Spotlight on Alumni: Michael Beharie
I've followed Michael Beharie's musical adventures for years. Since he graduated from Oberlin in 2007, he has spent most of his time in New York in an impressive array of musical activities, always driven by an irrepressible creative impulse and the obvious pleasure he takes in collaborating with others. I asked him if he would be willing to spend a few minutes reminiscing about the journey and share with my readers some of his musical projects. He generously agreed. Michael says:
"I graduated in 2007 with double degrees in Classical Guitar Performance and Third World Studies. I can't believe it's been a decade - so wild!
"Like many people living in NYC I do a lot of music related jobs to make it work. When I first moved to the city I was working in kitchens and teaching music at a Special Ed high school but for the past two years I've been working solely as a freelance musician. I make solo records and collaborations make film scores, play in a few groups and track guitar for other musicians. This past year I've been producing music for Kahli Adbu, Bunny Michael, and the dancehall collective Up & Running; each of these artists/groups have records coming out in the next few months. The majority of my income comes from doing ad music for production agencies. I make some money for playing and producing but I have to supplement that income with commercial music work. Here’s an example of some film score music:
http://www.survivalprayer.com/the_music.html (string quartet score)
"With respect to solo releases, the majority of my music so far is electronic but I’m currently moving towards working with more acoustic elements for my next release. I’m really interested in the organic together with the digital - I love that combination. Here are some solo music releases from the past few years that use the guitar:
"Here are some of my solo releases:
"I also have a duo with cellist and fellow Oberlin alum Teddy Rankin-Parker. For that duo I write compositions and also play keys. Teddy and I were close in school. I actually wrote a piece for his senior recital ten years ago and he played in the first show I had in NYC at Issue Project Room. Over the past years Teddy has lived in the Bay and in Chicago but we would regularly check in with each other and we always talked about collaborating. Teddy spent much of his post-school life as a touring cellist and improviser (he played with Primus and is currently on tour with Iron & Wine). Recently he began focusing on small collaborations and solo pieces commissioned for him. Two years ago I wrote a new piece for him which quickly morphed into a set of duo music - there is some scripted material and also room for free playing. We did a short run of shows and then recorded the music. The record, called ‘a heart from your shadow’, will be out this Spring (2018).
"When I first moved to NYC I would regularly go to Paris London West Nile, a now-defunct venue run by Oberlin alumnae that graduated a few years before me. The scene at that venue was a mix of noise, dance and avant-pop music. Around the same time I was also taking composition lessons from a teacher at a school in the city. After a handful of lessons I quickly realized that it was a better learning experience to participate in the more open-minded DIY scene than to study at the academy. It was through this community that I met a lot of the people that I’ve worked with over the past ten years, both in the pop and improvised music arenas. Most recently I’ve been working with saxophonist Sam Hillmer and drummer/producer Greg Fox who, along with guitarist Patrick Higgins, formed the band "ZS." Before joining ZS, I recorded acoustic guitar for Greg Fox's record 'The Gradual Progression' and worked on Sam Hillmer's Diamond Terrifier Cipher project.
"In ZS, the group that I recently joined, I play electronics (keyboard and a sampler). We’re headed out to Europe this month for a short run of shows.
I asked him about the extent so far of his European touring. His response:
"So far, in addition to numerous NYC venues and other domestic locations, I've played in Germany, Holland, Poland, Denmark, Czech Republic, Hungary, England, Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland."
Sam Hillmer's "Diamond Terrifier Cipher" project:
"Finally, I also play for a Nigerian afro-pop signer named Kahli Abdu. I produce some of Kahli’s music and play guitar in his live band. While at Oberlin, my minor in the Conservatory was in Ethnomusicology and my Major in the college was Third World Studies. The Third World Studies classes (anthropology, history and religion) helped to sociologically contextualize a lot of the non-Western music I was studying in my Ethnomusicology classes. My main focuses in Ethnomusicology were Gambian Kora music (which was Rod Knight’s speciality), the Baul folk music of Bengal and folk music from the Andes. For my degree recitals I played transcriptions that I made of Kora music for the classical guitar. My interest in that particular West African tradition led me to explore various other plucked-string traditions from the continent - of course there is a massive variety of genres and approaches to nylon string instruments across the continent. I’ve used some of these approaches in my solo releases and most recently I’ve been bringing some of these techniques to playing and producing music with Abdu.
Throughout my career, I've always been fascinated by the graphics used in arts communication and marketing. I was delighted by the colorful and fascinating portfolio of such artifacts Michael has collected and shares on his website. He says:
"I also archive show and release info here: http://michaelbeharie.com/calendar
"In terms of my guitar, I’m still playing the Enzo Guido that I bought while studying under you - it still sounds amazing. I have a sponsorship from Augustine strings so I use those for both my classical and electric guitars. I don't concertize classical rep at this time but I still practice every week (mostly Renaissance music these days). It was a real privilege to study the instrument in your studio. The experience of focused practicing had a huge impact on my work ethic and going deep with a single instrument gave me a heightened appreciation for the timbral nuance you can get from one source.
I observed that he's playing as much keyboard/electronics as he is guitar. I asked him if that had always been the case, or if he'd slowly morphed in that direction?
"Currently for ZS and the duo with Teddy I've been playing keyboard/electronics. For my solo sets I always play guitar and I'm planning on moving towards guitar for the new live set with Teddy. Keys are helpful to me when writing because it's easier for me to understand voicings on a keyboard but I still feel most at home on the guitar. Both have been of equal weight in my musical life for the past few years but I'm definitely moving towards playing more guitar live and on recordings.
Michael played the guitar from a young age. Here he is getting an early start:
And, as a teenager:
Now, in addition to the many projects enumerated above, and the gigs and production jobs he takes on, Michael collaborates with his fiancée, poet and singer, Marisa Beltramini (Oberlin '08).
"Oberlin greatly broadened my musical horizons - both in terms of building guitar technique and phrasing approaches with you and being exposed to new kids of music in our concerts and in the music library. Looking back, I see how the mental and physical muscle gained from studying the classical guitar can be applied to all facets of a person's musical life. Going deep with the classical guitar, especially when listening to your peers play in studio class, makes you realize how much variety of dynamics and articulation this seemingly humble instrument has.
"Thanks for reading all this! I understand that a lot of people who leave Oberlin end up doing a variety of things to make a life in music possible. I feel lucky to participate in the variegated musical landscape that is NYC."
And I thank you, Michael, for sharing with my readers about your musical adventures since graduating. Good luck in the next leg of the journey!!