Island of the Sirens

The Island of the Sirens (2011) is a piece about defective transcription and the failures of translation.

I started with a recording of a warning siren I heard in Plaquemine, Louisiana, while I was traveling down the Mississippi River in the autumn of 2009. I sliced the warning siren into eight layers of partials and then asked the computer to transcribe those eight recordings into musical notation. Because the computer’s transcription algorithm was confused by the sounds, the resulting scores were quite strange. I recorded eight women singing these transcriptions, and mixed them in quasi-unison against the eight layers of electronically transformed siren. I then made three separate submixes of the electronics, which are fed into three sets of headphones for the backup performers, who can be instrumentalists or singers. The backup chorus is asked to perform in real time what they are hearing in their headphones, a task at which they will invariably fail to fulfill entirely successfully, creating yet more quasi-unison layers that deviate from the actual sound of the transformed siren.

The lead vocal, a setting of Rilke’s poem about the impossibility of describing an experience to those who haven’t shared it, is the only notated music in the piece. It also incorporates elements I heard in the siren recording, filtered through my own biases and limitations.

When his hosts would ask him late in the evening
to tell of his voyages and the perils they brought,
the words came easily enough,
but he never knew

just how to convey the fear and with what startling
language to let them perceive, as he had,
that distant island turn to gold
across the blue and sudden stillness of the sea.

The sight of it announces a menace
different from the storm and fury
which had always signaled danger.
Silently it casts its spell upon the sailors.

They know that on that golden island
there is sometimes a singing–
and they lean on their oars, like blind men,
as though imprisoned

by the stillness. That quiet contains
all that is. It enters the ear
as if it were the other side
of the singing that no one resists.

Rainer Maria Rilke, from New Poems
Joanna Macy, Anita Barrow, translators

The Island of the Sirens was written for the New York ensemble loadbang, and is dedicated to the band with vast affection. The piece is part of my ongoing project, A Book of Days. You can hear the Ekmeles Vocal Ensemble‘s live performance on December 10th in A Book of Days. loadbang’s premiere studio recording of the piece is available here.

horizontal rule

In order to perform The Island of the Sirens, you need a lead singer who sings this score, along with three instrumentalists or singers, who listen to individual headphone tracks and imitate what they’re hearing as well as they can. The piece is set up already in Ableton Live, and after you click the donation button below, I’ll send you all the materials you need to perform the piece using Ableton or the DAW of your choice.

not enough to admire

It is not enough to admire the art of North American Indians; Western man must rediscover the spiritual sources of this art in himself. And until this is done, the power of the sacred will remain out of reach, and the anxiety of Western man living in time will continue to haunt his soul.
Jane Ash Poitras (Cree-Chipewyan)
in Plains Indian Drawings 1865-1935
ed. Janet Catherine Berlo
page 69
Black Hawk Dream or Vision of Himself Changed to a Destroyer or Riding a Buffalo Eagle (1880-81)
Black Hawk (Sans Arc Lakota)
Dream or Vision of Himself Changed to a Destroyer or Riding a Buffalo Eagle (1880-81)


Bear's Heart Troops Amassed Against a Cheyenne Village (1876-77)
Bear’s Heart (Cheyenne)
Troops Amassed Against a Cheyenne Village (1876-77)


Red Horse (Minneconjou Lakota Sioux, 1822-1907), Untitled from the Red Horse Pictographic Account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, 1881. Graphite, colored pencil, and ink. NAA MS 2367A_08569900. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution
Red Horse (Minneconjou Lakota Sioux, 1822-1907), Untitled from the Red Horse Pictographic Account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, 1881. Graphite, colored pencil, and ink. NAA MS 2367A_08569900. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution


Julian Scott Ledger Artist B Twelve High-Ranking Kiowa Men (1880)
Julian Scott Ledger Artist B
Twelve High-Ranking Kiowa Men (1880)

on being armenian

Grant Beglarian

A couple of months ago, I found a cassette copy of a radio talk my father gave in 1975 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, which is traditionally remembered on April 24th each year. (On that day in 1915, the Ottoman authorities arrested hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople and deported and killed many of them. It was one small outburst in a “nation-building” project that began in the 1890s and continued into the 1920s.)

As a second-generation half-member of the far-flung diaspora created by these events, I know I have been formed by them, even though I will never know the details of my grandparents’ and aunts’ and uncles’ and cousins’ stories.

I’m inviting you to listen to my father’s words: in On Being Armenian, he manages to dream forward while honoring the past. I have posted his radio program as audio and with a transcription, and I have added some photographs, links, and notes to give you additional context. Please feel free to share this widely: I would love for his voice to be heard!

[News] Bangle and Tangle

hi my friends,I'm delighted that Robin Redbreast, my setting of Stanley Kunitz's wonderful poem, will be performed this summer at both Banglewood AND Tanglewood. How sweet is that?! But if you're not the type for woodsy climes in the summer, you can catch performances of Night Psalm and I'm Worried Now right here in NYC (at Riverside Church on 25 August.) And coming right up, my friend Despina Sarafeidou is doing a free showcase performance of her Kassandra at KGB Bar on 27 July at 7 pm. (No music by me, but definitely worth checking out!) I'll be heading back to the Mississippi River in September-October with the excellent Mary Rowell. We'll be performing my rivertrip-inspired music as BRIM. More about that very soon, I promise. Stay cool and beautiful! xoxox evb

archives of images

I'm reading a really fascinating book called "The Art of Memory" by Frances Yates, which traces ancient Greek techniques of "artificial memory" through European history. In the medieval chapter, there's talk of a 14th century English friar by the name of Robert Holcot:

Holcot's Moralitates are a collection of material for the use of preachers in which the 'picture' [memory] technique is lavishly used....He places such images, in imagination, on the pages of a Scriptural text, to remind him of how he will comment on the text. On a page of the prophet Hosea he imagines the figure of Idolatry to remind him of how he will expand Hosea's mention of that sin. He even places on the text of the prophet an image of Cupid, complete with bow and arrows! The god of love and his attributes are, of course, moralised by the friar, and the 'moving' pagan image is used as a memory image for his moralising expansion of the text.

The preference of these English friars for the fables of the poets as memory images, as allowed by Albertus Magnus, suggests that the artificial memory may be a hitherto unsuspected medium through which pagan imagery survived in the Middle Ages. (pp. 98-99)
Something about pagan doodles on the pages of Hosea seems connected to our project in some odd way I haven't yet thought through, but I thought I'd post it here.

Music for Bicycles

I am perhaps slightly re-inventing the wheel (groan) by considering music for bicycle wheels: a quick internet search uncovered "Eine Brise", by Mauricio Kagel, and "Travelon Gamelon" by Richard Lerman. Here's a review of a performance of the Kagel last year in Los Angeles. Both of these pieces involved multiple bicyclists actually riding the streets, a lovely idea, no?! This stationary bicycle wheel roulette/altar is quite different, of course, more about the connection of wheels and spindles, necessary and otherwise....