Dr Eugene Alexander Birman: Erasing perceived dichotomies with music
28 May 2018
Sporting casual attire, Dr Birman could pass as an exchange student on the HKBU campus. One may not immediately associate this reflective, unassuming millennial with the composer of acclaimed music , described by BBC as “high drama” and “intense emotion”, but a few minutes into the conversation, his soft-spoken words conveying profound thoughts deliver the same response as his operatic works, commanding the attention of the listener.
For a fairly private person, his compositions are laid bare in the public realm, whether they are written for symphony orchestras such as London Philharmonic, or choirs including BBC Singers and Latvian Radio Choir, or leading ensembles and soloists to be performed in venues from London's Southbank Centre to Carnegie Hall in New York. He says artists have to accept what other people think, and considers it best to put an honest face in self-expression. “Barring a lack of technical skills, when an artist can access something specific to themselves and is authentic and genuine about it, then the creative work will be good.”
Interestingly, the lyrics of the cantata Dr Birman created jointly with librettist Scott Diel Nostra Culpa which means “our fault” in Latin come from the private views on the economic crisis of American economist Paul Krugman and former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves which were made public in a column for the New York Times and Twitter, respectively. Dr Birman recounts his discussion with Ilves who compared tweets, which had a 140-character limit, to a Shakespeare sonnet—a poem of fourteen lines typically with ten syllables per line. “It's like an art form in communication; and composers are actually trained to set poetry to music.”
On the unusual choice of topic for an opera, Dr Birman says, “Scott approached me to work on this production. I like the dramatic poetic implication of musically setting those snippets; it gives the piece huge expressive capabilities.” He dismisses suggestions of political motivation, saying that any inclusion of personal views would date the music quickly.
“There was a lot of buzz and people had different views, but there wasn't much of a debate on which policy would best serve the people of Estonia. These were questions that should be asked, and we thought music could be an unbiased vehicle for that discussion.” At the same time, Nostra culpa is a personal piece which he feels still resonates with many. “I remember during the financial crisis, I took flights which were almost empty. Friends a bit older than me were just graduating and taking a plunge into uncertain times. We still feel the effects of it today.”
His fearless focus on socially relevant large-scale compositions has found a new creative outlet in his current project set in the Baltics for which he won the prestigious 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship. “I enjoy taking an interesting subject, in this case fake news, and finding an approach into it that makes sense dramatically. These are real people with real stories to tell but their statements are too complex and nuanced for the news. The goal is to give them a voice and make their fears and hopes known in places where there is misinformation.”
A Fulbright scholar and DPhil recipient from the University of Oxford, Dr Birman has a highly public career, with appearances on CNN, BBC World TV, Radio France. His itinerant lifestyle has given him a varied and rich experience working with other musicians in over 20 places in the world. For him, working with different musicians allows his scores to be interpreted in different ways. It has also taught him that sometimes a composer has to defend his/her work. “Sometimes students aren't confident about their work. That’s why I urge my students to make sure they do their job fully in terms of score, parts, and music. When they know they've done a good job, they can demand better performances.” Revealing his background in economics, a subject he was trained in at Columbia University, he concludes, “We are selling ourselves as an expression; we are like a start-up in one of the most competitive industries in the world.”