If someone asked you to write a piece of music that exemplified Houston, how exactly would you go about doing that? With a sampling of car horns? A cymbal roll signifying the hazy air quality, or a smeary-toned trombone perhaps to represent our sinuous spaghetti bowls of overpasses? It would have to be industrial with a Latin beat, all tied together with a whiny steel guitar. These are the challenges set before composer Eve Beglarian, a New Yorker who before now had visited Houston only once, back in February 1999.
"It would be a different kind of project if you took a Houston composer writing a piece of Houston," Beglarian explains. "So I'm coming at it with fresh eyes. That's the idea." The piece is part of Continental Harmony, a national initiative that commissions works for all 50 states. DiverseWorks and OrchestraX were chosen to host the Texas project, which will premiere in September.
Beglarian was classically trained at Princeton and Columbia, and though deft at composition and theory, she counts Beck and Radiohead among her favorite musicians. A part-time producer of Anne Rice and Stephen King audiobooks, Beglarian has also composed musical theater, performance-art pieces and opera. Her experiences have helped her develop a keen eye and ear for unusual juxtapositions. In a place like Vermont, for instance, buildings were constructed with a sense of history, whereas in a place like Houston, many buildings are built without any aesthetic considerations, designed purely for function. "Westheimer is a great example," Beglarian says. "There are these odd little buildings. Who was the architect for that building? They couldn't have been thinking it would be around for 50 or 100 years. They couldn't have."
Beglarian, who just began a two-week field study of Houston, asked the students at a local high school what made Swamp City different from, say, Chicago or New York. The first answer she got was air-conditioning. "I thought that was a very interesting answer," Beglarian says, "and it's shaped how I'm thinking about making the piece." Soon after, when Beglarian began collecting sounds for her composition, she visited a little Hispanic market, and the first thing she heard was the air conditioner, chirping like crickets. "It was a very specific sound, and it wouldn't be that way in L.A."
In the end, however, Beglarian believes the only way to truly come to know a location is through the people and their routine of daily life. Beglarian parked outside the county courthouse with her recording equipment to capture some of the street life unfolding as the gathered media waited for a break in the Angel Maturino Resendiz case. "Plus, there were all these corporate buildings," explains Beglarian, who has always been fascinated by the breakdown of social barriers when people step outside for a smoke. "You can have the vice president of the company and the janitor smoking together, who under normal circumstances would never be having a conversation." Beglarian also found someone who gave in-depth instructions for picking up women. "Everyone is just dying to tell their story.We already got so much stuff, just on our first day."
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Beglarian has no idea what form the project will eventually take, though she suspects there will be some sort of multimedia presentation. As for right now, she's just absorbing Houston life and gathering pieces of local color on tape. There's never a shortage of material.
"The other day the TV was on, and I was realizing the people in commercials are Martians. They have no relation to what real people are like, because we are all much weirder and stranger than what is presented as the norm. I mean, what norm? Who did that? It's not anyone I've ever seen. We're all a bunch of misfits and weirdos floating around in this world."
This local opus might just wind up sounding universal after all.
OrchestraX will perform a retrospective of Eve Beglarian's work on Saturday, May 20, at 2 p.m. Beglarian will be present to answer questions from the audience. Free. DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway (off North Main at Naylor). For more information, call (713)223-8346 or visit www.diverse works.org.