Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker


The first half of this article ran in Issue 70.


Richard Barrett’s music proliferated in the 2010s. Seldom did a week go by without at least one of his compositions being performed somewhere. And, in all probability, there was nary a month during which Barrett was not fulfilling commissions from, among others, German radio orchestras, Australian technology institutes, and the City of Liverpool. A wide array of works received their first performances, including major orchestra works like CONSTRUCTION: resistance & vision 8/8, IF: resistance & vision part 6/8, and everything has changed/nothing has changed. Barrett also made inroads in the US. In 2015, Barrett collaborated with TILT Brass to present a festival of Barrett’s music at Spectrum in New York. Two years later, gnarwhallaby, a Los Angeles-based “heterophonic avant-garde” ensemble, commissioned and premiered tkiva for clarinet, trombone, cello, piano, and electronics. (Reflecting American critics’ penchant for the snappy lead – and their attentiveness to the merch table – Zachary Woolfe blithely opened his enthusiastic New York Times review of the Spectrum fest by mentioning that an excerpt from the score of “tendril,” which Barrett performed with harpist Milana Zarić, adorned the venue’s new T-shirt.)

However, it is not the premiere of a massive cycle or being the subject of a festival that put Barrett on the radar of the mainstream US classical music audience; rather it is a 4-minute violin-piano duet that brought his music into upscale concert halls throughout the country, and engaged a wider audience through a Grammy-winning recording. Therein lies the unique stature of Hilary Hahn, who commissioned Barrett in 2010 to compose shade for the recording, In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores, her eleventh album for Deutsche Grammaphon. (Barrett was not the only black swan among the other 26 composers Hahn tapped – Elliott Sharp also got the call.) From its initial announcement, the project created considerable buzz in the classical music space, particularly when the endearing, social media-savvy, relentlessly outreaching violinist opened the last commission to an online competition.

It is one thing to indulge in tokenism by including a piece like shade into a high-profile recording like In 27 Pieces and leave it at that; but, Hahn walked the walk. Between the release of the album in January 2013 and May 2014, shade was a staple in Hahn’s recitals with pianist Cory Smythe – it was performed 29 times throughout North America, as well as Europe and Japan. That stat speaks to a consistently favorable audience response, which the recording explains well. The piece’s opening is more enticing than confrontative, the piano’s minimal single notes and clusters slowly decaying under ghostly, skittering violin. Barrett jump cuts within seconds; but, the sudden introduction of delicately cascading piano and spiraling violin does not disrupt the coalescing tone-poem ambiance. A short rest functions as a pivot, triggering quick, short exchanges, the attack becoming more staccato without becoming abrasive. As the piece ends with the piano sliding into the extreme low register, and the violin slipping into the ether, Barrett drops an easy-to-miss reference to Erwartung, the 1909 monodrama that signaled Schoenberg’s full embrace of atonality. Just as Schoenberg’s early atonal works benefited from a residue of high romanticism, the lees of chamber music from the first half of the 20th Century chamber music made shade mainstream audience-friendly.

Hahn’s engagement with social media is rightly seen as a charming mode of direct marketing; in the case of shade, it demonstrated a commitment to a work far removed from her audience’s comfort zone of Bach, Schubert, and Vaughn Williams. Her posts span brief hellos and substantive discussions, and she interacted with Barrett at both ends of the spectrum. Barrett attended the UK premiere at Wigmore Hall in late January 2013, his post-concert greetings with Hahn promptly uploaded to social media. At the end of 2013, she posted a more extensive video conference with Barrett, who spoke from his Berlin work space. At that time, she had played approximately two-thirds of the concerts scheduled to include shade. Even though she and Smyth then knew the piece more thoroughly than anyone but Barrett, Hahn proved to be the polar opposite of Richard Toop as an interviewer. Instead of zeroing in on technical minutiae, she opened the floor to him with broad questions, some of which may seem naïve – she opened with, “What is your process?” It is important to remember that Hahn was not playing to an elite, but to her fan base, one responsible for nearly 150,000 views of her playing “The Lark Ascending.” Nevertheless, her unassuming manner elicited lengthy, revealing answers from Barrett.

After explaining how material for his compositions begin with impressions – words, diagrams, and occasionally entered into a notebook or laptop, Barrett is quick to characterize what emerges from these impressions as details he addresses later in the process. “I’m often thinking more in terms about the structural aspects of music first – what would generally be called the structural aspect,” he elaborated to Hahn. “For example – if we think about the piece I wrote for you – first of all there was a constraint on the structure of that piece in that it should be shorter than four minutes long. If I have some kind of constraint like that to deal with, one of the things that often occurs to me is what if we make this constraint even more extreme. And in this case, that consisted of thinking in terms of writing a piece that is basically in four movements, although they run continuously, and each movement is between 45 seconds and a minute long.”

When asked about the specific starting point for shade, Barrett related how he finds himself “experiencing and remembering music in terms of shapes. I don’t know if you knew that. Maybe everybody does to one extent or other. Some people are concerned with the relationships between different sounds and different colors, for example. On the other hand, I’m not really thinking of colors and shapes that can be reproduced in real life. I couldn’t use a 3-D printer to make a model of the music, because it is exists in a different kind of space, and has a different kind of dimension, I suppose. It’s very difficult to describe, except when I hear a piece of music that I have heard or looked at all the time I am working on it, what comes into my mind is something like a shape.”

Barrett’s ideation begins at “a stage where the senses are not separate from one another, so you can’t hear it, you can’t see it, you can’t touch it, but at the same time you can kind of do all of those things simultaneously. If you go back from splitting up an impression to its constituent senses, then you have something that is somehow anterior to those. That’s just one of the ways I find myself thinking about music. But coming back to this; at the beginning, I would see this thing from a distance, and I would gradually try to make my way towards it, and as I make my way towards it, the details become more clear; but, also, the shape of it may change, because depending upon where the light falls on it, to continue that metaphor, something that you thought was concave at first turns out to be convex when you get close to it. Things like that.

“At the same time, I’m always thinking in terms of the details, almost if I’m going from both directions at once, because everything I write is also intimately connected with the instrumental resources I’m working with, and I try to make the music emerge from as deep as possible a contemplation of those things, which are violin and piano. That has a very big effect on the way the music is conceived as well, because if you’re making music that doesn’t depends on traditional views of musical relationships like harmony, melody, and accompaniment, then when you’re faced with the necessity to have two very dissimilar instruments playing the same piece at the same time – if that’s the object, which it might not be, but in this case it was – then you have to find some different kind of model for how these two instruments relate to each other.

“This is where the idea of the shadow comes in. In the first part, you have a single note from the piano that gradually spreads out into a cluster, and as it does so, the violin emerges from that group of pitches, and seems to emanate from the resonance of the piano sound, like a shadow which comes to light. Then, in the second part, you have this very complex texture – a dense texture in the piano with hundreds and hundreds of sounds in it – and every now and again the violin picks up on one of those and causes it to grow into something else. It’s very clear that every violin entry there is triggered by something in this very complex piano texture. But, you never know which thing it will be. Then in the third part, you have two voices, which gradually become further and further away from each other in pitch, but each voice is shared between the two instruments, so each instrument takes on a single voice, but it’s always swapping between the two. That continues into the last part, which is the opposite of the first one, I suppose. You start off with the quite separated registers of the third part, but instead of the instruments coming together, they diverge so that the piano ends up right at the bottom of its range and the violin ends up right at the top. In a way, this gradual separation of the violin and the piano is a process that goes on through all four sections, not in a straight line, but with various twists and turns. That kind of process is not an abstraction, but it’s something that emerges from looking at these two instruments, and the ways they could relate or not to relate to each other; for example, giving them completely different material that has the same pitches like in the beginning, or giving them similar material that they exchange like in the third part. It’s about those relationships, and they are of course sonic relationships, as well as relationships between instruments.”

Barrett’s relationship with the violin began when he was 11, with two years of lessons that grounded to a halt; however, they were enough for him to gain a toehold on a working knowledge, prompting Hahn to ask if it was an experience he returns to when writing for the violin. “I don’t actually have a violin,” Barrett admitted, “but I do have a fingerboard that I made myself. I have one for each of the string instruments. It has the positions and the harmonics marked on it, so I can work out if a given fingering is going to happen or not, but I can also go beyond that sometimes if I realize my imagination as a violinist – an imaginary violinist, if you like – is nowhere near the extent of someone who has studied and played the repertoire like yourself, so I’m willing to go outside my own imagination, and to be speculative about it as well. I think in everything I write I am prepared for things that require a certain amount of adjustment before they reach their final form, because I’m not interested in a way of thinking that stays within previously accepted limits.

When Hahn expresses her curiosity about the latter statement, Barrett explained, “I think it keeps life interesting somehow, if you’re constantly trying to do something that you haven’t done before, or know whether it can be done or not. If I look back on my various musical activities over the past several decades, what I see is a kind of concentric development. I’m not moving from one thing to another; but I’m constantly trying to encompass everything I knew before and add to it, and to push that envelope somehow. I don’t want to make any great claims for how that works its way out in a four-minute piece for violin and piano – there’s only so much you can do in that time. I think that if, for me, making music is a process of discovery, then maybe that sense of discovery is projected but expressed through the music, which listeners can then appreciate themselves. It doesn’t have to be something which completely changes the world of music; that’s another unrealistic expectation to have. I don’t know if you find this as a player, but as a composer, every music making act that I carry out should leave me knowing a little bit more than I did before, even being aware of all the things I don’t know, the things I can’t do, and all the things I may never be able to do. There’s a huge territory which one is in the process of discovering; maybe a small part of in a small project, or something larger in a larger project. What is this world? I think it’s to do with discovering something about how our imaginations work. There’s something very fundamental to do with consciousness and maybe even some fundamental aspects of reality about the way music affects us, and the nature of it. Where does it come from? And why do we do it? And all those questions that, when you ask them explicitly, you’re led into some unknown realms.”

For some interviewers, this is the point where they try to reel it in; for Hahn, it is by asking: Do you teach? “I don’t do very much,” replied Barrett, adroitly downshifting, “but I do a certain amount, because I have found over the years that the more I do the less effective I feel about what I am doing. If it takes up too much time and energy, I feel that time and energy is being taken away from what I should be doing, because you only have one chance to make a life for yourself and make a musical life for yourself. But, on the other hand, if I do too little, I feel there is a certain kind of stimulation is lost, and it is important to give something back, of course. The fact the encounter with music is at a certain point made a very profound change to the way I looked at everything, and to what I decided to devote myself to; then it’s a good idea to try to express that in a way that can really communicate that to someone else – the life changing, the life enhancing aspect of it.

“I don’t want to impose my musical personality on anyone else, or my musical techniques, or anything like that ... but I think it’s important that everyone finds their own way, so what I find myself doing quite often when I’m teaching is that I say, this is how I might solve this issue you are working with here, and if I’m doing well, I might say here is another possible way to deal with this issue, but, then, you have to go away and do it on your own. I think by looking at different possibilities for the problem-solving aspects of composition, then you can point in the direction of the solution that belongs to the person you are talking to, rather than imposing yourself. If you look at the people who study composition with me, very few of the them have ended up doing anything like I do. One reason for that is that a lot of the teaching I do is at an institute for electronic music, not writing music on paper at all. That’s also an interesting discipline for me to work with, because it means I have to find ways of talking about all the things I’ve been talking about in this interview in ways that don’t require a score in front of you. It should be possible to talk intelligently and even profoundly about music without always having to refer to notation. I don’t want to be in the position of being tongue-tied if there is no score, if the music has been improvised, or constructed on the computer without any musical notation entering into it anywhere. There’s no reason to think those two possibilities are any less complex and sophisticated than what you can do with notation.”

Closing in on the half-hour mark, Hahn poses a final question: “What do you like about being a composer and working in music?” “That’s a hard question to answer in a few words,” Barrett said, pondering, “but I think one of the things I value most about it is the fact that there are areas of life, like composing music and performing it as well, where a kind of imaginative freedom is allowed, which is not allowed in very many walks of life. I think that then gives us the responsibility to demonstrate that, to use it in ways which will express it to people who don’t feel they have that same degree of imaginative freedom, because we all have it, in fact, but a lot of peoples’ lives don’t emphasize that part. For me, being able to make these discoveries I was talking about, to be able to express them, to be able to communicate them; that’s the most valuable thing about what I am doing.”

*  *  *  *

2013 was also a pivotal year for Barrett as he was awarded a Stanley Burton Research Scholarship. This allowed Barrett to write a doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Leeds in September 2017, which then became the bulk of Music of Possibility (Vision Edition; OXON), published in 2019. Although it is far too early to speculate on its ultimate importance, it is a milestone document which presents Barrett’s aesthetic evolution in a comprehensive manner. Barrett went to considerable lengths to prune away the unwieldy syntax and presumptive tone that makes reading academic writing laborious, precluding the need to develop a shorthand for the thicket-like terminology encountered in treatises like Anthony Braxton’s Tri Axium Writings. While Music of Possibility is a demanding text, one that is as painstakingly exact as his scores, Barrett respects modestly qualified readers’ digestive capacity, acknowledging in his Introduction that his initial interest in contemporary music came at a time when he found “technical information, diagrams and musical examples fascinating and compelling even though at that time I could hardly understand what they were supposed to mean.” In doing so, he invites the reader to take mathematical physicist Roger Penrose’s advice about his own work: skip over the formulae, keep reading the text, and perhaps circle back later.

When reading Barrett’s opening chapter on systematic composition, it is useful to remember his introduction to Stockhausen’s music as a lad in Swansea was Mantra. The 1970 work for two pianos and electronics did not simply signal a return to serialism after several years of writing “intuitive music,” but an expansion of serialist principles; at the same time, Mantra pivoted away from the austerity of Stockhausen’s serialism of the 1950s by allowing scintilla of melody, conventional harmony, and theatricality to momentarily glimmer. In essence, Mantra ushered in a new, more far reaching syntax for serialism. This idea of new syntaxes underpins Barrett’s summary of serialism as a response to what, by the dawn of the 20th Century, was perceived to be an exhausted compositional tradition. His comments about Schoenberg’s archetypal tone rows provide insight into his own development, calling it “a new approach that involved composing a musical syntax as part of each work, rather than composing with a more or less consensual syntax.” [italics Barrett’s] So too are his remarks about those who followed in Schoenberg’s wake. Boulez and Stockhausen “saw the expansion of serial principles to encompass musical dimensions other than pitch classes as a means of bringing about a renewal of musical thinking on a much more fundamental level.”

Reflective of his explanation to Hahn about his approach in composing shade, Barrett’s own use of systematic composition is “principally to capture an occasional glimpse of something and to generalise it and realise it. That ‘something’ is not a system of abstract relationships, but a product of the aural imagination, and a principal reason for the systematic generalisation is to design procedures that might illuminate regions or implications of the original vision which exceed the current limits of my imagination and thus expand them.” When he first acquired a computer in 1983, Barrett began accumulating “interconnected elements” to develop systematic procedures. Inspired by non-Western traditions, one of Barrett’s earliest, most reliable and durable tools was heterophony – coincident, varied strands of pitch material – which he systemized to create the layered textures in Vanity and subsequent compositions. Through his early use of extremely complex subdivisions, Barrett created flexible rhythmic grids to heterophonic ends, often in tandem with pitch vectors – pitches in wide intervals that converge at a mid-point – an approach recently employed on the 2013-14 percussion trio, urlicht. Taking a cue from John Cage’s Music of Changes, Barrett upgraded durations to musical materials. These and other staples of Barrett’s “‘toolbox’” have remained part of his compositional process, even with the advent of radically idiomatic materials, an evolving sensibility about electronic music – for which an ongoing process of “composing an instrument,” expanding the mutability of samples through innovative integrations of buffers, MIDI controllers, and patches is crucial – and mushrooming articulations about improvisational practices.

To an extent, the roles of Barrett’s various tools in specific compositions can be identified; however, the picture blurs when it comes to his conceptual breakthroughs. This is the case with what is arguably the greatest leap forward Barrett had made in the twenty years leading to Music of Possibility: “seeded improvisation.” Seeded improvisation is perhaps best considered as Barrett’s response to – or the continuation of – a long, almost Confucian tradition of commentary in the UK about free improvisation, an entwining of virtuous ideals and rigorous empiricism. Intriguingly, one of Barrett’s earliest encounters with freely improvised music was a 1977 radio performance by Alterations (the quartet of Steve Beresford, Peter Cusack, Terry Day, and David Toop), whose “vertiginous and exuberant juxtaposition/superimposition of a wide range of idioms as well as non-idioms” promoted a conception of free improvisation as being “‘free’ in the sense of being open to any possibility, free of constraints either to adhere to or to reject references to existing musics and materials.” [italics Barrett’s]

Given the ecumenicalism posited by Alterations, it is not surprising that Barrett cherry-picks ideologues like Derek Bailey and Cornelius Cardew. Even though Barrett’s commitment to FURT – not to mention composition – is contrary to Bailey’s idealization of the ad hoc, the guitarist’s argument for non-idiomatic improvisation is embedded in Barret’s sensibility. While Barrett does not subscribe to Cardew’s indictment, Stockhausen Serves imperialism, he is swayed by “Virtues that a musician can develop,” the last section of Cardew’s 1971 “Towards an Ethic of Improvisation,” which Barrett quotes almost in its entirety. Barrett emphasizes two aspects of the enumerated virtues, beginning with Simplicity, Integrity, and Selflessness; “that they say nothing about what the resulting music should be like” and they stress “an intimate relationship between the activity of musical improvisation and the other activities that make up a person’s life.”

While these texts speak to the philosophical superstructure of Barrett’s endeavors as a composer as well as an improviser, it is John Butcher’s 1998 “15 Simple Statements on Free Improvisation – with Illustrations and Contradictions” that elicits a response from Barrett that is both critical and imaginative. Like changing the variables in an equation, Barrett substituted “notated composition” for “free improvisation” in Butcher’s text to see if the saxophonist’s statements still held. (Like Barrett, Butcher has a background in science, fostering an impressive precision and tact in his writing that makes Barrett’s experiment all the more daring.) Refitted, several were consonant with how Barrett’s characterized his compositional approach as one striving “to create the conditions for spontaneity within a systematic framework,” “to express the naturalness of complexity,” “to search for ‘whatever is endlessly variable’,” “to make perceptible the ‘myriad possibilities not taken’,” and, “to stress the engagement of both body and mind on the part of the performers.” [interior quotes Butcher’s] It is noteworthy that, although he eventually worked extensively with Bailey – and performed more recently with AMM, the ensemble that nurtured Cardew’s ideas about improvisation – Butcher represents a subsequent iteration of practice and commentary, having only emerged as an improviser after both the publication of Bailey’s Improvisation: its nature and practice in music and Cardew’s death. The boldness of Barrett’s thought experiment is that, instead of extending this trajectory, he mutated it.

Seeded improvisation has a chimeric DNA, joining altered code from the dialectic of free improvisation commentary in the UK to a performer-empowering approach to notation, with each new work permutating relationships between improvisation and notated materials – the latter including the positions and movements of MIDI faders in works like Blattwerk, the second work to employ this approach. Writing about how improvisation unfolds in the 2002 work for cello and electronics, Barrett sought a process where “the music should gradually and audibly develop its own consciousness, so to speak, should gradually ‘discover itself,’ beginning in each performance from the same point of departure and evolving each time into a different musical entity ... This is not so much a question of listeners being able (or unable) to distinguish between what is being improvised and what is not, but being able to hear a process of musical evolution taking place on the level of the sound-forms themselves. Generally, I feel that if as a listener I am concentrating on how (I think) the music I am hearing has been composed, there is something lacking in the way the music is communicating itself.” [italics Barrett’s]

Barrett likens this process of musical evolution to one of consciousness, where its constituent cultural, political, and social facets approximate what epidemiologists call total situational awareness – Barrett simply suffices with “awareness.” Awareness provides the chemical energy activating the organelle-like tools in Barrett’s kit that construct the cellular organization of a given composition. The middle third of Music of Possibility details these processes in several major works of the past twenty years, including installments of the codex series, close-up, and world-line. The latter, in particular, extends several long-running threads in Barrett’s work: his collaboration with ELISION; radically idiomatic writing (in this case, for Daryl Buckley’s electric lap steel guitar); and an emphasis on relationships between instruments, similar to those found in shade and earlier works.

However, world-line, scored for electric lap steel guitar, percussion, brass, and electronics, lays down a distinct marker in the evolution of Barrett’s conceptualism. The five-part work represents a distant iteration of his comment to Richard Toop thirty years before about the “fictions that are necessary for the personality of the composer to believe, to make acts of faith in order to carry the work through.” Although Barrett’s training in biology and genetics was embedded in his sensibility from the outset, visual art and literature were then also prominent drivers of Barrett’s conceptual framing. For world-line, a half-hour piece that overlaps and morphs five components, Barrett looked to relativity theories. Distinguished from orbits and trajectories, world-lines are, loosely, curves in spacetime that mark the journey of a particle, object, or observer. Quoted by Buckley for the notes for ELISION’s 2019 recording (world-line; Huddersfield Contemporary Records), Barrett stated that the half-hour piece “could be thought of as a miniature ‘universe’ whose matter and energy are composed of sound, which expands (from low pitches) and recontracts (from high pitches)  ... which is experienced in relation to the ‘world-line’ traced by the lap steel guitar and the shifting relationships and perspectives between it and the other instruments and sounds.”

This particular universe was dependent upon the invention of a new instrument, an electric lap steel guitar made by luthier David Porthouse, with design input from Barrett and Buckley. Unique to this instrument were three levers, attached to the first, third and fourth strings, that allowed them to be raised a major second without a slide. In addition to these modifications – and the unorthodox tuning Barrett stipulated – Buckley often employed two slides and an EBow to create otherworldly textures and bent-pitch phrases. The guitar blasts the universe into existence with approximately 90 seconds of brutal distortion, triggering equally raw electronic sounds. This barrage seems to be a discrete event from what follows, but its residue lingers, continually altered, throughout the piece – the component being aptly named dust.

Fortunately, the piece flows much more effortlessly than suggested by Barrett’s granular, oblique construction methods in four of the five components. Each has its own set of set of parameters – dynamics, articulation, et al – that shape each instrument’s respective navigation of such typically daunting forms as the 84 bars, randomly varying between four and ten beats, that comprise the second half of lens, and the four sections of rift, each having 162 beats that successively diminish in duration because of accelerating tempi. Attribute it to Buckley’s unique ability to tap the kinetic potential of Barrett’s scores, first documented on transmission, recorded nearly 20 years before; and to percussionist Peter Neville and Tristram Williams (who plays flugelhorn and quarter-tone trumpet), strong presences on several discs of Barrett’s music reaching back to 1993’s Negatives. Neville and Williams meet extraordinary demands – utilizing 18 percussion instruments in a single component; executing brass parts teeming with labyrinthine lines studded with intervallic leaps – making the components with numerous precise parameters and mutative variables indistinguishable from the fifth component, knot. A relatively free improvisation, with only indications for durations, dynamics, and general contours, iterations of knot are scattered through the piece, influencing the curve of world-line in spacetime.


The last third of Music of Possibility is comprised of five dialogues between Barrett and a cross-section of collaborators: Paul Obermayer; Daryl Buckley; cellist Arne Deforce; composer Kees Tazelaar, and harpist Milana Zarić. Initially, these dialogues have the feel of a supplement to Barrett’s dissertation. However, a deep dive reveals them to be as essential to understanding Barrett’s intents and purposes. Barrett and his colleagues not only get into the weeds of their work together, but also the innumerable tendrils that feed it, be it Barrett’s reminiscences with Obermayer about their early exposure to improvised music, or with Buckley about Barrett’s revelatory first trip to Australia in 1990.

Arguably, the most illuminating tangent these dialogues take is during Barrett’s conversation with Deforce. Compared to Obermayer, Buckley and ELISION, the cellist is a relative newcomer to Barrett’s music, having met Barrett in 1995. After performing in the 1998 premiere of Unter Wasser with Champ diAction, Deforce added Barrett’s seminal Ne songe plus à fuir to his repertoire. In addition to performing with the Belgian ensemble on pieces like codex VII (included on the 2010 psi collection, adrift), Deforce produced one of the more compelling albums in Barrett’s discography: Music for cello and electronics (æon; 2016). The 2-CD collection not only documents the ongoing importance of the cello in Barrett’s music, but an evolving approach to the interactivity between electronics and instruments, as well.

Although two of the pieces – Blattwerk (1998-2002) and nacht und träume (2004-08) – are substantial works, brimming with ideas and bracing sounds (the latter including the incisive piano of Yutaka Oya), it is life-form (2011-12) that is the subject of Barrett and Deforce’s conversation. And with good reason; the almost hour-long work is perhaps Barrett’s most mature in its use of electronics in tandem with radically idiomatic writing. Barrett creates a different relationship between cello and electronics in each of the six parts of the work where both are heard, all of them driven by computer analyses of the cello sounds in real time – the remaining four parts are for solo cello. Filters open and close, activating the precomposed electronic materials – all of which are synthetic, with the exception of cowbells recorded in the Auvergne hills – to widely disparate ends: grating, industrial sounds; bracing orchestra-strength textures; shadowing glissandi. Like Barrett’s other major works, life-form represents an exquisite concentration of intellectual energy that, in performance, bursts at the seams with irradiating poetry.

The composition is the main subject of Barrett’s dialogue with Deforce, though its sidebars are equally engaging. Deforce soon cites Barrett’s program notes for life-form, in which Barrett states a surprising affinity for the work of sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, who seems a decidedly unlikely source of inspiration. Goldsworthy is renowned for working at the extremes of sculpture. At one end, his land art permanently transforms fields and hillsides, and his curving stone walls, arches, and conic shapes give an ahistorical, ancient aspect to urban spaces. At the other end, many of his works are resolutely temporary, intended to be washed away by an incoming tide, hidden by the growth of ground cover, or disintegrate from the elements. In these works, Goldsworthy achieves stunning beauty from simple propositions – threading leaves together with thorns; joining grass stalks; laying out feathers plucked from a dead heron. Working primarily outdoors, Goldsworthy’s construction methods often require extreme physicality: crawling around crevices between granite boulders to wrap one with poppy petals; standing still for hours in the cold to create “frost shadows,” human outlines on the ground; laying a snaking line of black stones in a fast-moving stream.

“‘When I make a work I often take it to the very edge of collapse, and there, there is a very beautiful balance,’” Goldsworthy said in the 2001 film Rivers and Tides, which Deforce quotes in leading to a question to Barrett. “‘There is an intensity about a work at its peak when the work is most alive,’” Goldsworthy assesses. That is a statement that could easily made by Barrett in relation to his compositions, which makes an initially dubious connection between the two artists snap into sharp focus. Deforce then pivots, suggesting “(c)omplex notations and multidimensional structures in music where a polyphony of parameters involves interaction and interference on many levels is, in its performance practice, an art of finding a similar kind of balance.” Where in life-form, Deforce then asks, are Goldsworthy’s ideas best perceived?

Barrett answers with a sweeping preface, reiterating “the idea of a coexistence of extreme complexity and extreme simplicity (and everything in between),” identifying a compass-like constellation of composers (Mahler, Stockhausen, Xenakis), and drawing a contrast with Brian Ferneyhough’s “astonishingly inventive” music: “I’m looking for a combination of absolute freedom and absolute discipline, and to be open to everything but without any hint of eclecticism.” Goldsworthy taking a work to the brink compares to Barrett “setting up a situation where sounds (and sound-producing techniques) and structures become unstable and begin to transform into something else.” anaphase, the opening section of life-form is an example of taking material beyond the brink, as the pull of the electronics towards extreme opposite registers splits the initial material (centered on the cello’s open A string) into two groups heard alternately.

“In the sixth part, aerial,” Barrett continued, “the player is asked progressively to superimpose different types of bowing/fingering activity to the point where continuous sounds become granulated into extremely complex (and notationally indescribable) textures, whose details are composed from microscopic phenomena like the partly random distribution of rosin particles on the bow. These microscopic phenomena are thus in a sense revealed by (macroscopic) playing actions – in a similar sense to the way that the inner structure of a particular type of stone (or wood, or sand, or even ice) is revealed in the shape – and in the erosion – of the structures Goldsworthy makes with it.

“The point of Goldsworthy’s ‘understanding the stone’ ... is that this understanding emerges in the course of working with the materials. Insufficient understanding results in a structure that disintegrates before it is completed; the understanding that eventually gives rise to the possibility of completing the structure is one of the things this structure expresses to the viewer. My understanding of my materials is what a listener experiences as structural integrity and coherence, for example in the unstable balance between massed and perceptually discrete sounds that one hears in some of the electronics sections. I think of my electronic materials as resembling natural phenomena, in that they begin by my setting up as open-ended as possible a stochastic variability in many parameters simultaneously, so that I can then listen back and hear or imagine possibilities of focusing on some aspects rather than others, and then perhaps combining materials into more complex structures, combining these structure into even more complex ones, dissolving one into another, and so on. Of course there’s a distinction with Goldsworthy’s way of working in the sense that what’s going on with me is mathematical operations on binary digits on a computer, rather than threading thorns through leaves or whatever, but in another sense the fabric of the reality of thorns and leaves might be conceived as fundamentally a mathematical phenomenon, in a tradition of thinking from Plato to Badiou or from Pythagoras to Roger Penrose.”

When recently asked about the intended permanence of his compositions, Barrett replies that “(t)he compositions indeed survive to be performed and heard again, but each performance (and each listening) is also an impermanent phenomenon in itself. Goldsworthy’s work has the effect (among other effects) of focusing the viewer on the natural processes going on around it, which take place whether the work is there or not: seasonal cycles, growth and decay, and so on. The working of the human imagination and memory, as articulated in music, could be related to these processes, an obvious example being the flute piece vale, which traces a course of gradual dissolution that nevertheless undergoes diverse twists and turns, like one of Goldsworthy’s river symbols. That’s the piece which most clearly reflects my interest in Goldsworthy’s work, I think, but, as with other artists whose work I’ve become closely involved with, the involvement stems initially from what seems to be a recognition of commonality, whether it’s really there or whether it’s just me imagining it. The first time I went to a Goldsworthy exhibition was in the mid-1990s. While it was an unforgettable encounter (it featured “paintings” made by melting snowballs), that commonality didn’t express itself until almost twenty years later. I wonder how many such encounters I’ve had that haven’t (yet) led to a more explicit involvement. Not necessarily with other artists’ work, of course. It could be a natural phenomenon or a concept in physics just as easily as a poem or a painting or a piece of music. Composing is my way of expressing the connections that my particular sensibility makes between things, at a level below the separation into different sensory/intellectual modalities like visual art or science or sound.”

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