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

by Kathryn Schulmeister

4. Richard Barrett

In Barrett's recent book publication, Music of Possibility, Barrett writes that his approach to composition is inspired by a drive to use music as a means of imagining new horizons and challenging our perceived artistic limitations, both within the musical works themselves and beyond. In reference to his own artistic priorities, Barrett writes:

My text was entitled "The Possibility of Music", but proposed the idea of a "music of possibility", with the intention of characterising a music which might seem a small and insignificant phenomenon within the musical world as a whole, but which is actually in some transdimensional way "larger than the profit-friendly musics which seem to surround it, because of the breadth of its imaginative horizons, and the freedom we have, both as musicians and as listeners, to explore them. This is one of the few real freedoms available to us, after all." And it might serve, in however small a role, as some kind of emancipatory model for other areas of life.9

Barrett's proclamation of imaginative freedom within the music he composes indicates that he intentionally departs from inherited traditions of Western art music in meaningful ways, which ideally creates a sense of exploratory freedom for the performer and the listener to experience in his music. This is a critical point for a performer to understand in developing learning strategies for Barrett's work. It must be understood from the beginning of the learning process that the experience of realizing and understanding the score will push the performer to venture into learning processes that prior traditional training may not have entirely prepared them for.

Regarding learning rhythmically complex contemporary scores, British pianist and contemporary music scholar Ian Pace writes:

Interpretative strategies need to be continually re-examined when learning a new piece or re-learning an old one. But at heart they represent a strategy of resistance in performance; resistance towards certain ideological assumptions that entail absorption of musical works into the culture industry. [...] This type of musical aesthetic, whereby musical works exist in a critical and dialectical relationship to wider experiences and consciousness (and by implication to the world), is to my mind one of the most important ways in which music can become more than passive entertainment. Looking hard at the relationship between notation, metre and time, is one of the most powerful ways of enacting this in practice.10

Pace articulates how the act of strategizing the learning process for an interpretation which deliberately resists the gravity of inherited cultural assumptions has a palpable artistic value that comes across in performance, ideally by stimulating the audience into having an engaging, critical experience rather than solely passive listening.  Pace further posits that the primary purpose of this type of music is to call into question the act of making music, the consciousness of the present moment, and to invigorate the senses with the experience of an unfamiliar territory. Therefore, the challenges posed by learning such a rhythmically complex score offer the performer the opportunity to create a unique learning strategy which intentionally departs from their prior training and questions the inherited cultural assumptions of how rhythm can be learned and performed.

As a composer and performer Barrett has experimented with various points of departure from the traditions of Western art music, with emphases on the four practices that he argues are of the most consequence in the development of twentieth century music:

1.2 the development of systematic composition methods;
1.3 the growing use of electronic and digital technology;
1.4 the evolution of improvisation towards independence from pre-existent stylistic/structural frameworks
1.5 a widening awareness of the geographical, historical and political dimensions of music.11

In approaching the learning process for Barrett's splinter (2018-2022) for solo double bass, I argue that it is useful to consider which innovations Barrett applies in this specific composition and to be aware of his larger perspective on music making. For example, although the development of systematic composition methods defines the most critical aspects of splinter as an innovative contemporary work, I would argue that understanding Barrett's performance practice as a computer musician and improviser could also influence the interpretation and performance of this work. In other words, although the focus of my learning process deals with the challenges of the score that emerge from systematic compositional processes, in the realization of the interpretation I exercise the right to make interpretive choices given my understanding of the intentions of the composer, which are informed by his various artistic values and practices. In practice, this means that I understand that the intention for his music is to evoke a sense of malleability and freedom in relation to the perception of the rhythmic material within the work, even though the score features meticulously notated highly complex rhythmic information that might appear rigid at a first glance.