Beth Anderson

American neo-romantic composer

Beth Anderson (born 3rd January 1950) is an American neo-romantic composer. Anderson is best known for her swales, a musical form she invented based on collages and samples of newly composed music rather than existing music.

Beth Anderson performing at Other Minds 23 in San Francisco


  • The relationship of feminism to my work and the evolution of the form of my music are in violent flux.
    • Beth Anderson (1980) in: Heresies. Nr 3. p. 37; Self-cited in: Beth Anderson (1980) "Beauty is Revolution"
  • Regarding my childhood, my grandmother could play by ear and she loved to hear me practice and would say after every piece, "That was pretty. Play that one again." She was a booster. I had two women piano teachers who encouraged me to compose--Margie Murphy and Helen Lipscomb. Helen was also a composer and we used part of my lessons for composition.
    When I was in high school, I read John Cage's books and fell in love with the ideas and the excitement of the avant garde. My music, as a result, moved over to what has been called post-Cagian, non-academic. That lasted until about 1979 at which point I changed. My music is now quite lyrical, sometimes called neo-Romantic, and full of cut-ups/collage of newly composed materials. Since 1985 I have been composing mostly swales for various instrumental combinations.
    A swale is a meadow or a marsh where there is nourishment and moisture and therefore, a rich diversity of plant life. My work, since 1984, has been made from swatches (of newly composed music, rather than found music) which are reminiscent of this diversity...
    • Anderson (1996-2011) "Beth Anderson, Composer, Miscellany From The Dark Past" at, Last Updated January 3, 2011
  • My own mystic bent leads me to believe that musical variations, collage, reiteration and process, or evolution, are beautiful. Life is worth living and beauty is worth making.

Beauty is Revolution (1980)

Beth Anderson (1980) "Beauty is Revolution" published in: Americans Women Composers' News. Vol 3.3, 1/82
  • To make something beautiful is revolutionary (not low class, not easy, not a sign of low intelligence).
    • Opening-sentence
  • The idea that beauty is revolution is a revelation to me. I once believed that the concept of the music was more important than the sound, that the politics of the notation was more important than the time limits of the rehersals and therefore, more important than the sound of the performance
    • Cited (earlier) in: American Women Composers (1979) AWC news. Volumes 2-3. p. 41
  • I've rediscovered the part of my brain that can't decode anything, that can't add, that can't work from a verbalized concept, that doesn't care about stylish notation, that makes melodies that have pitch and rhythm, that doesn't know anything about zen eternity and gets bored and changes, that isn't worried about being commercial or avant-garde or serial or any other little category. Beauty is enough.
    • Variant quotes:
    • I've rediscovered the part of my brain that can't decode anything, that can't add, that can't work from a verbalized concept, that doesn't know anything about Zen eternity and gets bored and changes, that isn't worried about being commercial or avant-garde or serial or any other little category. Beauty is enough.
      • In: Jane Weiner LePage (1983) Women composers, conductors, and musicians of the twentieth century: selected biographies. p. 14
  • Beauty means perfect to me, but it also has an additional meaning having to do with being pleasurable, rather than painful. Beauty is hard to make. The making is painful, and involves a certain amount of craft, and a relaxation of the part of the brain that says, "Don't write that. X wrote those four notes in 1542 or 1979 or 1825 or whatever period you are worried about being influenced by."
  • Real music soars above class society.

What Makes Music Woman Oriented (1996)

Beth Anderson (1996) "What Makes Music Woman Oriented", Web Exclusive
  • I used to be obsessed with this idea that odd numbers are masculine and even ones are feminine. So I wrote pieces that used even numbers, as in:
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
    a b c d e f g h i
    j k l m n o p q r
    s t u v w x y z
Using that code, you get: cello=3+5+3+3+6=20 and 2+0=2 (a feminine choice) or, flute=6+3+3+2+5=19 and 1+9=10 and 1+0=1 (a masculine choice) and then of course after I would get the instruments
  • I have never been able to understand women composers who do not wish to be called women composers. I understand their argument but it seems so superficial to me. Our strength lies in our identification with women and music.
  • To be simply a poorly paid or seldom played composer seems so tragic to me. But to be a woman composer with all the trials and tribulations that seem to go along with being a woman composer, puts everything in perspective. The struggle becomes heroic--not pitiful. The success becomes a success for all of us in the cause, not something merely egoistic.

Quotes about Beth Anderson

  • At the start of the twenty-first century, composer Beth Anderson is one of the most exciting personalities on the American classical music scene, bucking trends of formalism and attempting to make touch with her inner self, tastes and identity in her music.
    • David N. Lewis, Assistant Classical Editor, All Music Guide; cited in: Beth Anderson, 1996-2011
  • Beth Anderson writes pretty music - the prettiest music I know of, after Schubert, Faure, Debussy, and a few long-dead white males. Her prettiness is not an intellectual deficiency, but a political stance. "To make something beautiful," Anderson likes to say, "is revolutionary." Her web page lists her as a "neo-romantic, avant-garde composer," and she may be the only composer in the world who could justify both contradictory labels. Her music has the simplicity of that of Erik Satie or, even more, Virgil Thomson. It is listenable, melodic, fun to play. Such qualities often bring her into conflict with other composers. On one 12-tone-heavy musical festival, she says, after her lullaby was performed "everyone quit speaking to me." And yet her music is no throwback to an easy past, but radical on its own terms.
  • By the early 1980s, however, Anderson had moved away from text-sound music and conceptualism toward a chamber music style of great beauty, generally simple tonality, and luminous textures. She adopted a deceptively unmilitant motto—“To make something beautiful is revolutionary”... Even today, however, her chamber music betrays its twentieth-century roots in its pervasive use of collage. Her preferred form, and one she invented herself, is the swale: a term for a meadow or marsh in which a lot of plants grow together, and by extension a musical piece in which diverse musical ideas and even styles grow side by side. (The interest is curiously anticipated in a 1979 text-sound piece that runs, “Clover and daisies, alfalfa, and Queen Anne’s lace, hegemony, hodge-podge, and heliotrope... ” However, Anderson didn’t discover the word until a horse named Swale won the 1984 Kentucky Derby.)
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