Speak Percussion: Richard Barrett Percussion Portrait

Speak Percussion and SIAL Sound Studios
Richard Barrett Percussion Solos
The Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory, RMIT
26 July, 2014

Richard Barrett’s music is one of the most refined and uncompromising legacies of the complexist movement of the 1980s and 1990s. “Legacy” is important here because Barrett does not associate himself with the complexist label as such. Barrett’s fiendishly difficult instrumental parts and frantic electronic atmospheres are perhaps more properly associated with the composer’s energetic intellect and love of rigour, characteristics evident in his music as much as his speech or his committed politics.

Speak Percussion’s choice to mount a programme of Barrett’s percussion works is a recognition of the importance of Barrett’s contribution to the language of contemporary percussion music through works like abglanzbeladen/auseinandergeschrieben (part of the larger 1996 work Opening of the Mouth). Like the ancient Egyptian ceremony intended to allow the spirit to breathe and eat in the afterlife, the Barrett percussion portrait is its own ceremony performed upon the body of Barrett’s works while the spirit, alive and breathing in the room, continues to evolve, compose and create.

Though still as busy as ever, Speak’s programme brought out the changes in the textures of Barrett’s works over the years. The percussion solo from Opening of the Mouth, performed by Barrett’s long-time collaborator Peter Neville, imagines the sound of the Tree of Life, a Holocaust memorial in Budapest in the form of a willow tree with thousands of metal leaves that each bear a name. The piece is built out of musical oppositions, such as chords and single pitches and high and low sounds, which coalesce and are then distributed throughout a growing battery of instruments. The piece tests the limits of how far a solo musician can realise a gradually bifurcating structure that saturates the sound space.

If saturation is the final effect of abglanzbeladen/auseinandergeschrieben, then the world premiere of Codex XIV, a structured improvisation for three percussionist and live electronics, bears witness to the balance of Barrett’s contemporary classicism. In his solo electronics improvisations as much as his latest compositions, nothing is lost on the listener. Barrett always finds the space to let a timbre speak, or the counterpoint of different musical strands to be heard. It is perhaps for this reason that Barrett eschews the complexist label: his music tends toward clarity rather than saturation. Speaking of classicism, even the sound palette of Barrett’s improvisations has something established about it. His electronics sound very electronic, with the usual suspects of static and gurgling, wheezing sounds. Codex XIV begins with one of my favourite percussive sounds: the hard, dry sound of a mallet striking and being held to a wooden or metal instrument. Almost pitchless, all that one can register is the direction and volume of the sounds. Some successful percussion bowing joined the texture. More hard noises entered, including chains in ceramics and heavy pieces of metal struck with brass mallets. Like sparse hail on a tin roof, it was a scintillating atmosphere to sit within.

As much as I love the pink seating, black polka-dot walls and pink ambient lighting, the Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory at the RMIT is not kind to vibraphones, which are naturally amplified to painful levels in the space. When three of them were wheeled out for the finale, the world premiere of Urlicht, my heart sank. My apprehension was soon compounded as the electronics failed and the engineer continued to studiously turn his score. While some of the writing held its own, there were moments where the instrumental parts were awkwardly exposed, obviously intended to feed sounds into the system. I am sure that the audience would have forgiven a restart of this major piece, which we will hopefully have the opportunity to hear in full in the future.

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