Interview with Richard Barrett

Nina Dante : Your quintet Coïgitum contains traces of work (direct and inspirational) from two sources: 20th century Chilean painter Roberto Matta, and 19th century Italian philosopher Giacomo Leopardi. Could you discuss why these two influences converged in Coïgitum at that point in your life? And what role their work had in propelling your own message (if there is a message!) forward in the piece?

Richard Barrett : The work of some artists, of whom Matta has been one (others might include the writers Samuel Beckett, to whom I’ll come back shortly, Paul Celan and Simon Howard), has the quality of seemingly spontaneously bringing sound-images to my mind, which then, as you’d imagine, brings with it a compulsion to explore that relationship further, to try to understand it, and to do so by realising those sound-forms in actual musical compositions. In the process, maybe something can be discovered about the nature of the imagination, in particular the feeling that for a creative musician there’s no such category as “extra-musical” source. I would go so far as to say that Matta’s paintings have had at least as much influence on what I do as the work of any composer, in (to name only these) its sense of colour, its irrationally interlocking perspectives, its expressivity which is bold and spontaneous but at the same time meticulous and precise; and I think all of these characteristics are very clearly audible in the music of CoïgitumI first saw Matta's paintings in the flesh in late 1977, a couple of months after I moved to London as a student, in an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery dominated by five enormous canvases, including the one whose title I took for this piece. At that time, the beginning of my involvement with musical composition was still a few years off, so maybe it could be said that seeing these paintings was one of the factors that eventually led to my abandoning a scientific career, more or less immediately after leaving university, and devoting myself to music. In fact Coïgitum was only the first element to be completed of a whole group of pieces entitled After Matta - it was followed fairly rapidly by the ‘cello solo Ne songe plus à fuir and the electronic piece The Unthinkable, then by Illuminer le temps for ensemble, which was performed a number of times in a provisional version in 1990 but not definitively finished until 2005, and then finally by a piece for ensemble and electronic sounds, Wake, in 2016. So this inspiration predates my compositional work and has continued to be present throughout it.

My encounter with the writings of Leopardi actually came through my involvement with the work of Samuel Beckett, which informs most of my work written between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s in one way or another, as well as several compositions written since then, being again something that has stayed with me throughout. Beckett quotes from the poem "A se stesso" in his novel Molloy, and refers to Leopardi also in his important essay on Proust. The quotation used in Coïgitum comes, you might say, at a point of confusion and crisis in the music, whose central section consists of a collage of quite disparate components: the music becomes lost in its own convolutions, and from these emerges Leopardi’s voice - more or less the only clearly enunciated words in the whole piece - saying “life is bitterness and tedium, and the world is mud”, which very much parallels the situation described in Beckett’s novel How It Is. At the moment the voice is finally isolated, after being submerged in the instrumental textures almost constantly until now, it’s unable to complete this sentence - there’s a moment of inarticulate panic, after which the music suddenly rediscovers a sense of direction, and begins a headlong process of repeated accumulations of sound which only finally come to an end when everything is absorbed into the piano in the final minutes, after which all that density is gradually erased until nothing is left. I wouldn’t want to be too specific about what this all “means” in poetic or dramatic terms. Like Matta and Beckett, in their different ways it has very many layers. I would prefer listeners (and performers) to explore what, if anything, it might mean to them. It’s important to me to be thinking in terms of encouraging the musical experience to open horizons rather than close them, to activate and empower the listener’s imagination.

ND : Coïgitum is quite an early work, written between 1983 and 1985. You must have been in your mid-20s when you first sat down to work on it. Since then, you’ve written relatively extensively for voice: chamber works, theater pieces, and large-scale concert-length works. What was your approach to vocal (+instrumental) writing for this and other early works, and how has your approach changed since Coïgitum up to - for example - CONSTRUCTION (2003-2011)?

RB : Coïgitum was for most of those two years the only or principal project I was working on - it came at a time in my life where I was trying to establish what “my music” was, what it could become, how to find a point of departure that would be somehow anterior to any supposed distinction between intellect and sensuality. The preparation for it involved hundreds of pages of sketches, as well as the writing of computer programs for articulating its musical processes, and only a fraction of all of this is really apparent in the score. (As for the programs, their potential has still not been exhausted, since I still use some of the ones I developed back then.) A sense of urgency about exploring worlds of musical possibilities whose shape was only beginning to become clear is something that feeds into the poetic identity of the music. Nowadays I work much more quickly and efficiently, although I think that urgency is still always there, since there always seems to be so much to do, and the further I get the more potential directions seem to open up. The only potentially important and vital contribution that can be made by music like this, which resists the pressures to conform to the supposedly inevitable priorities of corporate culture, is to emphasise again and again that there are actually no restrictions on our imagination, so that we can for example imagine a world different from this one, which might prioritise life and intelligence over profit, conformity and stupidity. I was recently reading an essay by David Graeber, "Revolution in Reverse", which expresses the fundamental relationship between imagination and social liberation movements in many beautiful ways, including this: "Right and Left political perspectives are founded, above all, on different assumptions about the ultimate realities of power. The Right is rooted in a political ontology of violence, where being realistic means taking into account the forces of destruction. In reply the Left has consistently proposed variations on a political ontology of the imagination, in which the forces that are seen as the ultimate realities that need to be taken into account are those (forces of production, creativity…) that bring things into being.” Anyone who recognises a necessity to struggle for equality and social justice is involved in what is literally a struggle of life against death. Even if listeners to music might not even recognise it as such, this is what is at stake when music (to name only this) is being made. That’s something that was already becoming clear to me at the time when Coïgitum was composed, and such issues have if anything gained in immediacy in the meantime.

As I mentioned before, there’s very little actual “text-setting” in Coïgitum, and this is to do with the way I thought of the voice as not being a soloist, or even an equivalent element to the instruments, but as something more like the coloured “wash” that forms the background in many of Matta’s paintings and draws the viewer through the complex foreground into something more still, if not necessarily static, and of course the presence of a voice in music is always something which attracts a listener’s attention, for evolutionary reasons so to speak - even in the background it draws the listener inward to the interior of the sound -textures. This reversal of the usual perspective in “vocal music” is for me one of the most prominent and perhaps individual features of Coïgitum - although I was interested to find, many years later on, a parallel in the sinawi ensemble music of Korea. It’s an idea that's reappeared in later pieces in which voices feature, Opening of the Mouth in particular, but in the years since the mid-1980s I’ve been interested in expanding my view of the potential of the voice in music. It’s not that the approach has changed but that it has gradually come to embrace more possibilities, including - in CONSTRUCTION - something that perhaps comes close to opera, where vocalists are embodying named characters (in this case from Greek tragedy). One thing that remains constant in my work with voices is that it tends not to create associations with the bel canto tradition, as a result of which the vocalists I’ve worked with most often over the years have themselves come from outside that tradition: for example Deborah Kayser, who's also an early music specialistUte Wassermann, who has spent much of her life researching and incorporating into her own work a massive range of vocal techniques, some newly invented and others inspired by vocal traditions from all parts of the world; and Carl Rosman, whose “day job” is as a clarinetist and conductor. I was attracted to write the theatre piece Unter Wasser for Marianne Pousseur after hearing her somewhat chanteuse-like performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. I’ve written two solo vocal pieces (dying words I and II ) where the performer also plays flute (they’ve been performed both by a vocalist who “also” plays flute and by a flute player who “also” sings); and one of my current works in progress involves a solo part for the Australian violinist Winnie Huang, which will employ both voice and composed movements along with her instrument. The voice has been an important focus in my work for many years but I think I’m always trying to find new ways for voices to “speak”.

As for instrumental writing, Coïgitum is a composition that exists at and quite often beyond the threshold of what instruments can do, particularly in its piano part (originally written for Michael Finnissy) which often involves an “impossible” network of voices crossing each other in all directions. This approach of creating a kind of transcendent virtuosity by enormous proliferations of notes is something that, once more, subsequently became one possible feature of my musical creativity, rather than the principal one. Sometimes when I think about this score I wonder about making a new version of it (or perhaps even several different ones) which might exclude half or more of the notated material and rework the rest into something that achieves a similar level of intricacy without that almost constant, sometimes opaque, high density of sound, as well as working with the grain of the instruments instead of this more speculative approach. But then I come to the conclusion that this is in a way what I’ve actually been doing all the time in the years since it was written. It’s better left as it is, as an expression of a sort of “big bang” in which most of the rest of my creative output has its chaotic point of origin. At least, this is my current thinking since the unexpected but extremely welcome news that you and Fonema Consort were planning to bring it back into the world, after many years in which it wasn’t performed at all. Listening to your previous performances I find it surprising and indeed inspiring to hear that I can hear it without my attention being focused on everything I’ve learned about music since then and that I had little idea of at that time. I’d like to think this is because what I hear as the freshness and sense of discovery in it are things I still try to concentrate on when making music. Of course it may also be because I haven’t actually learned as much in the meantime as I thought I had!

ND : In addition to being a composer of notated music, your work as an improvisor is a major part of your artistic life. Is there an intersection between your work as a improvisor and your work as a classical composer, or do they exist as separate practices in your life?

RB : I find the word “classical” quite odd when applied to what I’m doing, and actually I never use it myself! - but the relationship between improvisation and notated composition in my work is in fact much more than an intersection. I don’t regard improvisation as being complementary or opposite to composition, but as a method of composition, with its own structural/poetic possibilities just like any other method. While it would be true to say that the improvisational and notational methods of composition at the time I was working on Coïgitum were parallel rather than interwoven, this was really a temporary situation which I finally got to grips with around 2000, in the form of an idea I call “seeded improvisation”, in a typical example of which performers are individually alternating between precisely and complexly notated music and free improvisation, so that at some points these might sound quite distinct from one another while at others they might be completely blurred. Again this is connected with a desire to activate the imagination, initially that of the performing participants: the notated material, however precise, is intended to influence their creative spontaneity, but without explicitly directing it in any way. It’s a natural consequence of the way my work has developed on the basis of close and long-lasting collaborations, including of course those that have been principally focused on improvisation. To take an example: I’ve just finished a solo composition (with live electronics) for Peter Neville, the percussionist of the Elision Ensemble. Peter and I have been working together since 1990 and my conception of percussion has to a great extent evolved through our collaboration. At a certain point the ensemble and I began to work together in improvisational ways alongside the scores I was writing for them, and in this context Peter developed a flexible and portable setup mixing together purpose-made instruments and other objects, while avoiding traditional items such as drums and keyboard percussion. In preparation for the new solo piece I made a close study of video footage of Peter playing this “instrument”, and then developed together with him a “systematised” version of it consisting of a square array of 4 times 4 larger objects in whose interstices are placed a 3 x 3 array of smaller ones; and the piece is written for this setup, and incorporates several degrees of improvisatory activity alongside the precisely notated material, and also alongside a live electronic component whose output is to some extent unpredictable. The influences of improvisatory and notational collaboration in this piece are so interwoven as to be inextricable from one another.

So, since 2000 or so I’ve tried to explore very many ways in which spontaneous and precomposed musics can be intimately associated with one another. I’ve come to realise that, whereas historically the relationship between notational and improvisational methods has taken the former as a basic model, into which empty spaces for spontaneous actions and reactions might be inserted, my own approach has rather evolved in the opposite direction: the basic paradigm is free improvisation, to which notational material contributes points of structural and expressive focus. And this applies also to compositions which don’t involve improvisation - the systematic framework that lies at the heart of all of my compositions can be seen in terms of my “building an instrument” which I can then work freely and spontaneously with. While none of this was anything more than embryonic at the time that Coïgitum was written, it becomes a central issue in several of the more extended works I’ve written or am still writing in recent years - the electroacoustic sextet close-up for Ensemble Studio6, the large ensemble work natural causes, whose first installments were written for Musikfabrik, and several works in progress. It’s also the subject of the doctoral thesis I completed in 2017 which, in an expanded version, will be coming out in book form under the title Music of Possibility, some time in the coming months. For me it’s a vitally important and endlessly fascinating area, which I still feel I’m only just beginning to understand.

Further listening/reading
Barrett website
FURT website (Barrett and Paul Obermayer duo)
FURT listening
Barrett trio album with Evan Parker and Michael Vatcher