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Composer Portrait: Oscar Bettison

Alarm Will Sound records Oscar Bettison’s “Livre des Sauvages” and “Pale Icons of Night”


Alarm Will Sound is performing on February 20, 2020 at Miller Theater at Columbia University as part of their ongoing Composer Portrait series. Dedicated to the music of composer Oscar Bettison, the evening will feature Livre des Sauvages and Pale Icons of Night, which was commissioned by AWS and received its World Premiere at the Peabody Institute on November 6, 2018. AWS will use this occasion to make a studio recording of both works, which will mark the world premiere recordings of Livre des Sauvages and Pale Icons of Night, as well as the first time that Alarm Will Sound has recorded Bettison’s work.

Livre des Sauvages was originally commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Organization and Musikfabrik (Germany) in 2012. Alarm Will Sound added it to its repertory in 2016, and will perform it again during the 2019/202 Season. A 30-minute chamber concerto in three movements, Livre des Sauvages is based on an enigmatic picture book that was written sometime in the late 18th/early 19th century somewhere in the US. 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). 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, that vie with strange cryptograms for space on the page. It seems to be trying to tell us a story, but what that story is is really anybody’s guess.

Pale Icons of Night is a 35-minute concerto for violin and large ensemble, commissioned by Alarm Will Sound, and premiered in November 2018 at The Peabody Institute. This concerto, which was written for AWS violinist Courtney Orlando, is in two parts, based on the idea of night and dreamlike states. The central dialogue in the piece is the contrast of the journey and occasional struggle between two types of material and two states of being; the first emphatic, tangible and mechanical; the second, ephemeral, obscured and dreamlike. In the end, just like the piece exists in a liminal world between presence and transience, in terms of harmony, Pale Icons of Night has a very fractured type of tonality.

Livre des Sauvages and Pale Icons of Night complement each other, indeed they were designed to. Livre des Sauvages has a prominent role for two violins, in fact in some way, it was conceived as a “fake” double violin concerto. In the case of Pale Icons of Night, although it is a violin concerto, the ensemble plays a very prominent role, and is very much at the center of the piece. Both pieces are extremely virtuosic and they showcase Alarm Will Sound’s incredible talent. We envision this recording as not only a portrait of a composer but an ensemble as well.

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“Livre des Sauvages” – Movement 3, “Treasure Ships and Heretical Ceremonies” (2012)
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“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. – Oscar Bettison

“Pale Icons of Night” – Part 1 excerpt (2018)
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“Pale Icons of Night,” is in two parts, both of which start in very similar ways. These short opening movements, entitled “of night,” set the tone for the rest of the piece. After this opening section, Part I moves on to a fast movement, which starts off quietly and in a dreamlike state and gradually becomes louder and more and more emphatic. A very still section follows, “Uneven Song,” before a very quiet, fast and twitchy movement “Flutter –Fragment” ends this part.

“Pale Icons of Night” – Part II excerpt (2018
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Part II of “Pale Icons of Night” starts with another instance of “of night,” which is followed by a large slow movement, “Pale Icons” which also features the most cadenza-like passage of the piece (although this is pre-figured in Part I). The final fast movement arrives to peals of bells, and, as if a mirror-image to that of Part I, this gradually shifts its focus from emphatic, if not bombastic material, to much the more ephemeral and dreamlike material of the final section, “Firmament Device.”

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New York, New York

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New York, New York
Alarm Will Sound is a 20-member band committed to innovative performances and recordings of today’s music. With an established reputation for performing demanding music with energetic skill, our performances have been described as “equal parts exuberance, nonchalance, and virtuosity” by the Financial Times of London and as “a triumph of ensemble playing” by the San…

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