Ten Questions for Nik Beeson

Composer Nik Beeson

Composer Nik Beeson

Nik Beeson is a digital communicator & electro-acoustic composer, and completely new to me. I’ve been listening to the CD for DIVE: Odes for Lighea at the encouragement of Alex Fallis, who will be directing the project in its premiere July 31st at The Array Space. I admire Beeson’s ambitions in a work that aims to be political, philosophical and yes, musical. The music on the CD has grown on me (I’ve heard it at least 5 times).

I was glad to get the chance to ask Beeson ten questions: five about him and five more about his work on DIVE.

1-Are you more like your father or your mother?

Some combination of the two.

My folks are wartime British boarding school raised immigrants, and so there is a sense of transience and a loose sense of place deep in my core. We have no other relatives in Canada, and it’s been at least a couple of decades since I last made it to Britain.

My mother is classically cultured (she studied architecture and design), and so I was exposed to a lot of art; at a very young age I could comfortably identify the styles of any major visual or classical music artist. She’s a very bright hardcore rationalist (her mother was the first female surgeon in Scotland and an atheist) and so there was a decidedly no bullshit empirical rigour about things.

My dad is a gentle and kind soul, who left wartime British boarding school into the army. He’s got a lot of ground to him, as well as a strong romantic streak. A man with a deep and powerful well of feeling which, as a British war brat, boarding school, army dude, didn’t have an obvious expressive outlet. Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’, Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs’ and Bizet’s ‘The Pearl Fishers’ can all bring him to tears.

There were no instruments in the house until my folks gave me a guitar for my 16th birthday (I sucked for a very long time!). Our record collection was pretty straightforward: Bach, Beethoven, Dvorak, with a Fats Waller if I remember, and a lot of British Military Marching Bands. So, my mother educated me in identifying the masters (and maybe even to aspire to be like them) and my dad could really really feel the music.

First music class in Grade 7 we were told to chose an instrument. I identified that the French Horn was undoubtedly the freaking loudest and also definitely the coolest looking instrument so I chose that. The parts were boring as heck but I would get ‘A’s all the time which was, given the fact that I was a pretty lousy student at everything else, a bit of a mystery to me.

I was given a guitar at 16 and taught myself basic chords. Mostly I ‘noodled’ – fretting – generating melodic patterns and memorising them. That was about it. But I definitely liked it, and it definitely served some kind of deep purpose for me. I wrote poems which I put to music: music was, for a long time just a kind of tool for making philosophical ideas accessible.

I used to busque quite a bit, and I remember a very striking man coming up to me one day and saying very directly, “Get musical…. get musical…”. I was haunted by that: he was dead right – I wasn’t really listening to what was going on, I was just pounding out a set of structures that I hung words off of. I’m super grateful for that old guy: maybe that was where it started.

2-What is the best thing or worst thing about being a composer of “new” music?

I came to ‘new music’ semi-accidentally; I was hired as the web director for the Canadian Music Centre. I had been marginally experimental in my listening before: Eno, Fripp, etc., but working at the CMC blew my ears open. Linda Smith, Eve Egoyan, Claude Vivier, R. Murray Schafer… and then I drifted over to, as my world music friend called it, ‘the dark side’: electroacoustic music. Jean Piche, Gilles Gobeil, Robert Normandeau… it felt a little as if there were almost no constraints at all on how one could try and express an idea or a feeling. This, through some kind chemical reaction, allowed my heart and mind to develop a much more direct and honest path to sound. Sound became a much more potent intellectual and emotionally expressive medium.

So this is what’s great about New Music; the uncluttered forging of direct, fresh and authentic connections from your heart and mind to an expressive medium.

I also love New Music because I feel like I am always in a process of discovery. I truly love this. I do not know what style I’m working in, and I don’t need to know. I have no formal musical education, no authorities, no compositional community, no precedence,. so what I end up creating is pretty raw and direct and naiive and unabashed.

That’s what’s great about ‘New Music’; the feeling of discovery, the feeling of chasing a very unique ‘something’ that is somehow yourself and also somehow very other, and that you are not bound by predetermined styles (and the implicit emotional boundaries of those styles).

What is painful about New Music is that there is almost no audience for it (although anonymity has its benefits!) and no capacity for sustainably making a living from it. So it becomes a project that you do out on the fringe of your daily life, trying to fit in frags of time hither and thither between everything else that keeps house & home & family together. This makes it supremely difficult to work a really deep vein of creativity through. I can only create fragments and flashes of something much larger which would require many many months to delve into and truly uncover.

3-Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I don’t listen to much, though I like a lot of different musics.

The most consistent staple in my music deck over the last year has been Mavis Staples singing Jeff Tweedy’s songs on ‘One True Vine’, and I pick up an acoustic guitar and sing ‘Holy Ghost’ a couple of times a week. Staples just has so much soul and such an incredible and honest access to her emotions…

Here’s what I’ve favourited on YouTube over the last while:

Patrick Watson, Autechre, Best of Gramatik, Karl Richter playing Bach’s Passacaglia & Fugue in C Minor (a touchstone), Unchained Melody – Righteous Brothers, Jesus Make up my Dying Bed – Blind Willie Johnson, Gavin Bryars (with Tom Waits) ‘Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ (repeatedly), Hundred Waters, Cliff Edwards singing “When You Wish Upon A Star’ (I periodically sing this too), Bill Withers – Ain’t No Sunshine, Beatles – Blackbird, Danny Michel – Cold Road, Martin Sexton – There Go I, Johnny Cash – God’s Gonna Cut You Down, Benjamin Britten – ‘Four Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes, Jeff Buckley, Zed’s Dead…

‘Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus’, produced by Hal Wilner, may be my favourite album.

I don’t have tv so can’t comment on any of the tv series other than that they seem one hell of a lot better than the stuff we watched when I was a kid. My spouse (Fides) took considerable interest in ‘Downton Abbey’ for a time, but I was traumatised by it, so we had to stop.

Fides Krucker and Earl Pastko

Fides Krucker and Earl Pastko

I like to watch how my bean vines climb…

4-What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

I’d love to be able to play piano. I can, with enough repetition, play compositional ideas kind of almost adequately so that I can hand them off. But it would be marvellous to be really able to freely improvise.

I don’t read scores anymore. When I was a teenager I could but no more. So, being able to express compositional ideas straight out of my head onto paper, being able to scrawl notes… that would be great.

I’d love to be able to just see a score and play some of the music that blows my mind… being able to play music that really blows me away opens up new pathways in my sonic imagination…

5-When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

Playing music.
Playing structured improvs with friends.
Hanging with my sons.
Dancing: ballroom dance, contact dance, jumpin’ aboot, etc….
Trail running
Getting into the wilderness

*******

Five more about DIVE: Odes for Lighea

1- I read the following on your website: “DIVE’ is based on Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s short story ‘The Professor & the Siren’.” Please expand upon the sources & inspirations for DIVE: Odes for Lighea.

I was completely drawn into ‘The Professor & the Siren’ the first time I read it.

“As I told you Corbera, she was a beast but at the same instant also an Immortal, and it is a pity that no speech can express this synthesis continually, with such utter simplicity, as she expressed it in her own body… Not for nothing is she the daughter of Calliope: ignorant of all culture, unaware of all wisdom, contemptuous of any moral inhibitions, she belonged, even so, to the fountainhead of all culture, of all wisdom, of all ethics…”

Richard Sanger's adaptation of Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s “The Professor and the Siren” sits among an admiring group of artists.

Richard Sanger’s adaptation of Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s “The Professor and the Siren” sits among an admiring group of artists.

With that I was hooked.

When I was 23 I spent eight months solo caretaking a whale observatory on an island off the NE coast of Vancouver Island. I understood, very intensely, Rosario’s need for solitude, and also the effect that intense solitude can have on a young man. I was transfixed and completely in love with the wilderness and I undoubtedly associated it at a very deep level as being both divine and feminine.

Following my stint on the island I rowed a 16’ fishing dory down the west coast for 6 weeks. I once had a massive male Orca pass directly under my little boat, clearly scoping me out, turning on his side to look up into my face. On another occasion a Humpback whale dove deep right next to me, its immense tail as long as the boat. In both cases I was completely alone, many miles from other people, and I would describe both experiences as truly magnificent, ecstatic and terrifying.

In my youth I had a kind of dangerous wrestling war with my own creativity and I depicted this creative force as a subterranean or submarine divine feminine force which could arise from the deep without warning. I was entranced and thrilled by the ride, but I also intuited that this force could be exceedingly dangerous. In ‘DIVE’ Lighea at one point recites the names of Ancient Mariners who have been her lovers and I suppose I would have counted the likes of Rimbaud, Van Gogh, Hendrix, and Cobain as amongst them; the divine feminine lit them up and consumed them. This was a poetic explanation I had for creative outbursts whose source I couldn’t really understand; the contents of my own writing seemed alien to me. It was all very archetypal and Joseph Campbellian stuff; I was a self-professed Jungky.

So, yes, writing music about a deadly oceanic wild & divine feminine being made a whole lot of sense to me.

2-The story of this opera would seem to set up fascism and the wild as opposites or perhaps as antagonists. Could you explain?

I cover this topic in some detail in an essay ‘Fascism & the Wild in DIVE: Odes for Lighea’.
Lampedusa’s setting the story when Mussolini was at the height of his power was by no means accidental. The interaction of the dominant fascist dictator with a wild, feminine, divine being is really very very compelling.

I did some research on Mussolini and came across his classic speech declaring war on the Allies (aka his ‘Vincere’ speech), and this speech became a very significant throughline in the music, and also in the theatrical performance. Let’s face it, Mussolini is incredibly charismatic, and his rhetorical bravado, his musicality, eloquence and timing are spellbinding.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the wild and I was certainly very interested in depicting a struggle between fascism and wild, Mussolini and Mermaid. We associate fascism with repression, oppression, militance, authoritarianism and dehumanisation. We associate the wild with many of the opposite traits: it is uncontrollable, wilful, uncivilized, irregular, and openly sexual.

The Prelude – the very opening vignette – really sets the stage for the kind of interaction to follow. We hear a clock, which turns into jackboots, and then Mussolini’s speech rising up, with the great crowd swells. The final roar of the ecstatically excited crowd is suddenly interrupted and completely obliterated by a most ferocious roar from the mermaid, after which the roaring crowd is dispelled into the roar of surf and the calls of seagulls. I liked this very much. I very much wanted the Mermaid to obliterate the Fascists.

But art and political preference are poor companions; when you allow political preference to dictate your art it becomes propaganda. Politics is about agenda, power and control whereas artistic creativity is much less predictable and can’t be herded in that way. There are attributes that fascism and the wild have in common. Neither are democratic and both can be violent. But the violence of the wild isn’t ideological or judgemental, it has no attitude towards morality at all: it’s amoral and exceedingly fecund.

Rosario, when asked by Lighea to join him, refuses. So he refuses the wild divine, running back to his books and his Platonic ideals. But the life of ideal forms only have two paths: Utopian escapism because the world can never be so symmetrical; or the ideological terrorism of trying to force a perfect form onto a very imperfect and irrational world. Rosario chose the former, Mussolini chose the latter: neither survives.

The parallels between de Lampedusa’s tale, and the attitude of Canada’s current government towards ecological sustainability and democracy were not lost on me. During the time I wrote the music for DIVE my day job was at a human rights and ecological justice org. I witnessed very clearly the antipathy of this government towards environmental sustainability, common democratic procedures, not to mention the arts. While I wouldn’t characterise our current government as ‘fascist’, I do see tendencies – repression of dissent, intimidation, a total pre-occupation with maintaining power at the expense of democratic processes, the consistent defunding of arts, ecological and women’s orgs – which fall in line with Mussolini’s antagonism to the feminine and the wild.

3-How are you approaching the creation of the score?

My main techniques for creating the score were sourcing, improvising, writing, recording and mixing mixing mixing mixing. I found inspiration from recordings of whales and wolves, the ocean, the dark dissonant tonality of Harry Partch’s ‘Cloud Bowls’, Mussolini’s speeches, Rebetika and Tarantella folk music, Persian improvisational masters, Benjamin Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes’, R. Murray Schafer’s String Quartet #2 ‘Waves’, Weird Nightmare’s ‘Meditations on Mingus’, Sonic Couture’s Glassworks Library, and, always, Fides Krucker’s voice, vocal philosophy and technique.

I composed some pieces by assembling and collaging found sounds. Others by remixing fragments of found music and slowing it down, running it through processors, and layering it. Others by recording myself singing the melodies I would hear in my head, then learning to play them. I did a lot of sequencing and multi-tracking: experimenting with various software instruments and layering them.

I had a number of recording sessions, most of all with Fides, but also with Rick Sacks, Rob Clutton and Neil Gardiner. In these I would ensure that the basic piece was well recorded, but would then diverge into more experimental passes of the same work, or fragments of the work, generating a body of material that I could then build up in the editing suite. Sometimes these experimental fragments would have a huge influence on the final product as they could be more spontaneous, evocative and intense.

I experiment a lot, and I work a lot with, and trust, accidents. Maybe one of the benefits of being so poorly educated is that there are a lot of accidents…!

Fides and I worked very closely. I have huge respect and admiration for Fides’ musicality, musical intelligence, and improvisational instincts. We had many many long discussions about the nature of the mermaid and how that would translate into music. I actually directly scored only a few pieces (The Pearls, Pastry Shop, Lighea’s Ocean) and left the interpretation of emotion and technique very much up to Fides. Frequently the most useful and intelligent thing for me to do was to get out of the way. I would ‘set the stage’ with bed tracks and notions and ask Fides to improvise, recording many takes, feeding back, experimenting with different strategies. This could result in many hours re-assembling/crafting/sculpting what we had recorded (Lighea’s Idyll, The Mermaid Spangles Mussolini). It could also result in Fides absolutely nailing a phrasing and, when I found it when listening back, I was done. The melody in Lament was improvised by Fides off-the-cuff very very early in our first actors workshop. I happened to be running tape and when I played it back later it was perfect.

4-Please talk about working with Fides Krucker and her unusual approaches to vocalism.

Fides Krucker (Photo by Jeremy Minmagh)

Fides was approached by Richard Sanger, who wrote the libretto, to do some kind of musical version of ‘The Professor & the Mermaid’. Fides remembered a CD that I had released called Howlings and she felt that that type of composer could work, so they approached me to do it. Obviously, I was in.

I wanted to create musical structures that would be liberating. The mermaid is an atypical operatic role: let’s face it, most female characters in operas are completely traumatised, if not just killed off. The mermaid, on the other hand, is an enormously powerful character and Fides and I wanted to ensure that that was not lost. We did a lot of collaborating, and a lot of discussing: I remember in our first session I brought recordings of whales and wolves and asked Fides to improvise which she did most astonishingly. I think it was sometime in that session that she made the blood curdling roar that became the ‘fascist killer’ in opening ‘Prelude’. Standing just a few feet from her I think I got a few extra grey hairs in that moment, but that kind of experience influences your compositional intentions. Suddenly I’m thinking to myself, ”a sound like that can wipe out a lot of fascism…”, and the next day I’ve rolled it into a track over Mussolini’s ‘Vincere’. That kind of thing could happen a lot.

As I said before, while there were pieces I directly scored, my role was often to set up a situation and then let Fides do what she does. There’s no way that can be scored, and no way I would conceive of what she might end up doing. It would be stupid, and a waste of time and talent. Fides has a long and storied career of being boxed in by composition, and neither of us had any interest in that: it’s not creatively enjoyable for either of us, and it would blatantly contradict the theme of the tale we were making music for.

Fides has spent decades developing a technical mastery of her voice such that she can express an outrageous range of emotions and types of intensity. She has very deliberately studied how to ‘undomesticate’, and ‘take off the doors’, of her own voice, and this is what she teaches day in and day out. So, the mermaid is a perfect role, and I tried to create conditions in which Fides could really be as expressively powerful and evocative as she is capable of being. I hope I sometimes succeeded.

5- Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

Mavis Staples, Glenn Gould…

I’m not trained, and so I suppose there is a naivete in how I approach music.
I really like honesty, and also technical mastery, but mastery never for the show, only so that it can be put at the service of genuine emotion and experience in the moment.
I think I can tell when artists are chasing something – maybe it’s ecstasy – and that’s what I want to hear. I heard it in a ten year old playing a piano a couple of weeks ago: I could tell every time he was trying the phrase out he wasn’t just trying to find the right notes, he was exploring, trying to find the specific cadence, intensity, tonality, that taps him right in the soul.

I admire that quality, and hearing this little boy stick at it with that specific intention influences me to keep finding that intention in myself, and to never stop searching…

********

DIVE: Odes for Lighea – July 31st – August 9th – The Array Space
Preview – July 30th

Featuring Fides Krucker, Matthew Gouveia, and Earl Pastko
Directed by Alex Fallis
Sound Score by Nik Beeson
Set Design by Scott Penner
Lighting Design by Simon Rossiter
Costume Design by Nina Okens
Sound Design by Andy Trithardt
Freely Adapted by Richard Sanger
from Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s “The Professor and the Siren”
Click image (below) for tickets

postcard

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Questions, Questions and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ten Questions for Nik Beeson

  1. Pingback: Mussolini vs The Mermaid: what little girls –and boys—dream | barczablog

  2. Pingback: DIVE preview mesmerizing | barczablog

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