Tag Archives: Richard Barrett

Metropolis New Music Festival 2016: Elision

From the circles of Dante’s Inferno to Ethiopian churches carved into rock faces, Elision’s program was inspired by sacred cities both real and imagined. With their almost inhuman virtuosity, the performers took the stage like mythical guardians of each citadel.

The only musical sound Dante hears in hell is a horn belonging to the giant Nimrod. The giants are trapped in the Circle of Treachery for attempting to overthrow the gods. With their intelligence and compassion “in inverse proportion to their size,” the program note for Elision’s Metropolis concert associated them with “thuggish brutality and malevolent military power.” In Giganti John Rodgers attempts to compose the sound of this loud and brutal instrument played by lungs larger than any human’s. Given new music’s addiction to supersized wind instruments, it’s surprising someone hasn’t tried it before. Benjamin Marks’ trombone lays a powerful bed of sound while Tristram Williams adds high overtones on trumpet. Aviva Endean’s contrabass clarinet provides grist and timbre, rumbling and roaring in waves. But even giants run out of breath and eventually this imagined meta-instrument falls silent.

In Richard Barrett’s Adocentyn, Genevieve Lacey and Paula Rae painted another type of sacred city: Tommaso Campanella’s utopian City of the Sun inspired by an eleventh-century textbook of magic. The city has a central castle with four gates guarded by an eagle, a bull, a lion, and a dog. On the summit of the castle is an enormous tower that changes colour, kind of like the Melbourne Arts Centre during White Night. But unlike the feverish crush of White Night, Lacey’s bass recorder and Rae’s bass flute are busy and gentle, playing a sotto voce duet with all the twists and turns of medieval streets.

Aaron Cassidy’s The wreck of former boundaries for electric lap steel guitar takes a sledgehammer to the musical architecture of Elision’s history. Treating recordings of past performances as “found material”, they are processed beyond recognition by Daryl Buckley’s effects pedals, forming an immersive sonic environment like tonnes of glass being ground into fine powder. Buckley’s guitar carves lines through this sonic dessication like a finger through dust.

Elision celebrate 30 years of new music this year, making their first commissions not so new any more. Marshall McGuire acknowledged this history with a performance of Vezelay, a solo harp work by Alessandro Solbiati from the 1990s, when the ensemble maintained close relationships with a group of Italian composers. The piece is inspired by an abbey in Vezelay that is constructed to represent “a way from darkness to light.” The piece is satisfyingly ambiguous about what counts as darkness and light. Contrasting use of the harp’s low and high registers is kept to a minimum. Rather, obscurity and clarity seem to be the key distinguishing characteristics. The piece begins with McGuire striking and messily brushing the strings. Dirty glissandi and harmonics jumble together. Tremoli across strings—some of which are muted—creates a sound like rattling beetle shells. Clearer sounds stand out from these obscured tones, like clear harmonics struck simultaneously with a lower fundamental, or whispering high trills.

When the program note to Matthew Sergeant’s ymrehanne krestos said that a superimposed texture of decoupled articulations, valve patterns, and dynamics would be “scrubbed” to reveal its constituent parts I didn’t expect there to be any actual scrubbing. But Peter Neville dutifully raises a scrubbing brush at the beginning of the piece and attacks a pair of bongo drums. Harsher scrubbing seems to coincide with moments of clarity in the brass texture as Williams and Marks focus on elements of articulation or dynamics. The composer associates this distinction between dense surface texture and excavated simplicity with the Ethiopian monastery ymrehanne krestos, which is carved into a rock face.

The trend in complexist music to draw inspiration from ancient history and mythology has found itself at home in this year’s Metropolis New Music Festival’s theme of the city. Of real and imagined cities the festival has so far focused on the imaginary or those of the distant past. I look forward to the festival’s march towards the urban present over the next two weeks.

Sacred Cities
10 May 2016
Melbourne Recital Centre

John Rodgers, Giganti; Richard Barrett, Adocentyn; Aaron Cassidy, The wreck of former boundaries; Richard Barrett, Aurora; Alessandro Solbiati, Vezelay; Matthew Sergeant, ymrehanne krestos

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.