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Composer Portraits: Oscar Bettison

This season Miller Theatre celebrates the 20th Anniversary of Composer Portraits. Writer Lara Pellegrinelli has been commissioned to create a snapshot of each composer in words through an exploration of their experiences of community, viewed through the prism of new music.

“I can’t really explain what I’m trying to write,” Oscar Bettison says, during a conversation in Miller Theatre’s green room. “There’s no way to describe it until I do it.”

Photo by Kyle Dorosz    

His statement directly contradicts the exchange we’ve been having for nearly half an hour, during which Bettison has been excitedly relaying details of his work-in-progress The Light of Lesser Days. Best described as an opera, it will be premiered by the Dutch chamber ensemble Asko/Schoenberg in Utrecht and Amsterdam next fall. The scenario is abstract, involving two characters in a gray room who take flights of imagination to fantastic places in order to escape an unspoken predicament. Not only will its instrumentation extend a typical sinfonietta with the addition of electric guitar and accordion, but musicians will be “playing over samples of themselves,” he tells me. “They’ll be seated onstage. And we’ll be working with sound and lighting designers to create an immersive theater experience.”

It is exactly the kind of piece one has come to expect from Bettison, a 2017 Guggenheim Fellow whose work takes imaginative leaps in sound that frequently verge on the surreal.

For example, Apart (2012), written for Sō Percussion, uses a set of amplified chromatic tuning forks to produce ethereal organ-like effects. B&E (with aggravated assault) (2010), written for Newspeak and recorded on Sweet Light Crude (New Amsterdam), marries a boisterous whistle, rachets, and junk metal to violin, electric guitar, bass clarinet, and piano, generating tone colors that are at once warm and sharply penetrating. His evening-length requiem masque O Death (2005-07), written for and recorded by Ensemble Klang, layers trombone and a detuned electric guitar over a dulcimer-like prepared piano, creating a rare union between blues sensibilities and their Appalachian musical counterparts in the context of new music.

“I’m interested in the idea of pushing sounds together that maybe should not be pushed together,” Bettison says.

It is exactly those against-the-grain couplings that appeal to Alan Pierson, the artistic director and conductor of Alarm Will Sound; the ensemble first worked with Bettison when he served as a distinguished guest at the Mizzou International Composers Festival in 2016, performing his Livre des Sauvages (featured on tonight’s program).

“Oscar is constantly doing really strange, captivating textural things with sound,” says Pierson, “but that’s not all. His pieces also have this surprising rhythmic drive, with grooves that constantly trip over each other. They move in unexpected ways. On top of that, Oscar has a beautiful and unusual sense of lyricism. That’s a rare combination.”

“His pieces also have this surprising rhythmic drive, with grooves that constantly trip over each other. . .On top of that, Oscar has a beautiful and unusual sense of lyricism. That’s a rare combination.” —Alan Pierson

If Bettison sometimes has a difficult time putting his music into words—and he hardly would be alone in this regard—it might be because his unnaturally vivid, highly original, and vigorous syntheses defy easy description. Without a score in hand or a video to watch, you might miss a great deal of his music on your first or even your second hearing preoccupied with the question, How does he do that?

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Bettison’s compositional process is also tricky to pin down because it is emergent: he frequently cannot say what the process is because he doesn’t know what it is, at least not yet. He begins each piece by allowing himself to be lost. Following the advice of his teacher Martijn Padding, he thinks of each new work as an opportunity to figure out something that he does not already know how to do.

“He always said that you should write the piece for which you don’t already have the solution,” Bettison remembers. “I have to go through a phase where I feel like I’m floundering every time. It’s just the way it is for me. I never go into writing any piece knowing.”

Bettison studied with Padding and Louis Andriessen at the Royal Conservatorium of The Hague, where he discovered his voice as a composer, he says. He still enjoys strong working relationships with ensembles in the Netherlands that he built during his graduate student days. But Bettison was born on the United Kingdom’s Channel Islands, and, as a young person, received a strictly formal, classical musical education as a violinist at the Purcell School for Young Musicians, near London. He turned to the avant-garde as a rebellion from his conventional training, having his “mind blown” by Stravinsky, Webern, and later, George Crumb. He also listened to metal and punk, and learned to play bass.

“I was interested in other things. I’m not just talking about music—I’m talking about everything. To be a composer is to assume a role as a connector.”

He had started writing music as soon as he could read it. He credits his father, who introduced him to the drawings of M.C. Escher and tinkered with clockwork, for planting the seeds that would grow into a love of fantasy and machines. Bettison studied composition at the Royal College of Music in London with Simon Bainbridge before heading to Holland, the first place he allowed his imagination to run loose. He continued those compositional explorations with Steve Mackey at Princeton University, completed his Ph.D. there in 2008, and joined the faculty of the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University in 2009.

Bettison’s ability to navigate new compositional terrain has a direct correlation with the musicians for whom he is writing. To him, community means “having a relationship with the performers, and being able to let go. When you work with smaller ensembles, it becomes a personal relationship pretty quickly. When you can work with them in rehearsals, you’re almost part of the group. I now work with a number of ensembles who feel like they’re my friends.

“It’s great to write for orchestra because it’s the most amazing sound,” he continues. “But it’s a different set of pressures. As a composer, you’re on the outside to the point where you’re almost anonymous. If I know the performers, I write in a different way. I get a sense of how I can push things and where I can push them. I think to myself, I bet they could actually do this really well, but maybe they don’t even know it. No matter what I throw at them, it will be fine because we’ll figure it out.”

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Following the 2016 performance of Livre des Sauvages at Mizzou, Pierson sought a commission for Bettison to create Pale Icons of Night, a concerto for Alarm Will Sound’s violinist and founding member Courtney Orlando; the concerto received the support of the John Hopkins University Catalyst Award and makes its New York premiere this evening. Bettison thinks of the two works on tonight’s program as a pair, with Livre des Sauvages counting among his most outgoing compositions, and Pale Icons of Night conceived as its more inward-looking sibling. Violins assume importance in leading both works.

Livre des Sauvages (2012)
Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, musikFabrik, and Kunstiftung NRW, Bettison had already begun working on this piece when he first learned of a strange manuscript known as Livre des Sauvages via a post on the community weblog MetaFilter.

The document, currently housed in the Bibliotheque l’Arsenal in Paris, is shrouded in mystery. Likely to have originated in North America in the 18th century, it is filled with crude pictographs meant to represent indigenous peoples, the “savages.” Its subjects seem to be engaged in religious rituals, warfare, and the activities of everyday life, as ruled by, shall we say, their baser instincts. (We have declined to include these images in your program, but a quick Google search will bring them up.)

There’s also a historical twist: Emmanuel Domenech, a French missionary who had worked in the U.S. and Mexico, produced a serious study of the document in Manuscrit pictographique américain, précédé d’une notice sur l’idéographie des Peaux Rouges (Paris, 1860). He pronounced it an authentic work by native peoples—only to be made a laughingstock by critics who saw it for what it really was.

“Unfortunately, for our abbot,” writes Bettison in his composer’s note to the score, “there were a couple of problems with this hypothesis, the most notable being that certain words (when text does indeed appear) were in German. So, a later theory was that this book was written by a naughty German adolescent (no doubt a male given the obsession with depicting the kind of anatomical elements that have been drawn by schoolboys on walls, desks, and text-books for millennia).”

We should also add that this youthful artist must have felt more comfortable exploring his proclivities through the sexualized stereotypes of a different racial group, which later lent themselves to Domenech’s colonial script.

Bettison uses three images as points of departure for the three individual movements of his Livre des Sauvages, which he describes as follows:

I. Curious fauna, some of it murderous
Using pictures and symbols the unreliable narrative comes in fits and starts often getting stuck, backtracking or lurching forward. When things do seem to come into focus, they are highly implausible.

II. Alchemy or a new religion
A new set of images seems to show something which should be easy to describe, the religious practices of a new people. However, whilst the picture is clear, the interpretation is not. Is this a religious ceremony or some sort of arcane scientific endeavor?

III. Treasure ships and heretical ceremonies
Starting again, and from a different perspective, it seems clear that visitors have arrived on a foreign shore. They have brought with them things of wonder to trade, and the native people have adopted some of their religious practices—without, of course, recognizing the value or purpose of either.”

“I love the idea that the book isn’t what it was thought to be,” says Bettison, who extended the idea through the multivalent nature of his work. He refers to the composition as a sinfonia concertante or a concerto; it depends upon its two violins, each of which leads a grouping of instruments. Bettison challenges our sonic preconceptions by extending his orchestra through familiar objects he has reinvented: desk bells, ceramic mugs, wine bottles, metal springs, ratchets, and a wrenchophone—essentially, a xylophone made of wrenches. These he refers to as “Cinderella instruments,” transformed in the context of the concert hall.

Bettison challenges our sonic preconceptions by extending his orchestra through familiar objects he has reinvented: desk bells, ceramic mugs, wine bottles, metal springs, ratchets, and a wrenchophone.

“The violin is a sophisticated instrument that evolved and requires technical mastery to make and to play,” says Bettison. “It is beautiful. It can express itself in so many refined ways. Desk bells shouldn’t even be part of the same conversation. But there’s a simple honesty to a found object like that, and putting them together is very special. It bridges a huge gulf.”

Pale Icons of Night (2018)
Bettison composed Pale Icons of Night for Alarm Will Sound and Courtney Orlando, a violinist and Peabody Institute colleague who he describes as “fearless.” Known for her flexibility and virtuosity, Orlando has been the artistic director of Now Hear This, Peabody’s new music ensemble, since 2015. Pierson praises her as a musician who “plays with a ton of finesse. What makes her truly remarkable is her subtle sense of color, her attention to rhythm, and the range of character that she can bring.”

Pale Icons of Night makes full use of the atmospheric side of Orlando’s playing; the work explores dualities, depicting the contrasting qualities of the night. “I started thinking about nighttime and how some things become softened, but other things become more apparent,” Bettison explains. “The piece is all about these two different states: this tough, more tangible physical state, and another much softer, dreamlike or somnambulant state.”

Structured in two halves that feature short movements with parallel openings, both titled “of night,” the orchestral fabric is woven from microtones as small as one-eighth of a tone in the strings, and a variety of exhalations into the mouthpieces of the wind instruments. There is a circularity in its materials; one feels as if the piece might begin over again. Musical objects reappear in different guises, offering dreamlike visitations. Other material is more emphatic and rhythmically propulsive, taking on a quality with greater solidity.

“The soloist is featured through big lyrical passages that sometimes lead, pulling the ensemble along,” says Bettison. “And sometimes the ensemble pulls her along. It has a big part to play, more than in a typical concerto. I think of the soloist and the ensemble as equals, working together. An ensemble of this size is nimble, and you have enough flexibility to be able to do that. I think that’s why I wanted to write this piece, to really push these players that I love and know so well.”

Lara Pellegrinelli is a scholar and a journalist, who contributes to NPR and The New York Times. She teaches at The New School and Bard’s Microcollege at Brooklyn Public Library.

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