Volume 17, June 2023
Learning Strategies for Complex Rhythms: Approaching Richard Barrett's splinter for contrabass solo (2018-2022)

by Kathryn Schulmeister

1. Introduction

How do we learn to perform contemporary scores with complex rhythms? For the past five years as a graduate student with a specialization in contemporary music performance, I have devoted part of my performance practice to designing my own unique methodologies to address the myriad of interpretive challenges that arise in the learning processes of innovative compositional scores. To learn these scores, I developed practice strategies that depart from the approaches I cultivated during my classical conservatory training. In this paper, I will introduce and discuss Richard Barrett's new work for solo double bass, splinter (2021), and explain how I strategized the deciphering of complex rhythmic notation with multiple methods of rhythmic translation. The learning strategies included in this paper are by no means meant to be exhaustive nor are they intended to serve as pedagogical texts. Rather, this paper is offered as a contribution to the ongoing discussion of how a performer could consider designing their learning methods to fit the conceptual, musical, and technical demands of new works that have limited or no performance history.

Richard Barrett (b. 1959 in Swansea) is an internationally acclaimed composer, performer, and scholar with a prolific output of innovative compositions for a variety of musical ensemble formats and technologies. His published writings on his own creative practice and research in contemporary musical thinking illuminate the perspective from which his compositions are conceived. His work encompasses a wide variety of approaches to composing for contemporary musicians, including graphic scores for structured improvisations, hybrid scores that include standard notation and guided improvisational sections, and completely traditionally notated scores that feature extraordinary amounts of detailed and intellectually challenging material for performers to interpret both in terms of rhythmic and pitch content. Barrett also performs as a computer musician and improviser, which influences his compositional process and areas of interest. As a Welsh composer emerging in the late twentieth century, he has been both influenced by and associated with a cohort of British composers committed to a radical approach to composition, often referred to controversially as the 'New Complexity'1.