Beth Anderson outside her apartment building.
Beth Anderson—Just Dropping In

Beth Anderson—Just Dropping In

History teaches us that no matter how meticulously we plan, something unexpected will inevitably occur. And if we take the exact opposite approach to careful preparation, which is to completely embrace serendipity and “go with the flow,” life can be an amazing adventure. Take, for example, the life of Kentucky born and raised composer Beth Anderson.

The only child born to constantly quarreling parents who raised her on a family farm between Mt. Sterling and North Middletown in Montgomery County, Anderson did not have a great deal of access to music early on. But her grandmother, who lived on the other side of the county, owned a Mason and Hamlin upright piano which fascinated Anderson so much that she was given a toy piano for Christmas at the age of three. Just before her seventh birthday, her parents sold the farm and the family moved to the town of Mt. Sterling. Shortly thereafter her parents divorced, and as a consolation, Anderson started piano lessons with a local teacher in town; one of the first pieces she learned to play was Scarf Dance by Cécile Chaminade. Around that time she also began to write short piano pieces as well.

“I really was thrilled to find out that there existed in the universe at some point a woman who wrote music,” Anderson acknowledged when we visited her in her apartment across the street from the Brooklyn Museum. But perhaps an even more significant chance encounter than the one with Chaminade was finding a copy of John Cage’s book Silence in the Mt. Sterling Public Library some years later when she started high school. As she remembered, “I fell in love with Cage, and then I read every book that he said to read. I looked up every name. I used it as a catalog of what to care about. He was my guy.”

Against Anderson’s wishes, she acquiesced to her mother’s plan for her to attend the University of Kentucky and again, as luck would have it, John Cage and Merce Cunningham showed up there for a week-long residency in 1968. That initial encounter with Cage validated her own compositional instincts, and she decided to leave Kentucky and head to the West Coast. But once she was in California, she tried to randomly connect to Lou Harrison and soon discovered that pure happenstance doesn’t always yield the best results, as she told us:

I had a friend who had a friend who was driving a race car, and he had to be down in the Aptos area, where Lou lived, at a very early hour. He dropped me off at six o’clock in the morning, and I walked up and knocked on the door. I hadn’t told them I was coming, because I didn’t know I was coming until the night before and I didn’t have the phone number. So I just knocked on the door, and Bill Colvig, Lou’s companion, got up and let me in, and went to start water for tea, and went to talk to Lou, to get him up and come talk to me, because I explained what I was there for. Lou was clearly not having it. He didn’t want to get up. He didn’t know who I was, or why I was there bothering them at dawn. Eventually he came out and we had a little conversation and a little tea. … But he wasn’t at all interested in being my teacher. … That was my experience of Lou in 1969. And then, in ’74, I met him again at the Cabrillo Festival, and … then we were friends. But before that, I think I was just this crazy girl that showed up on his doorstep at dawn.

Still, once she was at Mills, pure chance led her to study with Terry Riley, who had only just begun teaching, and Robert Ashley. Infectious melodies and conceptual work inspired by text would be hallmarks of Beth Anderson’s own compositional style.

Beth then relocated again, to New York City, where she co-edited the legendary Ear magazine, spearheaded various initiatives to promote the music of female composers, and served as a piano accompanist for numerous dance companies while she continued to write pieces that explored converting the letters of a text into musical pitches and left the durations up to the performers. Eventually though, she abandoned this experimental approach and began to compose works that showcased unabashed tunefulness and regular rhythms. And yet, all this music is also the result of a form of serendipity, albeit one that is admittedly more controlled, as she elaborated:

I write little shreds and tatters and then figure out how to have more of this and less of that, and cut them into each other. I can write a whole section that was actually on a drone, like on a C, and then another whole section that was on F. Then I would cut them into each other, and I would suddenly have tonic-subdominant, tonic-subdominant, but they were from actual different pieces of music. People hear them and hear the harmonic movement, but it wasn’t really movement. It was just cut-ups.

Our own encounter with Beth Anderson this past month was also, by and large, a product of chance. Back in January at the Chamber Music America conference, I ran into her and she mentioned that she was writing her memoirs. Then in March, she sent me an email to ask if I knew of anyone who’d be willing to read them through for her before she attempted to approach book publishers. Since I love to read, I volunteered, and she showed up unannounced at my office to hand deliver a copy. On a whim, I started reading it on the subway that same evening. I was so compelled by her story that I couldn’t put it down and I finished the 258-page manuscript within a couple of days. I had known Anderson for many years and had heard a great deal of her music. I was always intrigued, but didn’t fully grasp it on some level. Yet after reading the story of her life, everything finally made sense—the shift in compositional style, the seemingly “normal” sounding music that becomes less and less normal the more carefully you listen to it, all of it.

“I wasn’t into planning,” she explained. “I didn’t seem to understand the concept, and I still sort of don’t. I mean, I brought you that book the other day, and you were totally surprised. I just sort of drop in.”


April 6, 2018 at 1:00 p.m.
Beth Anderson in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Anderson’s apartment in Brooklyn
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu


launch gallery

Frank J. Oteri:  We’ve known each other for a very long time, but I feel like I know you so much better now after having read the first draft of your memoirs.  So thank you so much for letting me into your world that way.  It was a fascinating trip, and it has helped me to understand so much more about you and your music than I did before. And it also inspired me to want to talk to you about it.  Many people like to feel they know something about the composers whose music they care about, but it isn’t always positive. The more I’ve learned about Wagner, the less I’ve wanted to hear his music.

Beth Anderson:  There is that.  But sometimes it’s fun to know something about the person.  I want my music to be paid more attention to.  I felt like I’d sort of dropped out. It’s nice to have another way to engage an imaginary public by talking about my life.  Obviously, if nobody reads it, it won’t have any positive effect on the number of people that listen to my music, but if a lot of people do, then maybe it would.

FJO:  I do think when people know more about a composer, whether it’s some detail about that person’s life or even just a photo, it is possible to have more empathy with that composer’s music. I think this was a fundamental idea that led to the creation of Meet The Composer in 1974. If we want people to think composers are relevant to our world we must show that the people who actually create it represent the broad and diverse community we live in.  One of the things that struck me in your memoir was how you learned about Cécile Chaminade while you were still a beginning pianist. I think that set you on a path that you might otherwise not have followed if every composer you studied had been an old dead guy.

“I really was thrilled to find out that there existed in the universe at some point a woman who wrote music.”

BA:  I really was thrilled to find out that there existed in the universe at some point a woman who wrote music.  That was cool.  But it took a long time to find another one.  They just did not show up in my practicing Bach, Beethoven, and Liszt, until I found Pauline Oliveros.  And there was a big space between Chaminade and Oliveros.

FJO:  But before you learned about Pauline Oliveros you also studied with Helen Lipscomb and learned that she was also a composer.

BA:  But the only things I’d ever heard of hers were a trio and her teaching pieces.  She did not have a big concert output, as far as I knew.  I think that either the music is lost or somebody else besides me has it.  One of her relatives sent me the Trio—that same trio, as though it were her whole output—and wanted me to be the keeper of it because I was the only person they could find on the internet who mentioned her name, which is tragic.  I had hoped that the University of Kentucky would have her stuff, because she lived in town forever.

FJO:  Even though there was this long time between finding women who wrote music, I was struck by something you wrote about your mindset at the time you had discovered Cécile Chaminade: you didn’t realize at that point—because why would you as a little girl growing up who just learned a piece composed by a woman—that there was this really huge disparity between the performances of music by male and female composers.

BA:  And the availability of their music—until the ‘70s, when that set of three records came out called Women’s Work. It was sitting in the window of a big book and record store on Fifth Avenue [in Manhattan]; I was walking down the street and I almost fell over myself.  My God!  Women composers.  So cool.  There just weren’t any records.  I had found Chaminade in a John Thompson book, and I didn’t find anything except Scarf Dance.  It’s not like you could go down to the Mount Sterling Public Library [in Kentucky] and find Ruth Crawford Seeger or anybody else.  So it was very exciting.  It took a long time for that stuff to start coming out, and the musicologists are doing a great job bringing it forward, inch by inch.  But Jeannie Pool, a friend of mine from the distant past, was trying to get a master’s writing about women composers, and her committee told her that this was not something that was appropriate.

FJO:  What reason did they give her?

BA:  There weren’t any primary sources.  There wasn’t any music. They thought that it was unimportant and that she wouldn’t be able to find any stuff to write about.  So she put out a little booklet about women composers which was very nice.  She got a master’s eventually, but in California with different people.  I’m not sure what she actually ended up writing about.  But in New York, she was definitely told not to do it.

FJO:  That’s terrible.  To return to the Mount Sterling Public Library and the things that you did manage to find there in your formative years, it’s interesting how deeply some of the things that you found so early on stuck with you—like John Cage’s book Silence.  You grew up in Kentucky, which is where bluegrass music began. You do seem to have an affinity for similar harmonies in your own music from many decades later, yet—as far as I know—you were not directly exposed to any of that music. You wrote about an uncle who loved opera.

Framed photos of various members of Beth Anderson's family hang on a wall near the entrance to her apartment.

BA:  My uncle hated country music and my mother hated country music.  I wasn’t allowed to listen to the Mount Sterling radio station, which actually had people from the hills coming down doing live singing on the radio there.  That was discouraged. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a live bluegrass concert.  I’d hear it in movies or something, but that’s about it.  The music I was aware of was popular music, and piano music [I was studying], and stuff from the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s that my mother sang, so it took a while to get around to other stuff.  And hymns.  I was big on church music at the time, because they paid me to show up and play.

FJO:  And yet for whatever reason, I hear some kind of relationship between your music and bluegrass, as well as the older music from which bluegrass derived, old timey music. And yet it was not because you were immersed in it.

BA:  Well, I love folk music.  I was a big Joan Baez freak.  My favorite song was “Old Blue.”  I used to have a big old dog named Blue, and she and I used to sing it together.  Every time you say the word blue, she would howl.  So, it was a chorus.

FJO:  I was struck by your list of the three earliest songs that you remember hearing: “Love and Marriage,” “Lover, Come Back to Me,” and Rosemary Clooney singing “This Old House.” What about those three songs stuck with you?

BA:  I think it was the ideas behind the songs more than the actual tunes, because my parents were so busy getting divorced and re-married, and we did live in an old house, then we lost the old house so there were a lot of house and divorce stories going on in my life.

FJO:  And music became central to your life after their final divorce from each other.

BA:  That’s what I got.  I finally got that piano.  My grandmother’s piano came to live with us.

FJO:  But even before that, you had toy instruments and you tinkered with them.  It was almost like you were set up to become an experimental music composer.

BA:  I used to think that all those toy instruments ruined my ears as a child because I was clearly set up to become a microtonal composer.  Those things are so far off, especially the harp.  That was awful.  It jangled and circled around a pitch; the strings were colored rubber bands.  It was a bad instrument.

Beth Anderson, as a young girl, holding a cat and hearing a hat outside on a farm.

A very young Beth Anderson with her kitty at Sideview Farm in Montgomery County, Kentucky c. 1954. (Photo by Marjorie Celeste Hoskins Anderson, Beth Anderson’s mother, courtesy Beth Anderson.)

FJO:  So, looking back to the very beginning of you creating your own music, you obviously experimented with the toy instruments. But there’s no surviving music composed for them by you.  Did you know about the John Cage toy piano suite?

BA:  Not yet, but I performed it on my MFA recital and various moments after that.  I love toys.

FJO:  But perhaps it was only when you started taking piano lessons and had to learn to read music that other people had written that you consciously started thinking about creating your own things.

BA:  Yes, I thought it was fun to write stuff down. As soon as I got a pad of music paper, I was off, not that anybody thought it was a good idea.  It takes away from your time practicing, and everybody wanted me to practice more and write less.

FJO:  Your mother played the piano, but it was basically a hobby for her.  Yet it seems to me that from pretty early on there was this idea that you were going to be a musician.

BA:  Well that’s what I thought, but every year my mother would say, “Do you want to quit?”  It cost her money and it was money she didn’t wish to spend, and she didn’t see any reason for me continuing on with this.  She wanted me to have piano lessons, the way she wanted me to have ballet and tap.  She wanted me to have a certain grace, what little girls are supposed to have who grow up and marry doctors or whatever.  But she didn’t expect it to be a career, and she was mildly appalled that I kept at it, and at it, and at it.  It was not a good thing.  Unlike Prokofiev’s family, who kept pushing and pushing.  His family was so helpful.  Mine was not.

FJO:  But since you were an only child, I think that in some ways music became a kind of surrogate sibling to you, a constant companion.

BA:  Well, it certainly gave me something to entertain myself with that didn’t require other people.

FJO:  But it’s interesting that even though your family didn’t want you to do music, they thought that playing piano was better than writing music.

BA:  Well, according to my teachers.  My mother didn’t care one way or another.  She just was hoping I would quit.  She wanted me to play the flute, because she saw that as social and getting out of the house, and doing something with other people, so she was willing to keep paying two dollars a month for the flute forever.

A group of recorders standing on a bureau with a mirror and various personal effects of Beth Anderson.

FJO:  As it turned out, you wound up playing flute for years in wind bands, even in college.  A very big part of your formative experience with music was playing in wind bands.

BA:  And marching band was my primary exercise for many years.  That was the world’s most exhausting activity as far as I could tell.

FJO:  It also exposed you to a lot of repertoire that you might not have been exposed to otherwise. Certainly much different repertoire than the piano music that you were playing.

BA:  Yes.  If I had been a good enough flutist, I could have eventually played in the orchestra at Henry Clay.  But I wasn’t one of those two girls.  We had a sea of 30 flutes. The fact that I was eighth chair was pretty good;  they had some really good flute players.

FJO:  So your school had an orchestra as well as a wind band?

“The fact that I was eighth chair was pretty good; they had some really good flute players.”

BA:  Yeah. And Henry Clay in Lexington had a really good symphonic band. We marched in the Cherry Blossom parade in Washington one year with the cherry blossoms falling from the sky.  It was so magical.  Definitely the best experience I ever had with marching.

FJO:  And you stayed with it for years and years, even after you could have done other stuff!  What was the appeal?

BA:  Well, in college as a music major, you had to have an ensemble activity, and I could already play flute.  So I just stayed with the band instead of switching to chorus. Not that I didn’t sing in chorus. I was also in Madame Butterfly one summer.  I was one of those girls in a lavender kimono with an umbrella.  I liked singing, but I stayed with the band.

FJO:  One thing that I find so incongruous about your early musical studies is that when you were studying the piano you were basically playing music exclusively by old dead men, but in band you were playing newer music, undoubtedly including some music by living composers, though probably not stuff that would have sounded like Webern and Stockhausen.

BA:  No, but there was Persichetti.  There was an awful lot of Leroy Anderson, and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Sousa, and re-writes of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture.  I don’t know why that seemed to come year after year with those clarinets going forever and ever.

FJO:  The reason I bring this up is that it seems so whacky that it was one of your early band teachers who first introduced you to 12-tone music.  That seems like a very odd person to be the person who did that.

BA:  Mr. [Richard] Borchardt. Well, he was a special guy.  I wish I knew more about him.  He’s not with us anymore.  It was [during] a summer band clinic of some sort—we were practicing the 1812 Overture and there was some kind of little composition class.  I, of course, got involved with that, and he chose to teach us how to do 12-tone music.  I thought that it was the coolest thing in the world.  So I wrote this quartet right away, and he put it on the show with the 1812 Overture.  That was kind of a fun side by side.

FJO:  Does that piece survive?

BA:  Possibly.  But it’s not in Finale, I’ll tell you.  And I don’t know where it is.

FJO:  So you won’t be taking it out to show us.

BA:  I’m hoping not to.  It wasn’t a great a piece, but it was hilarious because it kept being performed. There was a wine glass at the end that was supposed to break, but it never broke.

FJO:  Yeah, I love that story.  It’s what actually made me want to hear the piece.

BA:  With the wine glass hitting the metal and not breaking, just going thump.

FJO:  Maybe you should try it again with a cheaper wine glass.

BA:  Oh, I think that’s the point.  It was cheap, and therefore it wouldn’t break.  It was too tough.  It bounced.  You have to get an expensive, really elegant one.

FJO:  One that could cost more than hiring a musician to throw it!  But aside from the curiosity factor of the wine glass at the end, there isn’t a lot of 12-tone band music.  So it’s notable that the person who wanted to put you in that direction was a band person.

BA:  Well, I taught for Young Audiences a little bit.  It’s a lot easier to teach something that’s coding or that has a system than to say, “Give me your heart,” in a clarinet solo to a child who doesn’t know what their heart is or even how to write for clarinet for that matter.  So it was much easier to tell us, “Take these notes, put them in some weird order, and then turn them upside down” and stuff. You could talk about it, so it’s easier to teach.

FJO:  Considering how much band experience you had, it’s surprising that you didn’t wind up writing more band music.

BA:  The only other thing I did was a Suite for Winds and Percussion, and that was a re-write of music I wrote for a film score.  I just took it and turned it into that because Robert Kogan, who had an orchestra in Staten Island, had asked for apiece that would not use his strings because the strings weren’t very strong at that point.  So he wanted me to just use the rest of the people.  So it’s not exactly a real band; it’s for orchestral winds and percussion.

FJO:  An orchestra minus the strings, like the first movement of Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto. Curiously though, in addition to being turned onto 12-tone music by your band director and then writing a 12-tone band piece, when you were enrolled at the University of Kentucky, one of the legendary band composers, John Barnes Chance, taught there.  His Second Symphony and his Variations on a Korean Folk Song are really terrific pieces. But I suppose that by the time you got to study with him, your head was somewhere else.

BA:  Yeah, I was into Webern and Cage. I really wasn’t trying to hang out around Korean folk songs.  I was going in a different direction. I wanted to know about electronic music desperately at that point, and he made fun of that.  He thought it was humorous. He could do it, it’s just that what he was doing it with was so basic that it was absurd.  It was useful for the theater department, but it wasn’t exactly something he would call his music.

FJO:  So what made you so curious about electronic music?  How did you even become aware that it existed?

BA:  I don’t know. Maybe John Cage talked about it in his books.  I got to UK (University of Kentucky) when I was 16 and started working in the music library. I was reading Source, and I had a wonderful music history teacher, Kathleen Atkins. She played Tod Dockstader in class. That was my introduction to real electronic music, music that took faucets dripping and turned it into something else.  I love Tod Dockstader!  He doesn’t seem to be the big hit to everybody else that he was to me.  Then I started hearing everybody else. Kathy wanted to build an electronic studio at UK, and they wouldn’t give her the money.  So I left.  When I went back to school, I went to Davis, and they had an electronic music studio, and I studied with Jerome Rosen. I think his level of interest in electronic music was trying to help us learn how to make advertisements using electronic music, because he was always assigning things that were 30 seconds or one minute.  He didn’t want to hear a ten-minute electronic piece.  He wanted to hear some tiny little gem that would somehow excite him.  Then, of course, I finally got to Mills, where they had much more space and an interest in bigger pieces and different styles.

FJO:  Let’s stay for a little bit longer at the University of Kentucky and those early years before you went to California.  You were able to learn about Tod Dockstader, which is amazing because that music was not very widely distributed at the time.  It wasn’t available everywhere, but it got to you.  John Cage’s Silence, which was published by Wesleyan University Press, also reached you.

BA:  In high school.

FJO:  Which is amazing. And also Source Magazine.

“I fell in love with Cage, and then I read every book that he said to read.”

BA:  They had a great a music library.  They used to have a lot of money for it, and now they’ve got more, because there’s some lady down there in Kentucky that supports a lot of things, including that music library. The last time I was down there, I went over to see what was up, and it’s gorgeous.  They have every periodical, even Fiddle Tune News; it’s that big.  They’ve got all of it.  And it’s not like when I was in NYU; I would go to look up a magazine and somebody had stolen half of the issues.  I couldn’t find the whole run of anything.  There were just huge holes in their collection.  I hope they fixed that.  But UK didn’t have that problem.  They had a lot of stuff.

FJO:  So if somebody was interested, they could find these things and go down that route.  They could know that these things exist. That’s really important in terms of developing a sense and a knowledge base, finding that stuff on your own rather than just being told about it.  I think it was really important for your personal development that you found those things on your own.

BA:  Well, I fell in love with Cage, and then I read every book that he said to read.  I looked up every name.  I used it as a catalog of what to care about.  He was my guy.

FJO:  And then by dumb luck, pure serendipity, you go to the University of Kentucky, and he has a residency there.

BA:  He shows up, and then I dropped out of school. And I come back and he’s there.  He was at Davis for a term.  It was freaky and wonderful.

FJO:  One of the big revelations to me in reading your memoir is that your life has been this chain of seemingly pure accidents that completely flow into each other. You take these sudden turns and then you’re somewhere else, but it seems totally natural even though it’s totally unexpected.  Interestingly, it’s similar to a lot of your music, which has been described by other people as collage oriented. I think that word doesn’t give an accurate sense of what it is, because when you think collage, you think these things don’t belong together, but in your music they do.  It’s like they’re carefully woven together, even though they’re not connected. So you don’t realize that they shouldn’t work together, but they do, and it’s kind of the same way your life has unfolded.

BA:  And the quilt.

A detail from a quilt hanging on one of the walls in Beth Anderson's apartment.

FJO:  Yes, exactly, we’ll get to that, too, in a bit.  You initially didn’t want to go to the University of Kentucky, but your mother wanted you to go there. You wanted to go somewhere else because you were interested in John Cage. But then suddenly Cage was at the University of Kentucky.

BA:  And the only reason I didn’t study with Ned Rorem was because I forgot to ask him to hang out and wait for me.  The only reason I didn’t study with Pauline Oliveros is because I got a ride past her when I was hitchhiking. I always say, “Well, that’s the universe.”  The universe was just going with it, whatever it was.  I wasn’t into planning.  I didn’t seem to understand the concept, and I still sort of don’t.  I mean, I brought you that book the other day, and you were totally surprised.  I just sort of drop in.

FJO:  And now here we are talking.  This happened the same way!  It’s interesting that you also had read Ned Rorem pretty early on, around the same time you were reading Cage.  I think of Rorem as a radical composer in a lot of ways, but a lot of people didn’t, especially at that time. They thought he was an old-fashioned composer because he never gave up tonality and he never gave up writing beautiful melodies. There was a real braveness to sticking to his guns and writing the music he wanted to write.  And you learned about him and his music relatively early on.  So in addition to all the avant-garde experimental music you were learning about, you also had a role model for going against the grain and writing really beautiful music, which is what you ultimately wound up doing.

BA:  Well, Cage and Rorem went different places.  But I thought they were both radicals, and I fell in love with Rorem’s stuff through playing for singers.  At UK, that was their idea of modern music, Vaughn Williams and Ned Rorem.  And the stuff was gorgeous.  What’s not to like?  And of course, his books were hilarious and wonderful.  I wanted to go to Paris.  I wanted to know all these wild and crazy people.

FJO:  I feel like Rorem’s influence has even found its way into the writing style of your memoir.  You’re just telling the story of your life the way he did, in a very honest and sincere way.

BA:  I just don’t know some other way to do it.  I haven’t read his books since I was very young, so I don’t think I actually tried to go in that direction.  I’m just doing it the way I know how.

FJO:  In terms of not planning, it’s very interesting how this played out in terms of possible role models you could have had as teachers.  Cage was a certain kind of a role model.  So were Pauline Oliveros, Ned Rorem, and Lou Harrison, a composer who found a way to be experimental and beautiful at the same time, writing music that was really original but also very immediate and very moving. And you tried to connect with Lou Harrison when you came to California, but it didn’t quite work out.

BA:  [My then composition teacher] Richard Swift and I talked and clearly I wasn’t interested in writing 12-tone music when I was studying with him and that’s what he wrote. So you would think we would not go together as a great teacher-student duo. So he thought that I would like to study with Lou Harrison, and he said, “Why don’t you go see him?”  I didn’t have any money to figure out how to get there by paying for the bus, but I had a friend who had a friend who was driving a race car, and he had to be down in the Aptos area, where Lou lived, at a very early hour.  He dropped me off at six o’clock in the morning, and I walked up and knocked on the door.  I hadn’t told them I was coming, because I didn’t know I was coming until the night before and I didn’t have the phone number. So I just knocked on the door, and Bill Colvig, Lou’s companion, got up and let me in, and went to start water for tea, and went to talk to Lou, to get him up and come talk to me, because I explained what I was there for.

“I was just this crazy girl that showed up on his doorstep at dawn.”

Lou was clearly not having it.  He didn’t want to get up.  He didn’t know who I was, or why I was there bothering them at dawn.  Eventually he came out and we had a little conversation and a little tea, and he agreed with me that perhaps I would enjoy meeting the gardener at UC Santa Cruz that Cage talked about in his books and that yes, in fact there were communes in the hills around Aptos and Santa Cruz and that, if I hitched around, I’d eventually find somebody that would take me to one of these places.  But he wasn’t at all interested in being my teacher and having me come and sit at his knee.  And Bill—I didn’t know anything about building instruments.  I thought it would be fun, but I was starting from zero.  I’d never built a bird house, much less anything else with wood.  So they just sent me on my way after a couple of hours, and I hitched down to the beach to wait for the guy to come pick me up at the end of the day. And that was my experience of Lou in 1969.  And then, in ’74, I met him again at the Cabrillo Festival, and he really liked my piece, and then we were friends.  But before that, I think I was just this crazy girl that showed up on his doorstep at dawn.

FJO:  That doesn’t seem like a good way to make a first impression.

BA:  But if the universe spoke to him and said, “Yes, take this girl and help her,”  then something could have happened.  But the universe failed to so speak and so duh.

FJO:  At least he woke up and spoke to you.

BA:  Yes, that was very kind.  And Bill was terrific.  He really tried.

FJO:  Your first encounter with Pauline Oliveros was also really bizarre.

BA:  Yes. I’d been wanting to actually meet her for a while. I created this independent study with Nate Rubin at Mills, so I was going to interview Pauline and write a paper about her. Once again, I got some crazy ride down to San Diego, and these people took me to a Salvation Army for some reason.  They wanted to buy something, and in there I found this big scroll.  It was a paint by numbers scroll of a toreador and a bull.  I bought this thing for a dime, and I thought. “Oooh, this is so cool.  I got this thing about a bull, and I’m going to see this woman who’s so brave and tough.”  I thought it was a great simultaneity, and I went to see Pauline.  They dropped me off at her house, and I went in. She was expecting me; I had written her a letter.  But she had a concert that night, and on the days of concerts, she did not talk.  So there she was not talking, for the whole day, and I spent the whole day in her house.  She had this huge cage with multiple birds in it, and they were squawking. Then the women from her women’s ensemble were there.  They were cooking things to serve at the end of the concert.  So there were the birds, the other women, and the cooking, but Pauline never said a word the whole day I was there.  So I wrote the paper about that.

FJO:  But at least you did let her know in advance that you were visiting her.  So it wasn’t like your first encounter with Lou Harrison.  So perhaps by then you had learned your lesson.

BA:  Well yes, I had managed somehow by 23 or something to figure out you might want to send a letter.  And, in fact, I did bring her some of my really early, awful music, and she turned the pages.  She didn’t say a word, but she looked, and I gave her copies of them.   And she smiled at me. That was fine.  That was sufficient.

FJO:  So how did you first become aware of Pauline Oliveros?  Was that at the University of Kentucky also?

BA:  Yeah, at UK, she was on the flip side of [the LP recording of] Come Out by Steve Reich.

FJO:  Right.

BA:  And Kathy Atkins played it for us in music history class.

FJO:  Wow.

BA:  And, you know, it wasn’t that I was so wild about the piece; I was so wild that a woman composer exists, another one.  Here’s another one!

FJO:  Parallel to your life as a composer, you’ve been a strong advocate for women composers.  During your student days, you put together a festival. Then when you first came to New York—I know I’m jumping ahead here—you were the co-founder of a project called Meet The Woman Composer and got the blessing of John Duffy, who had only recently founded Meet The Composer.

Sorrel Hays (center) and Beth Anderson (right) holding award certificates standing with Julia Smith (left) who is holding a Meet The Woman Composer brochure.

Julia Smith (left) presenting the National Federation of Music Clubs Award of Merit for contributions to women in music to Sorrel Hays (center) and Beth Anderson (right) for Meet The Woman Composer in 1977. (Photo courtesy Beth Anderson.)

BA:  Well, Bob Ashley basically set up that first festival, but he told me I was in charge.  He’d already decided who he wanted to invite. It was a cool array, and you could not find three more distinct people—Vivian Fine, Pauline Oliveros, and Charlotte Moorman.  That was a great group.  Then when I came to New York, Doris Hays, now known as Sorrel [Hays], was soon to be starting this thing, but she wanted me to do it with her at the New School. She got all the funding from John Duffy for that.  Apparently his organization had not existed long, so the idea that he would give us most of his money for the year was really astounding.  He was very supportive.  We did those evenings—10 or 15, I don’t know anymore—of all those women.  And all these musicologists came and wrote articles about them, so it was useful to do.  Then [many years later], B.C. Vermeersch at Greenwich House wanted me to do a women composers series at Greenwich House, and that went on for ten years.  So, yes, I liked the idea of putting together concerts of women’s music because it’s not heard as much as people currently think it is.

FJO:  There are organizations like IAWM, which I think does a lot of really tremendous work, but I know some younger composers who do not want to identify themselves that way.  “I’m a composer and I happen to be a woman, but I’m not a woman composer.  There’s no need for this.” Then you see something like the announcement of the Cleveland Orchestra’s 2018-19 season.  There’s not a single piece by a woman on it. It’s been that way year after year.  Same with the 2018-19 Boston Symphony season.  It seems pretty clear that there’s a real problem.

BA:  You think?

FJO:  If there shouldn’t be concerts of just women composers, why are there so many concerts of just men composers?

“There are piles of music that should be performed that aren’t.”

BA:  All the time.  Or a whole festival, like a hundred composers, and two of them are women.  They think they’ve done a big thing, that they’ve got two.  That’s ridiculous.  Somebody was telling me that he taught composition in Australia and all of his students were women.  I don’t know, are men getting out of the field because it’s so badly paid?  One wonders.  Aaron Copland used to say there were no women composers, which is crazy, or that there were no good ones.  None that have been properly educated. There are piles!  The Baltimore Symphony apparently has been doing all these statistics, and women are just a very, very small percentage.  If you take the ratio of men to women among living composers that are performed by the big orchestras in this country, it’s 85 to 15.  It’s not great, but it’s not terrible.  But if you take the amount of women that are performed, dead or alive, it’s like one percent.  Think of all the wonderful women that are dead that have written fabulous things I would love to hear, for the very first time, like Mary Howe.  Usually orchestras are good at holding onto the past and presenting that.  There are just piles of music that should be performed that aren’t.

FJO:  Part of the reason things are the way they are, which rarely gets spoken of, is the economics of it all—the economics of obtaining the music, as well as the time for rehearsing it.  I’m a big fan of the music of Louise Farrenc, a 19th-century French composer who wrote three symphonies, as well as the first-ever piece for piano and wind quintet.  That alone should earn her a place in the repertoire.

BA:  I played a lovely trio of hers once.

FJO:  It’s wonderful music.  But there are no modern editions of the symphonies.  You can get them from one place that charges a crazy rental fee.  Then, since the players don’t know the piece, they’ll need more time to learn it.  But if they just played Brahms again, they’ve already played it a million times so they can rehearse it only twice and it’ll sound pretty good.  Playing an old unfamiliar piece is kind of the same as playing a new piece.  Worse, because then it goes to the marketing department and they don’t know the name.

BA:  But Henze, which you can imagine would take quite a bit of doing to get on, they will rehearse that to the ends of the earth.  They will rehearse anything big that’s dissonant and difficult.  They understand that they have to rehearse that, and they’re willing to do that for the guys.  But if it’s just a beautiful piece by an antique composer who happens to be a woman, it’s too much of a struggle.  You just can’t keep doing the Beethoven Third all the time—lovely piece, but enough.

FJO:  Do the Farrenc Third instead!

BA:  Florence Price, also. There are so many people.

FJO:  I’m very happy to hear you saying this because as important as it is to do music by living composers, if we really want to learn about the full history of music, we need to pay attention to historical women composers as well and embrace them as part of the canon, if we’re going to have a canon.

BA:  Instead of an AK-47.

FJO:  So how to advocate for this stuff?  One issue is making sure that there are editions that are not only available but also affordable.  A lot of the older music is now showing up on sites like IMSLP.org, so it is possible to easily obtain some of this music.  But then there are also rules to consider. Musicians in most professional orchestras will only play from parts where the paper is a certain size; you can’t just print things out on 8 ½” by 11” sheets, because that’s too small.

BA:  Well, that explains why my pieces aren’t performed because they’re only 8 ½” by 11” paper.  I can make them bigger.  No problem.

FJO:  You definitely should.  Which is a good segue to get us back to talking about your music and how you came to write the music you write.  Connecting with Lou Harrison and Pauline Oliveros ultimately didn’t work out, but you did study for a time with both Terry Riley and Robert Ashley.

BA:  I studied with Terry Riley the first semester he was at Mills; he was new to teaching.  Terry taught me what was called cyclic composition, which was South Indian singing. He sang and then we sang. It was just copying, which was the teaching method of the time.  But I loved the fact that there was a tal—a rhythm, a beat. Cage was sort of against it.  He didn’t like regularly recurring meters, and Terry was trying to figure out what you could do within the meter that was interesting. Terry kept using scale steps and putting things together in interesting ways.  The whole thing came out sounding very beautiful, because it had this beautiful big drone underneath it.

“I kept hanging on to this thing that I kept seeing as a process that Robert Ashley kept saying wasn’t a process.”

My oratorio Joan had a big A drone underneath it, partially for the singers so that they could find their pitches relative to the A.  That was my plan.  Not so easy, but it gave them an A at least.  So Terry had a big effect on me, but not right away.  I kept hanging on to this thing that I kept seeing as a process that Ashley kept saying wasn’t a process.  I was coding words. I like changing one thing into something else, layering things like sedimentary rock.  I like to have the same thing done different ways, so that the text that you would hear somebody singing would be changed into the pitches for the instruments, then the meaning of the text would be another text. They’d all be layered, or there’d be some weirdo video thing that would explain the text as another layer.  I like layers.  Anyway, Mr. Ashley did not see that as a process.  I guess he saw it as a layered collage, which is certainly a way you could think about it.

FJO:  It sounds like a process to me.  I’m very curious about this idea of turning letters into pitches and being so focused on pitch, but not so much on rhythm.

BA:  The rhythm was improvised by the player.  But I was giving them the pitches and the rules. I would have some rule like, if you leap up from A to E, and got to the end of the word, then you would come back down a half step, then go on to the next word.

FJO:  There were also pieces where you’d have certain pitches drop out over time. You’d begin with all these pitches, and eventually have way fewer.

BA:  That was a modulating coding system designed just for Joan.  It started with just the white notes on the piano from A to A, and then you kept decoding the same text, but you kept using one less letter from the alphabet until you ended up with just A-B-A-B-A-B, B-B-B-B.  A-A-A-A.  And AAAA.

FJO:  This also sounds similar to what you did in a later piece that you wrote for solo ocarina called Preparation for the Dominant. You have a bunch of pitches in the beginning, but then fewer as time goes by.  You have this sort of attrition of pitch.

BA:  Do I?

FJO:  That’s how it sounded when I heard it.  I think it’s a very interesting idea, and I think it also sounds really good.  There’s a rigor to it, but there’s also a freedom to it at the same time, which is maybe why Ashley didn’t think of it as a process.  But the best processes are the ones that allow you to do your own thing with them.

BA:  Yeah, like Schoenberg actually broke his own rules.  I love that.

FJO:  Exactly.  And there are parallel fifths in Bach if you look hard enough for them.

BA:  Yay!

FJO:  Rules only get you so far, but then you need to make music with them.  Maybe that’s something that the folks who were so obsessed with process-oriented music in the mid-century lost track of, the process is a means to an end, but not necessarily an end in and of itself.

BA:  That sounds reasonable.

FJO:  Well, it certainly seems to be the way that your music has played out.

BA:  I like that.

FJO:  I only know Joan from the keyboard version that’s on the Pogus CD of your music.

BA:  Which had one performance consequently.

FJO:  But there was also the performance at Cabrillo of the original version.

BA:  KPFA has a recording, and probably Other Minds has it now, because Charles Amirkhanian was in charge of all that.  They also have the original She Wrote from Gertrude Stein’s 100th birthday concert in ’74.  I was complaining online recently, “This should be somewhere, and I’ll never hear it again.” And Charles wrote me back and said, “Oh!  Cut it out.  I’ve got it.  You can hear it by clicking here.”  They probably have Joan somewhere, too.

FJO:  It would be so great for that to be out in the world.

BA:  Well, you know, it is kind of afflicted by those naked guys, the timpani players, that ran through the middle of it and made the whole audience laugh and carry on.  The idea that the critic Robert Commanday thought that that was something in the piece was particularly bizarre.

FJO:  Well, how would he know?

BA:  I don’t know.  Everybody else talked to me—the man from the Santa Cruz Sentinel, as well as the critic from the Tribune.  So they knew.  But Commanday didn’t ask.  He was a don’t ask, don’t tell kind of guy.

FJO:  There has been this crazy idea in music criticism that if you talk to the musicians performing a piece or the composer, you’re somehow tainted and you’re going to be influenced so you’re not going to have objective criticism.

BA:  I hate that.

FJO:  And heaven forbid you’re friends with these people, or worse, that you actually perform or compose music yourself.

BA:  Or that you actually know something about it. Now you’re supposed to have a degree in American studies, and you’re supposed to have a general drift of the culture, but you’re not supposed to actually know anything about it.  I think that’s appalling.  I loved it when Eric Salzman and Virgil Thomson, people who actually wrote music, wrote music criticism.  You would know what their biases were, because you’d go listen to their own music.  And you could see it.  But if you have somebody that has a degree in sociology writing about music, then you don’t even know that their favorite composer is Philip Glass.  I used to think that they should list their favorite composers at the top of their columns, so that you would know.  Well, if they like this, this, and this, then there’s no big surprise that they didn’t like that.  I thought it would be very helpful.  But the only way you could get that sense of bias would be to read them for a long time.  Then you would see over time what they liked, and what they didn’t like.  But I don’t think that there’s a lot of purity.

When I moved to New York, Mr. [John] Rockwell was the best friend of my friend Charles Shere.  They had both done symphony or opera broadcasts together in San Francisco.  Charles stayed on the West Coast, and John came to New York.  When I moved here, Charles said, “You’ll have to meet my wonderful friend John Rockwell.”  So I called him up the moment I arrived, and I said, “I’m a friend of Charles, and I’m a composer. I would love to meet you.” And he said, “Oh yes, come to tea.”  Then the next day, he called back and he said, “Are you moving to New York?” And I said yes.  And he said, “Well, then I can’t talk to you.”  And that was that.  He wanted to continue that purity, that separation of church and state somehow.  But I think that it’s a poor thing.  I think you need to talk to composers—especially if you can’t read music or can’t play an instrument.  That wonderful man from The Washington Post, Joseph McLellan, said that he wrote a guitar piece so that he would have the experience of having written something. He could actually play an instrument, and they shockingly allowed him to write criticism for The Washington Post.  But he mainly reviewed parties.  Apparently he was the social guy.  He went to five parties a week, and then they also let him review concerts.

FJO:  You also had a career as a music journalist yourself. You were involved with Ear magazine in its formative years. I’ve always considered Ear one of role models for NewMusicBox.

BA:  Well, it is certainly the same kind of exhaustive experience that you’re never done.  You do this one, and then the next one’s coming up and how can you get people to give you the stuff that you need for the next issue. I used to have to go over to people’s houses and stand over them, waiting for people to write their articles because people wouldn’t do it.  They would say, “Oh, yeah.  I’ll do it.”  And it wouldn’t happen. But basically Ear was about promoting. I’m not sure we ever wrote anything negative.  I can’t remember if we did.  But we were boosters for sure.  And we were saying, “This is what’s happening.  Isn’t this fun?  Come play with us.”

FJO:  And Ear also had this very key idea that the people involved in making the music should be the spokespeople for it, which I think is a very important thing and a very different model from the separation of church and state, the armchair critic who can’t talk to you if you’re someone he or she might potentially review.  Well, it was almost always he, always a man.

BA:  Well, there aren’t a lot of women critics.

FJO:  But then you had an experience of actually writing criticism that wasn’t exclusively positive when you wrote about the entire New Music America festival.

BA:  Oh, that was a disaster.  I didn’t mean harm, but I think I was thoroughly hated.  The Kitchen never recovered from that, although some people thought it was a great thing because I was the only person that reviewed everything.  And not just the concerts, but also the [panel discussions of the] Music Critics Association, which I found really intriguing.  I loved hearing the critics read their papers, not having practiced them.  They didn’t see performing as something you might want to rehearse.  But anyway, Reports from the Front was something I created because I wanted to participate in the festival at The Kitchen in ’79, and I didn’t think that anybody would see it as negative because I was just saying whatever came into my mind.  It was so clear that it wasn’t thought out and it wasn’t directed in a negative way.  I was trying to describe stuff, and compare stuff to other performances of the same pieces. I thought I was so unimportant that nobody would take it badly, but people did.  It angered the whole downtown scene in one fell swoop, in nine days.

FJO:  And it also angered the music critics, right?

“I never think about—or never have thought about—consequences.”

BA:  Oh yeah, there was that.  There were so many times in my life that it would have been a good idea to be quiet, or to just not be there.  But I never think about—or never have thought about—consequences.  I think about it a little bit more now at this age than I did at that age.

FJO:  Despite the lesson of Pauline Oliveros being silent the whole day.

BA:  Yes.  She sure is a great teacher.  I should have paid more attention.

FJO: Before we completely leave California and keep talking about your life in New York, I was curious if you were at all connected with any of the extremely innovative things that were happening in so-called pop music there at the time. Not only was it a golden era in terms of the amazing things people were doing with electronics, plus early minimalism and all the conceptual pieces, California was the epicenter of psychedelia. Were you connected to any of that music? Were you aware that it was happening?

BA:  I listened to pop music from ’57 to ’69. Acid rock like Steppenwolf and Blue Cheer—I loved that stuff.  But, by then, I was over the edge into Stockhausen and Cage, so that was the direction my listening went.

Beth Anderson holding the original 45rpm recording of her text sound piece

FJO:  All of the seismic shifts in your life feel somehow connected.  There was the move from Kentucky to California.  Then the move to New York.  Those are physical, corporeal things.  But there’s another event that happened once you were in New York, which is perhaps the most important shift of all—how you thought about yourself as a composer. And I think that it relates to your dabbling in music criticism.  You reached a point where you decided to write music that was intentionally pretty as opposed to something that adhered to some high concept.  You approached it initially with an almost revolutionary zeal, being an advocate for beauty. I think it’s possible to hear all of your work as a related continuum, but at the time it seemed like a huge chasm.

BA:  I don’t really understand it myself.  I know that I was doing this kind of thing.  I came to New York, and even in my second concert at The Kitchen in ’79, I was still decoding the word “skate,” all the possible definitions of the word skate [in my composition Skate Suite].  But I also did songs that were actually freely written.  At the same time, part of it was [flutist] Andrew Bolotowsky’s influence that everything had to be on staves.  If I wrote music on staves the way he wanted it done, I had to assign the rhythms, so that took away the player’s improvisatorial input.  I could have coded the rhythms, but I didn’t.  I just did them freely.  I was still decoding pitches [from words], but then I made up my own rhythms.

Then I met Michael Sahl, and he had very powerful opinions about harmony.  His music was very harmonically centered, even more than it was melodically. He was big into this heavy jazz piano, bass, and drums kind of feeling underneath it that I never really got into. I liked cutting up and collaging things, but he still had an influence.

“I want to see you turn on a dime, schizophrenically, and be somewhere else.”

Some people see my music, that’s now in Finale, and when they see the cut-ups they want to finish and stop [the phrase]—lift the bow, then go on. Even though I don’t put a fermata over it, people want to do that because they were taught to do that. But some of my pieces have so many cut-ups in them, if you do that, a five-minute piece becomes a ten-minute piece.  It just drags deathly into the ground. That’s the absolute opposite of what I want.  I want the thing to lie against itself.  I want to see you turn on a dime, schizophrenically, and be somewhere else. So, don’t do that people!

FJO:  When a performance of your music is seamless, the effect can be similar to the hemiolas in Brahms or even Carter’s metric modulation; the sudden shifts are very satisfying musical surprises. In some ways, it’s like looking very carefully at the patterns that are sewn on quilts. Quilts have these purposeful incongruities in them because they’re made by human beings so you will get these things that don’t quite line up, and that’s the joy of what a quilt is.

BA:  Especially a crazy quilt. There’s a whole lot of different patterns of quilts that are traditional, historic, antique patterns.  But those aren’t the ones that are the most interesting to me.  I like crazy quilts best.

A view of the entire quilt hanging on one of the wall's oin Beth Anderson's living room  behind a couch and in between two posters.

FJO:  Well, one of my all-time favorite pieces of yours is this big solo piano piece, Quilt Music.  I assume you gave it that name because you heard that connection.

BA:  Yes, it’s like a swale for piano, because the quilt is just another word for that.  It’s equivalent to me.  Anyway.  Yes, I’m glad you like it.

FJO:  Tell me more about how it’s put together.

BA:  I have no idea.  I’d have to get the score and stare at it.  You know, it’s old.  I mean, it’s long ago and far away.

FJO:  Alright, but since you said it’s like a swale, I’m curious. At some point, you started calling pieces swales.

BA:  In 1984. That’s the year that the horse named Swale won the Kentucky Derby, the first Saturday in May.  And I never heard the word before, so I looked it up in the dictionary. At the time, I was writing a string quartet, and I thought that was a great name for it.  I wanted to dedicate it to Mr. James Roy, because he had been so kind to me.  He worked at BMI, and he was a friend I could go talk to in the middle of the day without an appointment.  He was another one of those people I could drop in on for no reason, and he would see me.  So I named it Pennyroyal Swale.  I wanted to use his name somewhere in there.

That’s how the first one came to be.  Then I wrote another one that Dave Soldier’s string quartet played the first time.  The next year they wanted to do another one, so I wrote one for Rosalie Calabrese [who was the manager of the American Composers Alliance]. I named it Rosemary Swale.  Rosemary is actually an interesting herb because you can use it to cook and it’s also some kind of an ingredient in the fixative in perfume.  Practical and artsy and that’s Rosalie.  So Rosemary Swale was that one.  And then there got to be lots more.

On top of one of her tables, Beth Anderson keeps a drawing of her performing on the piano with flutist Andrew Bolotowski and a couple of toy horses.

FJO:  So what is a swale for you musically?

BA:  Well, that is a collage.  There’s no question.  I write little shreds and tatters and then figure out how to have more of this and less of that, and cut them into each other.  I can write a whole section that was actually on a drone, like on a C, and then another whole section that was on F.  Then I would cut them into each other, and I would suddenly have tonic-subdominant, tonic-subdominant, but they were from actual different pieces of music.  People hear them and hear the harmonic movement, but it wasn’t really movement.  It was just cut-ups.

FJO:  But not every piece of yours since then is called a swale.  I thought it was very interesting to hear you just say that Quilt Music is a swale, even though you didn’t call it one.  What distinguishes swales from the non-swales?  I know there was a piece of yours, The Eighth Ancestor, that was performed during the ISCM World Music Days that predates your first swale, but it has a similar form to them.

BA:  It was cut-ups. It was from like ’79 or ’80, so I didn’t have the word yet.  But I was definitely doing cut-ups, and part of cut-ups comes from not having the time.  I wasn’t the kind of composer that took three notes and made it into a symphony.  I wasn’t interested in developing the theme and making variations.  I was working all those jobs for dancers, so I would write down things that I had just played while they were teaching the next thing. I was just writing like a crazy person while they were teaching the next thing, looking at them out of the corner out of my eye so I’d know what to play next.  Then at the end of the day, I would have piles of these little scraps of paper. I would take them home and try to figure out how to connect them, or just connect them or cut them up.  Then I could make them into pieces.

FJO:  So when you were playing piano for all those dance classes, you were just improvising?

BA:  Mhmm.

FJO:  Luckily you were able to remember and reconstruct a lot of that music.

“I would suddenly have tonic-subdominant, tonic-subdominant, but they were from actual different pieces of music.”

BA: Well, I think I was a pretty boring dance accompanist, but I did do it for 20 years, so apparently I got away with it.  I had certain kinds of things that I did in F, and certain kinds of things I did in B-flat, A-minor, and D-minor; that stuff would just spool out.  I had massive amounts that I could play forever—pliés in D-minor, across the floors in B-flat.

FJO:  Do you think that working with all those dancers might have led you to create music that had a more regular rhythmic pulse. You mentioned that Andrew Bolotowski wanting you to write music using standard notation is what led you to give up this idea of having improvised rhythms, but you were already forced into creating things that had regular rhythms when you were working with these dancers because that’s what they needed.

BA:  For sure.

FJO:  Could that have had an impact on why your music went the way it did?

BA:  Absolutely.  Years and years of banging out things in three, or four, or six, or twelve, unless you work for Merce Cunningham, in which case all bets are off.

In front of a group of paintings there is a grand piano in Beth Anderson's living room with piles of sheet music on the lid and stand.

FJO:  You also wrote the songs for a couple of Off-Off-Broadway musicals in the early 1980s, which is a genre that prizes catchy melodies. When I was 16, some high school classmates and I rented out the Carter Hotel Theatre for a week and presented a musical I wrote, so I was very intrigued to learn that one of your musicals, Elizabeth Rex: or, The Well-Bred Mother Goes to Camp, ran for nearly a month there.

BA:  Oh my God. That’s so fun. Isn’t it now the Cheetah Gentleman’s Club? The Carter Hotel was the dirtiest hotel in America. This was not an impressive venue, but it was very close to Broadway!

FJO:  Are there recordings of those shows?

BA:  Well, there certainly are shreds and tatters of the words and music, but the people on stage were not hired for their musicality. They looked like the part.

FJO:  Elizabeth Rex was about this woman who tries to get her daughter not to be a lesbian, so she takes her to see a priest and it turns out that he’s secretly gay.

BA:  I love it, but now there’d be all these questions about whether it’s making fun of priests fooling around with the altar boys. And it was pre-AIDS.  But it was a very funny show, and I think it could be done as a period piece.  We’ll see if somebody might want to do it.  And Fat Opera could definitely be done as a cabaret show.  It doesn’t need to be done as a musical.

FJO:  All in all, I think you wrote three musicals.

BA:  Yeah, the first one [Nirvana Manor] has a cast of 20, so that was huge.

FJO:  To return to the piece of yours that was performed on the ISCM World Music Days. It was interesting that the piece was chosen by one of the adjudicators at the time, Fred Rzewski, based on what was a misunderstanding of your intentions in the piece. He thought that your return to totality and regular rhythms was a form of irony.

BA:  I think he thought it was political, because he’s very political.

FJO: But in a way, it was political, I mean, you wrote a manifesto on why you aspired to write music that was beautiful that is very political.

BA:  But it wasn’t Communist.  It wasn’t Stalin, Mao, whoever, and it wasn’t Hindemith—Music for Use. It was just me doing what I did.  Michael [Sahl] taught me actually at the ISCM to go around saying, “Je fais la musique de la petite femme blanche”—I make the little white girl’s music—as a defense against people saying you have no craftsmanship; you’re not sophisticated.  This was the response I got from people there, so I was trying to let it fall off of me like water from a duck.

A series of six photos from 1979 of Michael Sahl and Beth Anderson laughing.

Michael Sahl and Beth Anderson in 1979. (Photos courtesy Beth Anderson.)

FJO:  But there was someone in the audience who did like the piece, a very significant Belgian composer.

BA:  Yes, Boudewijn Buckinx, whom I love.  But he was far away in a booth.  It wasn’t apparent to me that there was anybody there who liked that piece except Michael and me.

FJO:  However, despite your feeling such negativity from most of the people there, you stuck to your guns and you stayed on this path, undeterred by what these folks or anyone else thought about your music. And now, decades later, there are four CDs out in the world that are devoted exclusively to your music and several pieces of yours included on other recordings, including orchestra pieces. It’s not as much as it should be and I know it’s not as much as you wish, but all in all, it’s a pretty good track record compared to the trajectory of many other composers.

BA:  Well, I really wanted the CDs out so that these pieces wouldn’t just exist in my head or on these falling apart tapes from the distant past.  I thought I was going to die at the time, so I really wanted them out before I died.  I didn’t think my husband was going to put them out afterwards.

FJO:  I know that you were quite sick several years ago.

BA:  Yes, but “she recovered!”  So onward.  But yes, I very glad that the CDs are out, and I would like to do more, but I haven’t organized it yet.  My husband assures me that I should not do CDs, that nobody’s buying CDs, which is certainly true.  I should only make things for streaming.  But then how do you send a CD to a radio station if you don’t have a CD?

Beth Anderson laughing.

FJO:  We’re living in a very weird transitional time. A lot of people claim they have the answers, but I don’t think anybody really knows where it’s going.  I’m personally thrilled that you made sure these CDs got released. Of course, people stumble upon music online all the time these days, but I love the idea that it is also possible that somebody could chance upon one of these recordings in, say, a library in some small town in Kentucky.

BA:  Yes.

FJO:  It could change that person’s life, just like stumbling upon a book by John Cage changed your life. The same is true with these memoirs you’ve written, which is why I think it’s important that they are published at some point.

“There are not a lot of memoirs of women composers out in the universe, despite Ethel Smyth doing like 12 or something.”

BA:  There are not a lot of memoirs of women composers out in the universe, despite Ethel Smyth doing like 12 or something.  It seems like there’s a space for that in the universe potentially.  And somebody could find the book.  It’s like I found Eric Salzman’s book on 20th-century music and all these other books that were so important to me as a child.  Even when you’re not living in the center of the universe, you can find books and recordings in libraries.  I’m a big library person.

FJO:  But of course now with the internet, anybody can find anything anywhere, apparently.

BA:  If you know what to look for.  The thing about libraries is, you would fall across them because it was red or something. I read all the books in the Mount Sterling Public Library on theosophy because every one of them was a bright color.  I’d see all these old books, and there’d be a bright red one or yellow or blue or green.  On the internet, you need to know what you’re looking for a little bit.

FJO:  Hopefully people will find your music online through reading and seeing and hearing this talk that we’ve just done.

BA:  That would be cool.


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One thought on “Beth Anderson—Just Dropping In

  1. Alexander Dea

    Wonderful to hear/read that Beth is doing well. I am Alex Dea, a co-student at Mills during Terry Riley’s time. I lost connection with Beth, having lived in Java (the land, not the language, or the drink) learning, composing, and performing classical Javanese gamelan music, and the modernizing avant-garde Asian performance arts.

    If she remembers me and would like to contact, she could email me.
    I remember a focus on food, something other than music (or maybe it was music)… seems like it was recipes for turkey filling.

    Peas, and love,
    Alex

    Reply

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