This year’s AABC awardees span generations, professions, and contributions to Barnard and the world
Suzanne Vega ’81 is busier than ever.
“I did not find the COVID era to be terribly inspiring; I found it to be terrifying,” she says. “I need to make up for lost time.”
Vega is currently touring the U.S. and Europe — with a spate of East Coast tour dates in April — playing “An Intimate Evening of Songs and Stories.” She’s performing a grab bag of her biggest hits alongside lesser-known gems — “a really nice mixture of old and new,” she says — accompanied onstage by former David Bowie guitarist Gerry Leonard.
She also recently finished the latest run of the Philip Glass opera Einstein on the Beach, an ongoing collaboration with contemporary music ensemble Ictus and the vocal group Collegium Vocale Gent, both based in Belgium. Vega played all the speaking roles in a three-and-a-half-hour concert version of the five-hour opus.
Her participation is the latest iteration of a connection to Philip Glass and his work that stretches back decades. The two have been collaborating since the 1980s, when Glass chose two of Vega’s songs for his Songs from Liquid Days album. She subsequently sang “Ignorant Sky” in Glass’ score for the 1995 Brazilian film The Interview.
“We’re friends. I find him fascinating, and I love his work. I think he’s a very funny, very spiritual man,” Vega says.
The Ictus ensemble first approached Vega about the project because of her deep familiarity with Glass’ work. “I had read the final monologue of Einstein on the Beach at Phil’s request at a benefit that he had done out in Brooklyn sometime in the early 2000s,” Vega says. “He asked me to read that final one about the two lovers sitting on a park bench and gave me some direction as to how to do it, and it was great fun. I loved it.” With this experience in Vega’s back pocket, Ictus members were thrilled when she agreed to participate.
The abstract work lacks a plot or much in the way of conventional logic. But its characters’ speech is mesmerizing, akin to reading the work of Gertrude Stein aloud.
“I try to differentiate between the different voices that I have to do: I vary the pitch, I vary the tone, I vary the speed with which I read,” Vega says. “Sometimes it’s very fast and almost muttered — almost like texture more than text — but other times I have to really sort of pontificate.” She also dons various hats and glasses depending on the character.
It’s unsurprising, given Vega’s foundational Barnard education, that she is drawn to this type of genre-bending work.
“I think I have a sense of adventure, and that leads me back to my days there,” Vega says. “One of my happiest memories is minoring in theatre at the Minor Latham Playhouse. I majored in English literature, but I had enough theatre credits to minor in theatre, and what I learned there never left me.”
There have been a number of Einstein on the Beach performances since 2017; the most recent run was an eight-city European tour this past November. The Hamburg performance was recorded, and the whole three-plus hours can be watched below. Those who saw it in person were encouraged to come and go as needed during the performance, Vega says, and fans online can replicate the experience.
“You can approach the performance the same way,” Vega says. “You can have it on in the background and just enjoy it for its texture.” For listeners interested in experiencing the work more closely, Vega recommends learning about the different movements for more of a sense of the musical journey Einstein on the Beach entails.
Though there are no future performance dates scheduled, a reprise is not off the table. But as of now, Vega remains focused on completing her current tour and diving back into songwriting.
“I need to make a new album. This is my priority,” she says. “I need to write a bunch of new songs. I’ve started. I think I have two, and I need to write a ton more. I need to write, write, write, write, write.”
Photo by Piero Taur