Ensemble Klang: Oscar Bettison: O Death
No matter where we're born, no matter what music we listen to or play, we share one thing in common: We're going to die. It's an awareness that runs deep through bedrock musical traditions the world over, from American folk and blues to British broadside ballads to the requiem mass. Each of those aforementioned musics in some way feeds into O Death, an expansive 2005-07 chamber work by British-born composer and newish Peabody Institute faculty member Oscar Bettison, written for and newly recorded by Dutch group Ensemble Klang.
Just as death unifies us, the American folk tune that gives the piece its title unifies Bettison's composition. While there's no obvious sign of it in the opening movement, the languid glissandos and metallic twangs of the American South and its music are written right into the score, delivered by a front line of trombone, electric guitar, and reeds. But this is no plantation japery; the piece quickly moves into an ever-developing swirl of swarming, syncopated horns over a nagging guitar ostinato. Eerie harmonies from reeds and an unconventional array of percussion accompany the piece proverbially falling apart (perhaps to its knees, programmatically speaking) before rousing for fleet, feverish interplay between the horns, piano, and percussion. At the literal heart of the composition lies "O Death" itself, its melody recast and redistributed across the ensemble for a modernist dirge, tolling bells sounding an ominous knell. But the opening chorus returns, and the piece continues with the keening penultimate movement telegraphing terror in its descending scales before the inevitable lulling finale, nailed shut by a thudding drum.
More than the programmatic aspect, what impresses here is the breadth of effects and moods Bettison creates with a relatively limited palette, aided by Ensemble Klang's adroit playing and nimble instrumental and textural shifts. It helps that this is not a work that plays down to its populist source material, nor does it abandon the essential approachability that allows a tune like "O Death" to travel through generations. There are far worse ways to spend an hour or so, even your last.