Progress on the Prairie: Abbie Betinis

Alicia Bones

Despite our love of the classics – i.e., dead white European dudes – taught in these illustrious halls, plenty of noteworthy artists operate outside of the Lawrence bubble. In this column, we’ll cover those Midwestern artists – writers, sculptors, photographers, filmmakers, actors, etc. – and discuss how they’re changing the modern creative landscape.
If College Avenue did not split the campus, Lawrence could have had a better shot at enrolling Saint Paul-based composer Abbie Betinis in the student body. “I was very seriously considering Lawrence, [but one factor was that] I’m not so good at crossing streets, it turns out,” Betinis said.
Perhaps making up for her lack of street-crossing skills, Betinis crosses plenty of boundaries in her compositions. From a Norwegian poetry trio for clarinet, piano and voice to a men’s choral piece with third-century Greek texts, Betinis proves that a female composer can cross cultural, linguistic and musical lines and do more than just get away with it.
Like many successful young artists, Stevens Point, Wis.-born Betinis started out as a precocious child with a knack for her art. “[One of my first pieces had] an undulating tritone interval that has a little instruction written above it,” Betinis said.
The composer continued, “The note said, ‘Do this until Mommy screams.’ And, inevitably, she would … It wasn’t until years later that she realized that her yelling was part of the piece!”
Throughout her adult life, Betinis continued to incorporate the unusual into her compositions, but her methods became more meticulous. She studied composition and counterpoint at St. Olaf College, the University of Minnesota, and the European Musical Alliance in Paris. Today, the 29-year-old has had more than 70 of her works premiered by ensembles and soloists throughout the U.S.
An example of both Betinis’ meticulousness and her penchant for pushing boundaries is her incorporation of languages in which she is not fluent into her pieces. In writing this way, she wants to expand international consciousnesses, not create cultural inaccuracies, so she does her research.
“After studying multiple translations, [and] trying to construct my own word-for-word translation, I always go to a native speaker, who usually corrects my translation, then records the text for me,” Betinis said. “I go home and memorize it – the cadence, the rhythm, even the melodic range of the poem.”
Written in Persian for women’s choir, viola, and Persian hand drums, Betinis’ “Behind the Caravan” was inspired by 14th-century Persian poet Khwajeh Shams al-Din Muhammad Hƒfez-e Shirazi’s ghazals, or lyric poems.
In preparation for writing the piece, Betinis studied basic Persian poetry and language. “I checked out a side-by-side bilingual volume of Hafez’s ghazals,” Betinis said.
“I ended up reading all of them and narrowing it down to five that particularly spoke to me. These all had similar imagery: images of transience, journeying, being in a state of constant longing,” she continued.
Still young herself, Betinis reminds aspiring composers and artists to remember, buried somewhere between technique and craft, creating art is innately enjoyable.
“It’s important to take your work seriously enough that you always do your best, but not so seriously that you feel trapped by it,” she said.
“It’s a wonderful job to be an artist: to bring something into the world that hasn’t been there before, and to ask your audience to consider it.”
Betinis is currently working on a piece for men’s choir using the Morse code President Lincoln sent to his generals in the Civil War to create cryptographic messages in the music. She said she does not know if the finished product will sound like anything, but she hopes it will.