Academie d’Underrated: Beth Anderson

And speaking of art’s ability to sharpen our perceptions (which I was), Beth Anderson’s Ocean Motion Mildew Mind has given me a new appreciation for the counterpoint between word sounds and word connotations. If you’re not familiar with her – and you should be, for she’s been producing fantastic music for a long time, even if not the kind lionized by classical institutions – Anderson writes what is just about the prettiest music of any composer today, with the possible and very different exception of Californian Harold Budd. But she didn”t always. She started out a noisy John Cage devotee with a yen for chance processes and hard-core conceptualism, and that early tendency, along with her patented style of text pieces, is the subject of her new CD Peachy Keen-O (Pogus Productions P21030-2).

A disc titled Peachy Keen-O better be damn good, or else it’s going to be really bad, and thankfully Anderson has a knack for turning cute, vulnerable ideas into cool, sophisticated pieces. Six of the nine works on this disc are the kind of text-music poems she became fairly well-known in New York for in the 1970s. In Torero Piece, she makes repetitive mouth sounds as her mother tells touchingly frank stories about their mother/daughter relationship; it’s almost like Beth is gleefully ignoring her mother, indulging in her own adamant brand of nonsense as her mother frets about her. Ocean Motion Mildew Mind, which is based on those four words and “wishin’, Titian, swishin’, swine” (“mind” and “swine” rhyming in Anderson’s Kentucky accent) is a subtractive process piece with a rock beat behind it – it’s little remembered that Anderson was one of the first Downtowners to add vernacular elements to her work. She was rapping long before anyone dreamed of rap.

It’s the instrumental pieces, though, that especially give the lie to Anderson’s current reptutation as a composer of pretty music. The noisiest is Tower of Power, in which organist Linda Collins uses her body to hold down as many organ keys and pedals as possible, as loud as possible, multiply amplified, and squirming somewhat, for ten minutes – new music offers no more grinding mass of audio waves, no more opaque wall of noise. And the piece I had heard about for years and was glad to finally discover is Joan, a kind of oratorio – here arranged for multiple pianos – based on the trial of Joan of Arc. The alphabet letters of the words of Joan’s defense are mapped onto the white notes of the scale, ABCDEFG, in a subtractive process that leaves everyone playing only A and B by the end. Restful in tonality yet bristling with energy, the piece is a particularly human and listenable example of conceptual art.

Starting in the early 1980s, Anderson switched to writing chamber music in a beautiful, lyrical, yet collage-based and stream of consciousness style. Her best-known works are a series of what she calls Swales, which is a term for meadows in which diverse collections of plant species live together, and despite her use of lovely, even sentimental string quartet textures, there remains something radical about the insouciance with which she juggles passages of aeolian mode, country fiddling, dissonance, fugue, classical melody, and Glassian argeggios in her work. Her music is too simple for the highbrows to take seriously, but the simplicity is entirely deceptive; I’m always impressed by the subtlety with which she smoothes out fissures among unrelated-seeming materials that start to feel like they belong together. You might even think of her as a feminine John Zorn, quietly finessing her collage seams instead of trying to jar and shock.

And while this new Pogus disc of her long-ago music from the ’70s is very different, it is equally engaging, attractive, and enjoyable, and rounds out a picture of an artist who has never been awarded credit for her deserved stature, but who has been convincing at every stage in a varied career.