The Many Views of Betty Freeman

Audiences & Exposure, Here & Abroad



Betty Freeman in Ghent, May 1, 2000
Photo courtesy Betty Freeman

Betty Freeman with Ernest Fleischmann (L) and Gyorgy Ligeti
in Paris, March 27, 1994
Photo courtesy Betty Freeman


FRANK J. OTERI: Getting back to your comment about the emerging American composers of the past 15 years and your feeling that the shift has gone back to Europe. I already said that I don’t agree with you about this.

BETTY FREEMAN: Oh, no, no, I wouldn’t want that.

FRANK J. OTERI: But I think it’s interesting that you feel that way and I’m trying to figure out if there’s a larger reason behind it.

BETTY FREEMAN: Oh well there’s a larger audience for it. There’s a larger interest in it.

FRANK J. OTERI: I was just in Hungary last month. I was attending the conference of the International Association of Music Information Centres, an organization that the American Music Center belongs to along with the other national music information centers in countries all over the world. They hold their conference in a different country every year and this year it was in Hungary.

BETTY FREEMAN: In Budapest?

FRANK J. OTERI: Yes. Beautiful city! During the conference, they invited all of us to attend a concert that was being done live on Hungarian radio, and it was all contemporary Hungarian music, and I thought, to myself well you know…

BETTY FREEMAN: Yeah, we wouldn’t do that.

FRANK J. OTERI: We wouldn’t do that. Radio stations here are so terrified of live music on the air to begin with since it’s something you can’t always predict, and here they were broadcasting live living music from local composers! Every year I go to the conference of the American Music Personnel in Public Radio, and so many stations are afraid of playing any substantial amount of contemporary music.

BETTY FREEMAN: That’s right. They don’t play it.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s tragic. And that’s one of the reasons I feel that this stuff isn’t getting exposure. In European countries they play this music on the radio.

BETTY FREEMAN: That’s right, because the radios are state supported.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yes.

BETTY FREEMAN: That’s a big difference.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s gets back to the first kernel.

BETTY FREEMAN: They don’t have to get commercial sponsors.

FRANK J. OTERI: Or listeners who will only give money to the station if they play Mozart and Vivaldi over and over or so they think…

BETTY FREEMAN: It’s the system. The American system is against the proliferation of difficult music.

FRANK J. OTERI: How do we get around that?

BETTY FREEMAN: Well we don’t. We can’t. How can we if that’s the system?

FRANK J. OTERI: But that means we’ll never have a healthy new music environment.

BETTY FREEMAN: Like we had in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, that’s true. That’s right. But that doesn’t bother me. I think that’s provincial thinking, actually. I mean music belongs to the world; it doesn’t belong to America.

FRANK J. OTERI: But I still somehow feel that if we can’t do things to encourage our own music culture, A) we can’t contribute to the world’s music culture, and B) we’ll never get people here to appreciate music in a really profound way. If people don’t appreciate the music that we ourselves are creating, they are not going to appreciate any music.

BETTY FREEMAN: You mean any contemporary music?

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah.

BETTY FREEMAN: Well, that’s it.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, this is going to sound rather heavy handed, but until people can appreciate the music of Cage, Babbitt and Reich, you’re not going to be able to give them Birtwistle. You’re not going to be able to give them Thomas Adès. It’s not going to mean anything.

BETTY FREEMAN: That’s right. That doesn’t bother me. All of my friends are crazy about this particular contemporary music area. All my personal friends. I mean they’re not a lot of people, I don’t know that many people, but all of us keep the little flame inside, and it keeps going, and there’s no reason why it should go out just because it doesn’t reach the majority of the people.

FRANK J. OTERI: But how could we reach more people?

BETTY FREEMAN: Why should we? I don’t see any point to it. I don’t see any point to force feeding. The people who I know who love it just come to it naturally. You don’t get passions for things because someone tells you about it. Everyone I know just finds it for themselves. I don’t like the idea of feeding things to people. You can expose them. You can play records for them or take them to concerts.

FRANK J. OTERI: But the concerts need to be there and the records need to be there. How do you make sure that they will be?

BETTY FREEMAN: How do you do that? Well, it’s very tough. Los Angeles lost its last classical music station. All they play is old music. So I’ve stopped supporting any of the local stations. I write letters which don’t even get noticed. I’m stopping to support them because they don’t do any contemporary music. But I just know that the people that I know will find their way to it. It’s some sort of magnet. They buy records, CDs… There are little groups that do concerts; we have little groups at the Museum all the time. And we have a wonderful series here called Green Umbrella which had 5 concerts a season, it’s now 7, it’s all contemporary music and very good and they’re hugely attended.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s interesting because on the one hand the larger institutions are not doing as much as they used to, but there are these small institutions that are doing a great deal.

BETTY FREEMAN: Like in the ’60s in New York.

FRANK J. OTERI: Think of record labels. The major labels, like EMI, BMG, Sony, Deutsche Grammophon only rarely issue recordings of contemporary music. But there are all of these little independent labels both in the States and in Europe that are doing fabulous things.

BETTY FREEMAN: That’s healthy.

FRANK J. OTERI: Fabulous things. Here in the States you have labels like CRI and New Albion, New World, Bridge, Mode, or Nonesuch, although they’re a special case because they’re independent even though they’re part of Time Warner, and in Europe labels like HatART and col legno. HatART has put out so many recordings of Feldman and Cage, and now they’re doing recordings of James Tenney‘s music… It’s remarkable. But once again looking at European countries versus here, coming back from Hungary and this conference, Hungaroton puts out so many recordings of contemporary Hungarian music. And the Swedish Music Information Centre puts out tons of contemporary Swedish music on Phono Suecia. Donemus does the same with their Composers’ Voice CDs in the Netherlands. Countries like Finland have very strong labels devoted to local contemporary composers like Ondine. It’s really strange that we don’t have the same resources here even though we are the richest and biggest country. Even tiny, recently independent countries in Eastern Europe like Croatia, Lithuania and Estonia are getting behind their composers in a big way…

BETTY FREEMAN: But there isn’t a big audience for it here.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well there isn’t a that big audience for it there either, but there are resources and different cultural perceptions. I mean, there’s definitely a bigger audience, but I think there’s a sense in these countries that this is something that you should care about. Even if you don’t care about it, you should care about it. Whereas here I think there’s a sense that if it isn’t something that makes money it doesn’t really matter.

BETTY FREEMAN: So are you thinking about changing the American system?

FRANK J. OTERI: (laughs)

BETTY FREEMAN: Good luck. I don’t worry about things like that. I think that the few people that really respond are just going to continue responding to those few people. There aren’t that many great composers at any time, just like there aren’t a great number of artists at any one time, and the ones that are good are for the ages, as far as I’m concerned, and whether or not they are played a lot people who love it somehow find their way to it. It’s like the Pied Piper.

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