Ear-Walking Woman: Natalia Beylis Interviewed

The Ireland-based experimental musician talks to Jennifer Lucy Allan about trees, pianos, Edward Gorey's alphabet and the difficulty in pressing the sound of crisp packets to vinyl

Natalia Beylis, photograph by Willie Stewart

Natalia Beylis lives in County Leitrim, the least populated county in Ireland and also the cheapest, meaning over the years it has drawn in musicians like herself, and others seeking cheap ways to live: "Artists, wing-nuts, organic gardeners and outlaws," as she puts it. She is best described as an experimental musician, in that she actually does experiment with sound (and even has a white lab coat she sometimes dons for a joke), her work often leaves me more attentive and appreciative of the sounds in my surroundings. She is a conduit of interesting sounds, and often seems less the architect of her work, and more a receiver for it.

Beylis has released on Fort Evil Fruit, Chocolate Monk, Tesla Tapes, Eiderdown Records, and others, with some self-released material. She hosts a radio show called Sunken Transmissions on Dublin Digital Radio and is a member of the trio Woven Skull, along with a number of other assemblages both transient and more sustained. She currently has recordings in the pipeline for Jon Collin’s Early Music and Bloxham Tapes, and has a piece just out on TakuRoku. For it she asked people to think back to a beautiful place they’d visited, and to close their eyes and describe what they could see and hear. As well as people describing pastoral places and holiday sunshine, it includes a particularly post-apocalyptic vision of the bogs of Athlone delivered by Paddy from Gnod, over the tintinnabulations of gongs: "I’m stood in a black desert… there are bent and ripped up train tracks and train carriages that have been toppled over and fallen, sunk into the bog, and there’s a smell from the power station," he says. It stands in nightmarish contrast with some of the other contributions, but all contributions are welcome in Beylis’ piece, because her goal is not to conjure a particular feeling, but to explore how sight, hearing and place come can come together through language; to think about how words spoken and listened to can be a very visual medium.

Beylis was born in Kiev, Ukraine, but her family left before she turned two, moving to Baltimore, Maryland via Italy. At 17 she moved to Philadelphia for a few years, followed by time in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Portland Oregon, then moved to Dublin, with a stint in New Orleans before returning to Dublin, and then settling in County Leitrim nearly 15 years ago, making it the place she has lived longest. Where she lives is surrounded by areas sued for commercial forestry, and when we speak this area has just undergone a devastating change: 80 acres of trees have been clear felled. Clear felling, she explains, is where everything is chopped down, and the land looks like it’s been bombed. Nothing is left. It’s often not allowed without special permissions, due to the detrimental effects of wholesale habitat destruction, and is considered a regressive method, but it remains legal in Ireland. She says it’s like going from living in the woods to living in a wasteland "It’s really intense," she says. When her friend the cellist Eimear Reidy visited her, they decided not to dwell on the destruction, and instead made a record that celebrated the woods. Whose Woods These Are was released in June, three soothing duets of cello and piano, where the resonances of the cello’s timber body add a pertinent timbre to the sounds.

I first came to her work through the Fort Evil Fruit release, Love-In-A-Mist, Edible, which collects recordings of herself playing on other people’s pianos and which includes a joyful section capturing idle backstage chat about how brilliant crisps are. "I guess music to me is such a social thing in so many ways," she explains. "With Love-In-A-Mist, I hadn’t recorded any of those pieces with the intention of releasing them, I just thought it’d be interesting to record myself playing on different pianos to see if it changed my composition," she says. It is due to be re-released on vinyl, but has caused difficulties in mastering and pressing, because of the unruly sonic envelope of the crisp packets rustling. "The plant were like, ‘Could you not just leave out the crisp recording one?’ I said, ‘No way!’"

While the crisps track was the first time I’d knowingly heard my favourite snack on record, the presence of this interlude and the decision to include it marks a lightness of touch, a pleasing unhurried simplicity – it is a moment when Beylis rejects preciousness about proper recording or performance, in favour of taking pleasure in the whole of a social scene. She says: these recordings are only half about the playing of a piano, they are also about the people around the piano and the rooms in which they live.

She didn’t always have such an easy relationship with the instrument. As a child she had been required by her parents to take piano lessons, but hated it – she found learning was a chore, and stopped when she left home. Then around six years ago someone offered her a piano they were getting rid of, and she accepted it. "At first I thought, ‘What do I do with it?’ I still had some old sheet music, so I got out some Chopin and started playing, but then realised, ‘Oh, I don’t have to do this. I can do whatever I want.’"

The unfurling of her approach happened in New Orleans in 2002, recording a completely improvised musical version of Edward Gorey’s illustrated alphabet. Titled the Ghastly Grimey Orchestra Of New Orleans, the album contains songs written by whoever turned up with no direction except the illustrated letter. It was played twice – on assortments of instruments and objects including typewriters, kids chord organs pulled from bins and whatever people brought along – before being recorded and never played again. "That project definitely opened up a playful spontaneity to me," she says. "You didn’t know what instruments were going to be there, or if it was going to be non-musicians coming along and just banging pots or doing or doing some hoots and hollers. It was one of the first things I did that wasn’t the classical playing of other people’s stuff. It definitely freed me up."

Then in 2013 she recorded a sound diary, 365 two-minute field recordings that each went up online. She says this project honed her listening ear intensely, and she learned how to pause within a space and listen to whatever was going on around her. The most popular captured the agrarian scat of the local cattle market, but she also became fascinated by cooking noises like popcorn popping, and started to listen more attentively to her partner’s movements around the house. "He is a drummer and I got really interested in his rhythmic patterns of things like chopping, thinking, are his chopping patterns like his drum patterns? I remember he was gravelling the yard and I listened to him for ages, it was so methodical and rhythmic."

I ask where she picks up her instruments and the tapes she uses on things like a radio show special on railway recordings, or her CD-Rs of birdsong, and she says she tends to acquire things rather than hunting them out. She picks things up in charity shops, or bits of old equipment make their way to her and her partner. "Most of the pedals I have are random," she says, "I don’t necessarily seek out things for a specific sound. I just let the sounds that are happening filter through. I find the interesting ones, use those, and then whittle them down."

Beylis’s music doesn’t say, ‘Look at me’, it says, ‘Listen to this’. She is particularly interested in sounds that appear unexpectedly, and in embracing a whole audible place (on her forthcoming release for Early Music, one track is of a single note played on a pump organ, bounced around microphones, and played through the mixer, bringing the static note to life). She mentions a particular Karen Dalton recording of ‘Katy Cruel’ where the telephone rings in the background. "I love things like that, where you can hear the place in the music. It really feels like you’re there and you’re with that person and you’re in that place," she says.

Beylis is tuned in, no pun intended, to all the sounds in a moment and in a space, and it’s her way of listening that the listener receives when encountering her work. "Nothing ever really feels like it exists in a vacuum of myself, she says. "It feels like it’s always existing, with all these influences from the sounds to all the influences of the people I hang out with; the musicians and everything they’re feeding into what I’m doing, and it’s just natural to include all that, because it’s not just me, it’s everything that’s coming through me."

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