Interview between Daryl Buckley and Richard Barrett

How would you characterise DARK MATTER? What kind of work is it and what is it about?

This is bound to be the first question anyone asks, and at the same time it’s the hardest to answer. Firstly, with regard to genre, I think DARK MATTER is situated between many of the forms one expects music to have. This is because its form has evolved out of the musical (and visual) materials and concepts rather than the other way around. This problem of genre is possibly a peculiarly musical one: when we hear the word “installation”, for example, that word can cover a multitude of things but nobody seems to feel it necessary to be more specific, except perhaps to say what materials it consists of, while in the case of music there’s a pressure to say the work in question is “opera”, or “chamber music”, or whatever. Or one makes up a new genre-buzzword, which I would rather avoid. So one could say it’s in the nature of DARK MATTER that it is trying to break clear of categorisation - that’s the kind of work it is, that’s what it’s about so to speak.

But that’s not all it’s about, of course. It is a response to the current state of scientific knowledge and speculation about the nature of the universe and of human consciousness, and the possible intimate connections between the two, in an analogous way to that in which much music of the past was a response to the dogmas and superstitions of religion. When I say “analogous”, though, I’m not intending to draw parallels between religious and scientific views: in particular, DARK MATTER emerges from speculation rather than revelation, questions rather than answers. There is no consolatory message. Nevertheless there are still irreducible mysteries at its heart, which to me are all the more mysterious and beautiful in being the residua of rigorous investigations. “Dark matter” in astrophysics is a substance we can’t detect, but whose presence can be inferred by the gravitational effect it has on other matter, for example in the way galaxies rotate and hold together, which implies that there is a great deal more dark matter than any other kind. For me, therefore, the title signifies that which always remains “beyond our ken” (hence its refusal to be shoehorned into a genre).

In past centuries there was a unity or coherence between alchemy, the science of numbers, and various religious, literary, and philosophical understandings of the world that often influenced and permeated works of art, and indeed music composition itself. Most recently the kind of clear delineation that various studies have had, clearly expressed in the institutions of tertiary learning, wherein physics and art are quite separate disciplines, appear to have had the effect of distilling out an involvement of the ’arts’’ world and its practitioners from the kinds of concerns and interests that scientists have had in pursuit of their comprehension of the Universe. (Obviously, I am not referring to the manipulation of digital technologies here). Is DARK MATTER for you a conscious and personal reversal of this trend? What has led you to your fascination with science and the apparent move away from previous extra-musical interests focussed in literature, e.g. Beckett?

I don’t know about trends. Maybe we’re now moving into a situation where the possible relationships between “science” and “art” are clearer than they have been since the Renaissance. This has to do with the kind of fundamental questions scientists are asking, as a result of the huge advances which experimental science has made, and also with the way that artists, since early in the last century, have been engaging with the inner workings of their “language” in a way that wouldn’t have been conceived previously - I mean beginning with people like Schoenberg, Varèse, Picasso, Kandinsky, Joyce and so on. Xenakis makes the point that self-similar or “fractal” structures existed in music, albeit in an uncodified form, before mathematicians “rediscovered” them. It’s interesting to me, therefore, to imagine that a speculative music might even now be embodying discoveries which scientists haven’t arrived at yet. This brings me to one of the central “mysteries” which motivated the composition of DARK MATTER. When a theoretical physicist finds an elegant and powerful mathematical formalism which unifies large swathes of previously “unrelated” data and anomalies (Einstein’s general relativity is a prime example), is he or she really discovering something which is “out there” (and in the case of a mathematical equation, where???), or superimposing some manifestation of inbuilt human pattern-recognition (evolved through millions of years of natural selection) upon a reality which might in fact have no such “laws” of its own? What about when a composer or other artist has a new “idea”? How closely are these things related? Is it possible that some avenues of discovery (or whatever it is) are more appropriately dealt with by artists than by scientists? What are the implications of this?

As for the “fascination with science”, of course I had this before any thought of creating music had entered my head. Also (as DARK MATTER makes explicit in its use of Beckett’s text “Sounds”), there is no move away from anything, but rather a move to include more things. People often see an artist’s development as proceeding in a linear fashion, changing directions as a result of logic or contingency; I would see my own development as more “concentric”, gradually encompassing more and more of a certain terrain. This terrain has a time-dimension too: what is now DARK MATTER really began twenty years ago (before any of the compositions I’ve kept on the worklist) as some kind of cosmological “oratorio”, of which the voice/piano piece Principia was a slightly later spinoff, but which was too ambitious for my meagre abilities at that time. So I’m not actually moving on to something “new”, but reincorporating some ideas which have been fermenting slowly in the background for a long time.

Staying with science for the moment, in recent lectures that you have given in Norway you have referred to experiments such as the 'two-slit experiment' which have shaped your manipulation of musical material. Could you supply more detail on this in respect to both the overall form of DARK MATTER and its specific movements.

What fascinates me most about the two-slit experiment is that an apparently simple procedure opens up problems and mysteries which bear on the nature of reality, our ability to perceive it, even whether reality consists of one or many universes. Thinking about music has the same effect, as far as I’m concerned! On a less portentous level, though, the two-slit experiment is a classic demonstration of the dual nature of quantum objects like photons or subatomic particles, that is to say they appear like particles or waves depending on how you look at them. Single particles can somehow give rise to interference patterns. In the central part of DARK MATTER, which is entitled Ars magna lucis et umbrae - “the great art of light and shadow” - after a work by the 17th-century Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher (a deeply fascinating, if decidedly unscientific, character), this concept of interference appears in a number of ways: in the interference between instrument and voice (by the same performer) in its solo part for contrabass clarinet; in the generation of pitch-material by allowing two superimposed “scales” to alternately reinforce and cancel one another, and so on. The same part also contains a passage relating to the operation of particle accelerators - repeated “collisions” followed by an examination of the resulting fragments, which become more “unified” (into a melodic form) as the energy of the collisions increases. Also, the instrumentation of Ars magna... is mostly organised into pairs, where one instrument presents an “alternative existence”, or shadow, to the other. There are plenty of further examples. But I’m not intending that they should all be “picked up” while listening - it’s axiomatic to me that the kinds of structures which are perceptible in music and in other areas of thought and expression are in any case profoundly related (this bears on the question of “discovery or superimposition” which I mentioned before).

What was the working process and relationship with Per Inge Bjørlo? How did his practice influence your approach to the project and your own creative output?

The working process took the form of various meetings over the course of two years, in various places including the CERN particle-physics institute in Geneva, where we spent two days being shown around the labs and the underground particle accelerator. By that time, we had already made the gradual transition between conceptual discussions and concrete ideas regarding the music, the installation and the relationship between the two. Of course it’s easier to sketch a steel construction than it is to sketch a musical sound or structure! - but I would also send Per Inge CDs of electronic music materials to give him a more precise idea of some of the directions my side of the work was taking. One of the most impressive aspects of Per Inge’s work to me is its confrontational quality, which I hope the music also has, and in such a way that the two kinds of experiential intensity might reinforce one another. Because DARK MATTER is in no sense a didactic essay, and certainly it has to convince on a sensual level in order to gain what I would call the right direction of approach to the intellect. At least that’s how I should like it to be heard and seen. That mutual reinforcement, or maybe one could even call it resonance, is something which has always fascinated me. It goes much further than just constructing a space within which the music happens, although that in itself is crucial in terms of taking the music out of genre-bound concert conventions. One simply sees and hears differently.

Sound, like light, can be an architectural force in itself. It can define or create a space, giving both a feeling of physical size and motion, of things receding and move towards the listener. What kind of interplay then exists for you between the static steel and glass structures of Bjørlo and the electronic spatialisation and processing of sound?

These “static structures” are, I think, in a metaphorical sense given a dynamic aspect by the musicians, the audience and the sound itself. As I say, one sees and hears differently. One thing the music does is to impose a time-structure on (one’s experience of) these “static” elements; another thing is to draw attention to their acoustical character. Also, the installation is inhabited rather than sitting alone in a room; that’s another reason why it doesn’t necessarily need to be seen as something static.

You have also spoken of playing with symmetries in your work, of constructing and forming them within your musical material as if they were a deliberate trigger to your musical imagination in order to defeat and confuse those very same symmetries with quite opposite musical ideas and material. Consequently, I have the impression that DARK MATTER is rich in its structural aspects yet at the same time highly reluctant to announce a defined narrative. How do these creative ambitions, for you, play themselves out in DARK MATTER and why?

Sometimes I think it’s the symmetries which are playing with me! In a sense there is a narrative, in so far as the textual components are in chronological order and therefore outline some kind of “history” of the ways in which humanity has been seen as relating to the space outside and to the equally mysterious space “inside”. However that isn’t so obvious in the present version, which places the emphasis on another aspect of the overall form, that is the alternation between ensemble music and a series of episodes for soloistic electric guitar. These form a separate composition entitled transmission - the various components of DARK MATTER can be performed as separate concert items, and at the same time the whole work is conceived so that further components may in the future be added around the ones which already exist. The electric guitar in DARK MATTER is as it were a receiver and transmitter (or translator) of information. Each of these episodes engages with and tries to make sense of the same block of musical material, as if there is some meaning to be extracted from it, treating it as a “message” of some sort, although in fact it turns out (seeming?) not to be. In the last episode, which in this version concludes DARK MATTER, this material finally appears in its original form from the computer, as six superimposed guitar parts create a chaotic and meaningless tangle of notes, against which the live guitar struggles aggressively but is ultimately defeated, first in its attempt to make sense of things and finally in its ability to make any sound at all. Here’s another opposition: the electric guitar is at the same time the loudest and the quietest instrument in the ensemble...

What would your advice be to a listener/observer in experiencing DARK MATTER?

There’s a reason why DARK MATTER might seem like a rather forbidding landscape without signposts, and that is that at an early age I tended to experience a great deal of what I heard of contemporary composition in precisely that way, and that was the most exhilarating, fascinating and powerful aspect of it. No doubt some people will immediately recognise this phenomenon from their own experiences. I hope that DARK MATTER can encourage some of the others to experience it in that way.

And finally, DARK MATTER occupies a significant position in your output. How do you relate it to previous compositional cycles and works?

As I said before, it occupies a particular situation as part of this process of outward inclusivity which has been going on in my work since the beginning. In fact, not just because of its duration, it atempts to deal with “more” than any previous single work I have produced, and not for “encyclopaedic” reasons but in order to speculate about connections and implications. And these do of course extend out from the borders of DARK MATTER itself; I could make a case for considering Vanity, Opening of the Mouth, Unter Wasser and DARK MATTER (and the smaller compositions produced in their interstices) as themselves concentric stages in the evolution of something larger. It’s also significant, at least to me, that DARK MATTER opens a relationship with the Cikada ensemble, which is the first European ensemble to have grasped the nettle, so to speak, in a comparable way to Elision, as concerns engagement with my work on a level further than the commissioning of individual pieces. Unfortunately I don’t write individual pieces, however removable the elements of a cycle like this might be. But also, in the case of each of the large works I just mentioned, their form and dimensions are intimately related to their poetic identity. I was asked once why Opening of the Mouth was so much less “dense” than other music I had written. One might as well ask why Beethoven’s fifth symphony begins with those four notes and not four others. DARK MATTER does have a number of “thematic” strands which characterise it: the electric guitar (and, by extension, the plucked sounds which also dominate much of the electronic elements in the work), and its characteristic material which permeates several of the ensemble components; the use of “symmetrical” forms such as canons and palindromes and recursively self-similar structures; the occasional appearance of “spectral” materials derived from the natural harmonic series; a general tendency towards high density (!) in the ensemble music; and so on. On the other hand, there are various large-scale structural parallels with Opening of the Mouth, which became apparent to me only when work on DARK MATTER was at an advanced stage. This feature might be telling me something interesting and/or useful about my approach to large forms of this kind. What it is, I have as yet no idea.

Notes on the component parts of DARK MATTER

Before going any further, I should try to emphasise that the following comments on the music and its conception, while (perhaps) interesting in themselves and (I hope) not wildly unrelated to the listening experience, are not intended as some kind of spin-doctoring regarding what you “ought” to think the music is doing.

DARK MATTER stands for that which is unknown and possibly unknowable despite the age-old and continuing attempt to search outward to an understanding of the cosmos and inward to an understanding of human consciousness, and perhaps even further to some idea of what these might have in common (the emergence of a structure in the universe - the human mind - which can somehow assimilate and encapsulate “knowledge” about the rest, whatever any of those things might be). This idea evolved out of my view of composition as a means to explore the “structure of the imagination” and perhaps to discover something about its nature (in a way which might be inaccessible to scientific method, however admirable one might find the latter’s intellectual rigor and its impressive results) - in other words, could one perceive unsuspected truths hidden in the interstices of the complex web of ideas, associations and evolutions which are the substructure of such a work (and also a physical substructure of the mind which “produced” them)? and could they be rendered communicable through the medium of sound/form? Unlikely, would be a reasonable answer. Should we be concerned with what is reasonable? Is it not possible that even such a quixotic project might at least give access to musical results which might not have been possible otherwise? Is this the real subject at hand?

The components of DARK MATTER display a number of common characteristics which run like thematic strands through the work. For example, most consist of six formal divisions, a feature whose ancestry can be traced ultimately to the six strings of the guitar, which is the most prominent solo instrument in the whole cycle, and the six strands of pitch-material which form the basis of transmission for electric guitar and live electronics but also appear in other contexts. Other recurrent “motives” are: formal repetition, symmetrical structures including palindromes, canonic structures, processes of augmentation and diminution applied to intervals as well as durations, and numerous less obvious correspondences. The “compulsion to symmetry” is of course something which the music has in common with almost all scientific (and pre-scientific) theorising, up to the present day and no doubt at least the forseeable future, notwithstanding the fact that “underlying symmetries” don’t always present themselves clearly to the eye (or ear), but are more often concealed by “noise” in its various manifestations. But perhaps the noise is in the end what is fundamental.

The Empire of Lights for 9 instruments is the opening part of DARK MATTER. Its form is derived from the text of an ancient Egyptian creation myth by “transliterating” it into the rhythmic framework of the music, whose three structural divisions are each in two halves where the second is a (progressively more) varied repeat of the first. Apart from the aforementioned mythical connotations, the starting point of The Empire of Lights was a contemplation of a “moment” in the evolution of the universe (about 300 000 years after the “big bang” according to current theories) when it underwent a phase shift between opacity and transparency - the opacity having been the result of a radiation-saturated state, which called to my mind the juxtaposition of darkened house and bright sky in the painting by Magritte from which the composition takes its title. The music is thus pervaded by binary oppositions: repeat/variation, light/darkness, high/low, inside/outside.

The point of departure for transmission for electric guitar and electronics is a system of composed movements across the guitar which generate changing harmonic fields: this “fabric” is used to produce the notated materials, by diverse means of compositorial derivation, and also the sound-materials played out of the computer (in the second, fourth and last of the six sections), which are derived from a recording of the “fabric”. The processes of derivation (of transmission of the original “message”) continue during live performance: the compositional process by means of improvisational playing which emerges from “lacunae” in the score of the fourth section, and the technological process by means of live electronic processing of the guitar throughout.

The original “fabric” underlies the entire performance as if it were a deep archaeological stratum, whose transmission to the surface of the music proceeds through distortions, elucidations, losses and reconstructions, and so forth. Thus, transmission belongs among those of my compositions (also including ruin for 6x3 instruments, completed in 1995) which are concerned with musical composition (and, by extension, listening) as an attempt to bring order to a (fictionally) broken-down remnant of... what? the distant past? the depths of the subconscious? Composition, and, once more, listening, should always involve a sense of discovering, even if, like Columbus, we may be mistaken about what we have discovered.

Another point of departure was an attempt to reconceive the electric guitar itself, neither as an expanded (or impoverished, depending on one’s point of view) version of its “classical” forebear, nor as a medium for effecting a fashion-conscious fusion with its familiar contemporary vocabulary. transmission uses a “hybrid” instrument equipped with both “electric” and “acoustic” outputs, and uses playing techniques related to both of the above traditions as well as (probably most importantly) what Derek Bailey calls “non-idiomatic improvisation” (to which I would prefer the term “radically idiomatic”). Thus it draws, more than any of my other compositions to date, on my own modest experience and abilities as an improvising guitarist, from the times before I found a deeper “instrumental vocation” in the domain of electronic music. Each of the six sections therefore embodies a different angle of view on the instrument itself (as well as on the aforementioned compositional material, which in the end comes to the same thing); each also uses a different relationship between the instrument and its electronic “environment”, which in each case involves notated parts for one or more footpedals, affecting such dimensions as pitch-shifting and timbral modulation as well as volume. These six sections are interspersed between the other compositions of DARK MATTER with varying degrees of interpenetration, including (in Ars magna lucis et umbrae) the insertion of one of them into the structure of another composition entirely.

The guitar timbres were devised in collaboration with Daryl Buckley; the electronic sounds are performed using the LiSa sampling software developed by Frank Baldé at STEIM in Amsterdam.

The title of khasma derives from a passage in Hesiod’s Theogony describing the stormy gulf (khasma) far below the earth where the roots of the earth, heavens and Tartarus are situated, along with the “dreadful halls of gloomy Night”: writing at a time when Greek cosmology was about to emerge from myth-ridden confusion into proto-scientific speculation, he dimly anticipates the later philosophical contemplation of chaos and the indefinite or infinite (apeiron) by Anaximander and his successors.

khasma consists of six sections for string quintet and six for electronic sounds, which overlay and interpenetrate one another in microcosmic reflection of the large-scale interlocking construction of DARK MATTER; between the human performers and their disembodied counterpart lies an unbridgeable “gulf” - in other words the relationship is primarily one of highly-stylised antagonism (in which it reflects upon the conjectured forms of the earliest lost Greek tragedies). The instrumental music could be seen as a sequence of “theories” concerning its own material, which evolve from relative disorder towards being pervaded by symmetries and canonic interrelations, but always with a complementary tendency towards chaos. (For example, the fifth section is a highly deterministic five-part canon by both durational and intervallic augmentation, though in a state of gradual crumbling dissolution.) The electronic part, on the other hand, has the character of “discovered” sound-objects (discovered in a computer, that is) which resist such formalisation.

De vita coelitus comparanda (“on capturing the life of the stars”) takes its title from the writings of the Florentine Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino, referring to the practice of “sympathetic magic” in which the lines of influence between heaven and earth could be as it were tapped by the use of ritual objects, incantations, perfumes, colours and so forth. Botticelli’s famous “Primavera” is in fact an example of such an object, and the disposition of figures within this painting is reflected in the instrumentation of the present work (each performer corresponding to a figure in the painting); also, part of Ficino’s own practice was the singing of Orphic hymns (supposed to be very ancient, but actually dating from the early centuries of the common era), to his own accompaniment on the lira da braccio, which is reflected here in the setting of the hymn to Oneiros, the god of dreams. In the overall scheme of the cycle DARK MATTER, therefore, De vita... takes its place as a contemplation of the “astrological” phase in the history of humankind’s relationship to the cosmos. Naturally, this phase is long over, apart from its farcically debased popular-press incarnation, while retaining a fascination as a poetic vision of reality.

The ancient Greek hexameters of the text, with their strictly-constructed framework of long and short syllables, and the intonational characteristics of the language, not only provide the basis of the vocal part’s metrical and pitch structure, but also pervade the organisation of the whole work. The various instrumental layers also consist principally of intricately polyphonic material; to compound the network of anachronisms, the overall texture in its internal complexity and absence of low pitches often tends towards the condition of 14th century ars subtilior.

Ars Magna Lucis et Umbræ (“the great art of light and darkness”) is the title of a work on optics and the phases of the moon (but also touching on occult matters) published in 1671 by the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher. The music is “unfolded” from the solo composition interference, whose title refers to the patterns (of light and darkness) produced by interacting beams of electromagnetic radiation or subatomic particles, as in the famous “two-slit experiment”. This experiment, simple and straightforward in itself, nevertheless has deep and unresolved implications for the nature of physical reality, leading as it does to the mysterious and (presently?) unanswerable question of what is “really happening” at the quantum level of space and time.

Such ideas permeate the structure of the composition in various ways. It is also in another sense a work of speculation, in that the contrabass clarinet is itself a relatively “unknown” instrument, especially in a solo context, bearing in mind the remarkable but isolated contributions of such players as Anthony Braxton and Peter van Bergen. Much of the material evolved out of extensive consultations with Carl Rosman, some of whose other abilities suggested the “prosthetic” extension of the instrument using the player’s voice (with a range of four and a half octaves) and a pedal bass drum. Central to my intentions was to discover or develop a “virtuosity” inherent to the instrument and then extrapolate it to an almost (?) absurd extreme.

Around all this is woven a structure for an ensemble consisting mostly of pairs of instruments, which in general alternate between a polyphonic type of elaboration around the solo part, and a harmonic function akin to a “continuo” group, in which the (electronically-simulated) chamber organ plays an important role. An opening vocal solo is succeeded by a highly intricate canon (by augmentation, using the proportions 2:3:4:5:6:10:15:30) whose strands rotate and eclipse each other like the elements of a mechanical solar system. At the centre of the work is a high point of chaos in which the soloist’s material, interleaved with improvisation, is confronted by the fourth movement of transmission for electric guitar and live electronics, itself partly improvisatory, in an extended passage whose (varied) repetition reveals the combination of pre-composed and spontaneously-performed elements. The solo part in this section is in fact itself derived from the guitar material. With this exception, and in distinction to most of the several compositions where I have expanded a solo into a “concertante” composition, all of the ensemble material is derived from the same underlying materials as the solo, in other words not creating a dialectical relationship between the two layers but one in which the ensemble generally takes one or more “alternative” pathways which that material “might” have taken, a feature which has its source once more in a contemplation of quantum-mechanical conundrums.

The Latin text of the vocal part is from Lucretius’ poem De rerum natura (“On the nature of things”), and describes the sudden and violent destruction of the world, though under what circumstances and for what reasons is unclear, since the crucial lines before the chosen fragment have been lost...

The title of the electronic composition Katasterismoi (“transformations into stars”) was given by Eratosthenes (3rd century BC: also the first person to measure the earth’s circumference) to his compilation of those Hellenic myths concerned with the origin of the constellations. Various mythical personages were supposed to have been rewarded by the gods by having their image fixed eternally among the stars. Our contemporary “katasterismoi” derive from scientific rather than poetic precepts, and concern such phenomena as supernovae and the big bang.

All I mean to suggest by the title is the process by which sound-materials (which in this case derive entirely from “concrete” sources) achieve their fixation (petrification?) in an electronic composition, transformed and recombined into new structures and configurations, some of which (like some constellations) betray the shape of their supposed origins, while others (likewise) require a leap of the imagination to identify. Also: in the time of Eratosthenes, indeed until after Galileo’s invention of the telescope, the stars were believed to be equidistant from the earth, whereas now it is apparent that most constellations as viewed from a terrestrial standpoint are composed of stars at unimaginable distances from one another, that is to say they aren’t “really” constellations at all.

While The Empire of Lights and khasma belong primarily to the “cosmological” tendency within the DARK MATTER cycle, stirrings for 9 instruments is situated at the opposite, inward-looking, end of its poetic spectrum. In the present version it takes the form of a series of interruptions within a spoken performance of Samuel Beckett’s prose piece “Sounds”. The six sections take the form of brief and highly-compressed movements and could be likened to six views of the same room, in each of which it contains different objects, lit from different angles: not a set of variations but of rearrangements. At the same time they relate more distantly to the abstract dance-suites of baroque music (as The Empire of Lights does to a Renaissance pavan), now abstracted almost but not quite out of existence, as is the “guitaristic tonality” which lies behind them, since all of the material of stirrings is derived from that of transmission.

I have been working on DARK MATTER for some years and was always intending that it should carry an overall dedication to Iannis Xenakis; I mention this in order to emphasise that it is not in any way a memorial to someone sadly lost to us, but a tribute to the living composer.

Programme text from the first complete performances (Berlin, March 2003)