Electronics, Eavesdropping, and Writing for People : An Interview with Guy Barash

David Johnston

2012-13 Composer-in-Residence Guy Barash


2012-13 Composer-in-Residence Guy Barash chats about his music and the compositional process, collaborations with noted author Nick Flynn, his role as the contemporary music curator at The Tank, and exciting upcoming projects.


When did you start composing? What were you earlier works like?

What I see as the beginning of my career as a composer is when I wrote something I felt was truly my own, and began to establish my compositional language. It was in that piece that I found my unique approach to treating three core components of my music: voice, text, and political context. Later, I wrote more works for fixed-media and small ensembles as I continued to establish my aesthetic.

In my early pieces for electronics, chamber, and less conventional ensembles (like rock bands or groups using Middle Eastern instruments), I focused on message, and on the intersection of structure and texture – how one defines the other. Influenced by Middle Eastern climate and local artists in Israel, my early works often expressed a socio-political moral. At the same time, I was also exploring how extra-musical ideas can help generate new forms and influence sound texture. For example, in my piece Alphabet for Flute, I explore the way the logic and prosody of Hebrew language affect the sound of the flute and my composition in general.

Electronics seem an important part of your compositions. What is your approach to using electronics?

Electronics have been integral to my music since the beginning. I started with tape pieces, and from there I naturally evolved to use Max/MSP, programming, and live electronics. The options available to me were endless, and I went in several different directions – I worked with video artists on audio-visual interactivity and with dancers, using sensors to map their movement to control sound. Lots of fun. Through these experiments I refined my sound, my approach, and my style. Nowadays, I am more focused. First, I try to imagine the sound that I want to achieve. Drawing from my prior experiences, I already know what kind of electronic treatment will result in that sound. Whether I’m writing for electronic media or for traditional instruments without any processing, “electronic thinking” inspires my sound palette and my composition.

Your music seems very conceptually driven. How would you describe your music? And your compositional approach?

I wouldn’t specify my music as conceptual. I have often expressed ideas and thoughts that are extra-musical, but it is music more than it is a concept. Among my compositions are symphonic, chamber, and electroacoustic works. I love “playing with words” and thus have written an extensive body of work which incorporates text in various settings and arrangements. As a humanistic artist with a great social consciousness, I write for people. Whether for performers or audiences, I aim to create music that is challenging yet compelling.

In my recent string quartet, I explore such musical matters as simultaneity and synchronicity. I expand the possibilities for our profound canon of string quartet music through the use of extended techniques, and pitch relationships such as microscopic voice leading. By preserving the sonic features that are characteristic to the ensemble alongside new concepts, I magnify nuances that are less familiar to the naked ear, and lead the listener in a fresh and relevant musical journey.

In my music, I often generate a multimetric environment wherein I explore temporal issues. The contrast between improvised and written music, micropolyphony, and fake tonality are evident throughout my writing. In works for traditional instruments, as mentioned, electronic music has shaped my sound signature.

You’re originally from Haifa, Israel. What is the new music scene like there? What are your thoughts on the music scene and community in NYC?

There are many incredibly talented people in Israel. Areas of conflict have a tendency to produce interesting artists – more critical, more rebellious. At the same time it can be limiting. In Israel there is a very strong feeling of right and wrong. Although New York has seen and heard much more, it still doesn’t have all the answers; it is more open to experience.

You’re an active composer, performer, arranger, curator, as well as an active collaborator. Do you find that wearing these different artistic hats helps develop you more fully as an artist? Could you describe some of your recent projects?

By all means. I think an artist that explores more aspects of the process of creation becomes more complete, more mature. When I come to write my music, I find that my peripheral experiences and know-how result in more tools available for my personal creation. When you see art from multiple angles, more planes unfold.

For example, I curate Eavesdropping, an adventurous new music series at The Tank. It is a big project that I have in concurrence with my composing. It helps me refine my ideas, understand how the way art is presented shapes the way it is perceived, and learn more about the production efforts that make a successful realization of my works.

You’ve collaborated with many different types of artists, including poets, video-artists, musicians, and choreographers. Who have you worked with? What do you look for in collaborations? Could you describe some of your recent collaborative projects with various artists?

I’m always looking to learn new things. My feeling is that I can learn more from artists working in other disciplines than from musicians – fresh points of view, different methods, techniques, and approaches that can be translated into music, that can complement it.

However, recent collaborations were in fact with musicians. I see my relatively new improv trio, fmsbw (after Raoul Hausmann’s famous sound poem), with Eyal Maoz on guitar and Frank London on trumpet (myself on laptop) as a collaborative project. We also collaborate with guest artists, recently with beatboxer and spoken-word artist Adam Matta. Each of us has a very unique approach to music and sound, but at the same time we are very open to listen and learn.

As contemporary music curator for The Tank, what do you look for in the music/performances that you choose?

The rare combination of something that I didn’t hear before, and the right kind of attitude. Eavesdropping provides a stage for risk-taking artists who wish to explore non-conventional sound, and to present a relevant boundary-breaking artistic work. Shows often include multimedia elements, real time electronic processing, and performance art. The Tank’s intimate black box theater brings audiences close enough to become part of the creative process. In this unique experience, I am committed to presenting innovative repertoire that is relevant and intriguing.

Your Residency project sounds exciting, beginning a new large-scale opera. This will be your third collaboration with award-winning author Nick Flynn. Could you describe your collaborative process with Mr. Flynn? What do you hope to accomplish during the Residency?

It all started with Proteus, which is a work that incorporates multiple singers, a rock band, clarinet, violin, percussion, and interactive electronics, and is based on excerpts from Nick Flynn’s second memoir, The Ticking is The Bomb. In Greek mythology, Proteus is an early sea-god. He can foretell the future, but will change his shape to avoid having to; he will answer only to someone who is capable of capturing him.

It began when I was looking for texts to work with. I love working with text, and am especially inspired by texts that have some kind of political angle in them. In my search, I found a book of poems called State of the Union, a compilation of 50 political poems edited by Joshua Beckman and Matthew Zapruder. And in it a beautiful poem, Imagination, by Nick Flynn. I set it for voice and percussion and decided I want to make it into a larger work. I contacted Nick, telling him about Imagination and that I wanted to collaborate with him on a larger project. Surprised I imagine, Flynn was a little suspicious about my musical plans for that piece. However, after explaining my idea he agreed to meet up, and that’s how it all started.

In one of the Proteus performances Nick brought me his book, Blind Huber. It is a collection of poems that is loosely based on the eponymous eighteenth-century beekeeper whose fifty-year obsession uncovered most of what we know today about the hive. I wanted to use some of the poems in a piece for 2 singers (soprano and tenor), chamber ensemble, and live electronic processing. It was a big job. A commission from the Jerome Foundation, as part of my residency last year at Electronic Music Foundation, gave me the resources to tackle it. The piece, Blind Huber, based on 7 poems from Flynn’s book, and video projections by Jerald Handelsman, was premiered in fall 2011 in Greenwich House. Because of geographic constraints and the scope of the piece, we collaborated mainly through conversations about each other’s ideas, and met with each other’s work only later in the process.

In my residency at Turtle Bay Music School, I would like to begin incubating my opera, based on Flynn’s play, Alice Invents a Little Game and Alice Always Wins. It’s a huge project, and will probably take me 2-3 years to complete. However, I would like to start exploring ideas and experimenting with the materials. At the end of the residency I will present chamber excerpts.

You recently gathered an ensemble and presented “Guy and Graphics” at The Stone to mark the centennial of John Cage’s birth. Tell us what the performance was about?

Graphic scores are an American phenomenon – they represent a certain attitude that I appreciate very much. Perhaps an alternative to the European self-importance, the holiness of the notes; it is something more raw. I don’t write graphic scores myself, but I try to capture this attitude, the rawness. I often juxtapose traditional notation and more “graphic” representations of musical gestures, sections that are through composed alongside sections where the performer has more freedom for interpretation and improvisation.

This attitude also influenced European composers. I want to bring this project to Europe and play graphic scores by American composers next to ones by European composers, discuss this approach, see where it brought us, what it made possible.

What is next for you?

Besides my opera, which will keep me busy for the next few years, in the next few months my first string quartet will premiere. I have an orchestral piece in the works, and a new project in mind based on Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, for Pierrot ensemble plus baritone, percussion, and electronics. I am in the process of composing a song cycle based on Nick Flynn’s Some Ether. I also have some surprises for the coming seasons of Eavesdropping at The Tank.



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