interview with Rachel Campbell, Brisbane, November 2001
(originally published in Masthead online journal)
Rachel Campbell: In the piece Temptation (1987) you used the same formal proportions as Flaubert in his La Tentation de Sainte Antoine. Do you see that as encoding or symbolising some relationship between your work and the prose-poem, or is it more of a fortuitous thing: were they proportions that you felt were going to fit compositionally and make the sort of piece you wanted?
Richard Barrett: I would say both. Also (I canÕt remember what the exact chronology of it was), either Temptation was the detritus of a larger project or it was originally intended to lead up to one, because I was thinking of FlaubertÕs Tentation as a text for a theatre work at that time. So the composition that finally came into being was one way of trying to approach that idea. YouÕll find that itÕs not just the proportions which reflect something of the text, but actually some of their contents too. IÕm not sure, with all this intervening time, that IÕd be able to trace those things now, but certainly some of the processes that go on in the music are parallel to features which unfold in the text. Perhaps this is something of mainly private significance. IÕm very shaky on it now, not having read the book for some time either. One example I remember is a kind of Ņfreak paradeÓ in Flaubert, where various mythical or historical or animal personages are passing by, each telling his or her or its own grotesque little story, and there are passages in Temptation where a related thing happens: the ensemble music becomes a procession of brief soloistic statements, seemingly involving more than the five instruments of the group because thereÕs a constantly-changing layer of live-electronic transformations which alienate them from their original timbres. While this may have been suggested by the text, of course itÕs incorporated into the composition to the point where one doesnÕt need in any way to be aware of where it came from. This kind of thing is woven through the whole piece. So itÕs not just the formal proportions, although, speaking of those, I felt at that time that there were some kinds of formal proportion which would lend themselves to a musical structure and others which wouldnÕt. In other words I had certain prejudices in terms of how I wanted to see a piece of music evolve, and how its internal balances and imbalances would have to function to make that possible. You can see that, for example, in the (unintended) similarities between the formal proportions of Temptation and Essay in Radiance (1983). So I then decided that my explorations would have to continue in terms of proportions which wouldnÕt automatically seem to ŅworkÓ, and this would explain the much less ŅbalancedÓ set of proportions which lies beneath I open and close, which comes soon after Temptation. At the time of I open and close (completed in 1988), I had become interested in more radically unequal proportions (all of which are based on the ratio 1:2:4:8), so that one of the four ŅmovementsÓ (the second, as it happens) is slightly longer than half the workÕs overall duration, and the longest section of that movement (the last) is still longer than any of the other whole movements, even though hardly anything happens in it. I still find that imbalance between duration and structural weight one of the more successful aspects of the piece, although many have seen it as a gross miscalculation. Well, maybe itÕs that, too... Anyway I subsequently reversed this trend to produce the kind of system you see in Vanity (1994), where the durational elements are (on paper) precisely equal. That was another approach I had avoided because of thinking it didnÕt ŅworkÓ, which is generally a guarantee that IÕll try it at some stage. ThereÕs a little thought-experiment I do with myself occasionally, which is to think that if I wanted to write the worst piece of music I possibly could, how would I go about that? Just something which would be insufferably boring, clumsy, insignificant and meaningless and all the rest of it, how would I actually do that? And I always tend to come to the conclusion (I donÕt quite know what this means!) that it wouldnÕt be so different from doing what I do anyway. Maybe the conclusion should be that IÕm not ever really thinking about whether something ŅworksÓ or not, but only about the only way in which I can operate at a given time. ItÕs a very small window of opportunity, you might say. And it isnÕt always open.
RC: Richard Toop showed me a letter that you wrote to him in which you were talking about a possible work on Lautrˇamont where you were thinking that he used a very sprawling structure and that such a structure would be a challenge for you compositionally. Was that part of the same process of opening up the kinds of things that you were used to working with?
RB: I should say first of all that the Lautrˇamont idea is still bubbling under, so to speak, itÕs an important nexus in my personal history of ideas. Ever since I came across it, IÕve been deeply affected by the idea that the evaporation of the ŅspecialnessÓ of humanity occasioned by DarwinÕs Origin of Species was one of the prime motivations behind LautrˇamontÕs existential anger. Lautrˇamont, who was himself scientifically trained, I believe, took hold at the very outset of one of the most important shaping forces behind much of the art which has followed, and which still has a profound expressive significance for me. But maybe the reason it hasnÕt had recognisable progeny in my work yet is that, as you suggest, I havenÕt worked out a way of opening myself up to such a structure. I think the fourth act of Unter Wasser (1998) comes closest to what IÕd call sprawling (though burgeoning is more like what itÕs trying to be), if one can really sprawl in ten minutes, I mean itÕs not underpinned by any kind of structural Ņarrow of timeÓ except rather subtly in the vocal part. One of the reasons why Trawl (1998) eventually wasnÕt incorporated into DARK MATTER (of which an initial version was being rehearsed in Brisbane at the time of this interview) was that in some ways itÕs an attempt to create a form which isnÕt structurally proportioned in any obvious way, but consists of a kind of patchwork of different ideas which evolve independently but are then fragmented and interspersed, a little like a miniaturised version of the second half of Opening of the Mouth. The result is that the rate of formal change is in some ways much quicker than it usually is in my work, and in other ways there really isnÕt any change; and in the end I felt I couldnÕt accommodate this kind of structure into the framework of DARK MATTER. Anyway, that might be one kind of approach to LautrˇamontÕs form, while retaining the kind of systematic/statistical structures I tend to work in, which I donÕt feel are in themselves inappropriate: after all, Lautrˇamont had the built-in structure of the French language to support his wayward journey. ThereÕs another piece called ruin (1995) which consists of a large number of intercut compositions, originally written separately but based on the same material so that they could be combined in various ways, without an overarching scheme to direct those combinations. So the final stage of composition felt very similar to the corresponding part of the process of making an electronic piece (in my experience): trying a combination, ŅlisteningÓ and adjusting until some kind of result is achieved, and then moving on, always thinking one might go back and alter a balance or an overlap later. Needless to say, something like a coherent shape would come into being gradually as a result (rather than having been a guiding principle from before the start).
RC: If I could ask you about your relationship with the work of Roberto Matta, youÕve spoken about some of the expressive aspects of your music really coming together in Ne songe plus ‡ fuir (1986), and I was wondering if that meant that your relationship with MattaÕs work was different in that piece in comparison to Co•gitum (1985)?
RB: Again there could be unfinished business with Matta; I can still go back to thinking about those huge paintings and imagine: now perhaps I could speak back to them, so to speak, in a more articulate way than I could all those years ago, and in fact Ņall those years agoÓ was already some time after IÕd had my first cataclysmic experience of seeing them, which was in 1977. The relationship is and was always changing, obviously because thereÕs no point in saying the same thing twice, but also because of the difference between the expressive qualities of the painting that I chose to focus on at any given time. And there you not only have those two pieces but several others as well, and, as it happens, several others that I didnÕt write, but which I might write at some point, though almost certainly not in any form that would resemble my original ideas. (wake for three instrumental trios and electronic sounds was planned in the 1980s but not written until 2015.) Behind Co•gitum is not only the painting of that title, but also a text ŅdescribingÓ it, by Matta himself (though it doesnÕt appear anywhere in the music), and god knows how many thousand other things that I was trying frantically to work out all at the same time. I think that, at least, is possible to hear in the piece! - whereas by the time of Ne songe... I had already realised that the only way to continue, given this tendency I have to try to include ŅeverythingÓ, would be to spread this inclusiveness over a series of related compositions. So the result is much more concentrated, of course, and thatÕs very easy to hear also.
RC: I wanted to ask you about the negatives cycle and its relationship to Celan. You put that interesting statement about influence on the head the score, and you mentioned Celan amongst other influences, and I was wondering how big an effect his work had on that cycle, and how that might have operated?
RB: Obviously it comes to some sort of fruition somewhat later - ultimately it was necessary to bring the texts themselves into the music, rather than have them standing behind it. And thatÕs the crucial difference between my preoccupation with Celan and that with Beckett. To me, and to many other composers of course, CelanÕs poems are so to speak pregnant with music. BeckettÕs writing is too, but in a completely different way, which IÕm not sure I could describe. Now Celan is working with far fewer words, so in a piece like Opening of the Mouth (1997) sometimes words are stretched out to enormous lengths, which in a way reflects the slowness with which it seems natural, or appropriate, to read some of these enigmatic utterances. With Beckett you have the opposite situation, in which any rhythm other than that which is rather forcefully implied by the text would completely pulverise the point of the words. All one can do is let it be spoken, or at least that was my conclusion in DARK MATTER, and if that sounds like admitting defeat, then yes, I admit defeat. With all of these ŅinfluencesÓ, though, the point is that IÕm not shifting from place to place but instead gradually incorporating more things. IÕm not any less interested in the work of Celan or Beckett or Matta (to name only these) than I was at the time when those things respectively appeared prominently in my own work. Conversely, IÕve always spent much time thinking about the cosmological/ontological questions which DARK MATTER relates to, without previously having found a shape into which I could put those thoughts. All of my larger projects have been one by one incorporating some kind of response to an issue or a complex of issues which seems important to me. The issues which are obviously missing are the more immediately political ones. ThatÕs a matter I shall have to continue thinking about for some time, itÕs certainly more ŅdifficultÓ than any of the others, although I become increasingly aware of timeÕs shortness so perhaps I had better get on with it soon. If youÕd asked me these questions a few years ago I would have said that the process of working through all these so-called extra-musical influences (not a term I really like, since my ideal is not to think of anything as Ņextra-musicalÓ) is a preparation for not having to deal with such influences at all, but actually to create the points of reference within the work itself. I did become somewhat tired of BeckettÕs name popping up whenever my work was mentioned, as if that made it easier to understand, or to dismiss. Now I think that this process of internalisation has actually happened, but without jettisoning those ŅinfluencesÓ, just entering into a different kind of relationship with them. ItÕs maybe the opposite of influence - these days I begin from the musical concept and move it outwards, perhaps towards something else, rather than ŅinterpretingÓ it. Although I would stress that I intend ŅinterpretingÓ in the sense that Max Ernst in his frottage period, for example, would shade with a pencil over a sheet of paper placed on a rough wooden surface, and then transform the result into a kind of hallucinatory image - ŅinterpretingÓ that found object (the grain of the wood) so that it became part of his own world. Ernst would ŅseeÓ, and then realise the image of, a bird or a leaf or a fish or an eye, where you or I might ŅseeÓ something quite different, or indeed nothing in particular.
RC: I was going to ask something about that: you said a few years ago you found that the extra-musical inputs related to musical impulses you had already had, and that in some way they helped to bring those musical ideas out and make them clearer. YouÕre saying that has changed?
RB: Yes, thinking about this now, I think that what happens these days is that the musical impulse comes first, and then I find a way of refracting that through something else, perhaps in order to make some sort of connection with the outside world. But another aspect of the evaporation of Ņextra-musicalÓ influence is that IÕve become more interested in musical influences. I was talking before about canonic structures and so on, and obviously those are not things IÕve invented entirely for myself, although I would hope that my approach has its unprecedented side. And that puts the extra-musical stuff in a different light. Perhaps one could say, with the benefit of hindsight, that one reason for my concentrating on all of these non-musical or extra-musical concerns was actually to protect myself from thinking about musical ones.
RC: To have too strong an influence from them?
RB: Yes. Because I do feel strongly about the musical tradition. ItÕs something which means a lot to me, and I suppose for a long time I might have been in danger of being swamped by it, if I hadnÕt been looking for ideas and concepts and everything elsewhere. And with whatever abilities or confidence I developed in the meantime, IÕm now beginning to feel that itÕs time explicitly to engage with musical matters. About time too, I imagine would be the reaction by some, if they get this far; to them I say donÕt get too excited, you almost certainly wonÕt notice the difference.
RC: Going right back again, thereÕs a Beckett quotation on the score of Invention 6 (1982), which is your first acknowledged work. I wondered was that the first instance of your using the device of quotation?
RC: Do you have any recollection of why you chose to put it there? Because from what youÕve said about the origins of I open and close, quotations were originally being used on the score of that work in quite a different way.
RB: You mean in Invention 6? Well, inside that tiny piece is a much bigger one trying to get out, which it couldnÕt at the time. What it was about was three layers of musical activity, two of which gradually diverge outwards from an initial central layer, ultimately running out of steam or whatever, so that weÕre left with these stupid scales in the centre of the keyboard which eventually spiral down the plughole so to speak. And at that point I began to see what the relationship could possibly be between what I was thinking about and the Beckett texts that I knew up to that time. Incidentally, when I was at university I was quite heavily involved in theatrical activities, which have served me well enough subsequently, and one of the productions I was involved in which never came to fruition (because we couldnÕt find any actors for it!) was Waiting for Godot. I had been asked to co-direct and to design the set. The ŅbrainsÓ behind this production was a much older student who I remember had considerable professional theatre experience, anyway someone I felt I could learn from; we had several meetings in which I would show him my new ideas for a stage design and he would reject them all as being too ŅgoldenÓ, by which he meant too reminiscent of Golden Section proportions (English wasnÕt his first language). I spent much time trying to work out how to make something which was lopsided enough for him! - I donÕt know whether I did because I think he suddenly had to leave the country. That would have been in 1979 or 1980, and Invention 6 was written a couple of years after that.
RC: So in that piece you first started seeing those parallels, between your work and BeckettÕs.
RB: Yes. And also because of the history of the piece itself - it was supposed to have been the first of five movements. Actually the second was more or less completed and then thrown out, and the third, fourth and fifth were planned up to a point. but never happened at all. So Invention 6 is already a kind of residue of something else, unfinishable at that time. I was going to use these five movements to explore different possibilities of relating the three strands of musical material to one another, but they had actually all run their course within a few minutes, given my own limitations at the time. So it was over, and I was rather depressed about that at the time, but I managed to retain this little piece that hardly gets started before it collapses in on itself. ŅToo soon wearied to concludeÓ, as Beckett says somewhere.
RC: In terms of how much you inform the audience of the extra-musical influences, obviously the titles make some connection apparent, and then sometimes you give more in programme notes, but I just wondered how much you think is desirable, for, say, an audience member who wanted to know more?
RB: I blow hot and cold about this; when I was writing this music [DARK MATTER] that weÕve been hearing, I was keeping a little diary of how the work progresses, how I feel about it, and whatever else might be going on in my life at that time. I only do this when IÕm so intensely at work that I have no time to keep a diary! Part of the reason for doing it, I think, is to write as a means of finding out about interrelationships between ideas. In the end there was a pile of material, which has been printed in the programme for DARK MATTER - I thought it was reasonably interesting, and so might others. But what I donÕt want, really, is for people in the audience to think on the one hand, that they need to ŅdigestÓ all this before listening, or on the other hand, that if they donÕt see how this relates to the music then the composer has fallen down on the job, or itÕs not getting through, or whatever. That may be true, but the way I see it is that these things formed a certain starting point for thinking about the music, which itself is then a starting point for further thinking, which may include looking further into that material.
RC: For the listener?
RB: For the listener. I would almost like to suggest that they listen to the music first and then read the notes, but I wonÕt, since I think itÕs important to respect peopleÕs decision making abilities, in the same way that I would like them to respect mine. The aspect that embarrasses me most about this version of DARK MATTER is that so much of the textual material which is supposed to be in the music is not in it yet, so the focus of the narrative that goes through the piece is thrown almost completely onto the instrumental music. I donÕt have a problem with that from a musical point of view. But it does mean that surrounding it by all this verbiage might lead people to expect something more explicit than they actually get, at least for the moment. Later, things will be different. (The complete version of DARK MATTER was completed in 2002 and premiered in early 2003.) Anyway, whatever supporting information is there, itÕs the music which I would always put the emphasis on, and an engaged mode of listening is going to reveal more of significance, to an individual listener or to an audience, than any exterior ŅunderstandingÓ. One of the strongest reasons for ŅcomplexityÓ, I think, is to invite and encourage this kind of listening (and repeated listening!) - something for which music doesnÕt need to be internally complex, of course, but thatÕs the only way I can do it; if I were Mozart I wouldnÕt have to worry about such things.
RC: Do you see that as having something to do with the historical context, for example the problem of clichˇ?
RB: I donÕt feel that problem actually. One of the most important influences that comes to me from Xenakis, and this becomes more clear as time goes on, is the ideal to approach each compositional act trying to know as little as possible, and to build it up each time from that position of emptiness. I donÕt think I can do that to the same extent that he could. But I donÕt feel I need to free myself of clichˇs because I seem not to have the tendency to fall into them. At least looking back at what IÕve done suggests that to me.
RC: Your interests seem to go over a long period of time - they have a lot of depth. How do you see that as relating to the sense of starting again?
RB: Maybe what IÕm saying is that IÕm only working on one composition in the end, which did indeed begin from this position of emptiness. More importantly, though, itÕs a question of emptying oneself so as to look even at familiar things as if seeing them for the first time. I think this is what Xenakis meant - after all, he would often return repeatedly to certain basic ideas, far more than I do I think! Going on to look more widely at tradition, I am just as emotionally involved in the Western Classical music tradition as many conservative musicians would claim to be, but as a result of the attitudes that I have, the tradition extends through my work quite deeply but in ways that arenÕt so obvious. And if I were to commit a clichˇ, in a momentÕs inattention or whatever itÕs supposed to be that produces these things, I would probably not just Ņleave it inÓ but I might well conclude that it should be amplified into some kind of super-clichˇ, at which point perhaps it breaks through into some other state of being. In general, if I come up with something I find problematic, I try to think of a way in which itÕs no longer a problem but actually a necessity. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesnÕt, but it presupposes a questioning of the musical or creative process at every level, all the time, which of course is where a large part of the intensity comes from, itÕs always questioning itself, and IÕm always questioning it, and itÕs always questioning me.
RC: You set yourself things to jump over, in a way, is that a fair characterisation, to push every level of your writing?
RB: I would hope at least that I donÕt repeat myself, and maybe itÕs one way of ensuring that that happens, but also that the vocabulary should be constantly expanding; I want to try and place myself in situations where my own musicality becomes unfamiliar to me. In that process of discovery consists the impetus to carry on. Because I do have a great deal of trouble in establishing for myself what the point of it all is, and retaining the energy and the emotional commitment to continue with it; those things are very important because one can after a certain time in the compositional world begin to coast, you know - one sees this phenomenon happening quite often.
RC: If a style is working, people like it, youÕre getting performances?
RB: Yes, thatÕs one thing, but it doesnÕt even have to be the case that people like it, it can be just something that works for oneself. And I want to go a little bit further than that, I want to question the things that appeal to me. I think Stockhausen said something along those lines at a certain point, but he doesnÕt seem to have followed it up, since he seems incapable of questioning anything any more. But thatÕs where the discovery happens, and if I can discover something in the course of composition, then maybe people can discover something in the course of listening, and that in turn engenders a purpose to listening, rather than just being entertained, or whatever the word is.
RC: Is your involvement with free improvisation ongoing?
RB: Oh yes. At various times IÕve thought of concentrating on that to the exclusion of everything else, and back in 1999 I did actually shift the focus of my activities quite heavily in that direction. I didnÕt compose very much in that year but I was doing a lot of performing; I had to find out by experience that it wasnÕt a satisfactory way for me to carry on - I do actually need to have both of these things happening, in order to retain my interest in either of them, I suppose.
RC: Did you start improvising before you were composing?
RB: I suppose so, yes. I suppose I did. I mean itÕs lost in the mists a little bit. But I do know that when I was in my mid-twenties I became radically opposed to the idea of improvisation, I didnÕt want to have anything to do with it. And there again, just as with the formal proportioning, I needed to put myself in a situation where my beliefs would be exposed as inappropriate, or irrelevant, as beliefs almost invariably are.