About this Recording
8.225006 - BARRY: Orchestral Works
English 

Gerald Barry (b. 1952)
Orchestral Works

Gerald Barry grew up in Clare Hill, Clarecastle, County Clare, Ireland. As a small child he lay in bed in his grandparent's garret, listening to his uncle, a well known concertina player, and unknowingly developing a love of music. One late summer day in his early adolescence he went for a walk in the village churchyard. He wandered into the choir gallery and saw a closed harmonium - and knew instantly his whole life was there in this object, this piece of furniture. Rushing home to tell his mother, he found he did not have the words to describe what he was going to be. She took no notice, so he cried for weeks until she believed him. After seeing Heifetz play on television he bullied his mother again into buying him a violin, which he later pawned. He wanted to buy records. They did not have a record-player, so he used to take the Emperor Concerto out of its sleeve, look at it longingly and sniff it around and around. They also did not have a piano, but he demanded piano lessons. Taking his records along, he insisted his teacher play them. At night he would work on his manuscripts sitting on the edge of his bed, refusing to get in and turn out the light. He did not understand the notation fully but that was not the point - he had to make up for lost time.

Barry has kept the same approach to music in adulthood: his music is written with passion, bullying, tenderness, but with the objectivity of an instrument builder. The outward intensity of the music belies its craftsmanship. Emotional abandon is constructed with almost classical formality. The markings in the scores can give us a clue - for example, a series of chords alternately marked sad, angry, sad, angry, sad, angry... and then later: angry, angry, angry, angry, angry... In this respect, he has beaten a unique path in composition, taking several methods of his teachers, Mauricio Kagel and Karlheinz Stockhausen, but applying them in the manner of a diviner throwing the bones. The techniques themselves have no particular validity for Barry. They are used to generate material, frequently at random, in the hope that some chance configuration will spark off a sensation, an instant of insight, in which the dead notes on the page will come alive. He uses these anonymous pitches to clear away the knowingness of adulthood, helping him perhaps to recapture a moment of wonder from his childhood, and make it concrete and eternal in the composition. This does not come easily - an arbitrary series of pitches is more likely to be banal than interesting - so he pounds away at them, lays his cheek on them, turns away from them and reads a book, always convinced of their potential, until they give up their secrets and something satisfactory begins to emerge. This could not be in starker contrast to those composers for whom the Handwerk itself is held up as validation of the work. Barry is essentially an ecstatic composer.

Despite their transparency, the finished works reveal little of their technical genesis. Any compositional stepping-stones Barry uses are ultimately buried under layers of transformation. He is therefore free to choose whatever starting-points appeal to him, and most of these have a connection with his personal history. He composes much of his music in his house in Clare overlooking the Atlantic. Thus, perhaps, a series of pitches is derived from a transcription of the weather forecast for shipping, or a diary; or it may be derived from the names of friends. In Dublin he lives beside Collins military barracks, so the ending of Hard D may recall the bugle practice of soldiers on the parade- ground. Some of his pieces begin as Irish ballads, which then have notes inserted into or subtracted from them until the source disappears. However, the beginnings are neither the ends nor the end. Having set off in a particular direction Barry grinds the material, paying particular attention to catching a mood and holding it as long as possible, before abruptly changing course with a strongly contrasting tempo and texture. By and large, his rhythm is thrusting and stomping, set off against haunting moments of sensuality. He delights in regular rhythms - strings of plodding crotchets, cascades of repeated chords, double-dotted patterns, which are, however, tripped up now and then by the insertion of an irregular beat.

Despite his occupying the extreme high ground of intensity, (the scores are littered with markings like 'furiously', 'frenetic', 'with great gusto' and 'blazing') his use of tempo, dynamics, register and articulation is structural rather than expressive. Even Barry's penchant for fortissimo is as much a matter of tone-colour as emotion. By pushing the music (and the musicians) to the limits - for example, having the whole orchestra galloping at full tilt in parallel through a long sequence of jagged pitches he creates a focus, a concentration, in which time can be suspended. Great care is taken over the proportioning, relative duration and weight of each section. The music is non-developmental, there is no climax, no pivotal point, no resolution, no dialectic.

Aesthetically Barry's sources are easier to discern. His feeling for harmony is informed by his training as an organist, with the chorales of Bach forming a particular focus, his love of strong changes of tempo and texture reveals a love of Handel (but not forgetting Beethoven or even Tchaikovsky); his feeling for expressionist dissonance is resonant of Berg, his sense of proportioning almost Stockhausenesque and he has a theatrical sense of the absurd more Beckett than Kagel, and a yearning which has some unlikely parallels with the work of Morton Feldman.

Another less obvious, but major source of inspiration is painting. Rothko, Mondrian and Guston have all played a part in the development of his thinking. The title Diner for example, refers to the work of Edward Hopper, whose twin concerns of structure and mood neatly encapsulate the essence of Barry's music. The ability of painting to capture and hold a single idea, the extreme simplicity and purity of structure possible in the visual arts have tantalised him for decades. How does one stretch a musical idea over time, without it rapidly losing its impact? The moments of change in painting, where one surface meets another, have informed similar moments in the music. Where Barry unconsciously exceeds the limits of painting is in scale. The visual equivalent of a work like Chevaux-de-frise would require a building the size of the Albert Hall to house it comfortably. And unlike painting this music does not passively invite you into its world. It grasps you by the throat and stares you in the eye. (This is not music for the faint-hearted. Listen to it as loud as you dare, and then some.

Of Queens' Gardens was written in 1986 and commissioned by the Irish Chamber Orchestra with funds provided by the Irish Arts Council. The name comes from Proust's translation of an essay by Ruskin. The piece develops material from Barry's opera The Intelligence Park (libretto by Vincent Deane). The original idea for the opera was that it should all be based on other people's work. Both the text and the music were to contain hundreds of allusions, so Barry began by extracting the passing four-note chords from some fifty Bach chorales, and setting them out in tables. These form the basis of the opening of the opera as well as this piece. Barry's use of the chords is remarkably systematic, almost serial. For example, every fourth note of the first eight chords provides the four eight-note phrases that open the piece (the last phrase is shortened by one note); the following clarinet solo combines each of the opening phrases in reverse, to form sixteen-note phrases - which correspond to every second note of the chords. These phrases are taken over by the bassoon and the clarinet then provides each remaining alternate note of the chords. Each of these mini-sections is marked by a change of tempo, dynamic and of course colour. In addition, each phrase is shifted with respect to the bar-line so that the accents fall in a different place each time. The chords appear as such much later. Barry describes these methods as more bullying the notes into working, than as techniques. The image that sparked off his imagination was of a provincial Italian opera band, blasting forth from the pit. The elegance of the resulting piece, however, belies the sources and mechanics of its construction. Barry's use of broad and vivid strokes of orchestral colour make the pitches seem almost irrelevant.

Chevaux-de-frise were barriers of metal spikes put up as defence against cavalry charges in the seventeenth century. The name 'Horses of Friesland' is ironic - the Friesians had no cavalry. By extension Chevaux-de-frise has been used to indicate difficult passages placed in a literary text to put off the casual reader. This piece, written in 1988 to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of the Armada, a large part of which foundered off the west coast of Ireland, is more aggressive than defensive. It strides on centre-field like some fearsome war machine with a menacing air that pervades the whole work. The pitches are generated in part from the names of various Spanish ships which sank. Barry also transformed the melody of the Elizabethan song Like as the Sun by Patrick Mando, a contemporary of Spenser. The strident and dissonant harmonies are painstakingly constructed without outside references, however, in part from canons. This is one of the first times Barry used this technique, which was to dominate his work for the next few years. For the most part the canons are 'topped and tailed' - the beginnings and endings are cut off, so that the material is presented only when all voices have entered, thus concealing them. Seldom does the texture thin - there are no solos - and the pressure on the players and listeners alike does not let up for a second. This is a compositional challenge Barry met face on, resulting, in my experience, in the most powerful and overpowering work of recent times - a latter-day Rite of Spring in which the listener feels more like the victim than a witness. The piece was commissioned by the BBC for the Ulster Orchestra to play at the 1988 Proms, where it was greeted by some with cries of "Rubbish!"

Flamboys also marks a quatercentenary - this time of Trinity College, Dublin. The name is that of a flaming torch, but also refers to those who ran ahead of processions with torches. It is a brilliant overture, based on a collection of waltzes, hymns and hornpipes. These are treated, however, with typical objectivity, for example, the pitches of the hornpipe are replaced by others from Bob, another Barry composition, and earlier material is transposed so far down that much of it is beyond the range of the instruments, making holes appear in the texture.

The structure of Hard D (1992) follows almost exactly Bach's canonic variations Vom Himmel hoch.. The D of the title refers to the lowest note on the Uilean pipes, known as Hard D because of its open, abrasive sound. The piece is in fifteen sections, each of which (with few exceptions) is based on a different Irish ballad. These include The German Clockwinder, Take me up to Monto (Monto was the red light district in Dublin at the turn of the century) and Finnegan's Wake. In the grand manner, Barry set out to write one section a day and the piece has an immediacy born of a rapid gestation.

In 1980 the Bremen City Ballet commissioned Barry to write music for Reinhild Hoffman's ballet Unkrautgarten. Sur les Pointes and Diner are two pieces which are derived from the material. Sur les Pointes (On points) exists in several versions, and is best known in its incarnation as a large virtuoso piano piece, recorded by Noriko Kawai on the NCM label. This short transcription for wind band has a mysterious expectant quality. The harmonies are like some essence arrived at after a long processs of reducing. According to Barry they are thought of as being completely divorced from colour.

Barry thinks of Diner as "on Broadway", based on two dances from the ballet, one a can-can the other a waltz. They cannibalise a melody from "-", a 1979 ensemble piece speeded up out of all recognition, and harmonies from Sur les Pointes.

Kevin Volans


Gerald Barry

Gerald Barry was born in Ireland in 1952 and studied with Stockhausen and Kagel. He studied organ with Piet Kee. Many of his works have been commissioned by the BBC, including Cheveux-de-frise for the 1988 'Proms', Hard D for the Orkest de Volharding and The Conquest of Ireland for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. His opera The Intelligence Park, commissioned by the ICA, was first performed at the 1990 Almeida Festival, and a second opera, The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit, was written for Channel 4 Television. In 1997 Hessische Rundfunk commissioned a new work for the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. His music has been performed at the Warsaw Autumn, Musik Trienalle Köln, the ICA, the Almeida, Huddersfield and St Denis Festivals, the ISCM and many others. He has worked with many ensembles including Ensemble Modern, Speculum Musicae, New York New Music Ensemble, Array Music Toronto, the New Juilliard Ensemble, Capricorn, London New Music, Ensemble Musique Vivante, the Arditti Quartet and the Ives Ensemble. His chamber music has been released on NMC and The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit on Largo.


National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland

The RTE Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1947 as part of the Radio and Television service in Ireland. With its membership coming from France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Hungary, Poland and Russia, it drew together a rich blend of European culture. Apart from its many symphony concerts, the orchestra came to world-wide attention with its participation in the famous Wexford Opera Festival, an event broadcast in many parts of the world. The orchestra now enjoys the facilities of a fine new concert hall in central Dublin where it performs with the world's leading conductors and soloists. In 1990 the RTE Symphony Orchestra was augmented and renamed the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, quickly establishing itself as one of Europe's most adventurous orchestras with programmes featuring many twentieth century compositions. In 1992 the orchestra embarked upon an extensive recording project for the Naxos and Marco Polo labels, recording music by Nielsen, Tchaikovsky, Goldmark, Rachmaninov, Brian and Strauss as well as an Irish composers' series.


Robert Houlihan

Born in Killarney, Robert Houlihan moved to Dublin at the age of sixteen and began his first music studies in the Army School of Music, before further study at the Municipal College of Music and under George Hurst as the Canford Summer School. In 1980 he won second prize at the International Competition for Young Conductors at Besançon and was awarded a scholarship from the French Government and the Arts Council to study contemporary music at the European Centre for Musical Research at Metz and conducting with Léon Barzin in Paris. He won further awards in 1983 in the Hungarian Television International Competition and this was followed by many engagements in Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia. He now lives in Metz, working at the Municipal Theatre. He has frequently conducted the Irish National Symphony Orchestra, the Radio Telefís Éireann Concert Orchestra and the Ulster Orchestra, as well as the Irish National Youth Orchestra, in addition to other engagements with orchestras throughout Europe. Since 1990 Robert Houlihan has been Principal Conductor of the State Philharmonic of Tirgu Mures in Romania, the first foreigner since the 1950s to hold such a position. Since 1992 he has served as Principal Conductor of the Savaria Symphony Orchestra in Hungary and is increasingly active as a teacher of conducting at the Canford Summer School of Music in England and also in France, Hungary and Portugal.


Close the window