Thursday 20 December 2012

Constant challenge - interview with Matthew Barley (part 1)

Matthew Barley (photo credit Nick White)
Matthew Barley (photo credit Nick White)
Next year, cellist Matthew Barley embarks on an amazing tour of Britain, taking a programme of solo cello music around a bewildering array of venues. Around Britten 2013 will feature concerts, workshops and special events in 100 different venues, with a programme based around Benjamin Britten's Third Cello Suite in celebration of the composer's centenary. I caught up with the cellist to talk about the tour suggested that the schedule was rather punishing. He happily agreed that it was a 'gigantic folly'. But Barley is a performer who constantly liked challenging himself in as many different ways as possible.

In 2006 he did a recital tour called On the Road in which he did 21 recitals and 17 workshops in 30 days. It was a smaller, more intense version of Around Britten 2013 and Barley says that he loved it. He feels that such tours take him back to what musicians used to be, itinerant and playing events daily in different places. After On the Road he wanted to do another one. The Britten programme seemed to be the one to do it, with 100 events celebrating the centenary. It is the biggest project that he was ever done, with a total of 20 people working hard to bring it together.

But at the centre is Barley's cello playing. He is at pains to ensure that though he challenges himself in as many different ways as possible, he preserves the discipline and makes sure that his cello playing does not suffer. Many of Barley's projects are ideas led and he says that there were times when he felt that he was in danger of turning into an administrator and a project like Around Britten 2013 is a way of ensuring that his cello playing takes centre stage.

The project will also mean that Barley will spend a great deal of time playing on his own, as the programme for Around Britten 2013 is entirely for solo cello (though with some electronics). Again this is another challenge; he describes himself as a serial collaborator, having done an enormous string of collaborations and he thought that it would be wonderful to do something on his own.

The programme for Around Britten 2013 is based on the Third Suite for Solo Cello written by Benjamin Britten. Barley chose the third suite partly because he loves it so much, but partly because it offers so much in terms of programming works around it. Barley surrounding the piece by a group of contemporary works, including three commissioned pieces (which I will be considering in the second part of this article).

Britten wrote his third cello suite towards the end of his life, when he was working on Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice, a time when he was seemingly preoccupied with death. But for Barley, Britten finds a luminescence towards the end of the suite which is peaceful, the composer finding a real peace with death.

Britten wrote all three of his cello suites for the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and Rostropovich casts huge shadow over them. But though Rostropovich is a great influence, he never actually recorded the third one. Barley feels that when playing he is entirely himself. He points out that as a student he was greatly influenced by significant players such as Jacqueline Dupre and Paul Tortelier and that it was hard to develop his own interpretation. But as players develop, he feels that their own interpretations take over.

An extra resonance in the Britten for Barley is that he is Russian trained. He studied under Stefan Popov at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and followed this by a period at the Moscow Conservatoire. This whole training affected the way he plays, the sound he makes, his bowing and making a singing, cantabile sound.

This background also means that Barley is able to easily play with his wife, the Russian violinist Viktoria Mullova as they both have the same background training. Barley loves working with his wife, finding that there is much that they don't have to explain to each other in the music. He finds it an enormous advantage and something of a binding force, they listen to music a lot and hear it in the same way. But also both are sympathetic to what Barley calls the foibles of being a musician, the obsession, the need to practice and to go on tour.

In addition to Britten's suite and the contemporary pieces, Barley will also be playing Bach, including one of the suites of solo cello in the programme. Not only did Britten love Bach, but Barley feels that there is a deliberate pun in the Third Cello Suite, as the fourth movement is labelled a barcarolle and the opening features exactly the same notes as the prelude to Bach's G major suite.

For the performances of Britten's Third Cello Suite, Barley has commissioned a film from Yeast Culture which will be show whilst he is playing. This brings interesting challenges when it comes to synchronising the live music with the visuals. Barley was concerned that he did not have to play the music to the visuals, thus constraining his playing. Instead the visuals are in 100 small sections, each one triggered by Barley via a foot pedal. Having recently done a few trial runs, he has found the process easier than he thought it would be but adds that he will have to practice it.

Yeast Culture have done a lot of visuals for musicians but this is the first time they have synchronised things to the music in quite such a detailed way. The visuals are done using two dimensional stop-frame animation using oil paints on glass with light shone through. Barley describes the effect as magical. (You can see some clips on YouTube).

When commissioning visuals for the music he was concerned that the results be not too interesting; they had to be simple emotional narrative. And using stop frame animation, has given the piece depth and movement.

Matthew Barley (photo credit Nick White)

For the tour Barley will be on his own, he will be operating the  the visuals by foot pedal, there will be no technical assistant.

His venues for the tour are also amazingly varied, not just concert halls. He will be playing outdoors in an ancient woodland, Kingley Vale in West Sussex, which is full of ancient yew trees some of which are among the oldest living things in Britain. The acoustic is not perfect, out of doors it is just about the driest acoustic you can find. But for Barley the woodland is so wonderful and simple, plus there is a resonance about playing a cello, which used to be a tree, in a woodland full of trees. As this is a small woodland, the date will only be advertised just before hand. In another outdoor performance he is playing in a cave in Derbyshire and he will be at a National Trust property with the backdrop of an ancient church.

Barley is a big fan of the National Trust, describing it as a great organisation and the inclusion of concerts at National Trust properties was deliberate. These include the Gibside estate in the North East; Coughton Court, a Tudor house, with links to the Gunpowder plot, in the Warwickshire countryside; Coggelshall Barn, a 13th century monastic barn; Lodge Park, an amazing 17th-century grandstand in the Cotswolds, Tyntesfield, the Victorian Gothic Revival house in Bristol; Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire, and the medieval and picturesque Bodiam Castle in Kent, with more to be announced.

When I ask Barley about his plans for after 2013 he laughs and says that he is already forward planning for 2014 and beyond. There are events to celebration John Tavener's 70th birthday, concerts and, as always, new ways of performing, new ways of challenging himself.

My second post on this blog, talking about Matthew Barley's commissioning of new music, is here.

Further details about Around Britten 2013 can be found on Matthew Barley's website.
Details of CD Around Britten: Matthew Barley on

Elsewhere on this blog:

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