An interview with
Emily Bezar (1995)

By Beppe Colli
Nov. 24, 2004

A positive review of Emily Bezar's first solo album Grandmother's Tea Leaves ('93) written by Robert L. Doerschuck, which appeared in Keyboard magazine, made me aware of her. I decided to listen to the CD, which I liked a lot. My review of the album ran in the issue # 17, December 1994, of Chris Blackford's (UK) Rubberneck magazine. Hoping to know more, I asked Emily Bezar for an interview. Luckily she agreed, and so the interview - her first printed interview ever! - conducted by snail mail in March 1995, ran in Rubberneck # 18, June 1995.

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?

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, Barbra Streisand and Joni Mitchell records as a girl and figure out the tunes at the piano. I was playing Brahms rhapsodies, Chopin etudes, 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?... Debussy, the Ariettes Oublieés. Wolf, Mignon Lieder... his incredible phrase settings. And George Crumb's sense of color 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 three words to describe your record, I'd say "rapture through rationality" - which seems to run against the grain of the current musical climate...

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 center. 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. Its such architectural stuff but so so transcendent.

How much of the instrumental side was sequenced?

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...

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 favorite: 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.

Hmm... do I? All that thick vocal counterpoint at the end of Rest Me Here was actually done as a multitrack 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?

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?

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 sounds 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.

Current favourite listenings?

There's an American pianist/composer who lives in Japan, Bruce Stark, who 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 favorite. Joni Mitchell's Hissing Of Summer Lawns. John Adams, Harmonium. Ira Mowitz is writing gorgeous computer music.

Future plans?

I have a couple 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.

© Beppe Colli 1995 - 2004 | Nov. 24, 2004