Richard Barrett – Dark Matter (NMC)
Richard Barrett is a composer and an improvising musician. He’s perhaps best known for his work with Paul Obermayer as FURT, an improv/electronica duo that occasionally operates as a subset of the Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, and sometimes expands to become the octet fORCH. He’s also composed music for the Australian new music ensemble Elision over the past three decades.
Dark Matter, which Barrett dedicates to the architect/composer Iannis Xenakis, is a minutely organised, frenetically mercurial piece, with pungent sound combinations arising from twined lines that variously bring instrumentalists together in frictional sympathies or collide them with explosive force. It sets texts found on ancient Egyptian sarcophagi; fragments of Roman philosophy and Greek cosmology; and, in its final movement, Samuel Beckett’s prose piece ‘Sounds’.
The composition’s principle movements highlight the operatic mezzo-soprano of Deborah Kayser as just one salience within a democracy of entwined instrumental lines. These movements are interleaved with six numbered “Transmission” pieces for electric guitar, electronics and, individually, diverse additional instrumentalists.
A lengthy central movement, “Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae / Transmission IV”, weaves lines for paired instruments that bring reed, percussion, electronic and string sounds to the fore in a kaleidoscopic surge of variegated collocations, all fused with the interpolated “Transmission” concertante. The various soloists are clearly individuated yet never pull clear of the ensemble mesh: Barrett explains in his notes that the intention here is: “a contemplation of quantum-mechanical conundrums”. In its high-mindedness, vaulting ambition and fearless fusion of electronic, improvisational and contemporary classical idioms, it’s typical of the whole.
To realise Dark Matter, which is scored for an ensemble of 19 performers, including soprano, electric guitar (Dary Buckley), clarinets (Carl Rosman) and percussion, plus Barrett’s live and pre-recorded electronics, Barrett has enlisted both Elision and the Norwegian contemporary music ensemble Cikada. To realise it in concert, Barrett works with Norwegian artist Per Inge Bjørlo to create performance installations of steel and glass that enclose both the musicians and their audience. It must be a heady live experience.
With a duration of over 80 minutes, Dark Matter will leave you either exhausted or exhilarated. Beckett’s prosody, framed occasionally in silence or pierced by puckish darts of instrumentation has a calming effect on the penultimate movement, but even here, as throughout, the ensembles’ interactions frequently mirror the heady rush of Barrett’s trademark solo hard-drive glitch-whorl, and the serrating textures of extended techniques on the electric guitar.
Richard Barrett and Han-earl Park – Numbers (Creative Sources Recordings)
On Numbers, Barrett’s electronics are heard in counterpoint with another electric guitar; that of the New York-based improviser and “constructor” Han-Earl Park.
Park, who Tweets inveterately on the improvisor’s life (eg: “tradition and idiom…not straightjackets nor limitations, but playgrounds for real-time (re)inventions and (re)configurations”) has said that he counts Numbers, which was released in 2012, among his best work.
Intellectually, if nothing else, the pair are an intriguing match. Before his meeting with Barrett, in May 2010, Park recorded an album, io 0.0.1 beta++ (SLAM), with two human companions, both saxophonists, and the titular automaton, io 0.0.1 beta++, which Park constructed himself.
Park describes io 0.0.1 as: “not an instrument to be played but a non-human artificial musician (‘constructed from ad-hoc components including plumbing, kitchenware, speakers and missile switches’) that performs alongside its human counterparts.” Performing with an automaton, Park says: “demonstrates alternative modes of interfacing the musical and the technological, and illuminates the creative and improvisative processes in music.”
In his duo with the abstracted electronics of Barrett, Park explores pretty similar sonic terrain, They first played together in October 2010, and recorded Numbers, which was released in 2012, just five months later, at the Institute of Sonology at The Hague.
Numbers is a complex melange of retro/futurist synth sounds, glitch electronica, guitar-sourced whammy-bar pitch-bending and hard-scrabble picking over bridge and pickups: a volatile stream of fractal note-data and complex electro-acoustics, all slippery switchbacks and other such abrupt transitions.
This makes for kaleidoscopic music, a rubato flux of superimposed noises in which lightning-fast progression from one galvanising sound event to another (noise thru silence), and the musicians’ constant attention to overall form, carry far more weight than developmental foresightedness or melodic thrust: it’s music of the moment, a process of constantly tweaked evolutionary recombination.
The duo are tenacious in their work of sonic abiogenesis, and the six Numbers pieces are all longish: “Tolur” (15:38), “Tricav” (10:42), “Ankpla” (10:46), “Uettet” (5:17), “Creens” (6:03), “ll…….” (11:42). The sound events comprised by tracks like “Ankpla” and “Uettet” are as disjointed as they are contiguous, but the overriding sense impression is that each whole flows nicely, and the album as a whole rewardingly absorbs attention.
Where Dark Matter is texturally intoxicating but potentially overwhelming in its complexity, the multifarious attractions of Numbers are all to be found in its wealth of microscopically teeming detail.
For more details of Park’s work, check out the album, io 0.0.1 beta++, or read his article, ‘In Conversation with an Automaton’. Alternatively, sample his trio Mathilde 253, with Charles Hayward (drums, percussion and melodica) and Ian Smith (trumpet and flugelhorn), which fuses free improvisation, avant-rock tropes, and rhythms extrapolated from African-American musical traditions.
fORCH/FURT – spukhafte Fernwirkung
Freedom of the City 2012 (featuring Mathilde 253)
Psi Fi (Three albums featuring Richard Barrett—Furt – Sense + Richard Barrett – Adrift + Grutronic – Essex Foam Party (all Psi)—reviewed for the Jazz Mann in 2010)