Internationally acclaimed composer of Latvian descent, Eugene Birman: ‘‘I am a product of the world, not the greater one.’’

  • 2019-07-31
  • Michael MUSTILLO

The musical compositions of the internationally acclaimed composer of Latvian descent, Eugene Birman, have been described in the international press as ‘‘ingenious, hypnotic, brave, and beautiful’’, and in the Latvian press as ‘‘electrifying and earth-shaking’’. 

Birman’s highly public international career, which has seen him make appearances on CNN, BBC World TV, Radio France, Deutsche Welle, and many other world media organizations is characterized by his fearless focus on socially relevant large-scale compositions.

When the European Union National Institutes of Culture first proposed a cultural exchange between artists and thinkers in Russia and Western Europe, Birman was the only composer involved, and the resulting project, titled Russia: Today was done in collaboration with Kim? Contemporary Arts Center in Riga, Latvia and the Tallinn-based librettist Scott Diel. Most famously, Birman collaborated with Diel on a ‘Twitter opera’ based on a confrontation between for Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman on social media.  

Though Birman, whose musical compositions are performed by the world’s leading orchestras, ensembles and soloists, constantly travels to all four continents of the global. He deeply desires to return to Daugavpils. Born in Daugavpils, Latvia in 1987, Birman’s idyllic childhood memories of living in Daugavpils include raiding the forests for mushrooms and wild strawberries and his grandparents, who owned a dacha near Daugavpils would make jam with him all summer long. 

His connection to Daugavpils is very important to him in terms of family roots and history. It is a city where, as Birman states in this The Baltic Times interview, ‘‘so much of my musical sense and sensibility comes from growing up there, the first childhood memories, and the musical identity there. I am a product of that world, not the greater one.’’ 

It was Birman’s return back to the Baltic States and Estonia, which was a defining moment in his artistic development. As Birman states ‘‘it changed everything, it made me into a composer.’’  

The Baltic Times thanks Eugene Birman for taking time out during his Festival d’Aix-en-Provence appearance in France, and residency in Vladivostok as Resident Artist of the Zarya Center for Contemporary Art to speak with The Baltic Times.

You’re working on a number of large-scale projects now across media - film, stage, and concert. Can you share some details about what they are and where you are with them? As much as permissible!

A lot of this is in fairly early stage, and some, like Russia Today, are reaching the point where the planning and research stop and the music writing begins. But as you can imagine, every project starts with an idea, a team, and a need for funding. Luckily, this is a moment in Hong Kong where it’s possible to have a fantastic team and put together the means to make it happen - a lot of this is because of my position at Hong Kong Baptist University which really has given me tremendous leverage to initiate these big projects. So there is a 1+ hour project I am doing together with installation artist Kingsley Ng on pollution in Hong Kong with the Danish vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices, which is one of the very best in the world, and the Hong Kong Children’s Choir - that will premiere in autumn of 2020. And as it incorporates data and computer science on both the politics and economics of pollution, I think it will make a cogent contribution to the conversation, not just be ‘cute’ about it like the Venice Biennale thing which I think was indicative of how frivolous ‘big’ art has become. There’s an opera project I am doing with Osage Gallery in the actual harbor of Hong Kong on the subject of Hong Kong sinking into the water, there’s of course Russia Today. And something we are still putting together with my friends, the Finnish operatic tenor Topi Lehtipuu and Roger Garcia, a legendary Hong Kong film producer for premiere in Berlin in 2021. That will have to be for next time!

There’s been a lot of talk about your Russia Today project. What can you say about the development and outcome of this project?

I can say there has been so much interest and support in what one might imagine would be the unlikeliest place, Russia itself! As we speak, I’m in Vladivostok as a Resident Artist of the Zarya Center for Contemporary Art, compelling the final phase of research and also exploring the possibility of staging a concert here in Primorye, which has a very complicated history vis-a-vis Russia, as the last stand of the White Army, etc. There’s been a lot of interest to do it in Moscow, three potential venues, all of them world-class. And we will of course do it in London, all in 2020, with Exaudi, the vocal ensemble from London. They are exceptional. One fascinating aspect of the project is of course the way we gather the text, asking people to say whatever they want about Russia, past/present/future, anonymously, but we record them. Given the history of the USSR, the fact that everything you said could be used against you, so there was no such thing as anonymity, and now the tightening control on speech all over the world, I should say, it’s an interesting time to pursue the question of ‘anonymity’. Especially as we are going to set this text to music. Can I really promise the people contributing these stories that they will never be identified? I would like to think so. But I see the hesitation of many is entirely credible.

What exciting developments have occurred for Eugene Birman since The Baltic Times last caught up with you one year ago?

It felt like it was just yesterday…but of course, so many. I just had a marvelous premiere in Lisbon with the Orquestra Gulbenkian with Pedro Neves, conducting. They were truly some of the most supportive, open-minded, and talented orchestral musicians I’ve ever encountered. Earlier in the spring, there was a very meaningful premiere in Argentina with my long-time friend and collaborator Iris Oja and an Argentine contemporary music ensemble, exceptionally talented and fun to work with. Thirty-seven minutes of very unusual music. But mostly I am just happy to turn my attention to the big, multidisciplinary projects I’ve always wanted to, particularly something with film and live staging. No commissioners exist for such things so one has to always invent!

You are a citizen of the world, and proud of your Latvian roots. You have become a somewhat Ambassador for Daugavpils in Latvia, where you were born. And are included alongside the city’s numerous other illustrious personalities, including the artist Mark Rothko, the legendary world clown Coco the Clown and many others. When was the last time you visited Daugavpils? And how important is Daugavpils in terms of your family roots and history? 

My mom said something very wise just recently, that sometimes it is better not to return to a place for a while that one holds dearly in one’s heart, because those memories may not survive reality unscathed. I deeply wish to return to Daugavpils, in fact, but I haven’t done so since 1993 or 1994 when my family left. But it is very important to me in terms of family roots and history, yes - so much of my musical sense and sensibility comes from growing up there, the first childhood memories, the musical identity there. I am a product of that world, not the greater one.

Will there be any performance of your musical works staged in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania in the near future that you are aware?

No. I’ll leave it there. Well, one more thing that’s perhaps indicative - the piece that we premiered in Argentina was written for Iris Oja, an Estonian singer, and YXUS Ensemble, an Estonian ensemble. The fact that Iris and I went to Argentina to premiere it with an Argentine group as part of an Argentine concert series, I think that says a lot about the closed door on the Baltic music scene. Their loss, not mine.

What is one memory of Latvia that you can share with us, or that your family shared with you while you were growing up in California?

Many memories are still with me, and many become stronger after I came to live in Estonia in 2010-12 and so much of those things that lay dormant suddenly woke up and became real and tangible - the fondest memory I have is this wonderful, idyllic childhood I got to experience in the closing days of the Soviet Union, where we could raid the forests for mushrooms and wild strawberries and my grandparents, who owned a dacha near Daugavpils, would make jam with us all summer long. I guess that hasn’t disappeared but driving through Latvia, I feel like the people have.

You have had a highly public career, with appearances on CNN, BBC World TV, Radio France, Deutsche Welle, and others. Your work is characterized by a fearless focus on socially relevant large-scale compositions. What are some of the most relevant issues for you at the moment, which you are conveying through your music?

I was a fellow of the Académie at the Aix-en-Provence festival last month and saw Romeo Castellucci’s staging of the Mozart Requiem. The jury is still out on how effective it all was but one powerful theme was the idea of burying the planet we’ve destroyed while, at the same time, welcoming a new world, a rebirth. I think that’s an immensely powerful notion and I give him so much credit for not ending simply with the burial part. I do think the critical power of art is to make us aware and to make us act - it’s also the horizontality of art, that we can reach into schools and inspire children to be a better, more responsible, more creative generation. I think we have to consider all of that. For me, today, the most relevant issue is the tearing apart of society, how technology has driven us further apart from each other and how readily we accept surveillance, theft of our data and privacy, etc. We have never been as disconnected as we are now. It’s a good time to be an artist, to communicate, because that’s where we lack most as a people today, I think.

Your music has been performed in the great concert halls of the world. Riga has been discussing a new concert hall for over 20 years. How important is a good acoustical concert hall to the music experience? And what advice can you give Latvia, which sees and promotes itself as a music powerhouse, that such a concert hall is crucial for the development of music and musicians?

I will admit to not having the full story on the concert hall, so I don’t know for sure where the money is coming from and who is going to benefit most and least. I’ll say, just that it’s very straightforward for a government to invest in a building and say they have invested in music, in culture, in whatever. In reality, Latvia has issues in underfunded schools, infrastructure, and a whole lot of poverty and disillusion that I think should be dealt with before vanity projects. Look at Estonia’s Arvo Pärt Centre as a great example of an expensive thing funded seemingly with public money that benefits the fewest individuals imaginable. Latvia can be a musical powerhouse by investing in its young people not to leave Latvia to study abroad and live in London, Berlin, and New York, by making it a great place to live, by replacing many many people in positions of institutional power who have been there from Soviet times and who have nothing to do with the future of music. A concert hall isn’t going to bring you that.

You are perhaps the only living composer to be cited by Steve Forbes for your work in both economics and music? I believe you also have a background in economics? How has the field of economics influenced your music?

There is of course, Nostra Culpa, the ‘opera’ I did on the financial crisis with Scott Diel in 2013 (which is what Steve Forbes talks about in his 2015 book, Reviving America). But more importantly, the field of economics in a very general sense influenced so much my approach to being a composer, the idea that we are entrepreneurs, that we have to be light on our feet, creative, ambitious, not depend on the culture ministries, composers’ unions, even orchestras and concert halls to commission us to make things. This is never taught in conservatory but it’s essential to how the world is run.