When I grow up I want to be as stylish and adventurous as Betty Beath.
Earlier this year I met Betty at the Perth airport and couldn’t believe how fresh and funky she looked after a seven hour flight from Brisbane. And those fancy buckled shoes! Betty and her husband David were visiting for the launch of Women of Note, where Betty peformed one of her renowned song cycles with images by David.
(Betty playing piano)
They also came for dinner with Ann Carr-Boyd and had great fun meeting Matthew.
Our previous meeting had been several years earlier at Betty’s home in Highgate Hill. Her home, like her music, reflects a life sensitised to sound and landscape. The rooms were filled with ornate Indonesian furniture; doors and windows opened wide into the jungle-like garden.
Betty’s interest in the natural can be traced to a childhood playing in the bush around the family cane farm in Bundaberg, northern Queensland. When Betty was three her mother decided she should have music lessons and so the piano also became a formative influence.
‘Actually it seems to me now that my role in music was perhaps a little predetermined by my mother,’Betty told me with a smile. ‘I had passed my first exam before I was four and could read music before starting school.’
She continued piano through to university level, studying with Frank Hutchens in Sydney and completing her degree at the Queensland Conservatorium. Her first compositions were for piano and voice. ‘I began to feel that I was writing well for the voice and that I had confidence in writing for the piano. Then gradually I had opportunities. Richard Mills had a song cycle I’d written, River Songs, and he said to me, “Betty, why don’t you orchestrate that?” I thought, I will, I’ll have a go at that. That might have been among the first of my orchestral works for voice and after that I was invited to do some more, and so it went on.’
Betty’s first contact with Asian cultures came in the fifties, long before the Peter Sculthorpe school was established. Her first husband’s occupation took them to a remote Papua New Guinean island in 1953 and the experience left a vivid impression on the young composer.
‘It opened my eyes to particular colours and sounds, and the experience of being able to live in a remote area. For at least six months I was the only white woman on the island of Abau. I set up my first home there. No piano, but I wrote to my mother: “Please send me up my violin!”’
In 1975, after rearing two children, Betty travelled with her second husband, writer and illustrator David Cox, to Indonesia as recipients of a three month South-East Asian Fellowship from the Australia Council.
‘That completely changed my life. The images that I still retain vividly in my mind are of the dance and the music that I heard – it was so enlightening to me.”
Betty had not studied composition formally during her degree but in Bali she studied with the renowned musician Tjokorde Agung Mas and it gave a confidence and impetus that has never left.
The gentle Nawang Wulan Guardian of the Earth and Rice (1980) for flute and piano derives its harmony and melody from an Indonesian five-note scale.
‘I like [my music] to have a certain impact and drama, but I like it to communicate a feeling, to have warmth, joy or sadness; all those things are important. And simplicity.’
Lament for Kosovo (1999) is one of Betty’s most popular works and has been performed around the world (in arrangements for string orchestra and mandolin prchestra) including at the United Nations Headquarters in Vienna (2008) to honour the Declaration of Human Rights.
This and many of her other works have been recorded on over forty CDs, mostly on the Jade and Wirripang labels.
‘I think that we write from our own time,’ Betty said. ‘We show just as a painter does what’s happening now. We are responding to influences, things that we feel deeply about. I’m not working from a completely intellectual level at all – I don’t care about that – but I do care about my work being as professional as I can possibly get it and as good as I can.’
Betty continues to compose large-scale works, is an active grandmother and examines for the AMEB.
‘I’m still writing for my time but I’m also writing for my age. I’m aware that I want to communicate more. I want people to feel more, to experience more from the music; I think music is very healing, I think it has a fundamental value in our lives that is often unrecognised and undervalued.’
Bless you Betty!
You can find more information on Betty Beath and other women composers in Australia in Women of Note or www.australianmusiccentre.com.au