Saturday 22 December 2012

Commissioning the new - interview with Matthew Barley (part 2)

Matthew Barley (photo credit Nick White)
The programme for Around Britten 2013, Matthew Barley's 2013 concert tour of the UK (see earlier post for the first part of my interview with Matthew Barley) 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. Britten included fragments of Russian folksong and the Kontakion, the Russian Orthodox hymn for the dead, in the suite and Barley is building on this. He will be playing pieces by John Tavener and Gavin Bryars which echo the themes of spirituality and death. And in fact, all the music which Barley is recording for the CD which accompanies the project will meditate on these themes.

Barley has commissioned new pieces for the tour from James MacMillan, Dai Fujikura and DJ Jan Bang. The three composers are diverse. James MacMillan is well known, and his spiritually infused music with its strong roots in the composer's Roman Catholicism needs little introduction. Japanese born, but London based, Dai Fujikura, studied in London at Trinity College and at the Royal College of Music with Edwin Ruxburgh. Whilst at the RCM he was mentored by Peter Eotvos and Pierre Boulez has been a major supporter of his music; Fujikura was one of only two people asked to write music for Boulez's official 80th birthday celebrations. By contrast Jan Bang is a Norwegian musician, DJ and record producer. He has released a number of albums with collaborators such as Erik Honore, Eivind Aarset and David Sylvian.

The three new works also fit in with the theme of the Britten. MacMillan's new piece takes the Resurrection as its theme, whilst Fujikura's is based on the Tibetan idea that the soul waits in the aether to choose its own parents. And Jan Bang's considers the after-life. So that for Barley, the whole programme covers the cycle of a soul's journey.

Barley has commissioned a lot of music, and describes the process as scary; he points out that even Mozart wrote boring pieces and Beethoven bad ones, so that the commissioner can never be certain what they will receive. He feels that he has been very fortunate with the pieces he was commissioned for the tour. The score of James MacMillan's piece was the second to arrive, and Barley finds if full of a wonderful fluency of ideas.

Fujikura's piece is for cello with a backing track. The piece has four movements, which are put on shuffle on a playlist so that in performance when Barley cues the backing he does not know which movement will come next and needs to respond immediately.  As Barley will be doing 40 to 45 performances of Fujikura's piece next year, Fujikura included this random element so that the performance would not get stale.

Jan Bang's piece takes this even further, he has re-mixed Fujikura's piece in a manner which Barley thinks of as a contemporary analogy to Lizst's arrangements of Tristan and Isolde. But Bang has only provided the backing, over the top Barley will be improvising. Barley loves improvising and was keen to include an element of that in his programme.

For the tour Barley will be on his own, he will be operating the computer electronics and the visuals by foot pedal, there will be no technical assistant. His standard programme will be Dai Fujikura's piece, then a Bach suite for solo cello, followed by either John Tavener or Gavin Bryars, then Britten's Third Cello Suite followed by Jan Bang's work with James MacMillan's to end. He plans to change which Bach suite he plays but will mostly play the fifth suite. There will be other changes to the programme to respond to particular local circumstances, for some places he will be taking out the electronics and adding more Bach to make a more traditional programme, but for others he will take out the Bach to make a more contemporary programme.

Barley has previous form in premiering new works. He has given first performances, many of them his commissions, of works by by Detlev Glanert, Peter Wiegold, Fraser Trainer, Rand Steiger, John Metcalfe, John Woolrich, Dimitri Smirnov, Carl Vine, Katsuhiro Tsubono and Deidre Gribben. No doubt there will be plenty of new works in the future for us to look forward to.

You can get further information on Around Britten 2013 from Matthew Barley's website. If you would like to contribute to his crowd-funding of the tour, visit his Just Giving page.

(The first part of my interview with Matthew Barley is here).

Details of CD Around Britten: Matthew Barley on

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