BETTY at Mass MoCA: Wild activist streak keeps trio rocking since 1986



took more than 20 years, but BETTY is finally coming to the Berkshires.

"It’s very exciting for us to play at Mass MoCA," said Amy Ziff, who plays cello and sings. "We haven’t done that before."

BETTY, which is performing Saturday night in Mass MoCA’s Club B-10, is a three-woman alternative-rock band -- made up of Amy Ziff, sister Elizabeth Ziff, and Alyson Palmer -- which since its inception has been known as having a wild activist streak for causes like AIDS, gay rights, and women’s rights.

On the BETTY website, the band makes it clear: "Working for equal rights, an end to gender violence, banishing bullying, access to education and the health and empowerment of women and girls is what has kept BETTY rocking since Valentine’s Day 1986 -- almost three decades."

Having started out in the Washington D.C. area in 1986, now based out of New York City, BETTY’s popularity grew quickly. With the AIDS scare gaining momentum, BETTY played rallies and in parades to help draw awareness and funding to the fight against AIDS.

The BETTY history builds from there.

While BETTY hasn’t played at Mass MoCA, they have been there before, to help set music to a newly opened installation, "Uncertain Beauty" by Darren Waterston.

"Uncertain Beauty" reflects on the relationship between the artist and the commissioner of the art.

One piece in the show is especially compelling.

It is based on a room famously redecorated by James McNeill Whistler. He was never paid for the work. The commissioner of the work, Frederick R. Leyland, denied ever asking for it, and Whistler insisted that he pay for the piece, which is a redesigned dining room with paintings on the walls, and a variety of other touches and thematic colors. Whistler named it "The Peacock Room." The matter wound through the courts and the dispute lasted years.

The room itself is now in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. At Mass MoCA, Waterston recreated the room, but warped its details -- re-imagining the room as if it had been affected by the bad blood and destructive emotions that swirled around it throughout its existence.

Having known Waterston for some time, the band mates in BETTY were chatting with him and they mutually decided that a soundscape could enhance the work, Ziff recalled.

She noted that they infused the hesitant, variable-tempo soundscape with "strange chords that reflect with beauty and dissonance and forlorn, jarring vocals."

"It adds a nice, different texture and tension to the piece," Ziff added. "We really liked the way it came out."

In fact, folks who come to the concert early can visit with the band and Waterston while he discusses "Uncertain Beauty" and takes questions from those in attendance.

"We’re really excited about this," Ziff said. "I can’t wait to hear what people have to say."

And this is only the latest strange twist the band has taken since its early years.

Along with concert tours and activist endeavors, BETTY starred in an off-Broadway musical, "BETTY Rules." They have also become known to television viewers: They were the house band for HBO’s first children’s educational series, "Encyclopedia." They wrote and performed theme songs for HBO’s "Real Sex," Comedy Central’s "Out On The Edge," PBS’ literacy program "TV411," and Showtime’s "The L Word."

BETTY has appeared in movies as well, including "Life With Mikey," "The Out-of-Towners," "It’s Pat," and "The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love."

They returned just last month from a tour as arts envoys for the U.S. in India.

Ziff said the band is thrilled to be returning to Mass MoCA, this time to perform live.

"We are lucky to be able to do it," she said. "We have a real love of art and appreciate the really long hours the Mass MoCA team puts in every day."

To reach Scott Stafford:
On Twitter: @BE_SStafford


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