People like Michael Betz don’t settle for one of two sides of the coin. Just because you choose to focus on melody doesn’t mean rhythm doesn’t get its due. Just because you focus on classical doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate newer genres. And just because someone triggers an electronic sound onstage does not mean someone can’t also be playing live. Betz’s portfolio proves that these dichotomies can live in harmony. This is clear from the large number of subheadings he uses to categorize his work. “I’m often looking for ways to combine the disparate parts of my career,” he explains about his next steps. Getting to this point was as essential as what’s to come in his JFund commission.
Having played piano since the age of five as well as a slew of other instruments, it’s a cinch Betz ended up at St. Olaf studying composition. “There was no distinct moment where I realized composition was right for me. It all just came together.” During and after his tenure in school, he continued to regularly work with the music department. “Emergence” stands out as one of the finer pieces born of this relationship. Even while juggling the large ensemble required to maneuver this epic piece, Betz stayed focused and capable. Celebrating the 125th anniversary of the St. Olaf Band’s founding, the song uses the numbers 1, 2, and 5 as intervals between its most pointed melodies. This kind of story and concept utilization already feels legendary in Betz’s fairly new career.
Years have passed since “Emergence,” and Betz has taken his ideas to higher places. But what comes first? The music or the concept? “It’s not a 50/50 distribution,” he explains. Another past work, “Enclosure,” deals with a little bit of both. In it, he resolves another hard dichotomy: is it the tendency of a note to resolve or simply the desire of the composer? Naturally, the ear wants the piece to land on the tonic, but Betz didn’t want it to be that simple even if that was the case. In his own words:
Abstractly, “Enclosure” is about the desire inherent at the confluence of inevitability and tendency. We often desire that which we are the least likely to pursue; tendency as promise of the inevitable offers comfort. However, if the inevitable is conceived of as a valid simultaneity of all possible outcomes, then it merely exists as a reminder that the future will come to pass. Now, desire can overcome tendency: both have the potential to become the inevitable. This inner conflict can result in a feeling of enclosure, which I have represented musically with the surround tone figure, also called an enclosure.
Naturally, there were parts of the piece where resolution happened because of its tendency to, not because of composer desire. When listening, it’s not abundantly clear which Betz had in mind within a given phrase. Thusly, we get to imagine which one he chose for each of the piece’s five movements, making it a listening experience that’s malleable and confounding with each revisit.
Betz takes his concepts and forms them into something greater than the sum of their parts. When he applied to the JFund program, he submitted two pieces as evidence that his abstract could flourish. One of those was “Enclosure.” The other was a decidedly different affair where he once again eschewed the ideas of what it means to be a conventional classical composer. It’s the emphasis on electronics in “Tombeaux,” the second of his submitted pieces, that accomplishes this. He’d sought to combine multiple eras of instrumentation with a 19th century player piano, a Commodore 64 from 1982, and the relatively new music programming language ChucK. Bringing these elements together, he found sonic similarities across centuries of automated music, and put them together on one stage.
It’s true that these are lofty concepts to conquer, but Betz wasn’t done experimenting with automated sound even after “Tombeaux”’s complex and compelling rollout. The JFund commission, albeit in its early stages, will combine the visceral playing of “Enclosure” with the automation and electronic catharsis on “Tombeaux.” “Fortunately, my best compositions have been commissions. What’s nice about JFund is that I feel like I have full freedom.” Where his past works haven’t been the marriage between his classical upbringing and electronic tendencies he’s wanted, the JFund piece will be. “For a long time, I’ve had an interest in electronic music. It’s always felt like a separate track from classical.” Thanks to the marriage of JFund and Betz, this is no longer the case.
The piece will have one person onstage – an old friend of Betz’s who has always wanted him to write a piece for her. Eri Isomura will play the marimba while, Betz envisions, she triggers electronics with a foot pedal. This is simply the arrangement, but it’s the concepts where Betz once again shines. He’s basing the piece off of the cyberpunk genre as it’s found in popular culture. However, as is usual with Betz, it’s not that simple. “The music will be cyberpunk at heart, but not a soundtrack to a cyberpunk narrative.” Isomura will play the part of the grungy protagonists usually depicted in the genre and the triggered electronics will act as their antagonists. What unfolds after that will be completely original.
Betz will once again reconcile the dichotomy between narrative good and evil by not attributing his arrangement to either. He’s also using not one, but six different original ideas as new dichotomies:
- Organic vs. mechanical
- Marimba vs electronic
- Fixed vs. live
- Notated vs. improvised
- Reactive vs. proactive
- Tonal vs. non-tonal
Keep in mind that the JFund piece is still in its early stages. Will he treat each of the six as different movements in the piece? Will it be a short piece that tries to encompass all of them? How will he be able to communicate his abstract ideas to Isomura? When talking to Betz, he’s aware of the complexities, but is eager and clear-headed about them as well.
Taking what he’s learned from “Enclosure” and “Tombeaux,” The JFund piece will be a fine summation of his work thus far even though those two pieces are vastly different. “I’ve been wanting to combine the electronic music side of my work with the notated concert music side. Not just academic electronic but underground industrial, techno, and noise with classical, notated music,” he explains about what genres we might hear in the piece. Although cyberpunk has extended itself towards literature, film, and a litany of other media, music has not yet been claimed by its extended hand, and Betz may be the first to change that.
Even in school, I played percussion, violin, piano, and sang. I don’t think I would be happy as an artist to be restricted to one genre. I need this variety to keep myself interested. But am I too spread out? Would I be seeing greater reward by sticking to one lane? But at the same time, pursuing in different areas has allowed me to meet a lot of people, and some of those things have yielded commissions and friends. This is a project that has allowed me to take all those separate forms of my work and to combine them, which is something I’ve been looking for as an artist.
Now that electronics have been thrown into the mix, it’s no surprise that Betz is already optimizing their use in his music. It’s another pair of disparate approaches that he brings together: Concept first or music? Using one genre or many? Focusing on melody or rhythm? Focusing on electronics or acoustics? In Betz’s world, these aren’t questions at all. Everything goes into the melting pot, and the results are always complex and beautiful. JFund is helping him be in the exact next place he wants to be in his endless exploration to combine dichotomic ideas.