Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Oscar Bettison on Podcasts, Writing, and Composition at Peabody

Oscar Bettison on Podcasts, Writing, and Composition at Peabody

Interview by Bret McCabe

Headshot of Oscar Bettison

The Oscar Bettison encountered in the second season of the Mission: Commission podcast that started this month will be familiar to anybody who follows the Peabody faculty composer on social media. He’s dryly, wryly funny and frequently discusses his writing process frankly. The podcast, produced by the Columbia University School for the Arts’ Miller Theatre and featuring its executive director Melissa Smey as host, distills the six-week writing process of a new work into six roughly half-hour-long podcast episodes. The current second season includes composer/vocalist Kate Sopher, composer/pianist Vijay Iyer, and Bettison. Both Sopher and Iyer straddle genres—performance/opera and jazz/classical, respectively—in ways that inch them into the mainstream, general reader arts press. WNYC’s Soundcheck host John Schaefer wrote that Bettison’s O Death recording by Ensemble Klang possesses “an unconventional lyricism and a menacing beauty” and, the composer’s own pinned Tweet is: “I think a lot of what I do is to write something simple and then break it. I break it in lots of ways until I find one that works.”

All of which makes Bettison’s first appearance in the podcast feel like a favorite character actor finally receiving a co-star’s cinematic introduction that succinctly captures his personality. “I think composition is a real exercise in forced patience, you know?” he says, before finishing with a sentiment that feels straight out of Samuel Beckett. “It’ll go the way it goes.”

Sitting in his Peabody office, Bettison describes the podcast’s process. For six weeks he’d write a new piece for the celebrated Parker Quartet. “I was being interviewed every week,” he says, adding that in between interviews whenever he was working, he’d make a composer diary by dictating his thoughts about the piece into his phone, before wondering aloud, “Do I want to say this or should it be revealed on the podcast?”

“I’ll tell you this,” he continues after a thoughtful pause, “a few years ago I was trying this thing out with getting people to record themselves and play over the recording on their phones. Phones’ speakers are not very good but they get a nice distortion. It’s quite a nice effect and I never used it, and I remembered that experiment. And then, because I was recording myself, talking on my phone, I was wondering, Should I make that part of this thing?”

Tune-in to Mission: Commission to see how, or even if, cell phone recordings work their way into Bettison’s piece for the Parker Quartet. Peabody Magazine caught up with Bettison to talk about the podcast, composing and mental health, this academic-year-long 150 Years of Composition at Peabody anniversary, and the 50th anniversary reissue of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.

Is six weeks a typical turnaround time for writing a new quartet?

For me that’s very, very fast. Probably under most circumstances I would say, No, I’m not going to write a piece that quickly. For years I’ve been writing on Twitter about my writing process but I’ve sort of kept it under wraps it because I never said what piece I’m working on. But I really like talking about the process, so when I got approached to do this podcast, I was like, This is cool. This way people can see that composers are people, too, so I’m into it. For me, that was that was the hook.

How was it talking to yourself instead of Tweeting about it?

It’s a different sort of way of thinking out loud a little bit. I wanted to be as honest as possible about the process and also about my personal circumstances and frustrations. I was writing during the Omicron wave. I remember getting an email right before Christmas going, the first two weeks of school are going to be virtual. That’s how life circumstances get in the way of composition, which is why I always ask for much longer deadlines. I hate rushing, I don’t like it at all. I try to keep not exactly banker’s hours, but I like to say that my ideal time to finish a piece is a non-time like Tuesday afternoon.

In this situation with the deadline, that became really hard for me because over the course of the past 15 years, I’ve deliberately cultivated a situation whereby I allowed for things to get in the way so that I don’t get overloaded. Composition is stressful enough without deadlines, though I know that some composers need the stress of deadlines to get things done.

I’m the exact opposite. I really don’t like it and I always try to be early. So this situation was tricky: I was home alone with my kids trying to write music because my wife was traveling. I never say this in the podcast, but I almost dropped out of it at one point because I just didn’t know if I could do it.

As somebody who has both cultivated an approach to writing over the past 15 years and Tweets about it, have you found that how you talk about composition has changed over the years?

I don’t know. I’m very methodical in the way that I work. All of this stuff about the writing process is really about me understanding my own psychology, which I learned the hard way. When I was a judge at a composition competition in the Netherlands last fall, they asked me to give a talk to the composers. And I said I wanted to talk about composition and mental health. And it’s funny because the organization said, “OK, but you have two hours.” And I was like, I don’t know if that’s enough time, actually.

I remember when I was doing my first master’s in London. I was 22, and I had to write so many pieces. The whole thing was just write, write, write, write, and I had so much going on that I had panic attacks. That’s when I vowed that I wouldn’t get into that situation again. I have very good composer friends who completely do not function in this way at all. They thrive and kind of feed off that stress energy. I don’t at all.

Have you heard the podcast in its entirety yet? Or will you be hearing it for the first time with the rest of us?

I’ll be hearing it like everybody else, that’s kind of fun. I really hope I didn’t say anything stupid. I start talking like I am now and then I’ll remember, Oh yeah, this is all being recorded. I’m a bit nervous about it—like a premiere, but every week. [laughs]

I was looking forward to talking with you about this podcast because I also saw you mention on social media about how proud you were of the Peabody Composition at 150 activity that’s taken place this year.

It’s funny because this podcast ties in beautifully to that. The conversation around the anniversary started was when I started as chair of the department, which I am only for the next couple of months. I was talking to [Senior Associate Dean] Abra Bush, who said I should see if the department has an anniversary coming up. We talked to [Associate Dean for Academic Affairs] Paul Matthews, who said that in 1871 Peabody hired Asger Hamerick who taught composition.

So I asked Dean Bronstein: “Fred, can we have a festival?” and he said, “Yeah.” And I was, like, Whoa—OK, cool. And we started doing artistic planning, with [faculty composer] Felipe Lara. Then COVID happened and I didn’t know what was going to happen with the festival.

As we started coming back, Felipe and I talked about how we should be commissioning [new works] from alumni. It means something to them. I studied in the Royal Conservatorium of The Hague, and when they asked me to come back and do some guest teaching, I was like, yes—that’s my school.

We wanted to contact mostly younger alumni who could use the work—a commission really makes a difference to younger composers during COVID. And it’s nice to have people come back. Then you get to have students perform alumni composers’ works in the halls. We had the Elijah Daniel Smith commission last semester, a very recent alum. I know that that meant a lot to him to come back.

The pandemic means some projects have been pushed back to the coming fall, like Felipe’s project with the Parker Quartet. From the beginning, Kevin Puts said he had a pre-existing orchestra piece that he would like the Peabody Concert Orchestra to play. That’s on April 29.

Early on, I decided I wanted to work with students, and the way I could work with the most students is by doing an orchestra piece. And I wrote a piece that the Peabody Symphony Orchestra performs on April 30.

It’s not the festival that we imagined at the beginning, but everyone’s fine with that. We did these virtual residencies online for first full semester during COVID that went really well. We came together as a department, and that also meant that we felt that we could do things. We could do concerts, we could allow outside audiences in. As chair, I’m very glad that we managed to celebrate the department this year—that we still exist as a department and a school. It’s nice to have a little focus on the department because I think our alumni have done really amazing things and I’m very proud to have the colleagues that I have who are also dear friends as well. I don’t know where else that happens. We’re all really good friends and we’re all really different as composers.

That is something that I noticed about the department—it’s a group of composers who aren’t like each other at all.

That’s by design. Back when I started in 2009, there were three of us and we were different and we kept on doing that. I think at the time it was—and maybe still is—quite radical. I think more and more schools are doing this now, not towing a party-line aesthetic thing. That’s very deliberate on our part. When I went to school, you had to write a certain kind of music, and if you didn’t—and I didn’t—it wasn’t so great, you know?

I was talking to a colleague about this the other day—we really like it when our students don’t sound like us. I take that as a big compliment when I see they’re doing really great work and they don’t sound anything like me. I take that as a sign of strength. Sometimes students are really interested in the kind of thing I do, but they want to do their own thing with it, and that’s the way it should be.

You recently posted about the remastered reissue of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?, mentioning how much you love the album but also talking about the way it sounds. And I was curious: When I listen to your music, I feel like you are interested in sounds that are a little bit unusual or that you might not be able to place how they’re being created—like the distortion that comes from cell phone speakers that you mentioned. What do you take away from commercial or pop music—not just musically, but the quality and nature of sound in pop music?

I think that our thinking about sounds has been completely transformed by recording. Radically transformed. I would go so far to say that to talk about orchestration in a pre-recording way is kind of bizarre—because I really think of orchestration as being like production. When I’ve had recordings, I work really closely with sound engineers. When I get a say in talking about how a recording is going to sound, I’m really conscious of and interested in it.

I think one of the biggest lessons any composer can take from popular music is that the attention to sound and production is incredibly sophisticated. And as a composer, if you don’t take it into account, you’re really missing something very vital that has completely revolutionized sound, not just music, in all ways.

So that’s what I’m really interested in—apart from the fact that, you know, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on funk and I really, really love this music. Something like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? is . . . I was listening to that new version the other day, and I’ve got a pretty good record player and stuff and, honestly, I was choking up at just how great it sounds and how relevant that album is after 50 years. It’s unbelievable. I really think that album is as good as art gets. I would put it there, I really do. The moment I heard that album was coming out and that a sound engineer was remastering it from the original tapes? I was like, I need that.

Celebrating 150 Years of Composition at Peabody continues this weekend as the Peabody Concert Orchestra performs Kevin Puts’ Virelai and Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43, April 29 at 7:30 pm EDT (livestream) and the Peabody Symphony Orchestra performs the world premiere of Bettison’s Hellion Binge of Joy and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93, April 30 at 7:30 pm EDT (livestream).