Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

Because of their timeliness, their enthusiasm, and their limited scope, some texts about emergent forms of music have an enduring, if not indelible impact on their subjects. One such essay is Richard Toop’s “Four Facets of ‘The New Complexity’,” which appeared in the contemporary music journal Contact in early 1988. Even though Toop shied away from any suggestion of comprehensiveness in his study of Michael Finnisy, James Dillion, Chris Dench, and Richard Barrett – composers surfacing in the frothy wake of Brian Ferneyhough – his survey remains in the foreground of the literature on radical composition in the UK during the Thatcher winter. Were it not for its paucity of sociological and biographical context, Toop’s essay would be comparable to A.B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business; still, he correctly framed his subjects as mavericks with “strong ‘behavioural patterns’ that they bring to bear on each new situation,” such as penchants for dense materials nearly impossible to realize, and extended cycles of works – what he diagnosed as “cyclomania.”

The problem with labels like New Complexity is at least two-fold: They are snapshots of a moment more than of individuals; and labelers incorrectly assume that the labeled will always carry on in a manner circumscribed by the label. Toop admits the shortcomings of labels at the outset when he invokes Nietzche’s dictum that to define something is to begin lying about it. Subsequently, he opines with care, parsing and equivocating. Toop ultimately acquits himself as an honest broker between his subjects and his readers by giving the composers ample opportunities to define themselves in extensive interviews. Since Toop’s essay represented a welcomed scholarly advocacy of a brainy insurgency at a time when an “all-purpose anti-intellectualism [was] still very much embedded in the collective psyche of the musical establishment” in the UK, New Complexity stuck, continuing to affix itself to the composers in press mentions, core texts, and reference volumes.

Hindsight is 20/20, acutely so after more than thirty years. The passage of decades now allows “Four Facets” to be seen in an unsparing light, and for its virtues and shortcomings to be considered as the two sides of the same coin. Toop was already recognized as a paradigm-shifting musicologist; informed in part by his early-‘70s stint as Karlheinz Stockhausen’s teaching assistant, Toop’s 1974 Perspectives of New Music article, “Messiaen/Goeyvaerts/Fano/Stockhausen/Boulez,” has been credited with establishing the history of total serialism. He was more than a decade into his long, distinguished tenure at New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, influencing a generation of Australian composers, musicians, and musicologists. However, Toop’s authority on serial and post-serial composition proved to be biased in regards to improvisation, which he discounts in his assessments of Richard Barrett.

Granted; Barrett, then in his late twenties, was just gaining international recognition when Toop interviewed him in late 1986. At the time, Barrett acknowledged only ten works, the oldest penned in ‘82. Barrett responds to Toop’s questions about the nuts and bolts of his compositions and their conceptual canopies in exacting detail and with intensity. Yet, Barrett’s activities in “free improvisation” is mentioned only in passing; and FURT, the enduring improvising electronics duo that Barrett and Paul Obermayer formed earlier in the year, not at all. Undoubtedly, even a cursory discussion about improvisation and live electronics would have been instructive. Additionally, Toop makes nothing of Barrett’s early engagement with the electric guitar, a possible source for concepts like “radically idiomatic” instrumental writing, which dispenses with an instrument’s history to focus solely on the thing itself. Nevertheless, Toop’s discussion of Barrett’s first example of this approach – 1986’s Ne songe plus à fuir for solo amplified cello – has held up well, as he acknowledges Barrett’s essential equation of material and instrument.

One of the real liabilities of studies like Toop’s is that they sever the work from the lives that produced it. In the late 1980s, it was not screamingly insensitive or politically incorrect to apply “British” to Barrett – a term Evan Parker argues should only be coupled with “military,” “government,” and “Empire.” Born in Swansea in 1959, Barrett was of a working-class family who spoke Welsh less than previous generations, and who did not own a record player. His leftist political orientation was no doubt formed during the Wilson years in part by his uncle, a Labor MP. When he was 12, his budding interest in music led him to the local library’s LP collection, the discovery of Stockhausen’s Mantra opening his ears to “‘modern music.’” Collecting records naturally followed, diversity being his organizing principle. However, Barrett soon faced a common dilemma among future improvisers and composers – his appetite for discovering music far outpaced what was brought to market. “Sometimes I’d be looking at the shelves wondering what to listen to,” Barrett recently recounted, “having an idea of the kind of thing I wanted to hear but at a certain point realizing that the reason I couldn’t find it was that it didn’t actually exist. I think this is probably where the motivation came from - a desire to hear.”

With punk rock seething on the horizon – “a time when traditional concepts of instrumental competence were swept aside by an ‘obligation to express,’ as Beckett put it in another context” – Barrett began playing electric guitar. He then entered University College London; the first in his family to attend university, Barrett earned a degree in genetics and microbiology in 1980, putting him on a potential glidepath to upward mobility as part of the professional class. However, an encounter and subsequent studies with boundaries-erasing composer Peter Wiegold caused Barrett “to change course from having a strong interest in music towards devoting my life to it. It was a bit like taking a sideways step into another reality, another way of being, which immediately revealed itself as having been necessary. I hope the music has, if nothing else, continued to embody that necessity.”

Barrett made inroads in the European contemporary music network for several years, leading to the 1986 Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music, where he lectured and his music was performed by Ensemble Exposé, which he co-founded with Finnisy and Roger Redgate in 1984. He also won the Kranchisteiner Musikpreis, previously won by the older Dench and Dillon. This made Barrett a timely subject for Toop, who quoted Barrett’s lecture. Instead of trumpeting his arrival, Toop began the section of his essay examining Barrett’s music with a rather dark contrast separating Barrett from both Finissy and Dench, who “seem to espouse the ‘principle of Hope.’” “The search for joy through art” plays practically no role in Barrett’s music, evidenced by the precepts and the referenced authors in Barrett’s Fictions series, a discussion of which begins the interview. Consistent with an artist who has taken the creative sideways step – if not the leap – into another reality, Barrett simply states that “music is fiction: that it proceeds from fictions that are necessary for the personality of the composer to believe, to make acts of faith in order to carry the work through.” It is hardly the view of a nihilist.

Toop oddly points to an “element of violence” in the work of artists who influenced Barrett’s early works, including Chilean surrealist painter Roberto Matta, as well as Beckett. The inspiration for Barrett’s then-new solo cello piece, Matta’s Ne songe plus à fuir, depicts anguished, terrorized figures in a dark scape, an outraged response to the murderously repressive Pinochet regime. (Uncommented upon by Toop, the timing of Barrett’s work is intriguing, coinciding with Thatcher crushing the mid-1980s miners’ strike in Wales and throughout the UK, which permanently sharpened his political thinking.) However, this chilling painting only represents one aspect of Matta’s sensibility. For decades, his paintings were populated by relatively peaceable biomorphic figures. Matta became an unabashed positivist when Salvador Allende was elected, painting “The First Goal of the Chilean People,” a vivacious 4x24 meter mural populated with frolicking nudes. (After the coup, the mural was overpainted with 16 coats of paint. It was discovered and restored more than three decades later.) No one would suggest “Guernica” represented an element of violence in Picasso’s work.

Here and in his 1993 commentary of “another heavenly day” (the seventh part of Fictions included on Negatives [NMC]) Toop leaves the impression that he had read Beckett’s plays but had not seen them performed. Otherwise, it is hard to fathom why the title of Barrett’s trio for clarinet, double bass, and, significantly, electric guitar – taken from the first line of Happy Days – should “scarcely be taken at face value.” The masterful performances of Winnie, the lone speaking character, by Rosaleen Linehan for the Beckett on Film series makes it clear that taking the lines literally is what germinates the comedy and the pathos of the play. (Familiar with the series, Barrett recently cited the merits of Julianne Moore’s performance in Not I.) This is not to suggest that Barrett’s piece is a work of cockeyed optimism – to the contrary, it is edgy and riveting – rather, it speaks to Barrett’s ability to delve deep into texts, and hear them feelingly.

Later in the interview, Barrett’s insights into Beckett come to the foreground at the end of a lengthy, initially dismissive response to an enquiry about composition as self-expression, a subject that produces “a lot of rubbish.” Barrett states that “a music which attempts to disassociate itself from the idea of self-expression implies, I think, a very dishonest way of looking at things.” “Some composers are, no doubt, interested in communicating the fact that they are not interested in communicating anything,” he continued. “But I think we should make a distinction here between communicating the lack of communication, and the lack of interest in it. Going back to Beckett, as I must again: in his Three Dialogues he says that’s he’s talking about the expression that there is nothing to express, nothing from which to express, no desire to express, but the need. I think that puts it fairly and squarely: that the music comes about in the way it does because one is simply unable to do anything else, and it’s counter-productive to say any more about it than that.”

Set aside Barrett’s myriad erudite techniques. The need is what is necessary to survey his music.


Championing new music has been part of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s mandate since its founding in 1930. The composers whose works they performed when it really mattered range from Schoenberg and Berg in the ‘30s to Berio and Stockhausen in the ‘70s. Their guest conductors include Webern and Boulez. The Orchestra also accrued a solid track record presenting domestic content in a timely manner, premiering Finnisy’s Red Earth at the BBC Proms several months after the publication of “Four Facets of ‘The New Complexity’.” Evoking the otherworldly beauty of the central Australian desert through bold use of ominous timbres (particularly in the strings) and eruptive dynamics – as well as deftly employing the ancient, clarion moans of two didgeridoos – Finnisy’s twenty-minute orchestral work is ultimately a stirring, sobering commentary about the endangered planet. As such, Red Earth hit the sweet spot, programming-wise, by providing a metaphor for less qualified listeners to enter the sound world of the work.

It was therefore not a crazy quantum leap that the BBCSO engaged Barrett in the early 1990s, though it is doubtful they fully understood how the three-movement Vanity would tax their resources. Barrett made significant changes to the orchestra’s configuration to achieve sonics that parallel the radical repurposing of the cello on Ne songe plus à fuir, dispensing with timpani in favor of bass guitars, supplementing the woodwind section with saxophones, and adding cimbalom and (four-handed) piano. Barrett’s reimagining of the orchestra is matched by the rigorous execution of his ideas on the May 1996 recording conducted by Arturo Mamayo (the 25-minute work was issued as a CD single on NMC). Barrett largely bypassed conventional sectional scoring, grouping contrasting instruments like bassoons, tubas, and trombones, to create what Barrett termed “‘meta-instruments’” – the acoustic equivalents of layered samples – which have a bracingly animating impact on the opening movement. Equally brilliant are the wave of microtones Barrett sends through the 82-piece orchestra in the work’s mid-section, and the ghostly echoing of cimbalom and piano chords in the winds during the final movement. The technical demands Barrett places on individual instrumentalists and on the orchestra to negotiate hairpin turns, voltage spikes, and deep dives into iridescent colors, create a rare volatility that is alternately harrowing and alluring.

In his CD booklet commentary, Christopher Fox called Barrett’s first movement an “aural transcription” of the conventions of vanitas – the still life paintings popular in the 17th century depicting table tops strewn with status-signifying objects like flowers, swords, and books, offset by one or more human skulls. It is therefore tempting to consider Vanity as post-modern programmatic music; but, instead of the literal mindedness of works like Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Barrett distills vanitas’ juxtaposition of ephemeral beauty, presumed permanence, and death, into a work whose salient quality is volatility. Earlier composers portray events or describe characters; Barrett examines a human condition, which has a breathtaking twist ending when the chords in the final section unfold into a quote from Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, a conclusion that is simultaneously exhilarating and chilling.

Vanity garnered the type of notoriety that ordinarily prompts commissions for similarly scaled work in relatively short order; but it took until 2005 for the BBCSO to premiere Barrett’s NO: Resistance and Vision Part 1, which The Guardian called “a fantastically challenging piece, full of complex techniques and novel instruments – including six flowerpots – which make the orchestra sound as if it has been exploded into its atomic elements, only to be put back together in previously unimagined ways.” “I’m taking the orchestra apart,” Barrett told Philip Clark contemporaneously in an interview for The Wire. “Its components are the instruments themselves and their groupings, and I put those together into different combinations. Instruments might, for example, be combined in terms of register rather than their timbres, so the timbre in a given register constantly changes as it moves from one instrument to another. Each individual then has an obvious part to play during at least one point in the piece within the ongoing musical continuity. The solos are not just for the first flute.”

Although this approach had antecedents in Vanity and Barrett’s chamber music, NO should be considered within the context of its times. The 2003 London demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq spurred Barrett to reassess his function as a composer, given his politics and the exigencies of the moment. “How is an artist like me, who is committed to socialist ideas, to respond to this situation?,” Barrett beseeched Tom Service of The Guardian during an interview after a long, grueling day of rehearsal. “We are forced to think about these things. It's incumbent upon artists, upon composers, to try and be more explicit in relating music to everything else that is going on in the world. The piece is saying: no, this is not the way the world should be, and it's not the way the musical world should be either.”

NO placed Barrett shoulder to shoulder with the beacons of the UK’s Left in experimental composition, free improvisation, and prog rock; but, instead of working with similarly committed musicians, Barrett realized NO with the hired hands of a state-affiliated agency. “I’m interested in the orchestra because it presents a double face to the world,” Barrett told Service, relishing the challenge. “One of those faces is as a very conservative institution which is hidebound by rules and regulations that are very hard to shake. But the other side of the orchestra is that it’s one of the few examples of human endeavour in which a comparatively large number of people work closely together in pursuit of a common aim. And that’s the way I want to think of the orchestra: at its best, it’s a kind of microcosm of a society which is in balance, as opposed to the one we actually live in.” Ultimately, the choice for Barrett was to look at NO as the proverbial drop in the ocean, or in terms of potential. “Because in the end there is something idealistic about writing the music I do in this society,” Barrett related to Service. “And that idealism in itself is part of what the music says.”

While NO, as well as Vanity, was both a drop in the ocean and a measure of the promise of Barrett’s music, it confirmed that the very occasional commission for orchestra pieces – and the rehearsal schedule that limited his ability to sharpen sonic effects and animate treacherously difficult passages – was not the sustainable environment necessary to fully realize it. Luckily, Barrett had by then the collaborators he needed.


An attendee of the 1986 Darmstadt Summer Courses took a tape of the music Barrett presented to Australia, where it eventually made its way to Daryl Buckley in 1989 with a note opining that Barrett’s music would never be performed on the continent. The Melbourne-based guitarist recognized the potential chemistry between Barrett’s music and ELISION, the ensemble dedicated to new work he co-founded in ‘86.  A correspondence ensued, and Barrett became a prominent contributor to ELISION’s repertoire, along with Dench and Liza Lim.  Despite years-long gaps in their joint discography, ELISION’s recordings of Barrett’s music approximate a through-line in the composer’s evolution.

The first segment of this line traces Barrett’s early commitment to systematic composition. Although he was an active improviser, improvisation was not integrated into Barrett’s work with ELISION until the mid-1990s. When they began to collaborate, Barrett was influenced by the “serial thinking” of Stockhausen, which dictated the thorough explication of all aspects of the elements to be used in a composition, and the strict maintenance of their equality throughout the work. Barrett valued the unexpected discoveries made through total serialism’s granular examination of material. His protocols for determining the pitches, rhythms, and durations, of a composition through grids, ratios, and vectors, are exhaustive, reflecting the keen awareness of minute characteristics that comes with scientific training.

Where Barrett differs from total serialists like Stockhausen and Boulez is his starting point, the sound that suddenly and momentarily comes out of nowhere, the ear-grabbing sound stripped of its real-world context, the auditory glimpse, which Barrett refers to as “a product of the aural imagination.” However, Barrett’s aim is not to simply replicate these sounds, but to extract as much flint from them as possible. Negatives (1993; NMC; issued as Etcetera in Holland on KTC), ELISION’s first album devoted exclusively to Barrett’s music, is brimming with sparks, but not of the variety more commonly heard in improvised music, where one leads to another, eventually resulting in a blaze. Barrett shows no interest in the generic bell curve of much improvised music – fragmentary beginnings; an amassing of energies; a peak; a wind-down, a frequently prolonged search for an exit. The sparks in the pieces collected on Negatives are more discrete, each an instant of wild brilliance when first heard. However, when each of the compositions is overviewed, sufficient connections can be made to conclude that Barrett’s vision is complemented by his draftsmanship.

Recently commenting on his collaboration with Buckley and ELISION, Barrett said that “one of the most important consequences of the relationship as far as I’m concerned has been the possibility of thinking on an expanded structural scale compared with just writing one piece after another, because I don’t think ‘in pieces,’ so to speak; my evolution and growth as a creative musician seems to me much more like a consistent and unbroken process, with its sounding output, whether in the form of notated or of improvised music, representing more or less extended moments in that process.” Negatives reflects this by including excerpts from the eleven-part Fictions – “another heavenly day” and “EARTH” – and the first installment of the ongoing codex series (scored here for woodwinds, brass and electric guitar).

The album also introduces a cadre of musicians who will repeatedly vivify Barrett’s music; and, even though his music at this point did not incorporate improvisation, mainstays like Buckley and percussionist Peter Neville unfailingly strike the flints embedded in Barrett’s scores, igniting the music in a manner more commonly associated with free improvisation. Neville and trombonist Brett Kelly’s performance of “EARTH” will send the blindfolded, free improvisation-conversant listener groping: Conrad Bauer and Günter Sommer? Günter Christmann and Detlef Schönenberg? Buckley is clearly essential to Barrett’s music even at this early stage, his use of textures, envelopment, and decay, giving “another heavenly day,” realized with clarinetist Jane Robertson and double bassist Kees Boersma, an elasticity more often heard in improvised music. Rounded out by “codex I,” the five-part title piece (scored for strings, percussion, flute and trombone), and Friedrich Gauwerky’s reading of the bristling Ne songe plus à fuir, Negatives suggests Barrett’s chamber music was about to vault.


There have been few places and times better for experiencing improvisation in music as a daily practice than Amsterdam in the 1990s. Amsterdam was a hot house of experimental music hybrids, each with specific relationships to improvisation. As chronicled in Kevin Whitehead’s New Dutch Swing (Billboard Books; 1998), the seeds sown in the ‘60s by Willem Brueker, Misha Mengelberg, and others, had, by the mid-1990s, yielded strange new varieties developed by composers and improvisers who ignored the borders between jazz, contemporary composition, and other traditions. Evan Parker suggested to Whitehead that the Dutch school was driven by the Strong Idea, the context that stipulated when and how improvisation would be incorporated in a given piece of music. Improvisation was an essential tool in the kit, one increasingly used to meet the needs of composers.

For Barrett, Amsterdam in the ‘90s was the right place at the right time. He regularly attended gigs “as a listening composer” at the Bimhuis – the old place, a former furniture store stripped down to its concrete bones in 1974, and, by the time Barrett arrived, upgraded with amphitheater seating and pro sound. “Most of my most memorable (and, what’s the word, “inspiring,” that will have to do) musical experiences in Amsterdam since I have lived here (five years or so) have taken place in the Bimhuis,” Barrett wrote in his contribution to the celebratory Bimhuis 25: Stories of Twenty-Five Years at the Bimhuis (Amsterdam: Bimhuis, 1999). “My feeling is that it’s the center of Dutch contemporary music. Am I not forgetting something (or somewhere)? No, I’m not: I’m saying that the ‘official’ contemporary music places (and not only those places) are of less interest. To this listener, of course; but also to this listener as composer. For example, as regards musical instruments (to name only these), I don’t (generally) find it very enlightening to go to Concert Hall X and hear what Composer Y (fill in the usual suspects) has to say about them, when it’s possible to go to the Bimhuis and hear what Ab Baars or Han Bennink or Peter van Bergen or Wolter Wierbos or any of the countless foreign visitors (not forgetting the almost as numerous expats) have to say about them.

“Does that imply a view of composition as parasitic upon improvised music? Well, it’s true that in the ‘60s, many composers got the idea that including ‘improvisation’ in their products would ‘liberate’ performers in some way, from the ‘tyranny of the score.’ (A lot of improvisers thought so too, and still do: the other side of the same misunderstanding.) Is this what I’m on about? No: improvising isn’t about setting musicians free (nor are their imaginations (necessarily) imprisoned by notation); it’s about setting sounds free. This is why taking improvised music seriously is essential for composers (to speak only of these). By which I don’t mean the importing of jazz (or whatever) mannerisms for (I suspect) sentimental or audience-milking reasons. I mean absorbing the continuing revitalization of musical vocabularies which is a (by?) product of improvised music at its most intensely creative. This is one of the things improvisation can do which composition can’t.

“There are however things that only composition can do. Sounds, once set in motion, by whatever means, belong to nobody. Is it important to categorize those means? Or should we just listen, and think about what we’re hearing?

“At the Bimhuis I’ve had listening experiences so inward that they felt like playing an imaginary duet with the musician on stage; others where the effect of the entire audience on the music was a palpable ‘force’; others (I’m bound to add) where the music seemed to involve no contact at all, either with itself or with the listeners. That’s the risk you take, the risk musicians should be taking, on stage or at the writing desk.”

Barrett’s intensive exposure to improvisation and its application in diverse contexts meshed with ongoing foci as radically idiomatic instrumental writing, meta instruments, and large-scale pieces comprised of extractable components. The compositions compiled on ELISION’s second collection of Barrett compositions – transmission (NMC; 2006) – were completed between 1991 and 2000, a transitional period. Until then, Barrett’s compositions documented experimentation; with “transmission” (1996-2000), a duet of intense centrifugal force between Buckley’s e-bowed electric guitar and Barrett’s live electronics, he included spaces for free improvisation, albeit undiscernible to the civilian ear. This and the five pieces for solo instrumentalists reflect Barrett’s recognition of the disruptive strain in Dutch improvised music that precludes predictably well-rounded resolution.

“air”(1993) for solo violin has the most overt connection to the Amsterdam scene, as it was composed for and premiered by Mary Oliver, a then-recent American transplant whose new music credentials and doctoral work in improvisation made her well suited for improvisation-privileging Dutch composers like Ig Henneman. In his CD notes, Barrett called “air” “a further attempt to allow the instrument – and its relationship to the hands of the player – to determine the material of the work, from its individual pitches (based on an extension and contraction of gradually-shifting left-hand positions) to its overall form (in which a constantly-implied strand rises from low on the G string to high on the E), At the same time, the action of the bow is likened to the process of respiration (hence the title), a process which is under increasing (and eventually terminal) threat of a breakdown through the course of the music.” Susan Pierotti’s performance balances the extremes of delicate, teetering figures and sudden swells of textures, punctuated by silences that few composers can make as confrontational as Barrett.

Barrett’s notes on “interference” (1996-2000) for solo contrabass clarinetist (who also vocalizes and pedals a bass drum) namechecks the ultra-low horn work of Peter van Bergen and Anthony Braxton. Whereas Braxton’s twelve language music types is something of a uncle once or twice removed from Barrett’s idiomatic radicalism, van Bergen (who studied saxophone technique with Evan Parker in the early 1990s) is more a neighbor, whose barely executable ensembles, recontextualization of early jazz conventions like the stop break, and suspenseful and abrasive “factorseries” compositions, were part of the vivid, if scratchy, ‘90s Amsterdam fabric. While the staccato figures and low brays vaguely recall Braxton, the Dutch tinge presents in clarinetist Carl Rosman’s Jaap Blonky vocalese and the visual potential of a one-man band.

“air” and the other solo pieces are constituent parts of Opening of the Mouth (1992-1997), a 70-minute work for two voices, nine instrumentalists, and the composer’s electronics, that Barrett composed while in Amsterdam. Echoing the outrage over the murderous Pinochet regime that propelled Ne songe plus à fuir, Barrett was spurred by a Holocaust memorial in Budapest, a metal tree on which a victim’s name is etched on each leaf, and the poems of Paul Celan, himself a Nazi slave laborer. (His late, fragmented poems spawned comparisons with Anton Webern’s music.) It may seem initially incongruent that the title of the piece was inspired by an ancient Egyptian burial ritual; but the placing of an amulet to the mummy’s mouth, enabling speech in the afterlife, makes emotional sense. Together, these inspirations form a constellation that informs the work: it is an approach to conceptualization that Barrett would further develop with major works like Dark Matter, a collaboration with installation artist Per Inge Bjørlo, performed throughout the early 2000s.

Performed by percussionist Peter Neville, “abglanzbeladen/auseinandergeschrieben” – “laden with reflection”/“written asunder,” a title constructed from two Celan poems – opens with a vibraphone exposition of two groups of materials, one chordal and the other single-pitched, that begin at opposite ends of the keyboard. The introduction of crotales, flexatone, gong, and steel drum diffuse the convergence of the two streams of materials, while maintaining the solemnity of the subject. Rosman, playing a C clarinet, turns in a gymnastic performance on “knospend-gespaltener,” trampolining between registers, while trombonist Benjamin Marks’ performance on “basalt” exemplifies Barrett’s idiomatic radicalism, even employing the horn’s transposing valve.

Even though the piece serves as the starting point for a series of six pieces lacing through Dark Matter, “transmission” merits consideration as a major work in its own right, as it introduces “seeded improvisation.” It is noteworthy that this concept is realized in a piece where Barrett’s emphasis on exacting instrumental parts takes on a new dimension, the guitar part consisting of 36 segments that include cues where and how Buckley was to engage a pitch-shifting pedal and a multi-effects music. There are corresponding pre-recorded sound-files, processed clips of the guitar materials that Barrett summoned in tandem with Buckley. The synapses between the segments are freely improvised. Barrett acknowledges that the notated materials have an unavoidable influence on the improvisations, but he does not specify how this influence should present. This freedom, coupled with the duo’s intimate knowledge of the material, contributes to a visceral, thrilling performance. With “transmission,” Barrett planted another Strong Idea.


“Furt” has a colorful lexiconic history. The Oxford English Dictionary lists “furt” as a spurious word, originating in a misprinted Jacobean text, and subsequently linked to “furtive,” a quality arguably essential to artful sampling and processing. The Old High German translation of “ford” also works.

FURT functions somewhat like a basso continuo in Barrett’s work, a buttress-like through-line whose colors have changed with technology. As is the case with his notated compositions, FURT gives form to sounds, the salient differences for Barrett being how the sounds are produced, and having an equal partner in Paul Obermayer. FURT’s music is usually IDed as live improvised electronic music, but that discounts the four years they spent in the shed after two initial gigs in a quintet configuration. Additionally, sample-based electronic music like FURT’s entails degrees of intentionality. Samples are first recorded, manipulated, assessed, and preserved; their deployment in performance is deliberate; and they can be reliably tapped again and again, like a stock guitar lick. However, samples can be manipulated in real time with substantial effect. This is the dynamic FURT has explored since back in the day when Barrett and Obermayer stored samples on cassette tapes. FURT uses “form schemes” to map a performance; but they proceed open to the inspired move, and vulnerable to the unexpected glitch. The latter has happened with sufficient frequency for Barrett and Obermayer to coin the mantra, “transcend the malfunction.”

From the outset, the duo was more closely aligned with London’s DIY experimental music community than the fringe of the classical music establishment. Beginning in late ‘92, FURT played a string of long-gone London venues like the Polar Bear, the China Pig, and These Records, collaborating with multi-media artist (Richard) Crow and Adam Bohman, who plays repurposed objects, beginning in ‘92. Instead of Richard Toop’s notation-based precision, FURT’s early cassettes like Sink (Vintage) (an early version of which aired on BBC Radio 3 in July 1993) prompted Ben Watson, whose approval is largely gauged by how resolutely artists give the finger to the  establishment, to reference Mothers-era Frank Zappa, The KLF, and Stock, Hausen and Walkman. Writing in The Wire in late ‘93, Watson notes that FURT’s use of sample technology fused tape music and signal manipulation, the prior prevailing modalities of electronic music, concluding that they posited “the genuine promise of musical production beyond the pop-classical divide. In an area overrun with grandiose claims and vacuous music, this tape lets rip with the justified furt of an Iain Sinclair at a Booker Prize convention. Music that excavates the erotic thrill in rot and decay. Tasty.”

FURT performed mainly on the continent after Barrett decamped to Amsterdam, recording their first CD, Live in Amsterdam (X-OR Field Recordings Series) at STEIM, the esteemed R&D center for new electronic instruments, and Paradiso, the legendary jazz club. Instead of the scrappy alternative spaces they played in London, they more often performed in professionally equipped spaces in universities, conservatories, and public arts centers. “[W]e were recording stuff onto cassette machines, then playing it back and playing more stuff simultaneously with it,” Barrett told Bob Gilmore in a 2009 interview published on Paris Transatlantic Review. “So that sense of layering was indeed there from the very start. In the early days the problem was that we were the only people who could hear all that complexity, because the sound was so low-fi. The process of getting from there to what we were doing in Amsterdam in the mid-‘90s was really a process of enabling other people to hear were hearing in the music.”

Although live performance was integral to this goal, FURT also remained committed to large-form studio works, enabled by state-of-the-art resources of STEIM and, later, the Institute of Sonology at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, where Barrett taught for five years beginning in 1996. angel, the second part of the hours-long tetralogy OUT OF TIME, was produced at STEIM over the course of six months in 1995. While it incorporated sounds generated by Mary Oliver and saxophonist Tim O’Dwyer, its base coat was the industrial patina favored by dedicatee Luigi Nono. Heard separately – and there was no other way to hear it then, or now – the structural features connecting angel with other parts of the tetralogy are missed. The crackling fire heard at the beginning of the piece picks up where the first piece, Johannes-Passion, ends. The word “and,” heard at the end of angel is the sole material that FURT manipulates throughout the entirety of the concluding piece, problem.

angel remained dormant for several years, released as a JdK CD in 2001. Citing the harsh sounds of Nono’s early electronic works, Philip Clark, reviewing the disc in The Wire, opined that angel “oozes with similar surface ugliness and an ingrained exultant pessimism.” As evidence, Clark points to the premiere of Barrett’s Opening of the Mouth in a setting even more notorious than the music – a vacated railway foundry in Perth, dangerously hot, permeated with the nauseating smells of rotting fish, spoiled milk, and other unidentified detritus. “Taken as a whole, the constant changes of direction heard here build considerable impact and have gruesome dramatic power,” Clark continued, concluding that angel is “[m]usic to respect and admire rather than enjoy.”

Like many ensembles, FURT was producing music at a rate far faster than the market could then accommodate: it took two years after the release of angel for another piece from the tetralogy to be issued on CD (the penultimate piece, ULTIMATUM, was included on defekt (Matchless). Their output increased markedly through their relationship with Evan Parker. Not only did they become regulars in the saxophonist’s electroacoustic projects (where they were credited as FURT, followed by their names), his psi label issued a spate of their projects between 2004 and 2012: three by FURT; one by FURT plus, a collection of trios; a double CD by their octet fORCH; two by Bark!, Obermayer’s long-standing improvising trio with guitarist Rex Caswell and percussionist Phillip Marks; and an album of Barrett’s compositions.

Now, the preponderance of FURT’s massive output is available on Soundcloud and their Bandcamp label; then, the psi recordings constituted an unprecedented body of work, one that remains pivotal in the consideration of their decades-long collaboration. It appeared in a period of rapid evolution in hardware and software, coincident with emergent aesthetics – most notably, Echtzeitmusik in Berlin, where Barrett lived during this period – and a new set of political flashpoints like the US invasion of Iraq, which pricked Barrett’s NO. Generally, their layered sounds are better defined, and even their studio constructions have a more improvisational feel. Because of the latter, there are fewer glaring samples that prompt a guessing game – Clark latched onto what he thought might be a clip of a pinball machine in angel.

The refinement of their recordings during this period is partially due to practice: since FURT considers itself a band, not free improvisers, they are ideologically unconflicted by the idea of practicing, although woodshedding is a better term. Practice is primarily polishing, taking what is known and streamlining it. Woodshedding is more investigatory, finding out what works and why. The goal is not on-cue replication, but being ready for the sudden, bold move, and how to be quick, sure, and to the point, in its execution and response. This is integral to a process comparable to Anthony Braxton’s concept of “navigating through form,” one well-represented by live performances from this period, including “sad fantasy” (dead or alive; 2004) and 2009’s “curtains” (sense, issued the same year).

Recorded at the 2002 freedom of the city festival in London, “sad fantasy” often breathes like improvised music, spiking and very occasionally lulling, a volley between discernable snippets of piano interior and more source-obscured samples soon emerging. The acceleration of the back and forth, the stretching and twisting, and the turning inside out of contrabass clarinet and other sampled instruments, has a palpable improvisational feel. Catching fire, however, did not cause FURT to scrap its form scheme. As they near the end of the piece, they slow the input to introduce a spoken text. Bubbling with multisyllabic compound terms, citing “many world theories” “quantum computers” and other meta realities, the earnestly delivered text is reminiscent of Braxton’s use of a narrator in “Composition 171” from the mid-1990s. “sad fantasy” then fades into deep space, a quickening heartbeat-like pulse sliding to the foreground, ending with a splat of noise.

“sad fantasy” is an example of FURT “managing structure,” a concept Barrett expanded upon in a 2009 interview with Kevin Patton, extracts of which were incorporated into an article for Point of Departure. “Managing structure is something we try to assess freshly for each new stage in our work, and it’s a work constantly in progress. Part of this is indeed the development and expansion of our musical syntax, one aspect of which could be described in terms of cadences. Musical syntax clearly doesn’t depend only on cadences, though, since many musical traditions don’t have them, and cadences don’t depend on tonality. Gamelan music, for example, uses cadence-like forms but isn’t at all tonal. Anyway, such syntactic elements then serve to create a background, perhaps an illogical one, FURT’s ‘logic,’ which we can then work in counterpoint against. Structural turning points or cadences often follow each other very rapidly in FURT rather than just signaling beginnings and endings. Some of our pieces have clearly-imagined starting and ending points prior to performance while others don’t. For us, some of the most exciting moments are when the music does stop without ending, coming to a total standstill which ‘could’ be an ending but which then lasts only a fraction of a second. But once you get down to that level of detail the music might be seen as being perforated by thousands of tiny silences, any of which could be the last.”

FURT’s finesse in managing structure is central to the organicism it projects; however, in larger settings like Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble and fORCH, an octet convened for South West German Radio’s 2005 NEWJazz Meeting, Barrett and Obermayer’s fluid interplay becomes a component of larger architectures. “In Evan’s group we seem to fit in somewhere between the acoustic instruments and the live processors, having some of the characteristics of both,” Barrett explained to Patton. In fORCH, “we tend to function as a single ‘organ’ within the larger organism. One reason for not using live input is that we haven’t yet really found a way to do it with the kind of precision and complexity we apply to sound materials we’ve worked on and ‘learned’ in the sense of learning an instrument, one of the many imaginary instruments contained within our single technical setup.”

The music on the two CDs resulting from the NEWJazz Meeting – spin networks, which mixes tracks by the octet and various sub-groupings, and equals, a collection of trios by FURT and their collaborators (saxophonist John Butcher, harpist Rhodri Davies, percussionist Paul Lovens, pianist Wolfgang Mitterer, and vocalists Ute Wasserman and Phil Minton) – was built rather than improvised. As Barrett detailed in his notes for the two albums, he and Obermayer created samples from improvised solos and duets by the other musicians. In addition to freely improvising with their collaborators in different configurations, they rehearsed and performed trios with each of their counterparts, culling samples for an additional FURT piece. “We rehearsed and performed ‘fOKT I-III,’ three half-hour pieces for the entire which are all based on different orderings and superimpositions of sixteen basic improvisational models, so that each of the three is a separate piece with its own identity but also has audible connections to the others,” Barrett elaborated. “I wrote the scores of ‘fOKT I-III’ as a way of creating a vocabulary of group interactions on the basis of which the ensemble, individually and collectively, could create its own music.”

As a platform for Barrett’s compositions, fORCH is singular in its inclusion of FURT, which was then reaching its 20th year. He did not solely generate the electronics parts, as he did for the works penned for ELISION. Additionally, the other six musicians are resolute in their identities as improvisers. Subsequently, fORCH presented a different dynamic to the composer, which he responded to as before: initial research-oriented rehearsals, the articulation of forms, and gaining sufficient familiarity with the material for performance. Compared to his other works, ‘fOKT II” and “III” have vaster spaces for improvisers to shape, in which the electronics have a decidedly complementary role, with the larger ensemble intensifying the barrages often used to commence and suddenly punctuate Barrett and FURT pieces. “fOKT II” and “III” succeed in ways comparable to “transmission;” but it is the two improvised octet pieces include on spin networks – “nekton” and “plankton” – that have the richer grain of woodshedding.


The conclusion of this article will appear in the next issue.

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