Gerald Barry: ‘I’ve had an energy in me that has not had an outlet’

The composer on sea bream, symbols, spies, Salome and his new Cello Concerto

Gerald Barry: ‘It was lucky that Salome was cancelled. I revised it. I added to it and I was able to make fairly radical changes to it’. Photograph: Frances Marshall

Gerald Barry: ‘It was lucky that Salome was cancelled. I revised it. I added to it and I was able to make fairly radical changes to it’. Photograph: Frances Marshall

 

A month before the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, Gerald Barry’s opera Alice’s Adventures Under Ground had its first staging. It took place at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and was marketed as a family-friendly show. The opera is short, just 70 minutes or so, and there were two evening performances. Each time there were children in the audience. The often-hyperactive music was matched by Antony McDonald’s comically busy production and picture-book designs, and the evening had moments of almost panto-like feedback between stage and listeners.

What I witnessed then was, Barry tells me, nothing by comparison with an afternoon performance given for schoolchildren earlier in the day. After we spoke on Zoom, he sent me a video he took of the unrepressed energy and chatter that filled the auditorium before curtain-up. Once the children had adjusted to the darkness and the fact that the show was at last under way, the talking and pointing – now with frequent questioning of grown-ups – started all over again. 

I had asked Barry if he had found some kind of comfort in the Alice experience, given that so much was then taken away from him: performances of his new opera Salome (after Oscar Wilde) by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Hall and Barbara Hannigan’s Ludwig Orchestra at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and a new Cello Concerto for Music for Galway’s Cellissimo Festival. 

“I kind of distanced myself,” he says, “I don’t dwell on it. It was lucky that Salome was cancelled. I revised it. I added to it and I was able to make fairly radical changes to it.”

Although he is renowned for the virtuosity of his writing, both vocal and instrumental, and has now completed five concertos, Barry only began writing concertos because “I think I was just simply asked. It wouldn’t have been an idea from me.”

Jingle

His Viola Concerto, premiered at New Music Dublin in March 2020, now has a life of its own online, he says, prefacing the details with a disclaimer: “I’m not on any social media or anything like that, so I know nothing about what goes on, thank god. It’s such a sewer-pit.” And he goes on to explain: “Some guy chose the opening of my Viola Concerto as a jingle for a website. Whenever people log on to the site, they hear the beginning of my viola concerto. It opens with the percussion section and it is incredibly striking, actually. And amusing, too, very funny. It obviously tickled him and he used it.”

Before he goes into any detail about the Cello Concerto, which Adrian Mantu will premiere with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra in Galway on Wednesday May 11th, he tells about about a note he has written on it. He suggests people might see it as a spoof note, but he doesn’t. “I said in this note: ‘With Sea Bream advice. First the music goes up. Then it goes down. Then it goes straight ahead.’” And he shows me three photographs of pages from the score, with sea bream heads pointed in alignment with the direction of the music. 

‘The ideas that I would normally get rid of in work are spinning out into other areas, like sea bream’
‘The ideas that I would normally get rid of in work are spinning out into other areas, like sea bream’

“By the way, I have to say, the sea bream going up is a different sea bream to the other two. Because I forgot to take the going up photograph and I ate the sea bream. So I had to go and buy another one to take their photograph.” He shows me one of the photos again. “There you can see the sea bream cooked, after it was roasted. Do you see how it looks like a tyrannosaurus rex or something? I thought this was fascinating. If I saw this programme note I ’d be very happy. Because it ’s not only funny, but is also a lesson in Darwinian whatever you call it, and says all the right things.”

He elaborates, “I was suddenly tired of having to write words about music. I realised that when you see the first cello line, the music does go up” – he holds the score to the camera – “it keeps going up for a while and then it starts going down for a while. And then it starts doing things like this, going straight ahead.”

Wiggles

It wiggles a bit when it ’s going straight ahead, I point out. He laughs. “Yes. But as three broad brush strokes that’s what it does. It goes up. It goes down. It goes straight ahead. If I were to say something ‘worthy’ – like you know the kind of thing that people expect when they read programme notes – it ’s like a drawing, with a pencil in your hand you draw a line upwards, downwards, sideways, left-right, or diagonally up right or diagonally down right, or whatever it might be. The lines are very clear cut. It ’s very transparent.”

One of the moves that Barry is famous for is his brief attempt, back in 1979, to replace titles with symbols, one a straight line, another a circle with an upwardly angled line through it. This led to a much-used quote from one of his teachers, Mauricio Kagel: “Gerald Barry is always sober, but might as well always be drunk. His piece ‘_______’ is, on the contrary, not rectilineal, but ‘~~~~~’.” Barry says there was no conscious connection between the sea bream and the titles from 1979.

“The sea bream was just fun, really. It’s a joke, a wonderfully entertaining but enlightening joke,” he says, before recounting the challenges of taking the photographs while keeping his fingers out of the images, stuff from the sea bream away from his phone, and keeping it all in some kind of focus. Then he gets serious. “Another reason for the sea bream is that I’ve had an energy in me that has not had an outlet. Maybe that’s part of the two years of Covid. That, and sometimes an inability to work. So the ideas that I would normally get rid of in work are spinning out into other areas, like sea bream.”

He connects it to experiences in childhood. “Before I discovered music I was incredibly badly behaved. People would say, has anything changed? I used to have terrible tantrums as a child, and vi the ideas that I would normally get rid of in work are spinning out into other areas, like sea breamolent outbursts. Then I discovered music. It was as if the music, or something that was in me that didn’t know its name, hadn’t been able to express itself. In the same way I am a terrible punisher of people by email with all kinds of crazy ideas. Because they’re energy that I’m having to release.”

Wind machine

He hasn’t revised the Cello Concerto and, like a number of composers I’ve spoken to about their unperformed, pre-pandemic compositions, is sometimes surprised by what’s in the score. “It ’s so long since I did it. I didn’t know, for instance, there was a wind machine in it. And when the conductor David Brophy asked me something about wind machines, I said, ‘What wind machine?’ He said, ‘There’s a whole solo for wind machine in the middle.’

“I didn’t know that. I wondered, why did I do that? What’s that for? I had to think back, because I hadn’t looked at it for years. I think the reason the wind machine has this solo is that it’s a bridge, a kind of aural, psychological bridge from the first half of the music to the second half. There’s a long silence and then this wind machine. It’s like an event in nature, a storm, or a rain burst, something like that. It has some function like that, to enable you to cross from one half to the other. It’s like crossing a river. It’s a bridge.”

Water would be a good transition to his next premiere, Blessington Lakes, for flute and piano, at the West Wicklow Chamber Music Festival at Russborough House on Wednesday May 18th. The conversation doesn’t go there directly, but through a discussion on orchestral reductions (he prefers the radical to the faithfully predictable), an explanation of his increasing alienation from the world of period performance practices (he sings the praises of Mozart piano concerto performances by Sviatoslav Richter and Annie Fischer, though he doesn’t like their choice of cadenzas), his disastrous foray into ownership of a Steinway concert grand (too high-maintenance in the face of Irish dampness), and his love of his current, much smaller 1910 Bechstein grand (which he describes as “heaven,” and tells me it came from the flat in London where the Soviet spy Anthony Blunt hid out after he was exposed by Margaret Thatcher, and where Blunt used to meet up with fellow spies Guy Burgess and Kim Philby).

Atlantis

Coming to Blessington Lakes, he talks about “the very moving story about how people were moved out of their houses” to create a reservoir in the 1930s. “A few years ago, during a drought, the village started appearing again. It’s a source of grief and distress for many people. It’s a haunting thing, and it has echoes of Atlantis and all of that. The name Blessington has the ring of a famous early American hymn tune that Charles Ives might have used. The piece has the feeling of a hymn tune heard across the water, with ringing bells.”

Further ahead, on Thursday June 2nd, is the premiere of a commission for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, From the Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a double bass concerto for one of the orchestra’s principals, Matthew McDonald. It’s the first time his work is being featured by the orchestra. Salome is currently scheduled for LA in April 2024, and he burrs with pleasure at the thought of a production that’s been mooted for the Théâtre de la Comédie-Parisienne in Paris, where Wilde’s play was premiered in 1896.

And his ongoing obsession with Beethoven is not over yet. He got stuck writing a libretto for a Beethoven opera and is now thinking about trying it as a masque. God knows what kind of fish or animal part he’ll find for a programme note to that.

Gerald Barry’s Cello Concerto (played by Adrian Mantu), Julia Wolfe’s Wind in My Hair (Jakob Koranyi), Elgar’s Cello Concerto (Laura van der Heijden) and Bill Whelan’s Fragments (Naomi Berrill) with the RTÉCO under David Brophy are at Leisureland, Galway, on Wednesday May 11. musicforgalway.ie

Blessington Lakes and works by Mozart, Tailleferre, Poulenc and Prokofiev are played by Adam Walker (flute) and Fiachra Garvey (piano) at Russborough House on Wednesday May 18. westwicklowfestival.com

Matthew McDonald plays From the Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant with the Berlin Philharmonic under John Storgårds on Thursday June 2nd, Friday June 3rd, and Saturday June 4th (Saturday also live on the orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall) berliner-philharmoniker.de

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