The title comes from a blues song by Charley Patton, the father of the blues, while the melody is taken from the Armenian folk song Dzirani Dzar [Apricot Tree]. Beglarian said, “For me, this is somehow a companion to I Will Not Be Sad in This World. I was writing it for a friend of mine — again a commission — and the lyrics are about a tree, the apricot tree. And it all sort of fell together in this way. Emotionally it felt right to me, though I can’t explain at all what these three disparate elements have to do with each other. The interesting thing is that a Serbian violinist is playing this piece.”

Beglarian explained further that, among other things, her work of transformation gives new exposure and life to the original music she uses: “There are people for whom Dzirani Dzar is a familiar folk tune like Mary Had a Little Lamb, but for 99.9 percent of our society, that is not the case — it is not part of our general culture. And to the degree that I am making something available to people to whom it would be available in its original form, then I am bringing it into an existence that it would not have.”

Beglarian’s work can be found on many CDs. The best introduction to her music is found on her own website, www.evbvd.com.