Complete article

May 11, 2006 at 2:28 pm (General)

AN ARTISTIC TREK ACROSS A SURREAL LAND OF SAND AND SELF-DISCOVERY
By Kathryn Shattuck

The New York Times
March 9, 2006 Thursday

As snow fell lightly on Broome Street in SoHo one evening last month,
three women in their 40's sipped tea inside an artist's studio and
charted a journey through unfamiliar territory. The landscape, viewed
on an iMac monitor, was at once barren and lush, its undulating sands
and craggy outcroppings morphing into gently rhythmic waves. It could
have been anywhere.

But to the cellist Maya Beiser, the composer Eve Beglarian and the
visual artist Shirin Neshat — each laying claim to a different
piece of the broader Middle East — this curious terrain born of an
18-month odyssey of music, art and, not least, self-awareness was
specific and unique.

The fruit of their travels, "I Am Writing to You From a Far-Off
Country," will be presented by Ms. Beiser at Zankel Hall tonight
as part of "Almost Human," a program in which she draws comparisons
between the sound of the cello and the human voice. After new works
by Brett Dean, Joby Talbot and Michael Gordon, the second half will
be devoted to "Far-Off Country," Ms. Beglarian's 40-minute setting
of a poem of the same name by the Belgian Surrealist Henri Michaux,
with video by Ms. Neshat.

Though "Far-Off Country" was written by a man, the voice is
a woman's. In 12 letters to an unspecified listener — a lover,
perhaps, or a god — she describes a place of wind and water and
"inexorable weather," where leaves are separated from their trees and
"dwarfs are born constantly."

"I am writing to you from the end of the world," she says. "You must
realize this."

Ms. Beiser first came to "Far-Off Country" as a teenager in her own
distant land, on a kibbutz in northern Israel between Nazareth and
the Sea of Galilee.

The poem haunted her, she said, after her move to the United States,
where she studied at Yale, and later, as she traveled the world
performing.

More recently, she found an English translation of the poem and
decided to produce a setting of the work for "Almost Human," to make
the words her own.

"I had wanted to work with Eve for a long time, and this gave me
an excuse," she said of Ms. Beglarian, an experimentalist whose
work often interweaves electronics, spoken word and even dance and
theater. "I think she has a phenomenal way of working with text and
incorporating that with music."

Ms. Beglarian said: "That was really meaningful to me. I know what
it's like to love a text and not yet know what form it should take."

That form slowly revealed itself as the women dissected the poem line
by line to find a common starting point.

"It's a really bizarre country that this woman finds herself in,"
Ms. Beglarian said, "and yet as you travel through the poem you realize
that the far-off country she is describing is the country we're
in. I was looking for a combination of strangeness and otherness,
and I found this in Armenian music because of how Armenian culture
lies at the intersection of the East and the West."

Drawing from Christian liturgical music and chants, Ms. Beglarian
created a deeply layered composition that requires Ms. Beiser to recite
the poem while playing, accompanied by a recorded instrumental track. A
mezzo-soprano, Alexandra Montano, adds recorded and live vocalises.

The connection to Ms. Beglarian's heritage, so obvious in retrospect,
did not come to her immediately. Though her father was Armenian and
lived in Tehran for part of his childhood, he did not immerse his
children in the culture of his youth. "Only toward end of his life did
it become clear to me how important his Armenian-ness was to him,"
she said. "This is the first time I've incorporated what was his
music into my work."

But how to convey the poem's otherworldliness visually? The women
turned to the Iranian-born Ms. Neshat. Ms. Beglarian felt she had the
fierceness and sensitivity to respond in a powerful way to the text,
and Ms. Beiser proposed that she join their collaboration.

"For me, it was a chance to expand my own vocabulary and my own
themes," Ms. Neshat said. "I felt that this collaboration from three
women from three different cultures could be very poignant in a way."

Still, "I have to be very honest that I had not been to Israel, I had
never collaborated with anyone from Israel, and when Maya approached
me, I was wary," she said. "We have in Iran in many ways been
brainwashed since childhood about certain cultures and religions. But
I thought, if I don't do something about the way I'm programmed and I
don't take that responsibility to negotiate and collaborate and open
up about those people I feel are strangers to me, it's never going
to happen. These days more than ever, I feel that culture can be a
tool of peace and mediation and negotiation and understanding."

Ms. Neshat began to imagine the place the poem's narrator was
describing.

"It was clear to me this was a world unlike any other world,"
she said. "I was really after this sort of landscape not common to
the eye."

She considered the Moroccan desert, but when one of her
cinematographers announced he was traveling to Israel, she asked him
to film the landscape of Ms. Beiser's home.

"Of course, I come from the desert too," Ms. Neshat said. "But I was so
shocked when he came back. I thought, 'My God, is this what all these
people are fighting for, this barren land? This is so ironic.' The
space was so abandoned, and yet there was this energy about it,
in emotional and political ways, that charged me."

How "Far-Off Country" is interpreted — as a specific destination or
a spiritual excursion or even as a woman's secret and often painful
existence inside herself — is ultimately in the eye of the beholder,
Ms. Beiser said. But to these three artists, the lessons are far
larger than that.

"That's the message for me in all of this, that yes, we are connected
to where we come from and that's important, but in the end we all
transcend that if we let ourselves go into a deeper kind of place,"
Ms. Beiser said. "I think women need to say much more in this
way. Because if we make our voices heard, maybe then there will be
less of that horrible stuff in the world."

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2 Comments

  1. Tinkerbell said,

    Its been almost a week since ive read it and i still cant believe what teyve done to the poor article,its so mutilated…shame on the photocopier!
    sorry about the missing apostrophes but this keyboard is so old that i cant manage to figure out what kind of awkward( alt plus something) combination i must do.

  2. nostringsattached said,

    Hi, Tinkerbell, I’m Veronica.
    I have the complete list of the ALT + sth codes, I can send it to you if you want me to, just give your e-mail and consider it done ! 😉

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