Building and rebuilding

An interview with British-American composer Oscar Bettison, commissioned and premiered on this weekend's Oregon Symphony season-opening concerts

This weekend, the Oregon Symphony Orchestra officially opens its season with an old Mozart concerto, an old Brahms symphony, a new series of Friday concerts in Salem, a two-hour party on Main Street–and a brand new commission from a living U.S. composer. Parties and Salem shows and ancient Austrians are nice and all, but it’s the living composers that get us new music nuts all excited, so we invited the composer in question–Peabody Institute chair of composition Oscar Bettison–to join us at a noisy coffee shop around the corner from the Schnitz for a latte and a chat about his music, building and rebuilding, the nature of nature, and the thing he hates the most.

Bettison’s answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.

From six to nine to five

I started playing violin when I was six. My dad played violin, and his dad played violin. It was a family violin. My dad wanted to start learning again, so he got lessons, and I’m a six-year-old kid so I wanted to do whatever my dad did, and I started playing the violin. So music is something that I’ve always wanted to do. I have so many friends who have really interesting career trajectories, and mine is like, “nope.” God knows what would have happened if I hadn’t been any good at it! What would I have ended up doing? Maybe law or something.

I like to work slowly and steadily. I don’t like working in a rush, I don’t like looming deadlines, I need to work ahead. Because I need to make mistakes, and I need to go down the wrong track–and know that it’s the wrong track. But I have to go down it to know that.

I never know what I’m going to do when I start. Sometimes I have a clear picture of something, but it’s really rare. Any project like that would come about when I really want to do something, and someone said “yes.” But most of the time I get approached and asked to do something, and I have no idea what I’m going to do, and I find my way through it. Every day, chip away at it and see where it goes.

Mistakes are really important. I’m really interested in trying something new, at least for me, in every piece. I push myself to do something different, and I need time to do that. It’ll be not really gelling, and then something comes and I think “that’s it, there’s something there, but I don’t know what that is–I found this thing and I like it, but what do I do with it?” That keeps me on my toes, keeps me fresh, engaged in what I do. I would hate to ever feel I’m just going through the motions.

You have to have a life. For me, it would be really annoying to work solidly for three weeks just to get something done. I have a family, I want to be a husband and a father. That’s really important. And you can do both, but you have to have an approach. And when I’m starting out a piece, I can’t work all day, because I don’t know what I’m doing. So I need to do some work and then do something else for the rest of the day. There’s so much stress anyways in life, I don’t want to add to it. I have the same neuroses as anyone else who does a creative discipline, so I try and reduce them by having a methodical, slow, nine-to-five process.

Composing on paper

I use staff paper, and a little Sibelius. Playback is very useful for pacing, to get the timing of things. I don’t use MIDI mockups, I have everything set to a piano sound. I hate all MIDI sounds, so I just get rid of them. What’s quite nice about playback is you don’t have to be actively doing it yourself, you can shut off half your mind and just have it going. That can be quite useful, when you’re not really listening to it but half listening, and you think, “yeah, it’s gone on too long now.” The equivalent would be back in the day, making a piano reduction and getting someone else to play it. That happened a lot.

I got the software just a little bit too late to be able to go all the way in, and I’m kind of happy for that. There’s things that have to be on paper for me before they go on Sibelius, and I wouldn’t write them the same way otherwise. It just has a different feel to it, writing it out. It’s much more free. When you start putting something into a program, it’s already locked into something. You can write whatever you want on paper and worry about it later. It’s about getting something down and playing with it.

Orchestra vs. ensemble, Remaking a Forest, and the Ship of Theseus

It’s like an animal: the bigger the animal, the slower the metabolism. The beauty of the orchestra is the massive sound, the choirs in the orchestra playing together, the blend of sound. In a smaller ensemble, you can’t do that–but you can get things moving very quickly. So in the orchestra, everything has to be on bigger scale, there’s too many people; smaller ensembles, they can’t do the blend and be big and monolithic. It’s a different way of dealing with time and pacing.

I never start pieces at the beginning, but this one I did. I had something and I thought, “this really feels like the beginning of something.” It felt strongly to me that it had to be the opening, and something suggested the idea of building and rebuilding, and then I remembered about the problem of the Ship of Theseus. I think all my pieces to a certain extent are conceptual, and I realized that was the concept behind what I was trying to do: this idea of something being made and remade, and it becomes qualitatively different.

Then the idea of rewilding, a hot topic nowadays. What do we think about things that are natural? An orange isn’t a natural thing–we’ve made that. It depends on how you’re defining natural, but we’ve actually made this thing happen. We’ve made grapefruits, we’ve made almonds not poisonous. I find that fascinating.

Then the Notre Dame fire happened, a terribly catastrophic thing. Millions of people were distraught by this. But then we found out it wasn’t so bad; they can rebuild it because they’ve already done it. And this is true of so many things we think of as historical–they are, but in multiple stages. Our concept of things is not exactly what it really is. It was interesting, this idea of remaking, and something building itself and rebuilding itself.

So that’s what happens in the piece: it starts off with nothing and starts building itself and comes back on itself in a slightly different way. I wanted it to gain momentum and get bigger. But that was more of an artistic decision than a conceptual decision.

I caught onto the idea of things that replicate themselves. At the very beginning of the piece, there’s a melody played on solo violin, and it’s immediately played again by the rest of the violin section. That’s quite a different quality, the same bit of music played by a different amount of players. That was, right from the outset, my idea of what the piece would be.

“Classical” music traditions

The 19th-century tradition isn’t as important to me as Renaissance and Baroque music. Let’s say Germanic 19th-century tradition. It doesn’t feel that close to me. In terms of things now, it’s a good time but it’s a strange time. If we were talking twenty years ago we could use terms like “uptown-downtown,” and that would still make sense. But I’m not sure if it does anymore, which is a good thing.

One thing that’s really good about the younger generation of composers is that those stylistic things are gone. People are genuinely interested in lots of different types of contemporary music. And I’m one of them. I try and listen to as much stuff as I can, and present loads of different things to my students that are not similar at all. And they introduce me to things as well.

I’m very interested in learning things from each other while we’re writing music, I feel very positive about it. When I was an undergrad, I didn’t have that experience. Now we can go, “that person’s music doesn’t sound like mine, that isn’t a threat to me, maybe I can learn something, maybe they have something to offer.”

Stylistically I try and push myself, but I’m always me.

Composer Oscar Bettison. Photo by Sarah Bettison.

Absolutely programmatic

I definitely want to have it both ways. I like it when you can take it to be about this, but it doesn’t have to be about this, exactly. Things that are absolutely programmatic don’t really do it for me. Completely abstract, yeah, okay I get it. Over the past however many years there’s a lot of music that exists in the middle ground. It’s a rich place. It is good to be able to listen to a piece of music in different modes of listening, to be able to listen to it in different ways. It’s pretty cool actually.

You kind of get that in the idea of the concept album. You’re not a slave to the program. Have it both ways: you can have a concept but not have to be totally in it. Pet Sounds is a great concept album, because it’s not. I think of concept albums as being a prog rock thing, and I’m not really that into prog rock. You get really down into the weeds and you get Rick Wakeman’s Six Wives of Henry VIII. I mean that’s going a really long way into that!

What do you listen to for pleasure?

A lot of funk, ‘70s funk and soul. Curtis Mayfield, Parliament-Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye. I wrote my dissertation on funk. There’s this record label Too Slow to Disco, it’s like if you took yacht rock and expanded it. A lot of this music isn’t actually all that cool, so it almost becomes cool, or cultish. And when I was really young I was into Iron Maiden and Slayer. Mastodon, Meshuggah.

You can find all this stuff now! You just go on Spotify and keep on clicking. I got into this rabbit hole of Italo Disco. It’s so cheesy it goes beyond cheesy. This whole world of weirdness.

What do you hate most in music?

I really hate it when you can hear that somebody’s just phoned it in. You can hear when they just haven’t tried. There’s genres of music that I like more than others, of course. You can tell after a while, even if you don’t like something, if something’s good. If somebody’s tried. Even if you might not be into it, you can see that it’s good. But I really, really hate it when you can just tell there’s been basically no effort put into it. A lack of interest, a lack of inquisitiveness. That really pisses me off. You know, if you’d just tried a bit harder you could actually make this sound good.

You can’t make any kind of music or art without loving it. Nobody’s forcing you to make a work of art, so you might as well put some effort into it.

Oregon Symphony performs Bettison’s ‘Remaking a Forest,’ alongside Brahms’s second symphony and Mozart’s twenty-fifth piano concerto (featuring Garrick Ohlsson), in Salem Friday evening and in Portland Saturday evening, Sunday afternoon, and Monday evening.

www.orsymphony.org/concerts-tickets/1920/brahms-second

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