Emily Bezar: Rapture & Rationality - interview by Giuseppe Colli

Okay, let's face it: these days Academia is not cool - a long prestigious résumé can actually work against you. So I'm glad that when I first listened to Grandmother's Tea Leaves (Emily Bezar's debut CD - see the review in Rubberneck 17) I knew nothing about her, and so I did not ponder over her 'street credibility quotient' (I'm as prejudiced as the next guy/girl). What I heard was a complex plot - meticulously realized. Sure, the vocals revealed obvious classical training, but though some of the musical questions were part of a recognisable tradition, the answers were for the most part original (the fact that she produced and partially engineered the tracks certainly didn't hurt, either).

So, yes, she graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory in 1987 with a degree in voice and electronic music, and earned her M.A. at Stanford in 1991. She's won a couple of prizes for her electroacoustic work; she was a member of the "eclectic rock band" The Potato Eaters (hear their 7" single 'Dog Eared (but forgotten)/My World' on Rastascan Records) and is an improvisor in the San Francisco Bay Area. But it's the music that matters. . .

I regard your CD as a fascinating mixture of classical and electronic music plus an echo of 60s singers/songwriters. What were your main influences?

EB I think my singing and my composing influences are pretty different. . . this may account for a lot in my music. I used to sing along with Ella Fitzgerald, Barbara Streisand and Joni Mitchell records as a girl and figure out the tunes at the piano. I was playing Brahms rhapsodies, Chopin Études, Bartok Mikrokosmos on the piano during that same time. I couldn't name a single classical singer until I was, oh, 19 or so. . . I was taught the technique without the context for a while. Vocal composers who first stunned me were Debussy, the Ariettes Oublieés, Wolf, Mignon lieder. . . his incredible phrase settings. And George Crumb's sense of colour in the voice is amazing. The Scriabin symphonies, Bill Evans' miraculous conversations. Kurt Weill is a more recent influence. I'm fascinated by the performance history of his work. . . it seems like a tradition is still evolving. My electronic influences are harder to pin down - maybe Pink Floyd meets Stockhausen?

Had I to use just three words to describe your record, I'd say "rapture through rationality" - which seems to run against the grain of the current musical climate. . .

EB That's great you couldn't have put it better. I think about this duality all the time. I'm constantly aware of an inner battle between my reason and my intuition. Everybody is to a greater or lesser degree, I think. Maybe I just waste more time worrying about it. You say against the current climate, yes, so much is either pure catharsis or pure irony, or pure process. I have a friend who's studying neurobiology. Apparently, all signals pass through the analytical part of the brain before they reach the emotional control centre. It's not the pathway I would have imagined, based on our generally volatile natures, but it proves to me that we really need to nurture this connection between faith and rationality. I always think back to those incredible Renaissance motets. It's such architectural stuff but so transcendent.

How much of the instrumental side was sequenced?

EB All of the electronic parts were played into and then edited with a sequencer, but there's no looping or computer-generated material. 'Madame's Reverie', for example, is an interactively composed piece. I organized my environment into a huge electronic sketch pad: I massed lots of ideas, sonic gestures, then triggered and warped them real-time with a keyboard, all the while recording every move I made. I use a Korg Wavestation quite a bit live. It's an amazingly flexible instrument. You've got complete control, if you want it, over every parameter of a sequence triggered from one note. I think I've only nibbled at what's possible with that thing.

You compose long and involved bridges which is unusual these days. . .

EB I'm not quite sure what a bridge in a song is supposed to do. Lyrically, maybe it's the kicker - that little piece of wisdom that reveals the whole song - or maybe complete subterfuge, I don't know. I think my bridges are like extended B or C sections. 'Just Like Orestes' is my attempt to write a song in sonata form; the bridge is the development section, I suppose. I crave adventure, little journeys. . . my musical wanderlust. The bridge-as-film-splice idea is another favourite: making a song lurch to a new mood and scenario in a flash. The tricky part is transitioning back to the main themes. Some of my songs are almost through-composed, I think, but I'm usually just reworking the verse material dramatically. There's still a sense that you've heard it before. Several of my newer, shorter songs have their 'bridges' at the very end. Those are my ellipse songs. No closure.

You put a lot of attention into details, from the way you retard a chord to the shifting relations between the vocals in, say, 'Rest Me Here'.

EB Hmm. . . do I? All that thick vocal counterpoint at the end of 'Rest Me Here' was actually done as a multitracked improv. I left the particular dissonances up to my ear and the detail work came in the mix, where I pushed and pulled voices to come up with a fabric that worked. Most of the songs on this album are very ungrounded rhythmically, so I guess issues of tempo transition and rubato become very important. I don't give myself many groove pockets to fall into here, so I'm always working horizontally to establish the 'feel' of the tune.

With so many electronic options at our disposal, it's more of a problem to decide when a piece is finished?

EB Yes, more than ever today. But I think artistic creation has always involved that struggle. How do you really know when you've said what you can on one canvas? I think the answer has to be to always let the expressive goal set the pace and the limits. I'm still much in the process of learning how many ideas I can successfully combine at once. You either get an exhilarating ride or chaotic rubbish and sometimes you just take your chances and throw it all on.

Your lyrics are very varied, but all share a complex, adult dimension that's not common. How do you see lyrics in relation to music?

EB I very rarely have a lyrical idea before a musical one. Does this disqualify me as a songwriter? Sometimes I feel burdened as a singer - being expected to express with words. I relate to abstract sound a lot better than to verbs, I think. My subjects are usually evoked by what I'm hearing or playing. A cool melody might emerge with some scattered vowels, consonants, nonsense and then I'll work it into meaning of some kind.

What are your current favourite listenings?

EB There's an American pianist/composer who lives in Japan, Bruce Stark, who's just put out an incredibly beautiful chamber music record. Great string quartet writing. Elizabeth Schwarzkopf's version of Strauss' Four Last Songs is a lifetime favourite. Joni Mitchell's Hissing Of Summer Lawns, John Adams' Harmonium. Ira Mowitz is writing gorgeous computer music.

And, finally, what about future plans?

EB I have a couple of bigger pieces in mind. Another vocal dramatic scene and maybe a piece for guitar and electronics. . . I can't play a note on guitar, but I had a recent dream where one was buzzing all night long in my ear there were marimbas, too. I'm recently fascinated by the surge of Eno-inspired ambient electronic recordings. I'm still trying to find a way to describe what I do, maybe in connection with this genre? People seem stumped so I need to come up with a catchy phrase. Ambient-opera-folk? Sounds like a colony of little green Melisandes in Pennsylvania. Who knows? I hope to be recording my next CD this Fall. Of course, I dream about a staged tour with lights and sound oozing out of the walls, you know. . . my operatic fantasy. Well, maybe some day. R

This interview was first published in Rubberneck 18, June 1995

Text © Rubberneck; photo © Lorene Warwick


CD REVIEWS - by Chris Blackford

Emily Bezar, Moon In Grenadine (DemiVox Records DVX699, 1996 CD)

Emily Bezar, Four Walls Bending (DemiVox Records DVX799, 1999 CD)

Emily Bezar's 1993 solo debut, Grandmother's Tea Leaves (Olio Records ORD599 CD), was one of my favourite song albums of the 90s, though somehow I then managed to lose touch with her career for several years and therefore miss hearing the follow-up, Moon In Grenadine, when it came out in 1996. Now, suddenly, there's also a third album to get to grips with, Four Walls Bending. Armed with GTL, Bezar arrived as a fully-fledged talent, her songcraft and performing abilities already possessing a maturity that others might achieve only after a few albums under their belt. Of course, the downside of producing such an ear-catching opener is always 'the difficult second album'; how to maintain the high level of critical acclaim without repeating oneself. In recent correspondence with me, Bezar said: "GTL was quite poured out - it went everywhere it wanted to in all dimensions almost from conception." The music's frisson was in the unpredictable scope and scale of its imagination; that sense of not knowing what might be just around the corner - a sudden surge of dissonant electronics after a lyrical ballad phase, or an intricate instrumental episode appearing where you would have expected a refrain. Even in mid-phrase, Bezar's vocals kept the listener guessing, shifting up a few gears in an instant from a gentle 'rock voice' to a full-throated classical soprano. Unbridled passion and studio-wrought polyphony proved to be an invigorating combination.

Apart from a string quartet on one piece and some guitar samples on a couple of others, GTL was a one-woman production. Moon In Grenadine sees the introduction of a group - Morris Acevedo (guitar), Andrew Higgins (bass), Steve Rossi (drums) and the leader playing her usual piano and electronic keyboards, and taking care of all vocals. Overall, MIG is a smoother ride, fewer leaps in dynamics and therefore more even-textured in structure. Songs that start out as lyrical ballads tend to remain so, rarely changing their idiomatic character. If MIG is more conventional and generally less exciting than GTL - without the latter's heady, perfumed timbres and ornate sonic architecture - it does have its own pleasures, and signals a new direction or two. For instance, '40 Mansions' gets MIG off to a blazing start, veering dramatically between Acevado's driving hard rock riffs and Bezar's chamber piano and classical vocals. Its angular coda could be vintage Gentle Giant, reminding us that Bezar's fusion of rock and classical is part of a long and occasionally estimable tradition. 'Gingerbread' shares similar tendencies, though this time Acevedo's phrasing has a Frippian edge and Bezar's scalp-tingling inflexions in the catchy refrain recall Kate Bush, in this song about marital infidelity. Another surprise here is Bezar's emergence as an engaging jazz-influenced pianist in the romantic vein of Keith Jarrett and John Taylor; 'Dream Gasoline' and 'Dancing Past Elysium' emphasize this direction by inviting Chris Grady's trumpet (on both) and Dave Barrett's tenor sax to weave brilliant colours over the punchy, swinging Higgins/Rossi rhythm section. But, for this writer, the gem of the collection is the Bezar-only 'Chevalier Lune', a perfectly judged model of elegant restraint, where vocal ardour is just about held in check against the piano's evocative, melancholy accompaniment, which has the sort of understated but telling clarity that wouldn't be out of place in Satie's Socrate.

Grandmother's Tea Leaves won over a surprising range of critics with markedly different agendas - from the avant-garde fringe through to the mainstream - probably because it was more concerned with being itself than targeting a specific audience. Each critic enjoyed its distinctiveness, its impassioned blend of so-called 'high art' (classical chamber and electroacoustics) and popular idioms (rock and pop). However, Four Walls Bending, Emily Bezar's latest album, seems to signal a growing awareness of an audience who might be interested in consuming this music. Sadly, judging by the politeness of most of these arrangements, AOR (adult orientated rock) listeners appear to be the preferred target. Electronics that were once imbued with an interesting ambivalence, even danger, have now largely mellowed into characterless Ambient. The jazz and rock ingredients are also mostly lite. And yet, the first couple of tracks raise expectations of a fine album. 'Kingdom Come' mixes vibrant drum 'n' bass tendencies with Acevedo's stringent power chords and a closing propulsive, polyrthymic burst from drummer Rossi, who elsewhere maintains a pedestrian pulse. In this context, Bezar's voice acquires a laconic informality, relinquishing some of its classical poise. But it's the opener, 'Velvet Eye', that captivates, the lyrics conjuring an overheated decadent atmosphere of lovesick derangement - droning synths, tumid bass and lascerating guitar fuel an ecstatic refrain where Bezar surges into soprano overdrive. A piece like this shows that there's still a wild gleam in the eye, but it's now seriously under attack from the bland, soft-focus vision of the mainstream. R

Previously unpublished reviews © Rubberneck, November 1999; photo © Christina Shook

back issues

to Emily Bezar website