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Oscar Bettison

Birthday: September 19, 1975

About Oscar Bettison

The story behind Oscar Bettison’s 2012 composition Livre des Sauvages is also not without a certain absurdity. In 1860, the French missionary Abbé Emmanuel Domenech believed he had published an ethnological sensation: In his book Manuscrit pictographique américain, he presented a 228-page manuscript (“Le livre des sauvages”) whose authors, he claimed, were a band of Canadian Indians. He inventively interpreted its numerous drawings, pictograms, and symbols as documentations of everyday and religious activities, acts of war, depictions of nature, and,  ultimately, a figurative representation of the band’s creation myth.

However, he studiously avoided any mention of the fact that many of the drawings in the manuscript were accompanied by written characters readily identifiable as German Kurrent-style handwriting – some of them spelling out names such as Anna, Maria, and Johannes, others relatively ordinary words such as Honig (honey) and Wurst (sausage). Domenech’s treatise drew a reply from the German philologist Julius Petzholdt, who put forward an alternative interpretation. In his opinion, the mysterious manuscript was nothing but “the scribblings of a rustic German-American boy who has represented his thoughts and ideas in words and pictures in the manner natural to childhood.” Petzholdt advised the deluded abbé to “humbly withdraw and abandon entirely and completely the unfortunate attempt to place the seal of a Manuscrit pictographique américain upon these rustic scribblings.” Which – after publishing an unsuccessful rebuttal – Domenech did.

In Livre des Sauvages, Bettison employs the historical “hoax” of Domenech’s manuscript as a “hidden narrative”: “I immediately took the book to heart,” he says, “and realised that it provided a suitable visual counterpoint to my ideas for this piece. I decided to take three pictographs … describe them, and take these as titles for each of the movements.” With those titles, Bettison highlights the ambivalence inscribed into the events surrounding the original “book of the savages,” calling attention to the question of the ambiguity of images and to the demarcation between reality and appearance. In much the same way, the production of sound in Livre des Sauvages is frequently subject to obfuscation.

Almost all the performers have, in addition to their regular instruments, a number of other sound generators and noisemakers to operate: a soprano recorder, tuning forks, a quarter-tone keyboard, a toy piano, and a variety of melodicas, as well as a vast arsenal of percussion instruments, including a “wrenchophone” made of ordinary wrenches, a conch shell, an orchestral hammer, and a desk bell. Coins are placed on the piano’s strings to make it sound “gong-like and somewhat outof- tune.” In some places, Bettison also directs the brasses not to try to correct imprecise intonations when playing certain sounds

. For Bettison, such “inconsistencies” – apparent (or actual) errors in the system – are part of the attraction of composing. Thus he creatively reclaims the approach for which Domenech was once reproached by Petzholdt: that he went about his work not with skeptical exactitude, but with overflowing imagination, embracing the inconsistent and making it his own.


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