Collected together, every ancient hominid fossil discovered to date—everything upon which we have built our understanding of millions of years of pre-human evolution—would fit into the trunk of a single car. I discovered this remarkable fact in a discussion between the Belgian cellist Arne Deforce and the British composer Richard Barrett (published by the Royal Conservatoire, The Hague, in the collection A Laboratory for Sonology). They are talking about Barrett’s piece life-form for cello and electronics, and the context is the fifth movement of this ten-movement work, named “afar” for both its connotations of distance and for the Ethiopian region Afar, where the earliest pre-human skeleton, that of “Lucy” (Australopithecus afarensis), was discovered. The plurality and resonance of references is typical Barrett. But the meaning in this case alludes to something deeper and more general in the composer’s musical practice: the extrapolation of immense, complex, rich, and diverse outcomes from very limited, even speculative postulates. Over the last fifteen years, Barrett’s music has flourished in expressing this principle, and the three works on this magnificent double CD, created in collaboration with Deforce, span and showcase this period.
The cello features prominently in Barrett’s output: he has written eight solo or duo works, beginning with 1986’s Ne songe plus à fuir, plus others that can be extracted from those longer pieces. Some of them are quite short: last year’s tegmen (itself a component of the much larger close-up for recorders, trumpets, harp, accordion, cello and electronics) is just four minutes long. Others, including Blattwerk, nacht und träume, and life-form, the three works collected here, are considerably more substantial. “The main reason I returned to the cello so often,” Barrett says in an earlier conversation with Deforce, “was that—unlike many other instruments—it presents us with a very close and accessible analogy between the player’s actions and the sounds that emerge.” Deforce himself also explains some of the attraction. Barrett often seeks performers with whom he can develop long-term creative partnerships; the one with Deforce dates back to 1995. In the creation of these works, Deforce has contributed not only ideas and inspirations for new playing techniques, but also acted as an improvisation partner. He is a fearlessly committed player (he would have to be) with all the deftness and precision of technique required to keep Barrett’s multi-dimensional filigrees from collapsing into mush.
Works for cello have often appeared at important junctures in Barrett’s output. Ne songe plus à fuir was one of his earliest experiments in composing with the essential structural features of the instrument (and the player’s interactions with it), as a way of representing the instrument’s essential character without the accumulated baggage of its performance practice and historical repertory. In this case, this meant reconsidering the cello as a “resonant box with four strings,” to borrow the title of that first conversation between Barrett and Deforce (unpublished, but available here). Further to this, the cellist is thought of in terms of two hands, one holding a bow and both able to move in three dimensions. A large part of the compositional work after this is occupied with exploring the possibilities opened up by this “radically idiomatic” reinvention of the instrument.
Such an approach to instrumental writing is shared by several leading improvisers, among them Malcolm Goldstein, Barry Guy, and Evan Parker. Barrett’s own work as an improviser, first on guitar and later on electronics, undoubtedly played an important role in his development of such an approach. I’ve never seen Barrett on guitar, but his playing of live electronics is intensely physical, his arms and torso jerking, squeezing, and twisting over his MIDI keyboard and mixer in reflection of the jagged, squelching trajectories through which he pushes his chosen samples. (During the 1990s Barrett worked at STEIM in Amsterdam, the leading studio for the design of bespoke physical controllers for electronic music; STEIM’s LiSa software has been used in almost all his live performance work since the mid-1990s.)
It was thus inevitable that Barrett would start to incorporate improvisation into his compositional practice, and another cello piece, Blattwerk, became an early example of his combination of notated and improvised music. In 2003, a year after completing the piece, he joined Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble and since then has developed the view that improvisation is just as much a mode of composition as notation, different only in its expressive possibilities, a position he has stated on many occasions, but at greatest length in the article “Notation as Liberation”, published in Tempo in April 2014.
In some ways, Blattwerk is the most experimental work of the three here. As a sort of scene setting, a gathering of material and clearing of the stage, it begins with a short electronic prelude (“foreshadow”) followed by a long movement for cello solo (“folio”). The real meat follows, however, in two duo movements for cello and electronics together. Movement three, “foliage”, “explodes” the cello against computer-generated images of itself, generated in real time from the “folio” material, while the cello itself drifts increasingly into its own improvisation. Movement four, “foliation”, continues this process, but now with the cello and live electronics as a freely improvising duo. There is a telling moment in Barrett’s sleeve note (the recording is accompanied by essays by Barrett and the writer John Fallas, as well as a short note by Deforce) in which he discusses the choice of takes for this improvised movement. “The performance recorded here was chosen for going further into ‘unknown territory’ than its predecessors either during the recording sessions or in previous live presentation. I remember thinking fleetingly, while we were recording it, something like ‘What is this? and how did we get here?’” Listening, one can imagine such a thought having occurred at several points in the ten minutes of “foliation”, as the two performers jump down some of the rabbit holes suggested by the music thus far. As if to emphasize this point, the work ends with the short “fossil”, in which cello and electronics are synchronized for the first time, a striking and eerie effect that throws everything before it into stark relief.
Getting somewhere compositionally unexpected, and inviting the listener to take their own, similarly unplannable journey through a work: these endeavors lie at the heart of Barrett’s practice, and are the fundamental threads binding together his use of notation and improvisation, both of which can be deployed to such ends. It also relates to another aspect of Barrett’s music that came to the fore in the early 2000s. A committed and outspoken socialist, Barrett has often given his work a political dimension, but in the early years of the 21st century, and especially in the wake of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, this became much more overt, expressed emphatically in the orchestral NO, written in direct response to that act of war.
NO belongs to a cycle of eight works (of which six have been completed) that has occupied much of Barrett’s attention since then. The cycle’s title, resistance and vision, describes the dual responses Barrett felt were open to the conscientious artist after Iraq: resistance to the given political, social, and economic order, and a vision of an alternative. Characteristically, neither is presented in his music in a straightforward didactic sense, in the manner of, for example, Cornelius Cardew’s political songs, or even “Anarchy in the UK”. Whether this ducks the question or not, Barrett holds little store by music’s prospects for directly affecting political change. What music can offer, however, is access to the imagination, the ability to open it up wider, perhaps, than an individual might have thought possible, and, from this point, to raise questions about why things need to be how they are. Barrett’s newfound methods of incorporating improvisation alongside his notated practice are crucial to achieving this.
As a cycle of works, resistance and vision is never intended to be performed as a whole, in the manner of James Dillon’s Nine Rivers. For a start, its sheer scale and range of forces militate against this—but, like Emanuel Nunes’s cycle The Creation (1978–2007) or Bernhard Lang’s Differenz und Wiederholung series (1998–), it establishes a manner of working, a set of artistic concerns that can be pursued across a number of separate pieces. Some of those pieces, including NO, and also the utopian elegy CONSTRUCTION, make their political dimension explicit. Others, such as nacht und träume, recorded here, approach it more tangentially.
In a smaller sense than Blattwerk, or Ne songe plus à fuir, nacht und träume represents another new approach in Barrett’s use of electronics, bringing them “on-stage” as a pair of stereo speakers without visible control (the operator in this instance sits at the back of the hall). Instead of augmenting the acoustic instruments, then, they act on the same sonic plane as them, an anonymous, mechanical counterpoint: for once, the physical component of the sound is made invisible. Its dialogue with the corporeal presences of cello and piano alongside resemble the night and dreams of the title. This duality widens throughout the piece, the way wood splits when a wedge is driven into it, as the piece progresses from fragile drones to chaotic whirls of instrumental and electronic gestures that are spat out, seemingly without precedent or consequence. The title refers, of course, to Beckett’s wordless television play of 1982, which itself refers to Schubert’s song of the same name. Surprisingly, it is Schubert who is the wedge: what coherence the work appeared to have begins to unravel with the interjection (startling in context) of two chords from his A major piano sonata, D. 959. They are repeated a little later, to be resolved—in a sense—only at the very end, when a distorted recording of Schubert’s titular song provides the work’s final fade-out. Schubert is an oddly recurring presence in Barrett’s output; moments of reference may be heard in his Vanity for orchestra, the piano quintet faux départs, and (somewhat obscured) the string quartet 13 selfportraits. When asked why this is, the composer has said only that he feels a connection that has yet to be worked out. Typically, nacht und träume inspires more questions than answers.
It is perhaps too soon to see whether life-form, completed in 2012, represents another turning point. On the evidence here it appears more a culmination, the achievement of a wider, more flexible, more fluid compositional horizon implied by and built up by those works that have gone before. In short, it is an astonishing piece, although short it is not: its fifty-five minutes contain a staggering amount of music and mark a huge span for a single duo to sustain. Yet it never seems to flag. Part of this is due to Barrett’s consummate skill in sequencing his movements and managing the transitions between them. I can think of few outside popular music—consider how the best albums are pieced together—who do this so well. The attention he pays here is revealed in the score, where such moments are annotated with great care. (They are ruined, it should be said, by online streaming services. Buy the CD.)
The greater part is due, however, to the sheer inventiveness of the music—and given the degree of improvisation involved in some movements, the musicians themselves. Taking inspiration from the natural world, from processes of cell division to the sonic organization of rainforests, life-form is a glorious, menacing, exhausting, thrilling hymn to biological mechanics and what they can produce. We are back to that trunk-full of hominid fossils: unending variety from simple beginnings.
The beginning in this case is an electronic drone, split between two E-flats five octaves apart, tearing open a space within which the cello leaps and skitters. Stereo headphones can only capture a fraction of the live result; one has to imagine how this would sound over the sixteen-channel surround sound of the original conception. Drones are a surprising motif; another, still more massive, forms the basis of the ninth movement, “abyss”, whose almost static ten minutes comes as close to Phill Niblock as Barrett’s music is ever likely to. Other movements represent the complete inverse. “arboreal”, the third, and perhaps my favorite, models the way in which rainforest species organize their calls so that they each operate in different parts of the sound frequency spectrum. The cello cuts a path through the richly complex, pre-determined electronic track, which adjusts in real time to make “space” for it within the overall sound.
There is, it will be clear by now, too much to say about this recording for one review: simply too much music. At the same time, Barrett’s work has the ability to render its listeners speechless: simply, the sheer volume of material and ideas it contains makes it difficult to summarize and parse into words. One can decide for oneself whether that is a good thing or not. Barrett’s music is evolving into ever-stranger territories, and I for one am liking what I hear.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson writes and blogs about new music. He is the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Music, and his Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 was published earlier this year by University of California Press. He lives in London.