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

by Kathryn Schulmeister

2. New Complexity

Although this trend of 'New Complexity' in music composition is often associated with the superficial appearance of their meticulously notated scores which pose monumental challenges for performers to interpret, musicologist Richard Toop argues that the true commonality among the artists involved in this movement lies in their shared deeper sense of motivation, of their experience as musicians living on the 'fringes' of Europe, outsiders in relation to the dominant European contemporary musical traditions in Germany and France. In his often-referenced article "Four Facets of the New Complexity", Toop writes:

I think the key lies in [James] Dillon's comment:

I tend to think that one of the reasons I found Xenakis fascinating was that we both come from the fringes of Europe.

The essence of all four composers [Michael Finnissy, James Dillon, Chris Dench and Richard Barrett], I believe, lies in precisely this 'fringe' notion, interpreted not in a negative, self-disparaging sense, but in a positive (albeit somewhat predatory) one. In The Theatre and its Double, Artaud claims that European theatre can only be revitalised by the radical incursion of non-European conventions and ways of thinking. He had in mind the traditions of Asian theatre; but for our four composers, as it seems to me, Britain too is sufficiently 'remote' for the invasion/assault to be artistically productive.2

As Toop suggests, the shared qualities of complexity seen in the notation of these composers is more indicative of a shared radical philosophical approach to composition rather than a shared artistic or aesthetic concept.

On the visual surface, Barrett's scores share notational characteristics with a whole host of compositions from various composers which feature assiduously notated rhythmic material, often utilizing multiple overlays of polyrhythmic ratios and irrational subdivisions of the governing tempo for the work. The composer most often associated with this trend in complex notation is British composer Brian Ferneyhough (b. 1943, Coventry), a mentor of Barrett's and a clear influence on Barrett in terms of radical instrumental composition.3 It must be noted, however, that each individual composer has their own unique artistic concepts and priorities, and the superficial similarities in their notational systems do not necessarily justify similar approaches to their interpretation and performance. For example, Ferneyhough's intention with his approach to writing rhythmic material is fundamentally different from Barrett's, and therefore could be considered differently from an interpretation and performance standpoint. As Toop articulates:

In Ferneyhough's work, though, the irrational values are generally a means of redefining the overall rhythmic flow from one bar (or beat) to the next and merely provide the framework for complexly sculpted internal rhythms. With the younger composers (and most drastically, perhaps, with Chris Dench) a more obvious model is Xenakis, and the aim is usually, as with Xenakis, to create different simultaneous pulses which are usually periodic and, far from seeking to redefine motion at the barlines, these periodic groups habitually go across them.4

As Toop points out, Ferneyhough's rhythmic ideas are often molded to create elegant complex relationships to the consistent pulse and profile of the meters with which he composes, while some of the younger generation composers such as Barrett employ compositional processes more similar to the stochastic methods of Greek composer Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) and German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007),  with their shared interest in generating varied simultaneous tempi within a piece. On the visual surface of the notated score, their collective works may appear similar to Ferneyhough's, but conceptually each composer works with their own personal ideas of how rhythm can be imagined.