Oscar Bettison

Duration: 30 minutes
Instrumentation: Large Ensemble
Commissioned by The Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, Musikfabrik and Kunstiftung NRW
Premiered by The Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group on 10 April 2012 at Disney Hall, Los Angles, CA
Copyright/Publisher Information: Boosey & Hawkes, Inc

The composer writes:

A hidden narrative has always been important to me in writing my music, and in working in larger scale formats this has, if anything, become more important. Narrative structures and narrative devices inform my musical thinking, but recently I have become interested in graphic-novels, as an analogous parallel to my large-scale preoccupations. So, it was with great delight when, some time after starting this piece, I discovered the Livre des Sauvages. This book of pictographs (in effect a proto-graphic novel, albeit a pretty bizarre one) was written sometime in the late 18th/early 19th century somewhere in the US and it resurfaced in France where an abbott (who had worked as a missionary in the US and Mexico) proclaimed it to be a genuine work of native peoples (the “sauvages” (savages) of the title in early 19th thinking about non-Europeans.) Unfortunately, for our abbott, there were a couple of problems with this hypothesis, the most notable being that certain words (when text does indeed appear) were in German. So, a later theory was that this book was written by a naughty German adolescent (no doubt a male given the obsession with depicting the kind of anatomical elements that have been drawn by schoolboys on walls, desks and text-books for millennia.) Whatever the provenance of the Livre des Sauvages, it certainly is a fascinating document; crudely yet captivatingly drawn depictions of everyday life, religious ceremonies, wars with invading forces and more “earthy” elements, vie with strange cryptograms for space on the page. It seems to be trying to tell us a story, but what that story is really anybody’s guess. Of course, given my preoccupation for narrative and interest and the intersection of cultures, I immediately took the book to heart and realized that it provided a suitable visual counterpoint to my ideas for this piece. I decided to take three pictographs (from a couple of hundred that comprise the book), describe them, and take these as titles for each of the movements as well as taking the title of the book as the title for my piece.

My Livre des Sauvages is in three movements: fast-slow-fast and lasts about thirty minutes. I think of it as a kind of chamber concerto or sinfonia concertante. The ensemble is divided into two with percussion in the middle, and each group, for the most part, is lead by a violin. A lot of the time the violins have the most to do, but I think of them as leaders rather than soloists. Indeed most of the ensemble at one point or another have prominent roles. Certainly, by the end of the piece, the whole group functions as a whole. The movements are as follows:

1) “Curious fauna, some of it murderous”

Using pictures and symbols the unreliable narrative comes in fits and starts often getting stuck, backtracking or lurching forward. When things do seem to come into focus, they are highly implausible.

2) “Alchemy or a new religion”

A new set of images seems to show something, which should be easy to describe, the religious practices of a new people. However, whilst the picture is clear, the interpretation is not. Is this a religious ceremony or some sort of arcane scientific endeavor?

3) “Treasure ships and heretical ceremonies”

Starting again, and from a different perspective, it seems clear that visitors have arrived on a foreign shore. They have brought with them things of wonder to trade, and the native people have adopted some of their religious practices -without, of course, recognizing the value or purpose of either.

About the composer:

Described as possessing “an unconventional lyricism and a menacing beauty” and a “unique voice,” British/American composer Oscar Bettison’s music has been commissioned and performed by leading ensembles and soloists around the world. His work demonstrates a willingness to work within and outside the confines of concert music. He likes to work with what he calls “Cinderella instruments,” either by making percussion instruments or by re-imagining other instruments as well as writing for instruments more common in rock music and the inclusion of electro-acoustic elements. More recent pieces have been concerned with bringing these strands together. His music as been featured and reviewed in the LA Times, the New York Times, the British, Dutch and Italian press as well as having been played on radio throughout the US, Australia, Britain, The Netherlands and Brazil and on British and Dutch Television. His latest work has been described as “pulsating with an irrepressible energy and vitality, as well as brilliant craftsmanship.”

Recent commissions include major new works for the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, musikFabrik (twice), The Talea Ensemble, Slagwerk Den Haag, So Percussion, the Bang on a Can All-Stars and a commission for a solo work from the New York Philharmonic for their 2014 Biennial.

He has been the recipient of a number of awards including a Chamber Music America Commissioning Award (2013), the Yvar Mikhashoff Commissioning Fund Prize (2009), a Jerwood Foundation Award (1998), the Royal Philharmonic Society Prize (1997), the first BBC Young Composer of the Year Prize (1993) as well as fellowships to both the Tanglewood and Aspen music festivals.

The subject of several recordings, his first full-length album, O Death (featuring the evening-long work of that name, performed by Ensemble Klang), was released in 2010 to great acclaim in the Dutch and US media. Other recordings include B&E (with aggravated assault) as performed by NEWSPEAK on New Amsterdam Records.

Born in the UK, Bettison studied with Simon Bainbridge at the Royal College of Music (London), with Louis Andriessen and Martijn Padding at the Royal Conservatorium of The Hague (The Netherlands) and was a Naumberg fellow at Princeton University where he completed his PhD in 2008 with Steve Mackey as his advisor. He has served on the composition department at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University since 2009.

For more information about Oscar Bettison visit oscarbettison.com