Clarence Barlow on his music

Clarence Barlow at the Alphonse Mucha exhibit in Fullerton after the premiere of his piece, )ertur(, on January 28.

On April 8th, REDCAT will host a concert of composer Clarence Barlow’s works of the 21st century, including major ensemble, electronic and intermedia works. Tickets and info for that are at redcat.org/event/clarence-barlow. Full disclosure: I’m a student of Clarence’s, as is my friend Brandon Rolle, who interviewed him for UCSB’s website. The university kindly gave us permission to reprint that interview here ahead of this Saturday’s concert. Here are Brandon and Clarence:

Clarence Barlow is a composer and the Corwin Chair of Composition at the University of California, Santa Barbara. While Barlow is recognized internationally for his contributions to electronic music and his pioneering work in algorithmic composition, his voluminous artistic output defies categorization, breaking boundaries of style, genre, and form. Recently, the dynamic and diverse output of Barlow’s career was celebrated by a three-day festival of his works in Cologne, Germany—a city that introduced Barlow to Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and the avant-garde music of mid-20th-century Germany from which his distinct compositional trajectory launched. This year Southern California, too, celebrates his career and music: January 28th marked the premiere of his recent major intermedia piece )ertur( in Fullerton, CA, and February 24th saw a program of his early chamber works (from ages 14-22) at UCSB.

Many of your best-known works in the academic community are those which utilize algorithmic processes or your original software, but early on you were an active pianist and conductor and your compositions are markedly more romantic—can you talk a bit about your early musical experience/education?

Well as a young boy, age eight, I used to play in a school band in my then home town Calcutta. Then at the age of 11, I decided to make my own music, though I had no formal teaching. At 13, I got into a general classical mode and at age 15 I got into a historical style at more or less Haydn, Mozart, reaching Rachmaninoff at age 17. Then a music critic heard my stuff and told me I was too conservative, and that there was other music I should listen to—he played me Samuel Barber on the piano—and I did move on. But all of these pieces were written for regular classic acoustic ensembles. My first electronic music was written at age 24, so these early pieces from 50 years ago—of which there will be a concert here at UCSB—are all going to be in styles of Haydn, Mozart, Bartók, etc. There will be two string quartets, and a wind quartet sounding a bit like Prokofiev, or Hindemith. Those pieces are a natural outcome of the process of my historic music development through my teen years and early 20s.

How did that first computer piece at 24 come about?

As one of the few people in India—well, the only one—writing Western contemporary music, I got a scholarship to go to Germany to study composition there. After the interview I was told I could pack already, and it was through this scholarship that I ended up studying with Zimmerman and  Stockhausen. The Cologne school where I started my studies in 1968 was the place to study electronic music—it had the only electronic music studio in a school at the time. So that’s where I made my first electronic pieces at 23 (Studies) and my first serious electronic piece at 24 (Sinophony I), gradually easing myself unwittingly into the very avant-garde contemporary music scene in Cologne, where I found my roots. But all the same, I broke with rules of the avant-garde in crazy ways.

When I started to do computer music—I was 24—it was because I understood there were certain algorithmic things I wanted to do which could probably only be realized by a computer. I remember that at the end of 1972, I drove a night and a day to Stockholm where I worked for two weeks in a studio over the Christmas break making my piece Sinophony II. I realized, a computer could do anything I wanted it to do, if I learned to program it properly.

In your teaching and lectures you talk about algorithms as a means to an end, compositionally. In the beginning, were you primarily experimenting to find new sounds?

No, I knew what I wanted. I could imagine the first stages of the compositional process and said ‘okay, let me work on that and listen to it’. For instance, my piece …or a cherish’d bard… is written for piano, but it’s highly algorithmic. I computer-programmed a first version of the piece, listened to the result and thought ‘boring, what do I have to change?’ I moved my program in a new direction and thought the result was a lot better, but now this gave me new ideas, which changed the process further until I finally said ‘this is it’. I had my piece.

I can’t imagine everything at the beginning, but listening to test results always gives me new ideas. The imagination is always the carrot, and I am the horse following it, as it were. And this holds for my algorithmic piano, ensemble, and electronic music alike. My electronic music is inspired even in its timbre by algorithms—someone told me recently that there is no such thing as algorithmic timbral composition; I said that isn’t true, I do it all the time.

Composer Clarence Barlow

Composer Clarence Barlow

A major component of your teaching, writing, and composing are your theories on tonal and metric functions as a continuum.

I came to Germany at age 22 writing conservative early 20th century music. But at the age of 24 my style broke completely and I became radical. My piano piece Textmusic was unlike anything I had done before; it was accorded a 20-minute response from the audience at Darmstadt—boos and applause; it was one of the big scandals of Darmstadt that year. From then on I was no longer writing in any historical style, unless I wanted to deliberately.

At 29, I first imagined a variably tonal music, not as in the past where it was simply tonal or semi tonal or atonal—I wanted tonality to go from 0% to 100% and back. It became clear that if I wanted to make this variable tonality—and variable metricity—that I had to develop a theoretical fundament. So I got into prime number theory, looked at Pythagoras and Euler and found my way through algebraic formulae which I programmed all summer in Cologne at the Institute of Phonetics. That is how these formulae became the cornerstone of a lot of my work.

Why was it important to be able to move between tonal/atonal styles as a parameter or variable?

One of my great heroes in literature is James Joyce. He absorbed culture into his work, which is not only fantastic literature but is also a commentary on culture. Looking at music culture of the past—tonal, atonal—I wanted to use all of that. I saw tonality as a kind of magnetic field, the strength of which I wanted to change at will. Joyce often writes in historic styles with a twist—I do that too, in my derived music. But in my algorithmic music I also conjure up and generate styles which might or might not make you remember past history.

What about the incorporation of extra-musical elements into your music? 

I have been synesthetically oriented for most of my life. I’m not sure if that has anything to do with it, but I’ve always been very interested in the visual. And language—when learning German at 22, I discovered my great love of language. So I think it is because I love all these things that I start to perceive bridges between them and music.

As a composer for both fixed media and human performers, what is it that you look for in a performance of your acoustic work?

For me it is important to listen to the result—now the humanly played result may not be 100% accurate as in a MIDI rendition, but if it were, it would be without soul. A great human performance has expression, phrasing, nuances. If it comes across as something fresh, something with musical spirit, then I’m happy.

Then do you find it problematic for electronic music that it lacks such human “spirit”?

No, it’s not a problem. It is like being in a planetarium, looking at exact moments in time, exactly placed, with exact frequencies.

Like much modern music, your compositions can be challenging to listen to for many people. Is there ever temptation to adjust the musical language to make the concept more accessible?

I don’t need to be accessible. I believe in the grand body of culture we have behind us, and in the propagation and extension of it. You cannot make it accessible to everyone. You don’t doctor art to propagate it. I love James Joyce: should Joyce have written in a simpler style to be more accessible? I believe very strongly you stick to your guns, you do what you have to do.

So what would you suggest to a listener in order get the most out of your music? Out of modern music in general?

I would say first of all, frequency of listening is very important. You have to listen often. You’ve got to go to lots of events, you’ve got to have an open mind. Get to know the music.

We couldn’t agree with that more. Check out Clarence’s music at REDCAT on Saturday at 7. Tickets and more information are up at redcat.org/event/clarence-barlow

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