Oscar Bettison

Odd instruments are music to composers' ears

Cowbells, wrenches and shells make up some of the instruments that writers like Oscar Bettison and Mason Bates employ in the search for new sounds and experiences.

April 08, 2012
By Rick Schultz, Special to the Los Angeles Times
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The score for Oscar Bettison's chamber concerto "Livre des Sauvages" ("The Book of Savages") should come with an IKEA-like warning: Some Assembly Required. The half-hour work, which will be given its premiere Tuesday at Walt Disney Concert Hall as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Green Umbrella new music series, employs a toy piano, hotel desk bells, melodicas (with foot pumps), tuned cowbells, tuning forks, conch shells and a "wrenchophone." The concert, to be conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky, also will feature works by Stockhausen and Cage.

Increasingly, composers like Bettison and Mason Bates, the Chicago Symphony's composer-in-residence, are employing unusual musical instruments. As they would be the first to acknowledge, the practice is not new. It is a tradition that dates at least as far back as Beethoven's inspired idea to insert a small Turkish military (or "janizary") band, complete with the then-exotic triangle and cymbals, into the last movement of his Ninth Symphony.

Not unlike Beethoven or, for that matter, their 20th-century forebears John Cage and Lou Harrison, Bettison and Bates use odd or contrived instruments in an ongoing search for new sounds, colors, textures and theatrical experiences.

In Cage's 1951 Concerto for Prepared Piano, also on Tuesday's Green Umbrella program, the composer turns the piano into a percussion orchestra by strategically attaching items of hardware to the piano's strings. And in his Concerto for Violin and Percussion (1940, 1959), Harrison uses coffee cans, flower pots and suspended lengths of plumber's pipe — a kind of metallophone used for thousands of years in Balinese and Javanese percussion ensembles.

There are no coffee cans or flower pots in "Livre des Sauvages," but Bettison salutes Cage in his centenary year by including a slightly prepared toy piano and a conch shell. The conch shell is a reference to Cage's influential 1941 percussion quartet, "Third Construction."

"Maybe no one else will get that, but it made me happy when I thought of it," Bettison said, speaking by phone from his home in Jersey City, N.J.

When he completed the score to "Sauvages," Bettison, 36, was surprised at the variety of instruments required to perform it. "I thought, 'Do I really need these?'" The answer was clear: "Most of these things, I just can't do without."

To get Bettison's "Sauvages" up and running, Dan Song, the concert manager and occasional instrument wrangler of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, asked for percussionist Nicholas Stoup's help in assembling a wrenchophone — a xylophone made out of wrenches that Bettison dubbed "a hillbilly glockenspiel." Stoup, who will lead the large percussion battery on Tuesday, simply got a set of wrenches from his dad and laid them across a table. Voilà! A "wrenchophone."

Song has had far stranger requests. For composer Peter Maxwell Davies' "Eight Songs for a Mad King" in 2010, he had to locate violins that could be smashed — several for rehearsal and one for the performance. He went on Craigslist to find cheap ones.

"I call them 'Cinderella instruments,'" Bettison said. "There's a kind of homespun honesty to these toys or instruments. You take something that seems plain and try to build it up — it gains in importance in the context of a concert hall."

Once popular as a kid's instrument, a "melodica with footpump" is a small keyboard that's actually a wind instrument. Bettison said some of the keys will be taped, making it sound like "a broken accordion." Two violinists, one on each side of the stage, will push their foot down on the pump when they play a down bow.

The conch shell that begins the second movement of Bettison's three-movement score conjures the primal-sounding horn reminiscent of "Lord of the Flies." Bettison said it's intended to convey "a call to a ritual." He also uses tuned cowbells (also called "almglocken") and tuning forks to add to the movement's mystery.

Bates, 35, was perhaps more grandly theatrical in his choice of instruments for "Alternative Energy," another major orchestral score. When the Chicago Symphony presented one of the first performances of it in February at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, what looked like a crank on the grille of an old Ford Model T was positioned in the middle of the percussion section.

"The percussion is a rhythm section," Bates said, "and it's also a theatrical section. When you have a thunder sheet or a wind machine in a Wagner opera, that's theater."

Cynthia Yeh, the Chicago Symphony's principal percussionist, said that when it turned out an actual Model T crank did not project well enough, a giant ratchet had to be constructed out of wood and spray-painted silver.

Yeh accompanied Bates to a junkyard with her mallets and sticks and starting hitting things. "There are a limited number of things you can do on the snare drum," Yeh said. "But anything that makes a sound falls into our family."

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Photo by Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times