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What You Should Know About Oscar Bettison’s Composer Portrait

Melissa Smey

Miller Theatre commissioned writer Lara Pellegrinelli to create the program notes for the 20th year of Composer Portraits as well as a series of Q&As with Executive Director Melissa Smey. Here is the sixth installment, centering around our upcoming Portrait featuring the music of Oscar Bettison.   

Q. What should Miller Theatre audiences know about the Oscar Bettison Composer Portrait?

A. Earlier in the season, I said that I had programmed Vijay Iyer’s Composer Portrait with the attitude that it was the 20th anniversary of the series, and it was time to go big or go home. Well, it’s like that. Oscar Bettison’s Portrait is comprised of two giant works: Pale Icons of Night (2018), and Livre des Sauvages (2012). We’ll have the 22 musicians of Alarm Will Sound on stage.

Photo by Kyle Dorosz for Miller Theatre

Oscar’s music uses a substantial palette, and that’s what I find so appealing about it. I hear a connection in its scoring to large orchestral music. And yet, he's able to draw your attention to moments and interplay between individual instruments. It can have the same dynamics as chamber music—enabling those textures to come through in spite of the fact that it involves a lot of people, and there's a lot going on.

It’s like riding a roller coaster. That’s the adventure of new music. Don’t you love it when there are moments where you’re wondering, What’s going to happen next? How loud is this going to get?

Q. How did the concert come about?

A. Alan Pierson of Alarm Will Sound had written to let me know that they had done Pale Icons of Night, which is a new concerto for their longtime violinist Courtney Orlando, and that it had gone very, very well. He suggested that it would make a great Composer Portrait paired with Livre des Sauvages. It was a serious commitment, and I had to think about it for a while, but it felt perfect for the anniversary.

And it also felt perfect because we started working with Alarm Will Sound in 2001; they were a student ensemble at the Eastman School of Music, and we gave them their debut on a Composer Portrait for Steve Reich. We've worked together on some crazy big projects over the years.

Q. Can you give us an example?

A. We did a Composer Portrait of Benedict Mason with a piece titled AWS/Miller. The Fifth Music. Résumé with C.P.E. Bach. It involves having a dog in the theater, gun shots, and a boombox that's rigged to travel from the balcony onto the stage. It ends with all of the members of the ensemble getting onto a double-decker tour bus and driving away. The piece was originally performed in Amsterdam, where the musicians left by getting into a boat on a canal, and the audience could still hear them as they floated away. So we had to figure out a way that the audience could still hear Alarm Will Sound by piping music from the bus into the theater as they drove away. (Read the NYT's review of the Portrait.)

Q. That certainly qualifies as crazy big.

A. Projects like that are like climbing a mountain, where you need preparation, tactical gear, and supplies to succeed. Alarm Will Sound is superhuman in their ability to pull it off. They are undaunted.

Q. Tell us more about the works on the program. The instrumentation for Livre des Sauvages is quite something.

A. I agree. It includes is a rare kind of tuned gongs. There is also electric guitar, toy piano, hotel desk bells, melodica with foot pumps, cowbells, tuning forks, conch shells, and a wrenchophone.

Q. What's a wrenchophone?

A. It's akin to a xylophone made out of wrenches. Sounds fun, right? All of the ensembles that we work with have an intrepid spirit in that they're willing to embrace playing found instruments, or creating new instruments. It's not just that they're willing to do it, but they seek it out, and they're excited about it.

When the composers are doing that, it's not about a novelty. It's about trying to find novel sounds, or figure out how to make something that they can already imagine. The musicians get to be co-conspirators in a way. What's cool about that for audiences is that it expands their sound world.

Q. Oscar calls these things "Cinderella instruments," writing that "there's a kind of homespun honesty to these toys or instruments, that you take something that seems plain and try to build it up so it can gain importance in the context of a concert hall."

A. Of course! That's beautiful. I love that.

Q. I feel like it's usually percussionists who are left to this kind of experimentation, like the poor souls who, for example, pioneered the thorny work of playing cactuses in John Cage's music. But Oscar seems to spread the experimentation around, asking many of the players to double on a non-traditional instrument.

A. That's right. And it may be easier to accomplish that with Alarm Will Sound. They are special as an ensemble because they have a dedicated roster of collaborators, who've known each other now for more than 20 years. So it feels like the intimacy of a string quartet, which is unusual in an ensemble of their size.

Q. Let's talk about Pale Icons of Night. It's a violin concerto?

A. For Courtney Orlando, who is just terrific. She's played here quite a lot, including some Pop-Up concerts with us. She's a great musician. The piece premiered at Peabody, where Oscar is on the faculty and Courtney is the artistic director of the new music ensemble, and has been done at The Library of Congress. But this is its New York premiere. I can't wait to hear it live.

Photo of Melissa Smey by Kyle Dorosz for Miller Theatre.

Related Composer Portrait posts:

Melissa Smey: Portrait of a Curator in Evolution

Bridging Traditions with Bright Sheng

Pushing Boundaries with Annea Lockwood

The Path to Vijay Iyer’s Composer Portrait

20 Years of Composer Portraits and 10 Years as Executive Director

8 Questions to Executive Director Melissa Smey About Composer Portraits

Melissa Smey on Anthony Braxton at 75

Cracking the Code: David T. Little 

How Tyshawn Sorey’s Portrait Came About