The Many Views of Betty Freeman

The Many Views of Betty Freeman

American Music vs. European Music Today

Betty Freeman with John Adams
in Tilden Park, Berkeley, May 21, 1985
Photo courtesy Betty Freeman

Betty Freeman with Sir Harrison Birtwistle
at his home in Wiltshire, England, May 27, 1997
Photo courtesy Betty Freeman

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you feel our music community, our contemporary music community is in a better or worse place than the contemporary music communities abroad that you’ve experienced?

BETTY FREEMAN: Well, I’m sorry to say it, but I think it’s American music that’s in the worse place; I haven’t seen anything very interesting in American music for the last 15 years.

FRANK J. OTERI: In terms of new works?

BETTY FREEMAN: In terms of new composers. The older composers are still writing wonderfully like Steve Reich, Milton Babbitt, Terry Riley, Lou Harrison, John Adams… They’re still writing, the ones who are still alive of course, they are still writing wonderfully. But the younger composers, that is under 40, more or less, there’s nobody that I find compelling. And I’m not the only one. I’ve talked with many people and none of them could come up with a name of someone 40 or under, in other words the new generation.

FRANK J. OTERI: Have you attended any of the Bang On A Can concerts?

BETTY FREEMAN: Well, I don’t know their music, and I don’t care for their music. That’s what I’m talking about, that whole group except Steve Schick who’s a dear friend of mine who’s a percussionist but he doesn’t compose. It’s not music that grabs me in any way. It’s synthetic for me. I usually can tell a piece from the opening, I mean this is wild, but I can usually tell my reaction from the opening measure or phrase. But I don’t find anything convincing in contemporary American music for the last at least 15 years among younger composers. It’s competent, it’s catchy, but for me it’s not compelling.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s interesting because I’m very excited by so much of that music.

BETTY FREEMAN: Well, you asked me, so I have different ideas. For me it doesn’t hold up for what it is, and for what music means to me. No passion and in fact I have very little interest even anymore.

FRANK J. OTERI: So do you feel there are great composers who are 40 and under in European countries?

BETTY FREEMAN: Oh absolutely. And they are composers I’m aiding, and who I have been aiding for the last 15 years. Want some names?


BETTY FREEMAN: Thomas Adès, George Benjamin, Magnus Lindberg. Magnus is Finnish, and Ades and Benjamin are British. Kaija Saariaho

Betty Freeman with Magnus Lindberg
backstage at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, March 13, 1998
Photo courtesy Betty Freeman

FRANK J. OTERI: …a wonderful composer.

BETTY FREEMAN: She’s Finnish. Mark-Anthony Turnage, he’s English.

FRANK J. OTERI: Any composers in France or in Germany?

BETTY FREEMAN: Germany, Matthias Pintscher.

FRANK J. OTERI: I haven’t heard his music.

BETTY FREEMAN: No, but you do in Europe hear it a lot. I like Brett Dean from Australia very much.

FRANK J. OTERI: I haven’t heard his music either.


FRANK J. OTERI: There’s a composer from the Caucasus who now lives in Australia who’s music I like a lot… Elena Kats-Chernin.

BETTY FREEMAN: You know I haven’t heard a piece of hers.

FRANK J. OTERI: Very interesting composer. Boosey & Hawkes recently signed her.

BETTY FREEMAN: I’ll look for her.

FRANK J. OTERI: There’s a really interesting piece called “Clocks” which has sort of a post-Lindberg, metrical sensibility.

BETTY FREEMAN: Where did you hear it?

FRANK J. OTERI: There’s a CD that the Australian Broadcasting Company put out which unfortunately isn’t very well distributed here, but it surfaces from time to time.

BETTY FREEMAN: Oh, why don’t you send me one?

FRANK J. OTERI: I’ll try to track another one down and I’ll get it in the mail to you… But to get back to Americans, there are so many composers under 40. There are so many names that keep popping up to the surface. We constantly hear the names of the Bang On A Can composers; Aaron Jay Kernis and Michael Torke get performed a great deal.

BETTY FREEMAN: I know. Sometimes Kernis can be interesting. I agree with that. But there’s no one that really does it for me.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. O.K., I don’t know where else to go with that.

BETTY FREEMAN: There isn’t. Things have shifted. They shifted at least 15, definitely about 10 years ago. The real serious interest in contemporary, and great contemporary music has shifted. It shifted not only to the young people, but to the older people as well: Boulez, Birtwistle

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, why do you think that happened? What in the last 15 years has changed?

BETTY FREEMAN: What happened in the last 10 years? I think that probably the Schoenberg influence got watered down, and they just became more masters of their own styles. Certainly that’s true with Birtwistle, and Boulez, Berio, my favorite Lachenmann. There’s are all men in their 60’s. Stockhausen, Kurtag… I mean Kurtag is a master, an absolute master. Ligeti…there’s no question that these men will be heard in 50 years. They are writing, for me, music that is completely convincing.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now the question is what happened in the United States?

BETTY FREEMAN: Everything has shifts. The Renaissance shifted from Italy, Impressionism shifted from France. Everything shifts, the style in sculpture and art.

FRANK J. OTERI: Is there a political change?

BETTY FREEMAN: Sea change, everything shifts by nature.

FRANK J. OTERI: So you don’t think there’s any larger explanation.

BETTY FREEMAN: It’s natural to change.

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