A photo of Holly Beeman taken by the author in Muir Woods, a few months before she died.  Chris Zaldua
A photo of Holly Beeman taken by the author in Muir Woods, a few months before she died.  (Chris Zaldua)

James Blackshaw's 'Holly': When a Record Is More Than Just a Record

James Blackshaw's 'Holly': When a Record Is More Than Just a Record

On or about Nov. 27, 2013, my dear friend Holly Beeman took her own life. It marked the end of a lifelong struggle with mental illness.

I met Holly more than a decade ago, on a music-sharing forum on the internet. She lived in Ann Arbor and Houston, and I lived in Toronto and San Francisco, but we bonded over a shared love of difficult music: experimental music, industrial music, rough and ragged electronic music, music made by (and for) the kinds of people that never quite fit in, like the murky Arabesques of Demdike Stare, the haunting elegies of The Caretaker, or Emptyset's caustic sound etchings.

Soon after we met, Holly and I became thick as thieves. At first, we talked mostly about music, sharing new discoveries, old favorites, and filling in gaps in each others' musical knowledge. Not long after, talk turned to ourselves. Our primary mode of communication was Google Chat, which — in a paradox inestimable to the greatest generations and blithely obvious to the millennial ones — afforded us a degree of closeness, honesty, and intimacy that neither of us found in our day-to-day, face-to-face relationships. We weren't lovers, but we loved each other. We were kindred spirits.

holly1
A rare shot of Holly smiling. Photographer unknown.

Throughout, we kept each other company as we dealt with life's ups and downs. She had job applications, the travails of graduate school, and perilous friendships. I had the residue of ending a long-term relationship, the struggle of big-city living, and the fits and starts of establishing myself as a writer.

Earlier, in 2004, thanks to some tireless international crate-digging at our own Aquarius Records (R.I.P.), I discovered James Blackshaw, a British composer and guitarist of boundless talent. From the first listen, I was enthralled: Blackshaw plays the twelve-string guitar (whose strings, double the number as usual, sound pearlescent and celestial in comparison) like he was born to do so, performing his own longform compositions inspired by the minimalism of Reich and Riley, the serialism of 20th century European classical composers, and John Fahey's American primitivism. Listening to Blackshaw's music felt like being ensconced in a cloud.

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Imagine my surprise, then, roughly six years later, when Holly told me she had met someone — online, of course. Who is he? I asked. James Blackshaw, she said.

With each passing year, the world (or at least my own little corner of it) seems smaller and smaller, but this still threw me for a loop. Here was one of my closest friends telling me she had begun chatting, romantic-like, with one of my favorite musicians — who lived across the Atlantic, no less. What?

Holly & Japanese experimental musician Keiji Haino, Houston Fringe Festival
Holly & Japanese experimental musician Keiji Haino, Houston Fringe Festival

In retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised. Despite her deep-seated introversion, and her capacity for being a shut-in, Holly knew a staggering number of people from throughout the world of experimental and electronic music. It was testament to her abiding and passionate love of music, the one thing that sustained her amidst a troubled, clouded life. In a very real way, Holly was the nexus point through which a number of otherwise disparate people and personalities would converge and commingle, myself included.

Holly's marriage to James was tumultuous and fraught, to say the least. I won't speak on it here — a marriage is a world created by, lived in, and truly understood only by the two people who built it. Suffice it to say that it ended not long after it began.

But for a little while, at least, Holly and James were happy together. I was happy for her. And during this time, Holly became something of a muse for James. In September 2011, James Blackshaw released the simply and appropriately titled Holly EP on the Boston label Important Records.

https://soundcloud.com/jamesblackshaw/01-holly

Blackshaw's discography is flawless — not a single record he's released is less than stellar — but Holly stands as its crown jewel. Blackshaw's early works are solo guitar compositions, but he began experimenting with additional instrumentation (piano, cello, glockenspiel) several records later. This expanded palette, and its deeply personal theme, make Holly Blackshaw's most moving, emotional work.

I'm not sure what was the greater shock: receiving news of Holly's death or my lack of surprise immediately thereafter. I knew she was unwell, critically so. I had never expected the worst to happen, but when it did, I felt a macabre sense of relief. Holly was finally at peace.

Beeman in Muir Woods.
Holly in Muir Woods. (Chris Zaldua)

It’s helpful, maybe, to note that Holly was a force of nature, a heaping helping of vim, vigor, piss, and vinegar packed into a tiny frame — five-foot-one on tippy-toes. In person, she was reserved, even guarded -- a front she deployed to shield herself from her own feelings, which she experienced so intensely that they often seemed to cripple her. She was wry, sarcastic, disaffecting, and unforgiving. She was also fiercely loyal, endlessly generous, and so deeply heartfelt that, in sharing her innermost self with me, my own heart seemed fit to burst.

Blackshaw, close to her as he was, saw all this and more. And he managed to make music about it.

Holly’s eponymous A-side, exactly 13 minutes long, captures her spirit perfectly, contradictions and all. Its opening guitar refrain, and the haunting cascade of piano which follows, paint a portrait of her deep-seated melancholia more truthful and honest than words or photographs could hope to be. Later on, Charlotte Glasson's crystalline viola speaks to a tenderness, a kindness, that was as deeply rooted in Holly's spirit as the anxiety and anguish that wracked her. Its motifs then repeat, ending with Blackshaw's plaintive guitar, solitary as she was. "Holly" is beautiful, but girded with pain, just as she was.

https://soundcloud.com/jamesblackshaw/02-boo-forever

In comparison, the record's flipside, "Boo, Forever," feels inquisitive, playful, exploratory — hopeful, even. Here, Blackshaw's sylvan guitar work is the focus, the cavalcade of its 12 strings resonating in time with each other. On her good days (sometimes weeks or even months, too), Holly was silly, goofy, and not without her fair share of joy. As Blackshaw's guitar work unfurls like a flower, Glasson's flute sounds like the feeling of pressing on, knowing that tomorrow is another day. Listening along, I can practically see Holly smiling before me.

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In this season, and these times more generally, it sometimes feels difficult to find things to be thankful for. Music sustains me, as it did Holly. I knew I'd never forget my friend, but I didn't expect her to live on forever. Thanks to James Blackshaw's incredible musical portrait, I know that she will.

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