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10 November 2012

Betty Beath at 80: I like to complete a work

'I like simplicity, an appeal to the senses, the expressive qualities of joy, sorrow, love, beauty, anger, longing...'

Betty Beath Image: Betty Beath  

'Experience has taught me that my work evolves from note to note, bar to bar, phrase to phrase, the piece moves at its own pace and, hopefully, seems to know where it is going', explains Betty Beath, the Queensland-based composer of evocative song cycles, chamber and orchestral works, and the outstanding Adagio for strings, lament for Kosovo. In this interview Beath - who celebrates her 80th birthday on 19 November - talks about her composing and looks back at her formative musical experiences from early years in Bundaberg to time spent in South-East Asia.

Anni Heino: Can you describe your composition process? How does a work evolve from an idea into a finished piece? Are you a slow or a fast worker? Do you revise and rewrite?

Betty Beath: If I'm setting words - and if I have the opportunity to make my own choice of text - I will make that choice following a direct identification with that text. I like to spend time thinking about the writer, what lies beyond the written word and what was the underlying impulse that gave birth to the poet's need to write. I like simplicity, an appeal to the senses, the expressive qualities of joy, sorrow, love, beauty, anger, longing and recognition of the spirit's yearning.

Visual images are also an important trigger for me. Actually these qualities are not only conveyed through text but are essential in whatever form the music takes. Experience has taught me that my work evolves from note to note, bar to bar, phrase to phrase, the piece moves at its own pace and, hopefully, seems to know where it is going. You ask about the pace of working: I work quickly. I keep the momentum going. I like to complete a work, I rarely leave a piece half-finished. As for revision, yes, that goes on throughout the process of writing. I always play, sing, listen, and try out what is evolving on the manuscript.

AH: You studied in Bali with Tjokorda Agung Mas, and gamelan influences can be heard in several of your works. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got to study with him and how your relationship with Indonesian music developed?

BB: This is quite a story and, in fact I've written about this in a book David Cox (my husband) and I wrote in the early 1980s. It is titled Spice and Magic, a collaborative effort and an outcome of visits we made to Indonesia to carry out research and gather materials for writing, following an award of a joint South East Asian Fellowship by the Australia Council in 1974.

I remember quite clearly meeting the then Director of the Australian Music Centre, James Murdoch, as we 'bumped into each other' on a Brisbane street and chatted about our current activities. When he knew we were soon to leave for Bali he took out a pen and scribbled on a piece of paper the name 'Mas, Ubud' and handed it to me with the advice, 'If there is one person you should meet in Bali it is this man: Tjokorda Agung Mas'. Unfortunately when we reached Denpasar, though we searched high and low for that scrap of paper, it was missing, never to be found. Ultimately, though, we were off to Ubud, and in our search for accommodation the very first person we met was Tjokorda Agung Mas in his lovely Balinese-style lodging house Menara Hotel.

It was truly a significant encounter and began a friendship that developed in depth and importance over many years. Not only did we return again and again to Menara, but Tjokorda Mas became my mentor. He directed my studies. He sent me to the teachers that he considered most able to develop my understanding of the musical culture and my proficiency in playing the gamelan instruments. A most valuable outcome of this mentorship and friendship were recordings we made, not only of performance of his own gamelan, but of conversations we had, which ranged widely on many aspects of the culture. We have recently put together a CD, Music in Bali and Java, which uses some of that material.

AH: You also had some earlier exposure to Asian music, as a young woman in Papua New Guinea. Can you tell us about the experience? Was it musically significant as well?

BB: I spent two years, 1953 and 1954, in Papua and New Guinea, at first on the island of Abau and later in Kavieng, New Ireland. I was married to a patrol officer and I had the opportunity to join several patrols which took me from Abau to interior mainland districts. I was just twenty at the time and fascinated by a culture so different from anything I had experienced or could have imagined. Living on the beautiful island of Abau, I had opportunities to hear and see a musical expression which seemed to me to be at once mysterious, vital and full of energy. Drums throbbed throughout the night, and often free, full-bodied voices rang out over the island. My only contact with Western music at that time was with my violin, though I infinitely preferred what I was hearing from Indigenous sources.

You ask: 'Was it musically significant?'. I think it was, since it directed me to a 'musically other' but very powerful expression just as relevant to the native musicians as Western music is to us. I was being prepared, in a way, to begin a life-long interest in world music.

AH: Can we go back to earlier years, and your first attempts in composing? Music became a part of your life quite early, and you had a musical mother who encouraged you to pursue piano. Do you remember when you first started to write your own music?

BB: My piano lessons began very early, at three years of age, with a very gifted and imaginative teacher, whose influence is still with me. I could read music before starting school and sat for my first examination at the age of 4. Not long after that I remember trying to create my own music. I wasn't very happy with the outcome and was very surprised when my teacher had me play it for the examiner who visited once or twice a year to conduct examinations for the AMEB. I still remember that first little piece, Dancing on the River, which was all on the black notes of the piano.

AH: The influence of Indonesian music can be heard in many of your pieces, and colour is also an important aspect of your composition style - which is perhaps why your work seems to evoke associations with French music. In your own mind, though, what are the most important elements and influences that contribute to form your musical style?

BB: The most important element would be to express sincerely through my work what I feel about the particular subject with which I'm currently engaged. This depends, of course, on the requirements of a particular commission, what instruments or voices are involved etc. If I'm writing for the voice, then the text is uppermost in my mind and it is the trigger for decisions about form and style etc. I love the luminosity of much French music (and French painting for that matter), and I love the simplicity and directness of much Asian music, but I don't try to take on a mantle of either culture, my response has to be natural and personal.

AH: You're a skilled pianist and have often performed and recorded your own works. Do you think being a performing musician, as well as a composer, is significant?

BB: Yes, I do think the piano has been advantageous to me; I graduated in voice as well as piano and that too has influenced my work. I didn't think of myself as a 'composer' for many years - and women composers, at that time, were a very, very rare species. I wasn't encouraged to think of composition as a journey I might take, but, when confronted with a direct request to set texts for a children's opera, some inner urge prompted me to accept the challenge. That work turned out to be The Strange Adventures of Marco Polo with libretto by David Cox. Written, at first, for my students at St. Margaret's Anglican Girls' School, it was taken up by the Queensland Opera Company and toured throughout Queensland during their schools tour program in 1972-73. Later, it was published by J. Albert & Sons. Yes, it has been a great advantage to me to work with singers, pianists and others who have been interested to perform my work. I like to play the work of other composers and believe that there is much to learn from this exploration.

AH: To what extent do performers influence the music you write? I'm thinking of something I recently read about your work From a Quiet Place (1997) for viola and piano, composed for Patricia Pollett.

BB: I have had the good fortune to work with some wonderful musicians, and I am deeply grateful for this. I regard the performer as a co-creator who ultimately brings the work to life. Although I had not worked with Patricia Pollett before writing From a Quiet Place, I knew of her work and loved what she was able to express through the warmth and beauty of tone significant in her performance. More and more, though, I am writing for musicians who live abroad; these connections have been interesting and rewarding. I value the integrity they so often bring to the composition through interpretive gifts and outstanding musical accomplishments.

AH: I hear a little bit of the influence of gamelan in that work as well - does it come uninvited, or is it always planned?

BB: I didn't try for a particular influence in writing From a Quiet Place. My intention was to try to find that place. But I can see that the final, joyful third movement is definitely tonally based on the pelog scale.

AH: You have also used Chinese texts and found inspiration in Australian Aboriginal and Greek music. Do you generally go looking for inspiration, or does it find you by stealth when you go to places, read books or listen to music?

BB: I particularly like your comment, 'or does it find you by stealth'. I think that's a good description of what actually happens. As a matter of fact, I have a Chinese daughter-in-law, a half-Chinese grandson, an Australian Aboriginal son-in-law and, of course, grand-children. What is more I am a member of the Greek Club and have had lunch there, on most Tuesdays, for years (usually spanakopita)! Of course, David and I have spent a lot of time in Indonesia and speak Bahasa Indonesia. However, it is the plight of the Australian Aborigines and how they have suffered, and still do, that gives me much concern.

AH: When a work transforms itself from a vocal work into an instrumental (which I understand happened to Nawang Wulan, guardian of the earth and rice), or from a work for mandolin ensemble into an Adagio for string orchestra (which happened in the case of Lament for Kosovo), do you think of the new works as versions of the original, or different works altogether?

BB: I'm particularly fond of Nawang Wulan, guardian of the earth and rice, so when I was asked to arrange it for alto flute and piano I was happy to do that; I didn't think of it as a 'new' piece at all, just an extension of the original. As for the Lament for Kosovo written first for the Sydney Mandolins, I wanted to create an arrangement for my own performance which I did. However, I felt the work should have the warmth and voice of the string orchestra and so I revised and extended the original composition. Now renamed Lament for the Victims of War, I was personally deeply involved with this work during its creation.

AH: Tell me about Lament for Kosovo. It's an impressive work that has had high-profile international performances, and at the same time it has succeeded in touching the hearts of many. What was the background to the work, and did its success come as a surprise to you?

BB: Yes, this work has had notable performances. It was written in 1999, a time when the tragic events taking place in what was previously Yugoslavia were constantly before us in graphic images - since then the tragedy has of course widened to many parts of the world. At the time of writing I was also deeply concerned with the fragility and decline of my mother, so feelings of deep sadness and anger were uppermost in my heart and mind. The work expresses sorrow for the suffering of all innocent people caught up in war and destruction; the coda, though, reflects a conviction that we are offered opportunities to restore those conditions which enrich our lives.

The work in its three versions (for mandolin orchestra, piano and string orchestra) has been performed in recitals and broadcasts in Australia, USA, UK, Japan, Indonesia, China, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria. It has been recorded by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra and released on a Vienna Modern Masters CD (VMM 3052). In November 2006, this work opened the program of a peace concert under the patronage of UNESCO held in the Konzerthaus, Vienna, to honour the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize (in 1905), Baroness Bertha von Suttner. The performance was by the First Austrian Women's Orchestra, conducted by Christian Benda. And on 1 December 2010, in the Festsaal of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, the work opened a UNESCO-sponsored memorial concert to the founder of the Red Cross, Henry Dunant. And again, sponsored by UNESCO, the work was performed on 10 December 2011 in a memorial concert to honour the life of Dag Hammarskjold. I was absolutely delighted when this work was performed in Kosovo, to open a concert celebrating the dedication of the Manchester Peace Park in memory of the tragic loss of many innocent lives (on 28 March 2009).

AH: Which of your works are closest to your heart, and which are the ones that you as a composer are happiest with?

It's difficult to list a work or works in order of preference since the current work is always the one that occupies the heart and mind. However, I could say that of my orchestral works I am very fond of Dreams and Visions; it is an orchestral suite written in 1996 for the Queensland Symphony Orchestra - the six movements are titled 'Prelude to Sleep', ' Birds the Colour of the Moon', ' The She-Wolf', 'Earth Spirit', 'Toward Dawn', and 'Day Dream'. Of my works for solo voice and orchestra River Songs, with texts by Jena Woodhouse, remains for me a seminal work (a recording of the work by Janet Delpratt and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra is available on a Wirripang CD). There are small, small pieces that please me, such as An Excuse for not returning the visit of a friend (from the cycle, Poems from the Chinese for voice, clarinet, and cello), and the tiny How Sweet to Feel, the setting of a beautiful short text by Carlo Carretto (included in my cycle of eight songs plus instrumental meditation titled A Garland for St. Francis).

I'm also very fond of the music dramas written in collaboration with David Cox. The most recent of these was the forty minute Il Poverello which was inspired by seminal points in the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Of course it was music dramas such as this that set me off on the path of composition.

Suggested listening

Adagio for strings, lament for Kosovo (MP3 with Camerata of St John's - also available on Wirripang CD)
From a quiet place (MP3 with Patricia Pollett, viola & Colin Spears, piano - also available on Tall Poppies CD)
Nawang Wulan, guardian of the earth and rice (MP3 with Susan Lorette Dunn, mezzo-soprano, & Betty Beath, piano - also on CD)
Dreams and Visions for orchestra (CD with Queensland Symphony Orchestra)
River Songs (MP3 with Janet Delpratt, soprano, Queensland SO/Richard Mills - also on CD)

More AMC resources

Betty Beath (AMC profile)
MP3s of Betty Beath's music (AMC Shop, from $1.95)
CDs of Betty Beath's music (AMC shop)

Anni Heino is a Finnish-born journalist and musicologist, web editor and editor of Resonate magazine at the Australian Music Centre.


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