After being a fixture in lower Manhattan for several decades, lesbian composer Eve Beglarian has gone on a yearlong quest in search of America. For her exploration of the heartland she’s traversing our continent’s major artery, the Mississippi River.
Her journey began in August at the river’s headwaters in Lake Itasca, Minnesota. With a car, a kayak, and a bike, plus the company of various fellow travelers (friends who sign on for a few days or weeks at a time), Beglarian is following the water’s southern flow and getting to know the sights and sounds of the river and the land, the cities and towns and their people.
“I am interested in how our relationship to the nature, geography, and ecology of the river is manifested in music, literature, and all the arts. Just as the Mississippi River is one of the defining natural features of the North American continent, so it has also been one of the defining features in the development of American culture, and of music in particular,” wrote Beglarian, 51, in a grant proposal last spring. Some money from a Minnesota foundation came through in July and was the impetus to set sail, so to speak.
Beglarian expects to make it to Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico by the end of the year, then spend January through March at an arts colony in California. While there, she’ll decompress and see what her own creative instincts want to say about the experience. She’ll hit the water and the roads again in spring 2010 and retrace her route northward, from Louisiana to Minnesota.
Beglarian is recording sounds along the way, which will be fodder for future musical creations. And she’s blogging extensively at www.evbvd.com/riverblog.
So far her entries are no sublime paean to nature. She talks a lot about logistical hassles. For example, her kayak floated away one night and more than once her bike has nearly been stole.
Another running theme is the relationship between the river and industry, old and new. Here’s an excerpt about biking past a rock quarry near Davenport, Iowa:
“The road was muddy with accidental cement made from the combination of limestone dust and the morning’s rain. It coated the underside of my bike, my legs, the tires… I get to thinking how everything has its price. You want cement, you have to tear holes in the bluffs to get limestone… You want to use the Mississippi to move goods, you have to constantly dredge a nine-foot channel and build dams and locks… I realize that even my relatively green, relatively low-impact life is unthinkable without cement plants and dams and brutal quarries hidden in out-of-the-way places.”
While she did drop in on a Baptist church one Sunday morning in Fort Madison Iowa, Beglarian mostly encounters people of similar political leanings.
“In nearly two months of traveling, I have yet to meet anyone who even watches TV, let alone supports the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or doesn’t want to reform health care in this country. I’m out here in the heartland of America, but I am fully aware that I’m not in fact meeting an authentic cross-section of Americans. Is that because I’m biking and kayaking, so generally meeting people who exercise, which skews against TV watchers? Is it because I’m so obviously a scary artsy-dykey type that only NPR-listening newspaper-reading locavores will even talk to me?! Or is the country so divided that Red Staters and Blue Staters are simply invisible to one another, living parallel but completely separate lives in the same places? I really wonder about this.”
Another question is where Beglarian’s musical path will lead after her river journey concludes. As a composer, she’s a prolific but has never been easy to pin down stylistically, though an adept hand with technology shows up regularly in her pieces.
Beglarian’s most recent CD release is a collaborative theater work, “Electric Ordo Virtutum,” which was created and performed with three other women composers at Lincoln Center about ten years ago. With the collective name Hildegurls, they created a post-modern tribute to Hildegard of Bengin, the medieval abbess and composer. Beglarian sings throughout the piece but her contribution as a composer is Act III. It’s a kind of dark night of the soul. A woman’s voice struggles to maintain a wondering chant tune as it’s bombarded with a barrage of electronics that bring to mind a sonic representation of the Transformers.
A more wide ranging and pleasant collection of Beglarian’s own music is “Tell the Birds,” released on New World Records three years ago. It includes a couple of perky chamber works, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and “FlamingO,” and a ravishing and seamless duet for pipe organ and electronics, “Wonder Counselor.”
For many years Beglarian was a producer of audio books and the spoken word plays a part in several pieces on “Tell the Birds.” British actor Roger Rees narrates the ecstatic, microcosmic explosions and mutations in “Creating the World.” And Beglarian herself narrates “Landscaping for Privacy,” a monologue to one’s lover as they drive out of the city and into the quasi-pastoral settings of suburbia. The gently drumming music and sense of wonder in the narration combine beautifully and speak well of Beglarian’s capacity for exploration and discovery – traits she’s calling in for sustained periods in her Mississippi voyage.