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Music Patron Betty Freeman Dies

The contemporary music world is mourning one of its most passionate champions. Betty Freeman died Sunday in Los Angeles. Freeman used her personal wealth to support some of the most innovative composers of the 20th century. She also photographed many of them at work.

Freeman didn't like the spotlight. By her own count, she made more than 300 grants of assistance to dozens of composers, many of them young, obscure or both.

John Cage expressed his gratitude by naming a solo violin work in her honor, but Freeman said she tried to talk him out of it.

"John wrote me that he was writing a piece called the Freeman Etudes, dedicated to me and Thoreau," Freeman recalled. "So I called him up in New York. I said, 'Thank you very much; I never use my name in public.' "

Freeman's name didn't mean much to the general public, but composers certainly knew who she was. She rescued aging American maverick Harry Partch from poverty and obscurity in the 1970s. And she helped support up-and-comers, too, encouraging John Adams to write his first opera, Nixon in China.

Freeman was born in Chicago and grew up in New York. She trained to be a concert pianist, but gave up the idea in the 1960s. Not long after, she started supporting composers financially.

Norman Lebrecht is an editor at the Evening Standard in London and a longtime friend of Freeman's. He calls her "the midwife of postmodernism."

"She ignored all the existing barriers as to whether this was highbrow music, lowbrow music, middlebrow music," Lebrecht says. "She just went after the stuff that appealed to her, and in doing so, she put a whole load of composers on the map."

One of those composers was Steve Reich. He says Freeman supported him throughout his career. And she commissioned his most widely performed piece, Different Trains.

"I got a letter out of the blue saying that she'd heard my piece Come Out and that she'd really liked it and wanted to help me. I was completely amazed that a person like that could exist," Reich remembers.

It was Freeman, Reich says, who suggested he write the piece for the Kronos Quartet. But he says that was unusual. Most of the time, she didn't tell composers what to do. And sometimes, she'd send a check without expecting anything in return at all.

"You didn't apply to Betty, Reich says. "She gave financially, personally because she enjoyed your music. She was a music lover in the absolute meaning of that phrase. She was a unique situation."

Freeman didn't just commission new music. She also hosted composers and musicians at a series of private salon concerts in her house in Beverly Hills. Her approach seems to look back to the classical patrons of the 18th century. But her friend Lebrecht says Freeman had little tolerance for the music of the past.

"She didn't want to know what had been before. She didn't like romantic music at all. She wanted to know what was happening now and what might be happening two decades down the road."

If that meant supporting composers the general public might find difficult, that was OK with Freeman. She once said: " I don't hear Beethoven and Cage differently. I listen to both. I just simply listen. All the analysis comes after the listening.

Freeman died Sunday of pancreatic cancer. She was 87 years old.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.