By David Bruce
IC:T talks to composer Oscar Bettison
Tell us something about your background.
I've moved around a lot. I was born in Jersey, UK. My father is from the north of England and my mother is Spanish. I went to the Purcell School in London when I was 10, then to the Royal College for my undergrad and the Guildhall for my masters. After that, I studied in The Hague for three years. Finally, I did my PhD at Princeton University. I'm just about to join the composition faculty at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Most of the projects that I do take place in The Netherlands or the US, so I end up traveling a fair amount.
How did you start composing?
I don't really remember starting composing. I know that once I could read music as a kid, I started to write things down. Not that you could call that serious composition, but I guess the point is that there was never a stage at which I consciously started writing music. I do remember though that as a kid three composers got me really interested in writing music seriously- Stravinsky, Webern and, later on, George Crumb. I can remember having my mind blown as an eleven year old by The Rite of Spring (something that I'm pretty sure that I have in common with almost every composer!) and finding Webern very strange, but beautiful. Later on I discovered more recent composers. Reich and Nono are the names that spring to mind, but the composer that always struck me was Crumb.
What drives your work, what are you passions?
I'm pretty obsessed with machines. Small musical machines, like cannons and sets of notes that fold back onto themselves, and larger machines that drive a whole piece only to be subsumed by it. I'm not entirely sure where this love of machines comes from as I'm one of the world's least practical people, but I think it might be my father's fault. He showed me M.C Escher when I was really young, and I knew that he liked making things out of clockwork. I don't actually remember him ever doing that, but I knew that he had a whole suitcase full of old clockwork parts in the attic, which as a kid seemed quite mysterious. So maybe that's where it came from.
Anyway, I take a different view of machinery to the dehumanising attitude that has been held historically. First, machines reveal a lot about ourselves. They are extensions of our minds, a physical manifestation of what we think needs to be done. Second, I'm not convinced that machines are these cold non-organic entities that they're often seen as being. A perfect machine is one that never runs. The moment that a machine is put to use it collects dirt, little things get chipped off its mechanisms and gradually, through it being itself, it becomes just slightly imperfect and ever so slightly organic. It's almost as if all machines have a Pinocchio complex! So, that's what I love about machines. I'm also interested in lots of other types of music, beyond western classical music. I find that a constant well-spring of ideas.
Tell us about your interest in cinderella instruments.
That was something that I came up with a few years ago. For quite a while I didn't really write anything for traditional ensembles and part of that decision was that I wanted to find new sounds. So, I started building percussion instruments, which was a really interesting experiment. I wanted to get as close to sound as possible; to take the same approach as electronic composers, but with physical instruments. Of course the best way to do this is to actually make instruments yourself. Following on from that, I started thinking about how one writes for certain instruments. I mean, it's obvious that one can write "expressive" music for the piano, but for bits of struck metal? That's less obvious, so I got interested in a kind of mapping of one sort of music for a particular instrument onto these experimental instruments. So for me 'cinderella instruments' are those instruments that are rarely the "belle of the ball" but I try to make them so. I've subsequently expanded this to modifying regular instruments, such as radically detuning electric guitars and violins and this has opened up a whole new range of possibilities for me. Recently, I've started to write for more conventional ensembles again, but I've found that this approach has really opened up my mind. I don't feel so straitjacketed by traditional line-ups any more.
You were recently signed to Boosey and Hawkes Emerging Composer Program. Tell us about the Program and what you hope to gain from it.
The idea of the program is to address the issue that music publishers have been great at promoting older composers, but typically haven't done too much for the younger generation. When this first came about I was quite shocked as I hadn't even thought about the music publishing business for a good ten years! I went into a meeting and was very pleasantly surprised that the people running the program were very experienced performers of contemporary music. That came as a real surprise. Not only did they know my music, but they knew contemporary music from the player's perspective which is really important. As far as what I hope to gain from the program is concerned, I'm really not sure. I don't have a fixed plan for the future. As long as I can write for the people that I want to write for and who want to work with me, then I'm happy. It really is all about the music for me. But I am fortunate enough to have performances and commissions from different countries and this program can and does help with that.
Tell us something about your working method as a composer. Give us something that might be or might have been a starting point for a piece.
Starting points for pieces vary, but normally I end up starting with one piece of material that strikes me in some way. Then I spend a long time often just playing about with harmony, writing chorales or cannons and other little technical exercises. Gradually things start to take shape in my mind so at that point I just start writing. Invariably I end up writing a few minutes worth of music, if not most of the piece, and then I start again. I tend to do this over and over. Most pieces have gone through eight to ten drafts before they're finished. So, I write slowly, and I've become less and less enamored with large-scale pre-compositional plans. I used to use them a lot, but now I only use them on a more local level. The piece tends to go its own way anyway, and most of them time I'm happy to let it.
Which non-musical influences have affected your music most?
There are some authors who have really affected me, Borges for one, Italo Calvino as well. There's also some Japanese literature which I found very interesting. I watch a lot of films too. I'm also very into theatre and the theatrical aspect of performance. Apart from those things, I should say that I really do love music for music's sake. I believe in abstract music, and in music's internal logic. When writing I tend to think in purely musical terms.
What is your musical philosophy?
I think that anything is possible and that one should have open ears and an open mind. I know that sounds basic and naive, but that's really what I think. It's good to be childlike. Every composer that I admire ultimately thinks of him or herself as a student with an inquiring mind. That's what I try to do. I love to go to concerts and hear something completely new. Of course that almost never happens, but hope springs eternal! Lastly, I'd say that to me there's no such thing as the music that you should write. Of course that's not to say that anything goes, all composers should have a highly developed filter, but that there's no abstract should and shouldn't.
Who has been the greatest influence on your musical style to date and why?
Firstly my teachers. As I'm about to start teaching at Peabody I've recently been thinking about my teachers and the influence that they've had on me. I've been incredibly lucky not only to have had great teachers, but to have had the right teacher at the right time. Simon Bainbridge and Robert Saxton were great for me and really helped to solidify my technique. With Louis Andrissen and Martijn Padding we would discuss aesthetics which was a totally different approach. Finally, as I got into my whole cinderella instruments thing, Steve Mackey was the perfect guy to go to as he has such a unique approach to sound. Other composers that I love include Feldman, (especially "Coptic Light") Stockhausen, (particularly "Trans" and "Inori") and I've come to realise quite recently what a truly amazing composer Luciano Berio was. I used to listen to a lot of Berio a long time ago, and I've come back round to him. I also really admire Vivier's music -now there was a really original compositional voice. Out of the younger generation, Peter Adriaansz is a really fantastic composer and a good friend too. I got the chance to work with Luca Francesconi last year and he's another very interesting composer -what an amazing mind! One of the last pieces that I heard which blew me away was Olga Neuwirth's opera "Lost Highway", I've never heard anything quite like it.
What's the strangest idea for a piece you've ever had?
These keep on happening. Having had one slightly kooky idea, I've found that I can't really turn that tap off, which is fine with me. To give one early example, I wrote a soprano sax concerto a few years ago. One morning I woke up and thought, 'what this piece needs is drills, big drills'. I then had to find a way to integrate them into the piece. An idea like that can easily become gimmicky, so I worked hard to create a situation in which the orchestral texture would blend into these drill sounds. To make them inevitable. That's how the piece ends, the whole thing almost collapses into noise. I've already discussed 'cinderalla instruments' so I've continued in the same vein, trying to get these weird ideas to work. So I'd say that strange ideas are great, but they're just that, they're ideas. You then have to do something with them and that's where the composition side, the work, comes in.
Which work are you most proud of and why?
"O Death". It's a seventy minute piece that I wrote for the amazing Dutch group Ensemble Klang. The piece was a watershed for me, it summed up most of the compositional ideas that I'd been working on for a while. One of the key things is that the piece is that each of the players, in addition to playing their regular instrument, has to double on a whole variety of other instruments. So the saxes play recorders, the trombone plays melodica, the guitar plays banjo, the piano and percussion play harmonicas and almost everyone plays jew's harps, as well as there being a prominent electronic component. This was the result of nearly eighteen months of intense work with the group. It really was written for the individual members of the group rather than an anonymous group of musicians. I think that really affected the piece and that in turn affects the way that they play it. They've just recorded it and the CD should be out in the next couple of months, which I'm enormously excited about.
What does the future hold for you?
I'm just about to start work on a new piece for the Bang on a Can All-Stars for their People's Commissioning concert next February in New York. After that, I'm going to be writing a new piece for the combined forces of the Percussion Group of The Hague and the Aurelia Saxophone Quartet. Looking further into the future, there are other collaborative projects coming up with groups I really respect and am thrilled to be working with. So, I've got some music to write.
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