The Many Views of Betty Freeman

“Great American Composers”



Betty Freeman with Harry Partch
in Encinitas CA, June 17, 1972
Photo courtesy Betty Freeman

John Adams, Betty Freeman and Conlon Nancarrow
in Los Angeles, November 3, 1985
Photo courtesy Betty Freeman


FRANK J. OTERI: You’ve had very close friendships with some of the most significant American composers over the years, Harry Partch

BETTY FREEMAN: Oh yes. I’ve just been listening to Partch again. He’s just so wonderful.

FRANK J. OTERI: One of my favorite composers. Completely unique, and completely devoid of any influence of Arnold Schoenberg, to bring back the name Schoenberg.

BETTY FREEMAN: Yes. If you want to read something that tears your heart, read that book Bitter Music. He was so angry. Well anyway.

FRANK J. OTERI: Talk about somebody who really created music on his own terms without being influenced by any other music, older European music or newer European music.

BETTY FREEMAN: That’s true.

FRANK J. OTERI: And I think to myself, you put a piece of Harry Partch’s on a program with Mozart and Mahler, you’re really doing a disservice to all three.

BETTY FREEMAN: Well first of all you can’t because you don’t have the instruments.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right.

BETTY FREEMAN: But you’re right, you can’t.

FRANK J. OTERI: It really needs to be it’s own thing.

BETTY FREEMAN: That’s right.

FRANK J. OTERI: And some of these other composers too, Lou Harrison… His output is so extremely varied, but so much of his music is about non-Western concerns.

BETTY FREEMAN: I went up to San Francisco for his concert a few weeks ago. I was blown away. There was a concert for him. I was blown away by his Organ Concerto. It’s jazzy, and sharp, and brilliant. Michael Tilson Thomas had a full orchestra and a real organ. It was marvelous, an absolutely astonishing piece.

FRANK J. OTERI: I’m a big fan of the Piano Concerto that he wrote for Keith Jarrett.

BETTY FREEMAN: Yeah, I commissioned that.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s a great piece.

BETTY FREEMAN: That is my commission.

FRANK J. OTERI: …The way he uses Kirnberger tuning system… the intervals are subtly different from the intervals that we’re used to. It’s a slight difference, but it’s like adding a small dash of some exotic spice to a familiar dish; it can change the whole contour of the meal.

BETTY FREEMAN: Yeah, and somebody else is starting to play it.

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh great!

BETTY FREEMAN: I can’t remember whether it was Ursula. I saw it listed someplace. It hasn’t had too many performances.

FRANK J. OTERI: I can’t imagine there are a lot of people who know how to tune the piano to that scale.

BETTY FREEMAN: That’s true.

FRANK J. OTERI: There’s another Lou Harrison Piano Concerto that I just stumbled upon maybe in the last year or so.

BETTY FREEMAN: Oh?

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s a concerto for piano and gamelan. The piano is retuned to the slendro and pelog tunings of the gamelan. It’s also quite wonderful.

BETTY FREEMAN: Oh! Is it on a record?

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s on a CD that was issued by the Leonardo Music Journal called Interaction: New Music for Gamelan.

BETTY FREEMAN: And it’s with a re-tuned piano?

FRANK J. OTERI: Yes, it’s a re-tuned microtonal piano with gamelan. It’s an later piece, he wrote it in 1987.

BETTY FREEMAN: He’s going to have a performance at Lincoln Center I think next summer.

FRANK J. OTERI: So he’s going to be the composer focus?

BETTY FREEMAN: They’re doing an opera.

FRANK J. OTERI: Rapunzel?

BETTY FREEMAN: No, I think it’s going to be The Young Caesar.

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh yes.

BETTY FREEMAN: I think it’s going to be next year.

FRANK J. OTERI: He’s certainly still at the top of his form. Of course it’s so sad that he lost Bill Colvig earlier this year. I don’t know how much music he’s written since then.

BETTY FREEMAN: Oh he’s fine. I was just with him. He’s fine.

FRANK J. OTERI: Some of the composers you mentioned admiring earlier we think of as being in opposite camps from each other. You mentioned Steve Reich, but then in the same breath you mentioned Milton Babbitt. They are about as far from each other as can be….

BETTY FREEMAN: You’re right.

FRANK J. OTERI: But you see value in both of them.

BETTY FREEMAN: Of course I do and I see value in Cage, who’s different.

FRANK J. OTERI: …Who’s completely different from either one of them!

BETTY FREEMAN: Yes, I see value in Feldman and he’s completely different. Robert Ashley I love and he is completely different from all of them. And La Monte

FRANK J. OTERI: Yes, yes, he’s different from everybody.

BETTY FREEMAN: That’s right. They are all different, and that’s what makes them fascinating for me. And Nancarrow, and that’s another one of my passions.

FRANK J. OTERI: La Monte Young has never really gotten a fair hearing in some ways, in this country or anywhere else.

BETTY FREEMAN: No he has, Frank. He really has. He was in Europe. There was a big thing of his in Venice not too long ago. Everyone, I think, pretty much knows about his existence.

FRANK J. OTERI: But they don’t really know about his music.

BETTY FREEMAN: They don’t hear Cage’s music much either.

FRANK J. OTERI: Although all the recordings that have come out of Cage’s music recently – it’s devastating. Every time I turn around and another package arrives with yet another recording. There are multiple recordings of pieces.

BETTY FREEMAN: Really? I didn’t know that.

FRANK J. OTERI: And Feldman. It blows my mind. There are now six different recordings of Triadic Memories and three versions of For Philip Guston and that piece lasts over 4 hours. It boggles the senses! He’s becoming standard repertoire.

BETTY FREEMAN: That’s what I mean about 50 years.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s becoming standard repertoire for small independent record labels. But the major orchestras and the major chamber presenters around this country are still ignoring this work.

BETTY FREEMAN: Sure.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s interesting the one piece, the Cage piece that keeps getting recorded over and over again more than any others is the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano.

BETTY FREEMAN: That’s true. And would you believe that Robert Wilson right now is staging in Valencia, the Freeman Etudes. He’s finalizing it this week. I don’t know what he’s doing with it, but there it is.

FRANK J. OTERI: Talking about the music that the older American composers have written in recent years, the music that Cage wrote in the last 5 years of his life after Feldman died, for me is some of the most stunning music ever written. I’m thinking of the Number Pieces.

BETTY FREEMAN: Oh wonderful.

FRANK J. OTERI: And now, finally, people are recording this music.

BETTY FREEMAN: I’m glad to hear it.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s treasure. Now a lot of these recordings are being done by European ensembles, more so than by Americans.

BETTY FREEMAN: That’s right. You are absolutely right. Germans especially.

FRANK J. OTERI: We sort of ignore our own, and other people are taking up the slack.

BETTY FREEMAN: That’s right.

FRANK J. OTERI: There are clearly exceptions like the California EAR Unit did one of the recordings of For Philip Guston.

BETTY FREEMAN: Yeah, that’s the nature…you know I seldom go to a restaurant that’s around the corner, even though it’s good, I go a few miles away. I don’t know why.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, same here. I rarely eat in the neighborhood although there’s a great Chinese restaurant that I now eat at rather frequently because it is so good. They serve Chinese food from the Sichuan province.

BETTY FREEMAN: Oh, well, you’ll have to take me when I come to New York.

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