Jean Martin composes music for film, TV, theatre and performance. He is also a writer and lecturer at University of Brighton

Skip top navigation

Skip secondary navigation

Gerald Barry

Conversation with Jean Martin, 24.6.2000 in Dublin

JM: Your music seems to lend itself to vocal setting.

B: The vocal settings are often extremely virtuosic. There is a sense of the extreme in the music, there is a danger there and for the performer a lot of the music is about danger because of what is needed to perform it and the possibility of collapse almost.

JM: When you put these instructions in the score like volatile, very aggressive, sad, cheerful, angry - is that an interpretation, to give the performers a sense of what it is about?

Barry: It is to be as clear as possible in the score how the music should be. So if I write sad I want it to be sad, if I write angry I want it to be angry, if I want it to be cheerful I write cheerful. It is as simple as that.

JM: Has your use of regular pulse anything to do with your interest in 18th century music?

Barry: It is an impossible question. It doesn’t mean anything.
The piece like 1998 for violin and piano or the piece Wiener Blut you could say - I am just using images, not because they are in my mind when I am doing it but maybe to allow somebody into the music - it is not unlike the pointillistic painting of Seurat, where there are all these points and you stand back and the points form a picture. Pieces like Wiener Blut and 1998 for violin and piano are rather like that. There are all these points of music and they do almost have a pointillistic function like in painting. There is also this other setting I did recently of a text by Nietzsche from “Also sprach Zarathustra” called Die ewige Wiederkehr for Soprano and Orchestra. My intention there was to take every-day musical gestures like the grammar of music, simple things like major chords, minor chords, arpeggios - ordinary, familiar things and another image could be taken from painting to describe those. If you look at still-lives by good painters, e.g the 18t century painter Chardain, where you get classic still lives with half filled glasses of wine or plates or food and they are familiar everyday objects. But he manages to invest them with a kind of ecstasy. That was part of my intention in a piece like Die ewige Wiederkehr to use simple musical language, that would have been used in the 19th century or even in the 18th century, but to revisit and make it completely fresh as if it was appearing for the first time. It is an investing, an injection into these everyday musical gestures of something ecstatic.

JM: I can see that in The Ring.

Barry: That is an image of sometimes what happens in the streets in Carnival in Cologne. I remember how many people were throwing up in the streets. It is a piece partly about that. I enjoyed calling it The Ring, as in Wagner. The tune at the end is a tune I heard Indian Castrati singing. There are castrati in India now. These people go around to weddings and beg for money and they curse you if you don’t give something. It was a jolly tune that I heard which I used at the end. It was written for amateurs who couldn’t read music, so it had to be done in very broad, simple strokes that would have an effect.

JM: I can see in your music why you were attracted to Kagel.

Barry: Well, I was with Stockhausen for a year. Stockhausen left the Hochschule and then stopped teaching. Kagel was the most interesting person around. So I thought it would be good to go to him and it was good. I really respect him. And with Stockhausen - being around somebody like that you absorb a sense of musical architecture, he is a great musical architect as well as a great composer. It couldn’t be but enriching. Kagel of course is more approachable.

JM: Would you say that also today?

Barry: Many people of course feel that Stockhausen’s music now has become maybe softer and that the great period was the 60ties and early 70s. But I think it is too early perhaps to say what Licht is. I did hear a live broadcast recently of the early piano pieces - Klavierstücke - and then suddenly Klavierstück 13. I found the change, the move from the early piano pieces to this late piece shocking. There seemed to be a decadence there. It would be rather shocking in the way that if one hadn’t looked in the mirror for 20 years and then you look and you see how you have aged, how shocking that would be. I felt that the music had aged in a not interesting way. I felt that the earlier pieces were very hard and pure with a kind of fibre. And suddenly this late piano piece was softer, it didn’t have the same feel.

JM: The Road, compared to the earlier piece Chevaux de Frise, was much richer, but it has in principle almost the same motoric, obsessive energy.

Barry: That is one of the pieces where I was using familiar musical language rather like... I think of it often more in a visual way like sculpture than as music - as if I was collecting familiar objects that you would be part of everyday life - cutting them up and juxtaposing them to produce a rather strange view of tonality. It is like a visit to a strange tonal past in a way. And of course to make an exhilarating journey. I did say in the programme that it was inspired by a memory from childhood of sun with high wind on a motor road. Often those are memories that one invents after writing the piece.

JM: Are you interested in sound quality?

B: Of course. What do you mean by sound quality?

JM: The sound result as the orchestra is playing it. Xenakis doesn’t seem to be very interested, or Bach - he just wrote abstract music, and then it could be played by any instrument.

Barry: Yes, I am interested in that. I have an interest in very pure material, which will have a life as pure material and pure sound and that the colour that plays it is sometimes irrelevant. It should be strong and pure enough to be performed by any instrument no matter what the colour - that it will survive being applied to any instrumental combination. That was something that I was very interested in those early piano pieces Sur le Point and Au Milieu. This was material that was almost divorced from the instrument for which it was written. It was rather what you said about Bach, that it would have that purity written into the marrow of it, the fibre of it. Au Milieu is a piece about danger, it is about a virtuoso tackling something extraordinarily difficult and almost impossible. So there is that attention and excitement in watching somebody do something like that. The title Au Milieu is a term used in ballet: Au Milieu is exercises performed without the support of the bar and it is performed in the centre of the room. It is a very gymnastic, dangerous thing - it is performed like feeling without a safety net. So the chances of coming to grief are great. So it can only be tackled by someone who is really wonderful. So that element of danger is sewn into the music.

JM: You are probably not very interested in tape music or computer music, because it has not that danger?

Barry: I was never involved in electronic music, but I am very excited by much of it. Most of it is not good. The early Stockhausen electronic music is wonderful, but most people who write electronic music, they are just not terribly good composers. It is kitsch. Who knows - maybe I might do something, but one would have to have the right moment.

JM: Do you use computers to generate notes?

B: Nothing at all. I am computer illiterate. Do you use computers?

JM: You are also an organist. Are you drawn to the instrument itself or is it the church and religion?

8 B: I am not interested in religion. It is a long time since I played the organ. I earned my living in that way. Sometime in Cologne I had a job as an organist in Ehrenfeld in a Protestant church. To get the job you had to be Protestant, but I was Catholic. So I lied. But after a year - they were continually asking me for my papers to prove that I was Protestant. So I delayed them for a year. Finally I couldn’t hold out any longer and they finally discovered that I was Catholic. So I was fired. They felt that they must have a Protestant at the organ, because otherwise you wouldn’t be in spiritual communion with what was happening on the altar. But eventually then I got a job as Catholic organist, so I was at home in a little village called Roeswart near Cologne. So I was there for a number of years. Obviously I have always loved the whole world of organ music and the extraordinary tradition - Bach Chorales and all of that. Bach Chorales in themselves are like wonderful sculptural objects. They have a purity, and a hardness and fineness. They are perfect jewels, perfect objects. I was always passionately interested and that is why in this opera The Intelligence Park much of the harmony is drawn from Bach Chorales, the chords formed by what they call passing notes (Durchgangsnoten), which normally inhabit a kind of twilight world, you never dwell on them. So the harmonic foundations of the piece, much of it, is based on this twilight world from Bach. It is like which is normally flying by. You freeze and look at for a long time. I have always been interested in taking something mysterious that is hard to grasp or hard to articulate and confronting it. It is a strange contradiction. I suddenly bring it into the light.

JM: Hard to grasp with words, but not in musical imagination?

Barry: With musical imagination. For instance, the passing notes of Bach - they are not things which one normally focuses on. To build a whole opera on those oblique musical moments is a turning of something inside-out, it is a turning what is normally transitory into something permanent.

JM: What else inspired you? Texts?

B: Yes, I have a very passionate relationship to texts.

JM: Nothing unusual for an Irish man.

Barry: No. The text e.g. I used in The Conquest of Ireland is a strange text, 18th century text which was written by a cleric who has the same name as me Giraldus Cambrensis from Wales, who accompanied the invading armies in Ireland in the 12th century. That has a certain strange detached quality. It is a description of the anatomy of these soldiers. I found it erotic in some strange dry way and I like the tension, or almost contradiction between that matter-of-factness and the rather violent, passionate interpretation that I applied to it. So those tensions are constantly at work in the music.

JM: He is extremely arrogant.

B: Yes, but arrogant in an amusing way. You can laugh at it now.

JM: Why did you come back to Ireland?

Barry: Emotionally often one makes decisions for emotional reasons and not for others. I am happy to be here. I am not here for music. I don’t have that much contact with musical life here. These concerts are very unusual. My work is usually performed in places like London and elsewhere - a lot in London. Recently I had performances with the Hessischer Rundfunk and the Bayerischer Rundfunk. So I am not here for the music.

JM: How do see the educational system here? Only gradually the contemporary music life is picking up.

B: I don’t care about it. It doesn’t bother me. I never think about it. I am not interested in it at all.

JM: No music politics?

Barry: I am completely removed from that, because it is a waste of energy. I couldn’t give a damn about it. I don’t think of music as being contemporary or anything. I just think of it as music. The only important thing is to write music which is as wonderful as possible.

JM: For yourself?

Barry: For me! Obviously I want people to like it very much. But it is not my business if they don’t. I just feel when handling musical material, the only thing I think about is not betraying it, to do it justice. So if I have harmonies or melodies I want them to be as fine as possible and I have a great loyalty to them as if they become utterly living things. They are completely alive. I have a duty to do them justice and not betray them. They are rather like close friends.

JM: How much time do you usually spend with them?

B: The musical friends?

JM: Yes, e.g how long did it take you to compose The Road? Or do often work in parallel?

B: I usually only work on one piece at a time - maybe six months.

JM: Do you work in a very disciplined way?

B: No, no, I sleep. I am a champion sleeper.

JM: Dreams are interesting - the twilight world of dreams.

Barry: I find childhood a very good source of magic in music and memories. In fact memory has played a significant part in these recent pieces that I have written - 1998 for violin and piano for instance, it is also for piano solo and also for string quartet, and Wiener Blut - they are really made up of sounds remembered when I discovered music, when I was the age of 13 or 14 up until now. They are like journeys through musical history, whether it be chords from Mozart, Bruckner or Schumann, whoever. I simply wrote them down and these moments then become like points in a Seurat (Georges, 1859-91) painting and then they coalesce and they come together and a picture is formed. So they are pieces to do with memory. Then they become frozen in the piece, but not frozen in a sterile way, but I place them in the piece. They are like a harmonic autobiography in a way.

JM: In other words you want to go back to your original perception when it is most intense.

Barry: Yes. I feel the music that I am writing now there is a change there, e.g. 1998 is a very important piece for me. It is a move away from a lot of the music I have written in the past decade. Within the piece there are many different worlds and the music shifts all the time. I wanted to write a piece which would stay in the same place. This piece has a great sense of mystery. Even I know it very well I can never really tell what the next sound is going to be. It is so enigmatic that it opens and closes in a way for me, which is unpredictable. I suppose it is an attempt to encapsulate musical history in a way using the ordinary grammar of music but using it in such a way that when you hear it, no matter how often you hear it, you feel as if a messenger is always coming to you with fresh news. Die ewige Wiederkehr, the Nietzsche setting is basically in C major with other keys centring around it. The challenge was to write such a piece and to feel that it was utterly new territory as it would have been for somebody like Mozart and to invest it with this mystery which would be there for ever, which would wear well no matter how long it was in existence.

JM: ...Pieces of Beethoven or Mozart still sound fresh and original. They managed to freeze the freshness or the energy in the work.

Barry: I didn’t read the programme notes until now, but there is an interesting essay by Ivan Hewett. He said about my two operas that they have 18th century references in the libretto and it is as if they were written before any of these 18th century operas, that they were not commentaries on a past period, but that they had a feeling that they preceded them. That was very interesting. I was very happy to hear it actually, because I felt I had succeeded in injecting an ecstasy into the material which made the period in which it was written irrelevant, that it could have come from any period. That whole question of bypassing the time in which something was written I think I achieved. That is why I never respond to terms like 'Neue Musik' or 'Zeitgenössische Musik'. They don’t mean anything to me.

JM: This is almost paradoxical. You as a musician working in time want to fix something almost out of time within this medium.

Barry: Yes. It is like catching a secret somehow and holding it in such a way that it is always imbedded in the music. That is the most difficult thing.

JM: In normal life, when you watch TV you don’t find any mystery there anymore. It is all on the surface. Everybody pretends to know everything. A sense of mystery one hardly finds anymore.

B: You will get it with people who are doing good work, as has always been the case. I don’t think that any period is particularly better than any other. If you think of the hundred years between 1650 and 1750 there are only two really great composers - Bach and Haendel. There are other very wonderful people like Vivaldi, but there are only two main figures. I has always been the case.

JM: What is your interest in Vienna? You spent some time there, didn’t you?

Barry: Yes, but only because I needed some money. I couldn’t anymore earn money to stay in Germany, so the Austrian government gave me a scholarship. I went to Friedrich Cerha and he was very kind. That was in 1977.

JM: And how did you find the Viennese?

B: In the year I was there, there was not a single performance of a piece by Schoenberg. It was very strange.

JM: Did you expect there to be a lot of concerts with his music?

B: It is his home town.

JM: But they were very hostile to him when he was there.

Barry: It is very much almost a museum city. I liked it very much, but it has a frozen quality about it and often not in an interesting way. It is a little bit oppressive. It is sometimes like a monstrous Sacher Torte. Maybe there are interesting people I don’t know about. Who has appeared there since the second Viennese School? Nobody. It is a bit of a strange place.
I really responded to Nietzsche because there is in Nietzsche a feverish quality and a total embracing of danger. There is a total, a complete and utter uninhibited quality. A hungry, joyous quality which I felt completely at home with and emotionally that meant everything to me and I was astounded that everything I thought I found in Nietzsche. That was spectacular, Nietzsche is spectacular.

JM: He is like walking without net on a very thin rope.

B: Oh, yes.
He had that extraordinary quality. He said that thing about - maybe because he was so unhappy personally and used some phrase like muck, that he could only survive and justify his existence in the world by turning what he called muck into gold. To do that there where absolutely no limits in Nietzsche. There is a sense of the great unlimited. This wonderful humour and feverishness that is completely and utterly total, there are no bounderies to it, I think that is what I responded to it musically because I feel it mirrored what I would like to be as a composer.
It is an entering into the moment, absolutely being in the moment, being utterly present. That’s what I mean when I talk about not betraying the musical material. It is as if the musical material is utterly there, it is a living, throbbing thing and one must go as far as one can to its heart, its core and serve it absolutely.

JM: Could you talk about Wiener Blut?

Barry: This piece is a rather amusing piece in the sense that... I took the title from a Johann Strauss Walz. Johann Strauss Walzes are master pieces, they are extraordinary. There is that wonderful photograph of Johann Strauss and Brahms standing on some balcony. Brahms loved Johann Strauss and you can see why. It is absolutely clear why. Wiener Blut, there is something very dark about the title. I wanted in that piece to somehow... it is like a harmonic Baedecker - Baedecker is a famous travel guide for people how went to other countries, they told you what to see.. So this is a harmonic Baedecker made for - I said humorously for Viennese travellers, and it is a harmonic journey as if I was drawing the essence or blood of all the harmonies I used. I had this half serious notion of once constructing what I called a poignancy grid that could be mass produced and in each box there would be a harmony, a sound which would have a poignant essence injected into it. You could maybe get it in the supermarkets and that you could read them, this grid of sounds in any way - horizontally, vertically, diagonally, and superimpose any rhythm on it, any dynamic and it would be poignantly fool prove, it would always be effective. It was rather an amusing idea. When you go to a super market, you’ll find a certain brand of butter and it is all in the same packet and you know if you buy it you will get a certain level of contentment. There is something very comforting about that. Your contentment will never fall below a certain level. It is a mass produced thing, but it is produced to a certain standard. I was amused by this idea that I would construct this poignancy grid which someone could buy and make there own pieces and it would never fall below certain levels of contentment, in fact, unlike mass produced products it would have the possibility of soaring way beyond the fact that it was a mass produced product depending on the imagination of the person using it. In a way this image promoted the idea of this piece Wiener Blut. So all of the sounds in it, most of the sounds are taken from musical history. So you will have a sound from Wozzeck or Schoenberg or Ives or Mozart and they all come together like in a Seurat painting. All these points come together in a horizontal string.

JM: But your music is not music about music like Mahler sometimes did?

Barry: I don’t think so. I use only very tiny sounds, so they are not recognisable in this piece. And the challenge is to somehow draw the blood from these harmonies to make them my own. It is not a commentary, it is not something about something. They become something completely and utterly different.

JM: Is that your personal way of dealing with this immense musical history which has been building up?

Barry: It is a sense of freedom that one has. I have the freedom to anything I want from any period of history and to not in any pompous way transcend it, but because I love it and to take anything I want. But you have a duty when you do that not to betray it. Obviously you have to do something that is ...as you try and approach the magic of the original and produce a new world.

JM: So do you often go through old scores?

Barry: Sometimes, yes. So e.g. I was playing The Art of Fugue by Bach and my hands happened to fall in the wrong place. And I thought: oh that is very nice. So I wrote it down immediately. So there is a whole section in Wiener Blut which is an account of how I misplayed the Bach.
E.g. 1998, what that is, is a recording of mine I played this piano piece, but I used so much Rubato that it was quite different from the original and more interesting. So then what I did was notate my performance. It is an exact notation of an eccentric performance of a simple piece, which then, because of my eccentric performance becomes something completely different. So all of the very odd bar links in it like 3/16, these tiny little different, asymetrical periods in it are in fact notations almost of my nervous system, because when I was playing I played it in a very eccentric way. Then I listened to the recording and notated it. It is almost like a notation of a performance by some old master, one of those early recordings from the beginning of the 20th century, someone playing Chopin in an eccentric way. When I was playing that piece it is as if my nervous system was performing it and then I notated that. I do think of it almost as a notation of my nervous system.

JM: Which of your pieces do you consider most successful?

Barry: The opera The Intelligence Park, 1998 for violin and piano, The Conquest of Ireland, pieces like that. I would very much like if The Intelligence Park could be performed again.

JM: There is no commercial recording of it?

B: I am hoping that this little record company may buy the recording and bring it up, but that hasn’t happened yet.

JM: Was the Almeida performance in 1990 the only one?

Barry: No, it was performed in Dublin as well in the same year. It has been translated into German by a man in Munich.
It was quite strange when I set the Nietzsche in German. I have set it in English, but I set it in a dual translation. But I got so used to the English I begin to think of the English translation as the original. It is quite odd. I was wondering what Nietzsche would have thought of my setting. I feel - maybe I flatter myself, that he would have liked it, because it does use sounds that he would recognise and I think they are as feverish and as hungry as his text. So I hope he would like them.

JM: I think you never directly interpret what is going on in the text, do you?

Barry: No, I don’t like illustration... No, I hate musical settings where there is a literal, illustrative quality.

JM: Ironically it is much more powerful if a composer doesn’t indulge in that direct response; the same is true for theatre music or film.
Do find composing painful?

Barry: It rarely comes easy. Sometimes, like in early pieces, they came very easy. Sometimes you are given a concept for a piece and the piece is given to you almost immediately and I just write it down. But that is very rare. I never really had that experience much in recent years. One moves on to the next challenge. I would like the music to become more transparent, simpler, quieter. That will be a new move.

JM: Occasionally one can already hear it.

Barry: In the second half of Wiener Blut I in fact used Schoenberg’s Hauptstimme indication, where he tries in complicated textures to indicate what is the principle voice. Because the first half of Wiener Blut is this very clear, brilliant music and then it moves into this Viennese labyrinth. It is very difficult to disentangle, it is like a swamp. So I tried to help the conductor by putting in this Hauptstimme thing. But I am not sure. I have to wait and see what the piece will turn out to be. They told me at the rehearsal, I wasn’t there, that they played it as I wrote originally fortissimo all the way through. And they said, it sounded crazy and surreal. So they were determined to civilise it.

JM: Did Thomas Ades conduct well?

B: Yes, he did. I was very impressed. And the players were fantastic. Principle cellist from Saarbruecken, Ulrich Heinen. We did the piece in Cologne, he also played it there. Kagel was very impressed. They’ll do it again at the Proms. I must listen to that to see what I think. So I would have liked to have heard what it sounded like when it was crazy and not so refined. I am not sure whether I should ignore my Schoenbergian Hauptstimmen or not. Tom Ades said it was like a lunatics excursion, which sounds very interesting.

up arrow

Top of Page