Bang on

Composer Oscar Bettison fights the English disease with wrenches, tuning forks, and dangerous beauty.

Credit: Illustration by Walter Vasconcelos

Oscar Bettison was 8 years old, as he remembers it, when he first tried to create music from the sounds in his head. He wrote down what he thought were the right musical notes, but "it didn't sound like I thought it would. I think that's what got me hooked. I'm still trying to get closer and closer to the thing that's in my head, trying to make notes on paper sound like this nebulous thing." Transforming a nebulous thing into music has been Bettison's life since his midadolescence in London. He doesn't start with anything that could be called a tune. He starts with a "weird, hazy, tenuous aural image" and then spends months learning what happens when he applies to it the grammar, syntax, and logic of music.

When Bettison, who teaches at the Peabody Conservatory, talks about this process, words like "danger" and "vulnerable" and "uncomfortable" show up with unexpected frequency. He talks about "dangerous beauty." He does not dispute the beauty of the love theme from Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet. Of course it is beautiful, he says, beautiful like a classic English flower garden is beautiful. "But if you go out into a desert, there's a beauty there, too, a very cruel beauty. To me that's more beautiful than any sort of nice botanical garden because there's a danger to it. You're aware that this landscape can kill you. It heightens the beauty."

An integral element of his composition practice is putting himself in a musical place where he has never been before—uncomfortable—without much idea of what to do next—vulnerable—and relying on his fertile imagination and the fundamental logic of music to find a path to something beautiful. Along the way, he might apply 16th-century rules of counterpoint to one section of a piece and in the next instruct a percussionist to bang on a xylophone fashioned from wrenches, or a violinist to use a foot pump to simultaneously play a melodica with a few taped-down keys that make it sound like a broken accordion. Parts for wrenches and altered melodica—Bettison calls these inventions "Cinderella instruments"—appear in his composition Livre des Sauvages. He scored a later work, Apart, for tuning forks set in vibration by the musicians and then touched to contact microphones. He wrote Junk for orchestra, soprano saxophone, and percussion instruments fashioned from scrap he had scavenged from junkyards.

His most ambitious work to date, the 65-minute O Death, was a collaboration with the Dutch sextet Ensemble Klang. He stipulated that each member of Klang had to play his or her primary instrument, plus at least one other. So not only could he expand his sonic palette beyond the six instruments of the group's standard setup, he achieved a vulnerable quality by forcing the players to work outside their reassuring mastery. "There's something uncomfortable there that I really like," he says. "A difficulty. A tension. There's something about cutting through refinement a little bit. It's not that refinement is a bad thing. But there are times when it can get in the way."

Bettison was born 37 years ago in Jersey, Channel Islands, which are closer to the Normandy coast of France but part of the United Kingdom. (He now lives in New Jersey and has learned that when he says he is from "Jersey," people take him to mean somewhere at odds with his English accent.) He demonstrated enough talent and interest in childhood violin and piano lessons for his parents to enroll him in the Purcell School, a music school in London, when he was 10 years old. "It was one hell of an education," he recalls. He remembers days that began with 50 minutes of Kodály Method ear training exercises, singing Hungarian folk songs in close intervals until he attained near-perfect pitch. When he was around 15, there were twice-weekly lessons in the 16th-century counterpoint that still informs his composing.

After a few years at Purcell, he began to think of himself less as a violinist and more as a composer. Two things contributed to this change of heart. One, he could hear that he was not outstanding as a player. "When you realize that you're OK on an instrument at a school where there are people who are completely exceptional at that instrument, you kind of go, 'Well, yeah...'" Two, he was not sufficiently fond of practice to gain ground on the exceptional kids. When he arrived at Purcell, he liked to play the violin, but that was not the same thing as applying himself to mastering it. By the advent of his teenage years, about the only thing he enjoyed that might be called practice was banging around on percussion, and not orchestral percussion but a drum set better suited to accompanying the Iron Maiden records that he liked. "You're in this high-pressure environment, and if you don't want to practice you aren't going to get very far. Even now if you ask me to practice something on the piano I'll just be like, ughhhhhh. But I can sit down and work on paper composing for hours and be happy. Whatever weird brain wiring I have is totally set up for that kind of thing."

"There's something about cutting through refinement a little bit. It's not that refinement is a bad thing. But there are times when it can get in the way."
Oscar Bettison

Once he got serious about composing, he played the records in the school library's small collection of 20th-century composers so often he knew them by heart—Steve Reich, George Crumb, pre-serial Anton Webern, early Igor Stravinsky. To supplement the library, he would record radio broadcasts of contemporary works by composers such as György Ligeti. One Ligeti concert broadcast included an interview with the composer, which he studied as well. "I played that tape so much I pretty much destroyed it. That's the thing that would occupy my time, just sitting there and trying to figure out new music."

He had figured out enough by age 18 to win the BBC Young Composer of the Year prize in 1993. From Purcell he moved on to study at the Royal College of Music in London, then to the Guildhall School of Music & Drama for a master's degree, then to The Hague to work with composers Louis Andriessen and Martijn Padding at the Koninklijk Conservatorium. At his first composition lesson with Padding, Bettison played some of his music. "He looked at me and said, 'You have very good technique.' And I said, 'Thank you.' And he said, 'Ah, I don't mean that as a compliment. You have the "English disease." You're too polite. You don't say anything like you really mean it. You're scared of your ideas and you're scared to say things.'

"I don't know how many composition lessons I've had in my life," Bettison continues, "but if there was one lesson that totally changed everything for me, it was that one. My mind was literally spinning. He was right and I knew he was right. I just didn't know how it was going to manifest itself."

Padding was not done messing with his head. Bettison remembers describing a new piece that he wanted to write. "Martijn said, 'No, you shouldn't do that, because that's the piece you can write. You should always write the piece that you can't write. Never do the thing that you know you can do.' Which is the greatest piece of advice I've ever been given. Now I always try to make myself uncomfortable. I deliberately create problems and challenges for myself. The difficulty is kind of the attraction. It's addictive, you know? Now, if stuff comes easy to me, I'm really, really suspicious of it. I don't accept my own ideas. They've got to really prove themselves."

Writing the piece he can't write forces Bettison to work slowly, which suits him. He used to precede composing music with more pre-composition planning. "The piece [I had in mind] would have an approximate duration, and I'd divide it up. If I've got 10 minutes and I've got to have five sections, I could do two minutes a section, but that would be pretty boring, so I'd try to define if some sections should have more weight. It becomes this proportional thing, you know?" Now he prefers to start with some tiny element and spend a long time playing around with it, ever so slowly finding his way to something whole. "I sit down and figure out some chords that I like, not so many, you know, four, five, six. Then I literally just play around with them for weeks. Inevitably what ends up happening is that at a certain point something comes out of that. I think it was a math professor who told his students, 'If 90 percent of the ideas that you're generating are not terrible, you're not generating enough ideas.' I kind of think that about my writing process."

What if he takes a chord that has stuck in his mind and inverts it? What if he tries a melodic line backward? "I'm just trying to find something," he says. "I can literally spend a month doing that. If I come back to those first five chords and decide to just leave them the way they are, at least I've learned that that is really what I want. I go on these weird journeys of discovering what I want and things just start popping out to me." What if he were to apply a rule of counterpoint on this section? And another on top of that? "Music is a very controlled environment, but with three or four simple rules, things can go completely haywire very quickly. Writing music for me is a lot of 'what if' or 'what if I try this?' Some things stick, and 95 percent of things don't."

Because most of his compositions result from commissions, Bettison usually knows the instrumental makeup of the ensemble that he's composing for and has a general idea of duration. When he wrote O Death, "I said I wanted to write something at least an hour long. I wanted to see if I could, to be honest. I'll admit to a bit of compositional jockishness, but also I felt I had some ideas that could really stretch into something big." He had a vague notion of writing a sort of requiem, prompted by a folk song, also titled "O Death," in which the singer pleads with Death not to take him away so soon. Ensemble Klang's instrumental lineup includes guitar, trombone, piano, saxophones, and percussion. Before he was done writing, Bettison had added parts for banjo, harmonica, recorder, Jew's harp, melodica, flower pots, and wrenches.

His continuous pursuit of the new teaches him, note by note and chord by chord, what can be done with the very old.

The seven movements of the finished piece did not come in order. He recalls finishing the seventh movement first, followed by two, six, one and five (at about the same time), then four, with the third movement coming last. (He's never been satisfied with the fourth section and says one movement of Livre des Sauvages is his way of trying to work out what still bothers him, "a bit of therapy for me.") Then he had to go back and shape everything into a single organic piece. "At a certain point it will be obvious that if I have an ending and there's a particular harmony or pitch center there, and I have all this stuff in the middle and an opening, I have to go back and push things around and change things so there's a sense to it, so it feels coherent," he says. "I really like twists and turns and surprises, but I like them to feel inevitable. You can only do that by making sure there's a sort of internal logic to things. It's great when things suddenly take a totally different direction, but there needs to be some kind of narrative thread that means whilst at the time there was a surprise, there's some kind of payoff, some kind of denouement."

The narrative thread of Bettison's creative life is an oscillation between surrendering control and reasserting it, between venturing outside convention and applying conventional rules to shape the inchoate into music, between deliberately getting lost and finding his way. "You have to have a lot of faith that you're going to get there in the end," he says. "The composers who I admire are the ones who are always changing and always challenging themselves to do something new. All the time, you know?"

His continuous pursuit of the new teaches him, note by note and chord by chord, what can be done with the very old. You could argue that humans did not invent music, they discovered what had been there all along, that the grammar and syntax and logic of music, like mathematics, have been around forever, waiting to be found and studied and understood and wielded to organize randomness into meaning. Figuring out what awaits inside a key modulation or tonal relationship or Cinderella instrument animates Bettison as much as the desire to write something beautiful. He says, "You know how they say that you can tell a religion from a cult because a religion will tell you its beliefs up front, while in a cult you just get little, piecemeal things, and that's how they keep you hooked? Composition is a bit like that. When you're a kid, you think, 'Now I've got this thing figured out.' Of course, you haven't! It takes a lifetime and still you've never solved it, never figured it out. I just got hooked into this thing."

Dale Keiger, A&S '11 (MLA), is the magazine's associate editor.

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