Lembit Beecher, a 33 year-old composer and native Californian, is preparing for the premiere of his first full-scale opera, I Have No Stories to Tell You, a work which examines war from a contemporary standpoint. Gotham Chamber Opera will give its premiere this February at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The work will form a double-bill with Monteverdi’s Madrigal Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, which will be performed in the museum’s Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Arms and Armor Gallery. I Have No Stories to Tell You, with libretto by Hannah Moscovitch will be held in the Medieval Sculpture Hall. Instruments from the Met’s collection will be used in both performances as well.
Gotham Chamber Opera: Your Estonian heritage is important to you. How has that influenced your compositions?
Lembit Beecher: My grandmother’s stories about Estonia were a really important part of my childhood. Fairly early on in my compositional life I found myself drawing on these stories as I wrote, though the details of the stories were often less important than the nature of storytelling itself. I’ve always been interested in the way the act of storytelling can affect our memories and emotions. The power of storytelling and memory is a central part of I HAVE NO STORIES TO TELL YOU.
GCO: Does Estonian folk music figure into your work as a whole?
LB: I think my musical thinking has been affected in many subtle ways by Estonian folk music, but I have only used real folk material in a few of my pieces. I really feel I need to have an emotional reason to incorporate folk song directly and there is no folk influence in I HAVE NO STORIES TO TELL YOU.
GCO: What composers have influenced you?
LB: I remember Bartok, John Adams and Ligeti being particularly strong influences while I was in school. More recently I’ve been fascinated by the music of Kurtag, Beat Furrer, Britten and Veljo Tormis (an Estonian composer who specializes in vocal music). And I always keep coming back to Bach, especially the Cantatas. Though in general, I’ve found that I fall in love with individual pieces, rather than composers.
GCO: Do you like Arvo Part?
LB: Yes, though his style is so particular, that I don’t find myself drawing much inspiration from him directly. What I think Arvo Pärt did for me was to draw my attention to the potential power and beauty of clear, simple gestures. I’ve always been astounded by the affect his music has.
GCO: Since most of your work has programmatic elements, is opera an easy genre for you to work in?
LB: I think there is a natural dramatic tendency in my music. I’m used to thinking about large- scale form and storytelling when I write, but there are so many challenges with opera and so many things I’m still learning! An issue I continue to grapple with is the setting of dialogue: how much do I strive for a ‘natural’ setting, following speech rhythms and how much do I stylize my setting? I think different projects call for different approaches. Another issue I’ve been thinking a lot about is the balance between writing music that directly reflects and responds to the text, and writing music that has a life of its own.
GCO: Can you clarify that last part?
LB: There are two separate issues: first, music in opera often will give us the subtext, the energy or emotion lying beneath the words of a scene, rather than directly reflecting the words. And second, the music is central in creating the dramatic arc of a scene – and thus can’t respond to every nuance of conversation and it can’t ‘paint’ every word of text, or else a scene would dissolve into an amorphous mass of little gestures. Finding the right balance between the underlying intent of a scene, and individual words is a big challenge.
GCO: How does your piece relate to the Monteverdi in this performance?
LB: I didn’t try to respond to Monteverdi’s musical style but instead I wanted to respond to its central thematic and dramatic elements. On the most basic level, while the Monteverdi is about the act of war and battle, my piece is about the after-effects of war, the difficulty of coming home. In many ways, the end of the Monteverdi is the beginning of I HAVE NO STORIES TO TELL YOU. The soldier, who is a victor in the Monteverdi, becomes a survivor in my piece.
Dramatically, both pieces center around a similar moment, a soldier holding a companion while s/he dies, though in the Monteverdi this moment is the culmination, and in my piece, it is a launching point, a memory that keeps haunting Sorrel (the soldier-protagonist) throughout the work. I HAVE NO STORIES TO TELL YOU begins with Sorrel’s return home and the back and forth battle that is the focus of the Monteverdi is mirrored in my piece by a domestic battle between Sorrel and her husband Daniel, as Sorrel struggles to heal and Daniel presses her for information, hoping things can return to the way they were before the war.
Both pieces share many of the same themes: identity, gender, secrets, and sense of belonging, and in both pieces war acts as a catalyst for a changed sense of identity. In the Monteverdi, Clorinda converts to Christianity as she dies: battle has led her to discover a deeply rooted identity. In my piece, Sorrel's war experience undermines her previous sense of belonging and identity. In the final moments she realizes she has to try to push aside both her pre-war life and her war experiences to create her identity anew. Finally, in the Monteverdi, battle reveals Tancredi's foe to be a friend (his beloved, in fact), while in I HAVE NO STORIES TO TELL YOU, battle reveals Sorrel's friend and fellow soldier, Noah, to be as dangerous to her as her supposed enemy.
GCO: For this opera you are working with period instruments from the museum’s collection. You’ve worked with period instruments before – what is that like?
LB: The music that these early instruments create is so alive! Modern instruments place a premium on consistency and steadiness of tone but the early instruments open up great avenues of timbral variety and articulative effect. They also allow (in some ways force) the players to shape phrases in expressive ways.
GCO: In your orchestration, is it difficult to mix electronics with period instruments?
LB: It’s actually easier to mix the electronic sounds with period instruments than with modern instruments since the tone of the period instruments has a greater proportion of noise in it. The electronic sounds I’m interested in for the piece are softly flickering sounds, on the edge of white noise, and this sound palate mixes well with the older instruments.
GCO: How will the period instruments interact with the electronics?
LB: The electronic elements of this piece are quite subtle and infrequent. They are mostly derived from recordings of the period instruments playing various extended techniques and effects. My goal was to create an atmospheric, flickering aura that emerges from and extends the sound of the acoustic instruments.
GCO: I know you have worked on multi-media projects What was that like?
LB: I love the process of trying to balance many different sources. There are certainly a lot of dangers and pitfalls but when done right, one can create a sense that all these different media are talking to each other.
GCO: You studied how to write recitative. Recitative is such a big part of Monteverdi. What are your feelings on that?
LB: How to approach recitative is still a question I think a lot about. It’s a style question for me: how much should the language sound like spoken language and how much should it be heightened or stylized? Monteverdi creates beautiful flowing recitatives that are special in a way that Mozart recitatives are not. But Mozart’s are so economical at serving their dramatic role. For each new project that I’m involved with I have to rethink how I’ll approach recit sections. In this piece I’ve used a fair amount Sprechstimme. There is a string pizzicato texture, a bit like a ticking clock, which keeps returning during Sorrel and Daniel’s middle-of the night confrontations. This texture ended up creating the right space for dialogue to sit in.
GCO: When you were writing the recitative for this opera, were you influenced at all by Monteverdi?
LB: There is something very captivating about Monteverdi’s music and it’s expressiveness, but I did not draw directly from Monteverdi’s approach to recitative. The psychology of the characters in I HAVE NO STORIES TO TELL YOU had such a strong force, that my approach to recitative was really defined by this psychology.
GCO: You mentioned sprechstimme before. Are you at all influenced by Schoenberg?
LB: Not directly, but a little bit. I'm interested in the subtle gradations of spoken and sung that a piece like Pierrot Lunaire offers.
GCO: I heard your wonderful Benny Goodman inspired piece for the Quintet of the Americas. Do you work with new music groups often? Is there anyone you keep coming back to?
LB: Yes, I love nurturing relationships with performers over a long period of time. It is wonderful as a composer when you feel that a performer really ‘gets’ you, and understands your expressive priorities and the idiosyncrasies of your notational style.
GCO: After this, what’s next?
LB: I am working on two projects right now. One is an opera about a married man, an Alzheimer’s patient who falls in love with another patient at his facility. It’s both a love story and a story about letting go. The other piece is a choral cantata I’m writing for the group Cantori based on the writings of the French utopian philosopher Charles Fourier. His ideas sometimes seem loony and sometimes seem revolutionarily forward-thinking, and I find this juxtaposition really fascinating.
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