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Ear Tease: The sound world of Oscar Bettison

When I listen to Oscar Bettison's music I am always fascinated by the variety of new sounds he is able to create by using traditional instruments (and some non-traditional ones!) in new and innovative ways.   This Ear Tease is going to focus on Bettison's Gauze Vespers.  Composed in 2007, it is scored for 5 players - clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, cello - all of whom double on some unusual instruments, in this case Flexatone, toy pianos, melodica, and pitched metal pipes.  From his website: "I have a penchant (some would call it an obsession) with junk percussion and more generally with what could be called cinderella instruments (i.e. instruments that really shouldn't be the belle-of-the-ball but I make them so.)."  

Though none of these unusual belles stands out above the others in Gauze Vespers, their use together and in conjunction with other more traditional instruments creates a fascinating, and for me unique and totally engaging, sound world.  

From the composer: 

Musically, I suppose I wanted to make the ensemble sound different, but I found that there's the weird influence of spanish guitar strumming at the beginning. It's weird for me, as I'm half Spanish and I've never, ever, harked back to any Spanish influence in my music, but I think it's there at the beginning, so that's odd. I guess I wanted to modify everything, in keeping with the ritual idea. By modifying I wanted to keep a distance between the audience and the ensemble. I want the piece to have the feeling that it's starting mid-flow, in the middle of the ritual. So, back to the modification idea: the strings strum like guitars, the piano is prepared and plucked and strummed, the percussion plays with chopsticks on the vibes and the clarinet clicks and also has to have another clarinet that's detuned. Finally at the end the piano and percussion sound gets 'modified' to toy piano, the string sound gets 'modified' to flexatones and the clarinet sound gets modified to melodica."

The piece is in four sections, with the 1st, 3rd, and 4th linked by rhythmic and melodic ideas.  There are breaks between each section and the form could be described as ABA'A''.  The first section opens with unison whistling and bowed vibes (same player) followed closely by the clarinet and strings.  The whistling vibe player and the clarinet together create a sort of continuous, absent-minded plainchant while the violin and cello (both with their lowest strings tuned down a minor third) strum repeating rhythmic patterns composed of triple, quadruple, and quintuple subdivisions.  This is the "Spanish guitar strumming" that Bettison mentions above - it sounds like a skeleton contentedly strumming a broken guitar.  This texture is periodically interupted by jarring piano gestures (the piano is prepared of course - the traditional instruments in Gauze Vespers are seldom used traditionally).  

The title Gauze Vespers refers to this two-part texture.  Again, from the composer: "[the title] comes from the idea of a melody with interference, like a melody as seen/heard through a screen. The clarinet and vibes at the start are the vespers part and the rest the gauze." The atmosphere is erie yet benevolent in a Dia de los Muertos sort of way.


Gauze Vespers, section 1 audio

The second section of the work contrasts markedly from the first.  It's recitative-like music in which the violin and cello trade guttural outbursts on their lowest strings, tuned lower than normal.  The harmonies are provided by plucked piano strings and melodica.

The third section is similar to the first in that the repeating rhythmic patterns (now much more complex and played on the vibes with chopsticks) and chant-like melody (in ethereal string harmonics) return.  They are accompanied by metal pipes, plucked piano strings alla Henry Cowell, and the clicking keys and occasional notes from the clarinet, now tuned a 1/4 tone flat.  Periodically the violin and cello will play low, moaning notes ("like a breath" is the performance indication).  The whole texture is delicate, unearthly, and enchanting.

Gauze Vespers, section 3 audio

The final section begins brightly with two toy pianos playing the same rhythmic patterns the violin and cello played in the opening section, though with more consonant harmonies (all perfect intervals).  Then comes perhaps the most spectacular sound in the whole piece - melodica and two Flexatones intoning the chant-like melody, now in a clear antecedent/consequent phrase structure.  After playing for a bit those players exit the stage leaving the toy pianos to rattle on for a bit longer.

Gauze Vespers, section 4 audio

Program note, from the composer:  Every society is founded in rituals of birth, life and death.  The question that was in my mind when I wrote Gauze Vespers was if it would be possible to tell what kind of ritual was taking place, if one were an observer from a completely alien culture.  Thus I think of Gauze Vespers as a strange ritual, seen from afar.


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Ear Tease: The sound world of Oscar Bettison by Dustin Soiseth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.


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