For longtime New Yorkers, there may be no travel destination less appealing than Middle America. Yet there may also be no place with a higher potential for extreme culture shock. For Eve Beglarian, a downtown composer-performer with serious uptown cred, kayaking down the Mississippi River had never figured on her bucket list.
After Katrina, however, Beglarian became obsessed with another devastating moment in Mississippian history: the flood of '27. "Lots of people left the Delta and traveled to urban places all over the country," she explains. "The blues would not have become the urban art form that it became, and we wouldn't have rock & roll, without that flood, which makes you realize that the line we make between nature and culture is actually an artificial line. Things sort of overlap in ways that we can't possibly predict."
Then in November 2008, Barack Obama's election ignited a desire in Beglarian, who had spent a lot of time abroad over the previous decade, to reconnect with her homeland. "I was working on a piece called The Flood, and I was just like, I need to experience this country," she remembers. "It didn't start out necessarily kayaking; it was moving at a slow enough pace to experience the 'thisness' of each place."
Beglarian's odyssey—dubbed the River Project—began in Minnesota at the river's headwaters in August 2009. Traveling by kayak and bike, and camping most nights, she ended up at the Gulf of Mexico four-and-a-half months later. Her detailed blog (evbvd.com/riverblog/) traces her descent into the Deep South and a corresponding shift in consciousness. This week, the project's final phase takes flight with a minifestival of pieces inspired by the journey.
Those familiar with Beglarian's work—which routinely marries singable lines to erudite concepts—know not to expect a musical treasury of folktales la Sufjan Stevens. "This has been an awakening about history, about ecology, about river science," she says. "There are all these things that I knew nothing about that I now know a little bit about and they've completely changed my sense of what I want to focus on. It's not so much an A-to-B connection, like, 'I saw this town, and so I wrote this piece.' It's more like there's this whole new way of seeing who we are as a people, what this country is—and that influences what I'm making." Although folk, gospel and blues influences color the new pieces, they are unmistakably composed in Beglarian's voice, with liberal use of sampling, loops and haunting vocals.
Beglarian and violinist Mary Rowell, formerly of maverick string quartet Ethel, are the constants over the three-night event. On Saturday 21, they'll be joined by vocal-instrumental ensemble loadbang and trombone quartet Guidonian Hand for the premiere of Beglarian's The Island of the Sirens, based on a Rilke poem in which Odysseus can't find the words to describe his journey. For the January 27 show, edgy chamber band Newspeak summons the ghosts of long-abandoned river town Rodney, Mississippi in Waiting for Billy Floyd. Guitarist Taylor Levine and singer Malcolm J. Merriweather close the series on January 28 with an introspective evening featuring Well-Spent, an existential dialogue between Leonardo da Vinci and Muddy Waters.
The minifest will also feature assorted arrangements of I am really a very simple person, a charmer built from solfge syllables; I'm worried now, but I won't be worried long, for which the main sample is dripping pipes; the eerie traditional dirge Wayfaring Stranger; and the Cageian outing The Sirens Are a Pleasure, which involves a homemade roulette wheel found on 14th Street.
As rich as this lineup might seem, Beglarian insists it's only the beginning. "This is the first report, a report from the field," she says. "This project is going to keep going."