Reprinted from The Salt Lake Tribune
Sunday, April 25, 1999

Abramyan Plays Bimstein's Take on Tempest Williams

byCatherine Reese Newton

The Abramyan String Quartet premieres composer Phillip Bimstein's interpretation of Terry Tempest Williams' Refuge tonight. It is not an audio book.

"If someone came and expected to hear it as if in an opera or play, from beginning to end, even in skeletal form, they would be disappointed," Bimstein said. Rather, "it's the essence of what Terry writes about. . . . I added a musical dimension to it, not that it didn't have one already."

"There are themes in Terry's book that are personal issues -- nature and politics are intertwined," Abramyan first violinist Gerald Elias explained. "To cover all of that would not be very effective, so Phillip chose to focus on nature as a refuge, how one can find peace by relating to nature."

Elias read Refuge, Williams' meditation on loss and renewal at the Bear River Bird Refuge and within her family, around the time he founded the quartet in 1993. "It seemed like a great book to somehow fit into a musical setting," he said. He met Bimstein not long after that, and the three artists discussed the idea over breakfast at Ruth's Diner in Emigration Canyon. The piece lay dormant until last summer, when a grant from the Meet the Composer foundation gave Bimstein the impetus -- and the means -- to complete it.

Bimstein has used the spoken word, often electronically altered, as a jumping-off point in compositions such as "Garland Hirschi's Cows" and "Dark Winds Rising." He took the same approach to "Refuge," with Williams reading excerpts Bimstein selected from her book.

"I agreed to read for him, knowing he would then take the musicality of the words, the intentionality of the images and story, and translate it into his own language that would then be interpreted through the quartet," Williams said.

"For months I surrounded myself, living inside Terry's voice," Bimstein said. "I listened to it over and over, listening to it and filling my head and heart, then writing the music that comes right out of that voice. . . . The landscape, because it moves Terry so much, speaks through Terry. I take her words, thoughts and voice, and it is her speaking through me.

"She is the creator of this piece, too, when she speaks for the landscape."

"My task was to simply let it go," Williams demurred. "I trust [Bimstein]."

The quartet has four movements, titled "Desert," "Silence," "Rabbits" and "Birds." In place of the usual adagios and allegros, Bimstein's score is sprinkled with more evocative, if less conventional, directions such as sacredly, with elegant restraint, prayerfully and shimmeringly. The musicians -- Elias, violinist Lynette Stewart, violist Scott Lewis and cellist John Eckstein -- will interact with the composer's taped arrangement of Williams' voice.

"The main [musical] themes are directly derived from her voice: the patterns I hear of tonality, pitch, shape and gesture," Bimstein said. "I let her voice and words compose the music in me. Sometimes [the connection is] obvious; other times it won't be."
"Refuge" is something of a departure for Bimstein. "Most of my writing is rather whimsical -- `Garland Hirschi's Cows,' `Casino,' `Half Moon at Checkerboard Mesa' -- but a piece like `Refuge' is contemplative and meditative," he said. In that respect, it has more in common with "Dark Winds Rising," in which members of the Paiute Tribe discuss the prospect of a toxic-waste incinerator on their ancestral lands.

"It is along the same lines musically as `Dark Winds Rising,' but the feeling is different," Elias said. "In `Dark Winds Rising,' there is a sense of anguish, of an ominous future, and it leaves a lot of questions. The music in `Refuge,' on the other hand, is peaceful, sublime, spiritual."

"Terry's writing moves me," said the composer, who also is mayor of Springdale at the gateway to Zion National Park. "I moved to Utah purely because I was in love with the land. I had no friends here, no family, no job prospects. I just came from Chicago to the West because I was in love with the red rock and sandstone of Southern Utah and the desert landscape." When he discovered the writings of the Utah naturalist, "I felt such an affinity for her." In writing "Refuge," "I had a deeply personal responsibility to be true to her."

Bookending "Refuge" are Beethoven's Op. 95 Quartet ("Serioso") and the Debussy String Quartet. "It is daunting to be sandwiched between Debussy and Beethoven," said Bimstein, who joked that when he heard what would be on the program, he wanted to pick up his music and run. Elias explained that he wanted the program to mirror the structure of a string quartet: "As the various movements in any given piece contrast to form a whole, that's the program."