The Difficulty with Complexity

I grew up as a composer in a time of radical change in the way music notation looked on the page. In the 1960s the ‘new notation’ of graphic symbols and rhythmic complexity began to become apparent in published musical scores. I vividly remember my first sight of the early scores of Penderecki, his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, and later his St Luke Passion. After seeing Kubrik’s 2001, A Space Odyssey I used to peruse the scores of Gyorgy Ligeti in his publishers Schotts in London and gradually acquired the scores of a number of works – his Ramifications for two ensembles of strings, one tuned with a quarter difference, and Nouvelles Aventures for voices and instruments. Aspects of improvisation were encouraged in some notations where the metrical grid was removed in favour of time/space techniques.


This and the current scores of Cage, Stockhausen and Berio had a profound effect on music education here in the UK. Educators realised that such new notations and a corresponding  placing of timbre at the head of the hierarchy of musical parameters could have a liberating effect on musical creativity for everyone, not just the musically able (with notation that is). By the seventies this approach was formalised by educators and composers working in partnership to produce new resources for students. In the UK that partnership was headed up by the York (University) Music Project under Professor John Paynter and publishers Universal Edition with their house composers among whom were Bernard Rands, David Bedford, Nigel Osbourne and Cornelius Cardew, all of whom produced lively, imaginative and inclusive scores for young performers. The word aleatoric began to appear as a catch-all for many scores that were not wholly about freedom and chance. It was just musicians were released from the tyranny of the fixed beat and a confining tonality. The sounds we can make became the music we make.

It was in the late 1960s that Stockhausen first began his experiments with new notations and modes of generating musical events that were often triggered by new notations. Those scores he prepared for the months of performances in the German pavilion at the Osaka World Fair bare testament to his realisation that by using such techniques he could create short cuts to musical transformations he had only previously produced with extreme effort, time and deliberation in the studio. Procession, Kurzwellan, Spiral, Pole and Expo and later Plus-Minus were, and still are, a direct challenge to musicians about the text of music. They provided a blueprint towards experiencing a rich complexity in musical content and performance action, alongside a degree of personal ownership about the outcome that was a world away from the constraints imposed by total serialism of many composers at that time. Stockhausen’s serialism had become qualitative rather than quantative. He believed the stars were organised in a serial way.

At the same time the early works of former architect Iannis Xenakis appeared and it was possible to hear a new degree of complex musical utterance evoked not by new and alternative notations but by mathematics and the beginning of computer generation (and organisation) of musical events. Remarkably, or so it seemed at the time, such scores were notated using traditional means. Xenakis largely avoided new notations except where novel timbres were required.

All this background seems necessary to discuss the phenomenon that is the composer Richard Barrett and his music. Like my personal experience with the music of Stockhausen in the late 1970s I saw the music of this British composer as a personal challenge to the way I thought about music – as a language I communicated in as a performer and a composer. I thought it important to achieve some level of understanding. With Stockhausen I met the challenge, first through developing fortunate associations with performers who had worked with him and then participating in the first UK performance of Sternklang and Spiral, the latter I have performed on over twenty occasions. Spiral in particular, as it is a work for soloist, demanded a level of immersion that I look back upon now as richly formative as part of my personal musical development. I came to Barrett’s music with the Spiral experience still in my blood – Spiral being a work that made huge demands on my ability to compose and use elements of decision making that some might call guided improvising.

52-2A page from Stockhausen’s Spiral

The first score of Barrett’s I saw was a tiny piano piece called Heard that appeared in a review of contemporary music practice during 1987 published by Oxford Music. The publication included examples of compositions for piano by Judith Weir, Michael Finnissy, Howard Skempton, James Dillon and Robin Holloway. Although I had seen and heard the scores of Xenakis, Barrett’s one page essay for piano I found extraordinary, perplexing and challenging by turn. It sparked an interest that made me look out for his music and then gradually collect his scores. I heard him speak with passion and virtuosity at the annual Huddersfield Festival about his orchestral composition Vanity and experienced his astonishing piano work Tract played there by the ever-confident Ian Pace. I remained rather incredulous of it all, admiring not only the music but what appeared to be necessary to experience this music fully, a rich sub-text of literary association that encompassed philosophers, writers and poets (almost as challenging as his music); the oeuvre of Samuel Beckett and Paul Celan figure prominently as titles and quotations within Barrett’s scores.

I have also got my hands of Barrett’s music by playing several works that demand the electric guitar, an instrument it is said the composer once played. These include his Another Heavenly Day for clarinet, saxophone and double bass and the vast and complex Transmission for solo electric guitar. The way Barrett works with instruments shows a deep knowledge of present techniques as well as sensible practises surrounding making sure the music can actually work. In an interview with Hilary Hann he speaks about having a set of fingerboards specially made to test the fingering and harmonics of his string pieces.

 52-3Ensemble L’imaginaire

With this background I came to a concert at Leeds University prepared to listen and enjoy the particular frisson and edge of the seat excitement of what I know Barrett’s music can achieve in performance. A group of four musicians Ensemble L’imaginaire played a sequence of solo works punctuated with several of his electroacoustic scores (a medium whose techniques and practice he teaches). Some of this music I was already acquainted with, but three pieces stood out as first hearings; Fold for soprano sax, Dying Words for a voice with flute, and Interference for voice with contrabass clarinet.


As a listener I have come to know that Barrett’s work is charged with an particular intent; that one must face the fact that music (for him) is not something comfortable to listen to for relaxation or driving the car! He says he is ‘not interested in (musical) thinking within previously accepted limits.’ Making music is a ‘ a process of discovery.’ And I think the territory he sets out to explore is probably the imagination itself. He will set himself a challenge to look into a particular phenomenon and in extrapolating it finds musical correspondences that will emerge as a possible structure. And so I hope a little later in this text to give an illustration of this – in a recent work for the concert violinist Hilary Hann who (bravely) I think included Barrett amongst the 26 composers she commissioned for her 27 Encores project.

Before I look at the four minutes of Shade for violin and piano I think it necessary to explain a little more about Barrett’s world. Improvisation, as part of the duo FURT with Paul Obermeyer, continues to be a touchstone for his composing persona. His instruments are the keyboard triggered computer and live electronics, so a play of samples with live manipulation. Like his written music there is proliferation of multi-layered events, incidents, and just a little silence. It is maximalist music of great intensity and purpose. The other facet of Barrett’s world, and one that makes the composition Shade unusual, is that he regards his compositions as part of a continuous process, his works often being held in a sequence of pieces making a whole. The Leeds performance was a fitting portrait of Barrett because the eight compositions were played without a break, even though they were not actually related to one another. It was a shame this wasn’t explained to the audience who insisted on applauding between each piece.

Barrett has declined to talk very much about his mode of composing, except in a rare and important interview from 1988 with Richard Toop. I have no hesitation in quoting from this interview because it was through this that I have come to reconcile what I think Barrett’s music is  – as someone for whom the computer is a necessary part of making music. The following is taken from the journal Contact, Spring 1988.

RT: How far does the computer usage extend into the composition? Does it generate pitch sequences?

RB: Well, that would depend on what you mean by pitch sequences. Nowadays the pieces have a set of what I call ‘virtual’ pitch material, which is by no means related to the pitches one hears, except by certain processes? It is what is done with it that is important, and not the specifics. Once I’ve made the decision that the virtual pitch material will have certain characteristics, then those characteristics are mathematically generalised and run through the computer to produce one level of the piece, which is then worked on using processes that are tangential to that. The mix between system and empiricism in the final result is so complex that it’s very difficult for me to figure out myself a lot of the time. Obviously that way of organising the material has been arrived at as a result of generalising from the heard, psychological function of that passage, or piece, or whatever it happens to be.

Looking carefully at Barrett’s scores is to understand most software applications for music (such as Opusmodus) creating rhythmic complexity can be severely limited. Opusmodus would have had little use for a composer like Xenakis, or indeed Richard Barrett. There is a whole bunch of music theoretical investigation (Group Theory being one) and different modes of distribution (Poisson, Exponential and Linear) that we can’t (easily) yet get at – except through IRCAM’s Openmusic. Take a look and listen to this machine-made version Mists by Xenakis and just explain how you might code the rhythmic groupings at bar 16? (see below) If you investigate the origins of this particular score, written for Roger Woodward, its mathematics makes absolute sense of Richard Barrett’s notion of ‘virtual pitch material’. And the rhythmic approximations are speculative deductions from what plotting his mathematical expressions on graph paper allowed. On this recording, made on Digital Performer (MOTU), the music was ‘sculpted’ on the virtual score with MIDI events rather like a painter applying specks of paint to a pointillist canvas.


from Mists by Iannis Xenakis

Now listen to the live performance of Mists by Aki Takahashi on Spotify. Whatever your position on this music it is not difficult to trace how it fits historically into the pianistic scheme of things. Chopin, for example, often suggested in notation a complete independence of the hands, and did not expect, according those who heard him play or studied with him, to play with metronomic accuracy the complex groupings his scores include.


If Xenakis remains uncharted musical territory or you are not yet ready to spend the serious time studying his book Formalised Music, may I recommend an illuminating lecture by Robert Rowe on this composer. Rowe is known as a composer of algorithmic music I particularly admire, having worked with his software Cypher on my composition for piano-left hand Interactions. I have since adapted (and still use) many of his functions for script-based parametric composition that he explains in his book Interactive Music Systems.  These are functions that deliver improvisation aspects within a chain of composing decisions.


So back to Richard Barrett, whose The Light Gleams an Instant, a four-minute movement from his half-hour long Tract for solo piano began the concert by Ensemble L’imaginaire. This piece maintains an extraordinary divergence in rhythmic grouping for the entire piece, as though the right hand is conducting a continuous and pervasive play and working out of a particular statement, like an actor trying to put forward an argument without so much as a pause for breath. The left hand meanwhile is more considered, more expressive (very expressive!) in its phrase structure (and dynamics). If you have ever heard two speeches being conducted simultaneously in a theatrical performance, this is what the piece feels like – or perhaps it is the conscious and the unconscious in deliberation with each other. Either way this ‘feels’ like extraordinary music, musical utterance at the limits – and it is certainly not some kind of improvised statement captured in notation. There is real music here, and OK, it may have been partly arrived at by some engagement with computation, but it is computation with that ‘added flair’ that certainly we know Xenakis  gave to his computer-generated music. And this is where listening carefully to recordings and time spent with a score can prove invigorating – to gradually come to know and to feel such music. But I wonder, how many of us actually buy and study scores these days. Has, as I suggested in an earlier blog, the CD recording supplanted the musical text? Oh that we had an equivalent to ISMLP for contemporary scores!

So to Hilary Hann and Shade. If all this complexity seems forbidding and difficult, I think you’ll find this four-minute ‘encore’ a touching and beautiful expression of a soloist’s relationship with her instrument and with her pianist the excellent Cory Smythe. It is performed by Hann with a breath-taking mastery of its complex thinking of how the violin might be played. Novel juxtapositions of register are a particularly important feature and these don’t seem to be any obstacle at all to Hann’s performance.

Barrett describes Shade thus: it has the character of a much larger composition which has been radically compressed into its present three-minute dimensions, within which are four distinct “movements,” each of which unfolds a different kind of sonic and structural relationship between violin and piano, and in the course of which a wide range of color and expression is explored. In the first, the violin emerges repeatedly from the resonance of piano cluster-chords; in the second, the violin weaves a convoluted thread through a dense but delicate piano texture; in the third, the two instruments are constantly and rapidly exchanging roles in a sequence of brief encounters; and finally, in the fourth, violin and piano gradually withdraw to extremely high and extremely low regions respectively. The idea of one instrument being (in) the shade of the other is a constant feature, although from one moment to the next it might not always be clear which is which.

Such descriptions can provide us with a valuable way in. The fact Barrett has been willing to step out of the new music of hyper-complexity enclave and respond to a commission from one of the great soloists of our time is testament to his abilities and nerve as a composer. The miniature here can be as telling as a great slab of multi-layered discourse, just as a haiku might provide a measure of illumination a length poem in verse cannot. To my mind Barrett has written a large work compressed into an encore. I do like to imagine Hann actually playing this as an encore after a recital performance, like the one she’ll give at the Kennedy Centre next week in Washington D.C – after Bach, Mozart and Schubert. It might be an interesting exercise to simulate this with a Spotify playlist!

 To conclude his programme note Barrett writes: Keeping me company during work on this piece was Hilary’s recording of the Violin Concerto by Arnold Schoenberg, whose own “shade” appears at the very end, in the form of a somewhat oblique reference to his monodrama Erwartungl

 I think that says a lot about the territory Barrett’s musical imagination inhabits. It is not something closed off to the past, but like so many composers of earlier times music composition remains about finding solutions to what the complexity of being a composer living in such a demanding world of sounds, events and ideas. That the out comings found in a musical score should contain something of that complexity seems hardly surprising – unless we feel that music has to be some kind of palliative to the disorders and violence of our times. But let me leave the last word to Barrett taken from a fascinating round table discussion of composers with the Australian ensemble Elision:

 I’m interested in a music which exposes the physical means and processes of producing sound and makes this exposure part of its sonic/structural/expressive vocabulary.


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