Oscar Bettison

SONiC Snapshots: Oscar Bettison and Rebecca Stenn/Konrad Kaczmarek

By Daniel J. Kushner
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It is no secret that the new music community has found a vital home in New York City in recent years. The creative minds behind what is known as "contemporary classical music" are innumerable, and gaining prespective can be an overwhelming task for audiences.

Beginning on October 14, however, the SONiC Festival (Sounds of a New Century) ventures to make sense of the scene-particularly as it pertains to composers under the age of 40-with a 9-day festival in New York featuring a staggering 100-plus composers and more than 17 word premiere performances of newly commissioned works.

Part One -- I spoke with composer Oscar Bettison about his 65-minute opus O Death, excerpts of which will be performed on Wednesday, October 19 at 7:30 p.m. by Ensemble Klang at Symphony Space. (This is SONiC Festival Interview #3.)

Daniel J. Kushner: So the inspiration for the piece is a folk song of the same name. Could you talk about striking a balance between directly quoting a piece and writing something that's more suggestive of the overall mood of the original work?

Oscar Bettison: I wanted to set this big immovable object in the middle of the piece -- it ended up being the fourth movement... in the song "O Death" the idea of the character pleading with the figure of death not to take him away so soon, it's not so different from certain things in the Requiem Mass, although in that sense people are asking for absolution or something like that. But still, the idea of a kind of pleading struck me as interesting. So then I started thinking about how this would work as a kind of loose Requiem structure... in fact, actually I think the structure of the piece is much more akin to a symphony than it is to a Requiem Mass, but that was my original intention.

There is more of a blues influence in that melody. I was really interested in the idea of things crossing over oceans, and of course that "O Death" melody and the "O Death" words started off as an English folk thing that was passed, obviously this was taken as immigrants came to the States, and the melody changed substantially.

DK: "Chorus No. 2" has a kind of muted, almost antiquated sound. It sounds as if it's coming from a phonograph. Is that effect a way of referencing the historical nature of the source material?

OB: One of my original ideas was to actually have samples of blues records, and that didn't work out in the end... I nixed the idea of having blues records playing, but in the sixth movement, there are these really loud sections, and they contrast with these really quiet sections. We recorded the loud sections deliberately kind of badly -- originally it was going to be like a handheld Dictaphone but we found a more elegant way of doing it -- and they get played back through the quiet sections as a kind of shimmer to the sound. That was definitely playing with the idea of the blues as a recorded genre. The blues and jazz were the first genres that exist purely on record.

DK: It strikes me that there is a definite focus on human frailty in this composition. When you think about it, pleading with death is an ultimately futile proposition. It sounds like those considerations were at the forefront of your mind in terms of thematic content.

OB: Death has been an everyday occurrence for humanity right up until fairly recently. But now this is a taboo; it's rarely discussed. It just strikes me as a strange thing in the modern world. That was also in the back of my mind -- this is something that is of course common to all humanity but in our modern industrial age is something we try and shy away from. And it seems to me to be very dishonest.

For more information about the SONiC Festival, visit the official SONiC Festival website.

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