Eli Berman ’20 goes above and beyond what University students typically do in their college music careers. The Glee Club member recently returned from being featured in a performance in Austin, Texas. Their music is known for its expressions of Berman's queer identity.
“I consider the works I write to be drafts — they’re always changing,” Berman said.
Such a confession of artistry is not often voiced by classical musicians like composer-vocalist Berman.
Berman’s first memories of music were of singing with their parents, who are both musicians in the band “Appalasia.” Throughout their childhood, Berman sang with various school choirs and the Pittsburgh Youth Chorus, formerly the Children’s Festival Chorus of Pittsburgh.
By age 13, Berman’s classical training led them to start writing their own music, experimenting on GarageBand. By freshman year of high school, Berman had finished their first major composition, arranging Anne Sexton’s poem, “Her Kind,” to music.
Since then, Berman has only continued to compose. After winning the Alex Adam ’07 Award this past summer, their performance has flourished. After working at the University of California, Berkeley under Ken Ueno, the California Institute of the Arts under Carmina Escobar, and the Voice Science Works studying vocology and the physicality of voice, Berman became a resident artist at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta, Canada for the Revolution: Resonant Bodies program.
“Choral music has always been my language,” Berman said. “But everything I learned in California this summer helped me change … I’ve been able to focus on my body and my voice, [and to] experiment with my ideas of how this all relates to gender queerness and trans-ness. I’ve been focusing this all on me as a vocalist, composer, and performer.”
Following “years of constant singing that led to vocal manipulation,” the summer presented a turning point in Berman’s artistry.
They explained their current experimental compositional process as a result of “a lot of me just sitting around and thinking and making weird noises in my room and wondering what that meant.”
They said that this work ethic was very against the University’s work ethic, “with its capitalistic mindset inherent in what you show [and] what can be commodified.”
“I felt I was reclaiming the kind of creativity that is about my body and made by my body, moving away from this regimented kind of composition,” Berman said.
Last weekend, Berman, who identifies as non-binary and transgender, traveled to Austin, Texas to perform at the Gender Unbound Art Fest.
The festival was the first time that Berman has performed in an exclusively trans space. With the lyrics of their piece, “T4T” (“Trans for Trans”), Berman explored just that with vivid recollections of an inability to express their identity sexually.
“Why can’t I feel trans when I f*ck? When I love?” they demand in the piece.
Much of Berman's recent work incorporates improvisation, something they have struggled with at the University.
“In Princeton, I lost the impulse to improvise as I learned to become a composer, whatever that means,” Berman said.
But in Austin, Berman said they were able to improvise by using the “beauty of being able to connect to this history … both in pain and pride.”
Berman ultimately described their work as a process to benefit themselves.
“If I’m not making this art which is useful for me, it’s not going to be useful for other people,” Berman said.
While this performance in an LGBTQ-friendly space was free from the “dissonance” they typically experience as a non-binary performer, Berman hopes that they can translate emotion to an audience on a level beyond what the music sounds like.
Berman sees a future in having more spaces for queer and trans music, both in Princeton and beyond. With a performance this weekend in C4, a collective in New York, and plans for curating a “B’nai Mitzvah” concert on campus in the spring semester, they are constantly refining their “drafts” while shaping a formidable space in the world of contemporary music.