Clarence Barlow at Muzifest

Marina Zlender

[April 2002.]

Slovenia declared independence on June 25, 1991. Since then, Ljubljana (its capital) has gradually made progress in organizing cultural events of international importance. For decades, contemporary music was the domain of a coterie of enthusiasts and musicians, but things are improving. (In 1997 Ljubljana held the European City of Culture title for a month.) It still hardly compares with events like the Zagreb Biennale, but it’s ready for the World Music Days in 2003 that will open the Slovene territory to the international scene.

A three-day festival of contemporary music was born under the Muzifest banner; its principal aims are to introduce contemporary music and its authors to a Slovene public, to follow European musical trends and movements, and to encourage Slovene musical creativity by opening it to a broader range of interactions.This year the festival was dedicated to the work and thought of Clarence Barlow, who attended.

Barlow was born in Calcutta, the city he honored in one of his most communicative works, CCU. He began as a pianist and composed his first piece at the age of eleven. He graduated in piano at Trinity College, London, and obtained in the same year a science degree from the University of Calcutta. Later he investigated European music of the Middle Ages and Indian music. In 1968 he moved to Cologne, where he still lives.

In Cologne, he was a pupil of Bernd Alois Zimmermann and then Stockhausen. Since 1984, he has been teaching sonology at the Musikhochschule in Cologne, as well as composition and sonology at the Royal Conservatory in the Hague. A vivid spirit, he was the force behind Initiative Musik und Informatik Köln (GIMIK) and two years later became director of the 14th International Conference of Computer Music in Cologne.

The composer divides his work into four groups:

• Parametric music (dealing with concepts of tonality or metricism to realize an algorithmic control of music);

• Linguistic music (inspired by human speech and linguistic structures);

• Derivative music (based on works of other composers);

• Commentative music (addressing an inner or external problem in the musical world).

I must also cite his invention, a computer program named Autobusk, written for Atari, that enables a composer to prescribe the parameters which will, aided by the program, produce music. The user’s work is therefore not writing music directly, but dictating harmony, pitch, density and rhythm that the computer transforms into sound. What makes Autobusk different from other programs for composing are its abilities to preview rhythmic, harmonic and tonal developments in the piece, and so define not only its contents but also its character.

The programme of the festival was divided into three thematic evenings: Music and Space, Sound and Picture, New Music and Society. On the first evening we heard CCU (the abbreviation of Calcutta Airport). Based on tape recordings of the city during the day, the piece is an acoustic portrait of Calcutta — the 48 minutes of selected music corresponding to a 24-hour cycle. The acoustic events were recorded at eight points of the city, located around the center in a circle. Each of the recordings is played through two loudspeakers placed so that the midpoint between them corresponds to the distance and orientation of the actual site on the periphery. It’s like a painting, with a rich palette of characteristic sounds that illustrate for us the life, dynamics and contrasts of the city, with a picturesque variety of culture and religions that make it so unlike European ones. Call it a documentary, created with a discriminating choice of recordings, and smoothly compiling them into a sonic panorama.

The second evening was built on correlations between sound and picture. Opening was Kuri Suti Bekar for piano, consisting of a Prelude and a Chaconne. It was conceived as a sound transcription of the name Kristi Becker, for whom the piece was written. (The right hand plays her given name and the left her surname.) Chaconne consists of ten portraits of the pianist, superimposed one over another, the pitches taken from Barlow’s earlier “… until …” and from an analysis of the title. (In Bengali Kuri means twenty, Suti are cotton threads and Bekar unemployed.) A clear, complex work with internal phonetic relations and morphological games. Next came Uccelli Ungheresi (part of a larger composition, Fruitti d’amore). This five-minute music video is a commentary on the world’s mistakes and megalomanic ego (the principle of power, violence and greed), as well as a criticism of the most common misuses of music. The footage was taken from TV archives and Amnesty International Reports, and divides into several parts. It’s a brilliant piece, again combining music with visual expression — a sharp but ironic statement, full of intelligent observation.

Les Ciseaux de Tom Johnson is structured from the letters in “Tom” and “Johnson,” arranged alphabetically and settled around an axis that goes through the three O’s. They are turned counterclockwise along their circles and scanned, so that TOM and JNS represent the score for electric guitar, circles around OOO and JNS that for soprano sax, and those around MJH and JOS the one for double-bass. Composition Estudio Siete, made for Oscar Fischinger’s film Study No.6 at the centenary of its creation, derives from Conlon Nancarrow’s music, altered by Autobusk and combined with phonetic notes the shapes of dancing figures in the film. Barlow explains the use of Nancarrow’s music by its resemblance to the character of the film itself — technically skilled and nonproblematic.

Piece 198 combines three piano trios (M. Clementi, R. Schumann, M. Ravel) that Barlow approaches in a spiral, moving in a circle from one to another, the three pianos being placed in a triangle. Citations of the three works therefore become less recognizable, and the focus is shifted to their acoustic properties and commentary.

The last piece was Im Januar am Nil, composed in 1981 and completely revised in 1984. It is based on phonetic research and Fourier analysis of some German sentences as well as of the title itself. Written for clarinet and strings, the musical text cannot be entirely comprehensible. Music comes closest to the text in the revised version for classical electronic sounds, instead of sampled instruments. A video, made in 1999, contributes to the synthetic realization of the work.

The musical part of the festival ended with Orchideae Ordinariae, an effort about some aspects of contemporary music. It develops as a historically argued criticism of musical creation in relation to money-making and easy success, interlaced with phrases such as “Why me?” “No money,” and “My way” directly addressing these topics. The following sweet tune is a “demonstration” of the “ideal” music as a challenge to the listener, rudely interrupted by a brief, threatening passage that fades out in a trite piano solo. Without a doubt one of the composer’s best pieces, written for and presented at Donaueschingen in 1989, but recognized only much later.

Besides being a representative of the European avant-garde (the meaning of which he expressed beautifully and precisely in the discussion that ended the festival), Clarence Barlow is an outstanding composer — a vivid imagination, lucid philosophy and prolific output, combined with scientific knowledge. His music usually offers creative solutions on space, time or visual perception, through which he commemorates, reflects and advances his opinion on a social or artistic topic. This thoughtful and moral attitude puts him happily out of the mainstream, commercial musical parade and gives him the status of an autonomous and complex personality.

[Mike touted Barlow's "Musica Derivata" (hat[now]ART 126) in 2:5.]