Beth Hoven Rotto – Musician in Residence

April 18, 2022

by Abigail Winterburn, Libraries Student Communications Writer

MADISON, Wisc – Exploring nature and playing music at home with her husband Jon is how Beth Hoven Rotto had been spending her retirement. However, when asked to become the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s new Musician in Residence, Beth just couldn’t say no. 

A native of Decorah, Iowa, Rotto has been interested in Scandinavian folk music and fiddle playing her whole adult life. So, when the University asked if she would be willing to explore, listen to, identify, and transcribe recordings made by a man named Arnold Munkel, she was happy to accept. 

“Munkel made recordings of a lot of the fiddlers and the musicians, mostly for himself, I think,” said Beth, “he was just going places with his microphone, and he would a lot of the time turn the machine off if he and the musician were going to talk about the piece.” Due to this, many recordings are missing information surrounding the name of the piece and the musician performing.

That’s where Rotto comes in. “I worked with some of those old fiddlers, so I’m one of only a few people who might know a little bit more about the recordings,” said Rotto. “I’m trying to add value to that collection with the information I already have.” 

So, how exactly did the University find Rotto? It all started when Audio-Visual Preservation Archivist Nathan Gibson and four of his colleagues, who work for the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures, wrote a grant with the goal of archiving folk music from the Mills Music Library Special Collections. 

“I’ve been digitizing a lot of Scandinavian and Nordic music. When we digitize this music and upload it to stream as part of our Special Collections our current goal is to identify the turns and add contextual information,” said Gibson. 

“Because of her knowledge, familiarity with our project, and awareness of Norwegian music that we have in our collection, Beth was the perfect candidate to be here,” commented Gibson. 

Rotto’s role as the Musician in Residence isn’t only to identify and transcribe music. She also has taken on the opportunity to teach the tunes to an ensemble. “There’s an ensemble that we started with quite a few people,” she said. The group comprises UW-Madison students, community members, and Rotto’s peers. 

With the assistance of the Mills Music Library and the University’s Music Department, Rotto and the ensemble can practice in the School of Music’s practice rooms.

“I’m sharing some of the tunes with them, and then we’re getting ready to play a couple of dances this Spring,” Rotto said. 

Through the ensemble, individuals within the Madison community are not only learning new folk tunes but are also becoming more familiar with the University’s Libraries. 

“She’s promoting the Mills Music Library with each song that she teaches the group,” said Gibson. “Beth has embraced this idea of the Mills Music Library as a living archive full of awesome music.” 

The library has continued to support Rotto throughout her time on campus. “They’ve been really helpful,” she said. “I have a space within the Library where I can work and a space in the University Club building where I can play my violin.” 

“The library set me up with a device with some of the tunes I’ve been working with, and they loaned me a CD player so I can listen to pieces in the collection when I’m out of the office,” said Rotto.

Being the Musician in Residence isn’t only assisting the University. It’s also benefiting Rotto herself. “I’m using it to find some great turns because I play in a dance band,” she said. “I’m transcribing tunes that I like that I’ve heard and forgotten or never heard before.” 

“I’m learning so much about these old tunes it’s amazing,” commented Rotto. 

“The tunes I’ve been researching are from a Norwegian American community. Once in a while, I find a path that takes me somewhere in Norway or to a fiddler from Norway,” she said. “It’s an experience I’ve never had before.” 

As the Spring 2022 semester draws to a close, Rotto is finishing up her work as the Musician in Residence. She’s now busy prepping for dances she will be a part of on campus. 

Are you interested in seeing Rotto in action? Visit the Spring Dance on Monday, April 18, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. The dance will feature Rotto along with the Scandinavian-American Old-Time Dance Music Ensemble. Dance lessons to learn how to waltz, polka, or schottische will be held a half-hour before the event.  

The work that Rotto is doing for the University is keeping the living tradition of folk music and the library’s collections alive. “After retiring during COVID, this opportunity came up to work with UW-Madison for this semester, so I’m happy for this chance,” said Rotto. 

“I’m thrilled for the opportunity to explore my passion with such great support, and to add value to an important collection of field recordings at the Mills Music Library,” said Rotto.