Richard Barrett (Swansea, 1959) is internationally active as composer and performer, and also teaches at the Institute of Sonology in Den Haag and at the Academy of Creative and Performing Arts at Leiden University. His work encompasses a range from free improvisation to intricately-notated scores, and from acoustic chamber music to innovative uses of digital technology. Recent compositions include close-up for electroacoustic sextet, written for Ensemble Studio6; everything has changed/nothing has changed for orchestra, given its premiere by the SWR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Rundel in February 2017; and the first instalment of natural causes, a work in progress for the ensemble Musikfabrik, given its premiere in May 2017.
Current projects include new works for ELISION, with whom Richard Barrett has been working regularly since 1990, and for the Los Angeles-based ensemble gnarwhallaby. Ongoing performative collaborations include with Paul Obermayer (in FURT), Evan Parker, and several other improvising ensembles such as SKEIN (with Achim Kaufmann, Frank Gratkowski, Wilbert de Joode and others) and Colophony (with Jon Rose and Meinrad Kneer). Richard Barrett’s principal composition teacher was Peter Wiegold, and he currently resides in Belgrade. His work as composer and performer is documented on over forty CDs, including seven discs devoted to his compositions and nine by FURT.
[When I contacted Mr. Barrett for the interview, he was too busy, but did not want to refuse entirely. He suggested that he’d spoken or written about the issues raised by my questions previously and allowed me to find suitable quotes on his website to serve as his answers.]
What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?
To make music out of disembodied abstractions might be a very interesting exercise for a composer to indulge in, but why should anyone want to listen to it? What has it got to say to them? What has it in common, if you like, with the listener that is going to be productive of some kind of empathy – I hesitate to say ‘communication’, because then we begin to get into linguistics, and that’s a huge grey area as far as music is concerned. I think the important thing for me in that respect is that music such as this, which I suppose is ‘visionary’, ‘confessional’ and all those things, has a function, which is to be productive of what we might call illumination of various sorts in a list.
Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work? Has this changed over time?
For me, listening to as well as making music has always partly been about creating meaningful alternatives to what we hear around us. One of the things I like most about modern music is its potential to suggest an existence beyond any accepted order. And who could really want to be “in harmony” with a world as exploitative as ours? Suffice it to say that I agree with beliefs about mass culture and the deadening effects it can have on our sensibilities. So as for your general question of influence, I think that as long as capitalism remains so adept at commodifying and neutralizing artistic production, it will always be essential for some of us to try and reach out beyond any established practices in art, even currently progressive ones.
However, if I thought I was always writing music for a small coterie of people in the know, then it wouldn’t be worth bothering about. As a musician I’m concerned with finding a way that music can have a relationship with my political beliefs. The choice is either to say, it’s a drop in the ocean, so I’m just going to treat it as a drop in the ocean, or I’m going to look at it in terms of its potential. Because in the end there is something idealistic about writing the music I do in this society. And that idealism in itself is part of what the music says.
How do you approach the question of “form” especially for longer works?
Managing structure is something we try to assess freshly for each new stage in our work, and it’s a work constantly in progress. Part of this is indeed the development and expansion of our musical syntax, one aspect of which could be described in terms of cadences. Musical syntax clearly doesn’t depend only on cadences, though, since many musical traditions don’t have them, and cadences don’t depend on tonality. Gamelan music, for example, uses cadence-like forms but isn’t at all tonal.
Anyway, such syntactic elements then serve to create a background, perhaps an illogical one, FURT’s “logic”, which we can then work in counterpoint against. Structural turning points or cadences often follow each other very rapidly in FURT rather than just signaling beginnings and endings. Some of our pieces have clearly-imagined starting and ending points prior to performance while others don’t. For us, some of the most exciting moments are when the music does stop without ending, coming to a total standstill which “could” be an ending but which then lasts only a fraction of a second. But once you get down to that level of detail the music might be seen as being perforated by thousands of tiny silences, any of which could be the last.
Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process? What other technology, if any, do you use?
We should start by saying that our first priority is to communicate with people through sound, so it can be distracting and misleading to talk about the technology as if it were at the center of what we do. Our setup consists, at the moment, of two MIDI keyboards, and a few other controllers, controlling sample playback software on three computers of which each of us has access to two. So the situation involves characteristics both of one instrument and of two, being played by both one person and two, and that’s more central to what we think about than the specific technology used to bring it about.
Please describe a recent work.
One might ask, “why bother with the complexities and time that writing an orchestral piece takes?” It’s to do with people more than anything else. I’m interested in the orchestra because it presents a double face to the world. One of those faces is as a very conservative institution which is hidebound by rules and regulations that are very hard to shake. But the other side of the orchestra is that it’s one of the few examples of human endeavor in which a comparatively large number of people work closely together in pursuit of a common aim. And that’s the way I want to think of the orchestra: at its best, it’s a kind of microcosm of a society which is in balance, as opposed to the one we actually live in.
The detailed work on NO began at around the time that Iraq was invaded, in March 2003, and I happened to be in London when the big demonstration took place. And I started to think that the way I had been conceiving the relationship between music and ideas had to make some radical change. How is an artist like me, who is committed to socialist ideas, to respond to this situation? We are forced to think about these things. It’s incumbent upon artists, upon composers, to try and be more explicit in relating music to everything else that is going on in the world. The piece is saying: no, this is not the way the world should be, and it’s not the way the musical world should be either.