31 May 2010

Interview with Paul Barnes

This is the tenth interview of the "Where are we now?" series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series. Please leave your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this posting.

Interview with Paul Barnes
at Symphony Space, New York
26 April 2010

Paul was extremely kind and accommodating; he met me in Symphony Space in between his dress rehearsal and the concert. We began by talking about the piece Paul was about to play: “Nocturne of Light” by the Orthodox Priest Ivan Moody. I asked about what he wrote and asked Paul to describe this brand-new work.

PB: Ivan Moody writes mostly sacred choral music. I have several of his recordings and I always just absolutely love his style. He is English; he lives in Portugal and actually has a Greek and Russian parish there, simultaneously, and then also has a second life as a composer. I just absolutely love his music.

Note by IA: Here are some examples of Ivan Moody's music:
Passione Popolare part 1
Passione Popolare part 2
Words of the Angel

So I was thinking about commissioning a new work. Victoria Bond [the conductor of the concert at Symphony Space and a renowned composer] is a very good friend of mine; Victoria and I have known each other for years and I’ve played on this series several times; I think this is my fifth or sixth time here. I always like, if possible, to do a world premiere here. So the last time I gave the world premiere of my transcription of the Philip Glass piano concerto that he wrote for me, number two after Lewis and Clark. That was great and Philip came to that, so it was a lot of fun.

[For tonight’s concert] I had to fly Father Ivan all the way from Lisbon, but the grant money came through and it was definitely possible. I’m very excited about the piece because it’s the Easter season and the piece is based on two Resurrection chants. You’ll hear the chants tonight, both in the panel beforehand and then we’ll talk a little bit about the piece before we play it. We’re on the second half and so we’ll be playing it for the second half. That’s when we’ll chant the hymns and Father Ivan will talk a little bit about the musical language. It’s just a gorgeous piece.

IA: It sounds ideal!

PB: I think you’ll enjoy it.

IA: I’m being selfish because this fits exactly with my project, which I’ll summarize again. I am an English teacher and I teach at a program right now for homeschoolers that’s historically based: every academic year we study one historical time period. That’s a great way to do it, because you study all the subjects related to the time period. The history teacher and I work together to create those courses. So I’m very into the arts; I enjoy all the different media: writing, music, visual arts, and theatre. Tight now we’re doing the “Modern” Period, 1900-1960, and I started thinking that if we continue next year we’ll be doing the “Contemporary” Period. So I kind of go thinking that I can sort of characterize past time periods. I can say, “All right, here are some of the characteristics of the Baroque, here are some of the characteristics of the Renaissance”--(at least for certain geographical areas of the world and for certain genres), but it’s a lot harder to do for the moment in which you’re living. So I got curious about what will music historians and literary historians say about us five hundred years from now? How will they characterize our time period? And I have some ulterior motives in doing this that I can, maybe, disclose at the end! But that’s why this is absolutely perfect, because you’re commissioning brand-new music and you’re playing brand-new music as well as being Classically trained and steeped in the Classics. So: What do you think is going on right now? How would you characterize contemporary music?

PB: Well, I just had this conversation with Father Ivan last night at dinner because what there is right now musically is this amazing openness to a lot of things, that did not exist prior to this. There was a real kind of a fundamentalist stage in the ‘60s and ‘70s where if composers weren’t writing serial, atonal music, following the dogma of the established elite, then their music was not considered worthy. Well, these days, in 2010, I play a ton of Philip Glass, who never would have been taken seriously from an academic standpoint twenty years ago. Basically what I’ve noticed is that composers have complete aesthetic freedom in 2010 because people are a lot more open in terms of receiving musical inspiration from a tremendously wide variety of different sources. And that, I find, is incredibly exciting. I don’t have to play music that I’m not particularly committed to from an aesthetic standpoint because there’s so much variety out there. I’m lucky that I only play pieces that I love—which is really good! Nice situation to be in! But also, because I have so many composer friends, it’s been a personal joy to be able to give world premiers—I’ve done ten or fifteen world premiers and just to be a part of the music-making process right from the beginning has been incredible for me.

IA: What are some of those sources, then? You mentioned that you chose some Byzantine chants. What are some other sources?

PB: Well, it’s interesting, because with the Philip Glass concerto, the source there was Lewis and Clark and so it was actually that exploration. That was by far my biggest and most expensive project, commissioning Philip Glass to do this concerto—and the second movement is based on Sacagawea
and it uses Shoshone themes. So it’s going back to Native American roots. That, I thought, was absolutely incredible. The premiere took place with R. Carlos Nakai, who is a renowned Native American flute player. It was interesting, because you’ve got this interesting clash between a traditional orchestra kind of putting its fetters around a Native American flute player, but it worked out fabulously well. So that was a very, very unique source of inspiration.

The piece that I premiered here five or six years ago by Randall Snyder who is a composer where I work, was called “Illuminations from Valis” and its inspiration is from Philip K. Dick, a wonderful science fiction writer. He wrote this trilogy called The VALIS Trilogy, of which the first one is called The Divine Invasion, and it’s a retelling of the Incarnation. And Oh my Gosh! It is just a tremendously creative work. And Randall Snyder knew that I was Christian and would be interested in this topic, so I read the books and just fell in love with them, and then he wrote this piece that was his musical experience or expression of that particular literary work.

So they’re all over the place. And then of course so many pieces have been chant-based, like what you’ll hear tonight, and the pieces that Victoria wrote for me. And of course those have a much, much older inspiration there, but that goes along with what I do as a chanter at a Greek Orthodox Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, of all places! But there’s a wonderful community (in fact, many of them will be here tonight) who are really fed by that aesthetic of chant. A lot of people from various traditions. So it’s wonderful to have that as a basis for a new piece of music.

IA: It sounds like a lot of voices and musical sources that would have been considered minorities and would have been considered marginal and wouldn’t have been taken seriously.

PB: Exactly.

IA: Now I would imagine—I think that some of these composers you’re mentioning are going to be considered the canonical composers several generations from now and even are already—certainly Philip Glass. You said he wasn’t taken seriously twenty years ago; why not?

PB: Well, Minimalism itself was seen as a huge aesthetic threat. Because what music had evolved into was basically a hyperintellectualized expression of almost mathematical proportions. Music was becoming so complex it was seen was this Hegelian progression where it just keeps getting more and more complex and that’s seen somehow as aesthetic progress. And it gets so complex that human beings can’t even perform the stuff. It has to be performed by computers. And Minimalism was a complete rejection of that aesthetic path. It was seen as being mindless repetitiveness. In our Western European intellectual tradition there’s not a lot of emphasis placed on meditation, on looking inward, and that of course is huge in the Orthodox spiritual tradition. I gravitated toward it immediately and many others did just as a reaction against the mainline direction that Classical music was going in the ‘60s and 70s. So I absolutely thought it was this wonderful, brand-new path so I jumped on completely. Now, it’s not my only form of musical expression. I just got done doing this wonderful festival of Chopin and Schumann, celebrating their bicentennials. But as another way another looking-glass of seeing the world through these aesthetic eyes Minimalism has just opened up incredible new insights for me.

IA: Does Minimalism slow us down?

PB: What I think it does it forces us to look at a smaller amount of material from different perspectives and that I think is incredibly enlightening in so many ways. It’s about consciously embracing simplicity and then basically exploring that simplicity from different angles.

IA: You examine the one idea over and over and over again from slightly different perspectives, but the perspectives don’t come too quickly?

PB: Right.

IA: So how does that fit in to what technology is doing to us as a species? Technology is speeding us up. I just got television (!) after not having had it for several years because of moving and different things, so I started watching it again after a while, and I noticed that over the past, let’s say maybe six years, that the number of frames-per-minute and frames-per-second has sped up greatly (as well as other cinematographic improvements and so on) but this is true in the way we interact with our personal technology as well. So how does that work? How does Minimalism work in this new pace of our species?

PB: It’s interesting because I think perhaps you could see it as a balancing factor. There’s a little bit of an irony because whenever I come to New York I think, OMG, here I am, big town, fast pace, you know, but what always impresses me (and I do a lot of work in Vienna, which is another big, wonderful city) but what I notice is that there’s actually a slower pace. There are more parks. There’s generally a little bit more thoughtfulness about leisure in big cities because it’s so cherished. When you’re in suburbia or a town like mine (Lincoln, Nebraska), it’s so easy to just be constantly on the go. So I always think about that when I come to New York because I’m incredibly relaxed here. I notice the proliferation of flowers that you can buy for your loved one. I know if I lived in New York I would buy flowers more often. Certain things like that—I would be more conscientious about going to the park, about green spaces, all these kinds of things and so I find it ironic in the same way that the fast pace of technology (and I’m a complete Mac geek! and WAY too addicted to facebook, as you can tell!—my Mom keeps track of me) so it just creates a form of balance and I think that’s why a lot of people gravitate towards musical minimalism.

IA: So a minimalist piano composition, for instance, or a Greek chant, will slow us down.

PB: In fact, I remember having this wonderful conversation with Philip Glass in a taxi here in New York about this—because he has a lot of roots in Buddhism. We were talking about the relationship between Greek chant and Buddhist chant (and you’ll hear tonight: my son Peter will be singing the drone; we call it the ison; it’s harmonically static. It doesn’t move. It simply creates a moment of stasis. That also has a lot in common with Buddhist chant as well. Philip thought it was interesting that I was a Greek Orthodox chanter and that there’s a connection there. A lot of my chanter friends are also very, very interested in minimalism. It’s an interesting connection.

IA: Is there a historical connection? Is there a musical etymology? Between Buddhist chant and Greek chant?

PB: No, I don’t believe there’s any whatsoever. It’s just that there are these common threads within these traditions. The key is that within those traditions monasticism, for instance, is an important critical element: the idea of withdrawing from the pace of life, radically simplifying your life, and embracing a life of prayer and meditation. That is very clearly in both of those traditions. So it would make sense that there would be musical ramifications that would be similar.

IA: Is it mysticism as well, or not necessarily?

PB: Oh, yes, very much so, within both traditions. Which for me is simply an acknowledgment of the limitations of the mind and kind of an acknowledgement of the size of God and that if God is in fact beyond the limits of our intellect (which of course He is in my view) then mysticism is the only way to appreciate God fully because He is completely beyond our intellectual constructs. The only real way of experiencing God is to understand the limitations of your own intellectual constructs in a way.

IA: Is music part of your own meditation?

PB: Oh, very much so. Even the way that the Orthodox pray in the divine liturgy: it’s sung from beginning to end, an hour and a half of poetical love songs to God. There’s a certain rhythm that I think is psychologically healing. It’s very slow-paced and there’s a lot of repetition. There’s very little entertainment value at all because there’s nothing that’s fast-paced. That has been very, very important to me in my own life.

IA: All right. There are a few other directions I want to go with a few other questions. You mentioned that you have commissioned, what did you say, a dozen or more works. So you mentioned Ivan Moody, Philip Glass—can you tell me some of the others?

PB: Yes. I mentioned Randall Snyder. He is the composer who wrote the piece on the Valis Trilogy.

And then I commissioned Victoria Bond; she wrote the piano concerto and a solo piece for me based on a very, very beautiful communion hymn.

Tyler White is a wonderful composer at my school on the composition faculty. He also wrote some wonderful pieces for me as well.

I do work with composers like Joan Tower who is an incredible composer. I’ve recorded her piano pieces, although she didn’t write them for me and I didn’t commission them, I’m still committed to a lot of music of living composers.

IA: What variety is there in these composers that you’ve named? You’ve got Minimalism…

PB: Joan Tower for example has influences from a zillion different areas and it’s a very fast-paced, high-energy, incredibly dynamic approach to rhythm. She loves percussion and is a pianist herself so the pieces are very, very exciting and at the same time very pianistic. And they’re much more virtuosic, in terms of an etude or a toccata or something like that, so it’s a much faster-paced piece; it’s radically opposed to all of the Philip Glass that I’ve done, for example. Or the piece that you’ll hear tonight. It’s much, much more slow-paced with the chant base.

IA: So I guess what I’m digging for here is: Is there a “school” of composition right now that you can identify? When we look back—you mentioned the Vienna School of dodecaphonic music, and then you mentioned Minimalism. Is Minimalism a school of thought?

PB: Oh, yes. And there are even subsets within that. There’s a whole group of composers called Mystical Minimalists. Those would be people like Arvo Pärt, John Tavener--John Tavener was Ivan Moody’s teacher, so you’ll hear a real interesting connection there just in terms of the pacing, of his musical language, things like that. He’s not interested in any kind of a pseudo-Hollywood dramatic buildup or anything like that. It’s very, very much, much more about luminosity and reflection. Those are the two things that you’ll probably hear in the piece tonight. But, yes: That’s a very specific school that people are attracted to, composers emulate, other composers within that tradition.

As is kind of a Neo-Romanticism; it is also its own school where composers of today (including Victoria, including lots of other composers that I work with) write tonal music. Unforgivably tonal! It’s just brazenly tonal. A much more traditional context. Next year, 2011, is the bicentennial of Franz Liszt, who is my hero.

IA: Understandably.

PB: I’m performing the winning composition competition composition (!) and there are twenty-five scores that have been submitted from all over the world, so I actually have to read through them all and rank them. I’m very interested just in seeing, you know, since it’s twenty-five different composers, where everything is coming from, because they’ve kind of got the spirit of Liszt, so there’s obviously going to be a virtuoso element to it but I’m so excited about digging into all of this just to see what happens from the different aesthetic perspectives. It’s just a huge part of how I define myself as a musician is to be involved in the creation of new music.

IA: Do you compose, as well?

PB: No, I do a lot of transcribing. I transcribed lots of music from Philip Glass and have three albums on his label featuring those transcriptions. But I’m busy enough just trying to keep up with my composer friends.

IA: Can we talk about technique for a minute? Your personal technique? What I’m wondering is, how were you trained as a student yourself? Can you describe for me your technique and then has it changed? Have you seen shifts in the way pianists are taught?

PB: Well, the person who had the most profound impact or impact on my technical development was Menahem Pressler, who I worked with at Indiana University. What I love about his approach is that it’s a completely integrated approach to the body so the finger works in conjunction with the hand, with the wrist, with the forearm, with the elbow, and with everything working in natural conjunction. So there’s very little tension. It’s a big sound, but it’s also very, very concise. So this is what I try to communicate to my own students as well, and it’s one of the reasons why I feel that I’m very, very healthy still. I do a lot of physical activity: I play a lot of tennis, I lift weights, but I also practice a lot and I’m able to do all three of those things. I’m convinced that if you do everything in a way that really recognizes how your body works you can do it for a long time.

IA: You can avoid performance-related injuries.

PB: Exactly.

IA: You play a lot of very virtuosic repertoire.

PB: Yes, very much so.

IA: Are there others who are still teaching this method as well?

PB: Yes. Pressler students are all over the place. In fact, the other pianist tonight is a former Pressler student as well. We had seen each other at his eightieth birthday party a little ways back and it’s good to see her again. But yes: it’s a specific school and he has particular exercises that we’ve al adapted in our own way. I’m convinced that it really does prevent injury but also gives an incredibly rich sound, as well.

IA: Are those exercises published?

PB: Yeah, they’re on my website. If you go to “Meet my students” and you click on that link, then that will go to a page saying “Pressler finger exercises.” Click on that, and you’ve got ‘em. Do you play?

IA: I had my wrists basically destroyed in undergrad so I wish I’d been trained that way. We’re looking for a piano right now so maybe I can get some therapy and get back into it.

PB: I hope you can. I hope you can.

IA: What about predictions for the future? Where you do think music is going to go?

PB: Oh, I’m incredibly excited. Again, as I had mentioned there, I think that the direction currently right now is unlimited in terms of composers and their aesthetic choices. It’s very exciting in so many ways just to see what composers are coming up with. There’s still so much wonderful music written for the piano (thank God!), my instrument, piano concertos, all kinds of things. So I’m incredibly optimistic about the aesthetic possibilities in terms of future composition. I will continue to commission and perform new music. There are lots of recitals I perform where nobody has heard a note of anything before, which I think is an incredibly important thing to do as well. Then I’ll do recital where it’s all traditional. With 2011 coming up, I do a lecture recital (I did it at Nyack about ten years ago) on religious symbolism in Liszt. On the Lizst b minor sonata. It’s entitled: “Liszt and the Cross: Music as Sacrament in the B Minor Sonata.” I draw a connection between music and iconography: the idea that music can be seen as a type of sacrament where its purpose is to convey the grace of God. I will be doing that multiple times next year and the year after for the Lizst bicentennial. Tremendously traditional: wonderful, incredibly music; but then the next day I’ll play a whole recital of Philip Glass. It’s just spanning the aesthetic globe.

IA: What does that do to your mind?!

PB: Oh, I think it’s a great workout. There’s this concept in workouts called muscle confusion, where if you just keep them guessing about what you’re going to workout, it’s really healthy for them. I think the same thing probably applies to the mind.

Note by IA: Here are several of Paul's performances on YouTube:
"Akhnaten" by Philip Glass
"Satyagraha" by Philip Glass
"Orphee and the Princess" by Philip Glass
Fugue by Barber
Haydn Piano Sonata in A-flat, Hob:XVI:46 Adagio


Nick Jarratt said...

Loved your interview, as I’m currently a piano major at Grove City College. When watching your videos, I was interesting in the way you sit at the piano. My professor has been trying to get me to sit that way all year, though I’m a bit reluctant to do so. I’m a tall guy, and I find that sitting more upright eases tension in my back. I’m interested to know how (or if) your posture fits with the Pressler methods you mentioned.

pbarnes said...


Glad you enjoyed the interview. As far as posture goes, the key is to make sure you are doing nothing that prevents you from a natural flow of weight from your upper body to the fingertip. I tell my students they can move from the hip but they shouldn't jut their heads forward and their back should be straight. Basically your physical gestures must support your musical idea- and actually the physical gestures communicate the musical idea as well.

Hope this helps. What year are you at Grove City?

Iambic Admonit said...

Here is a link to a YouTube clip of Paul, his son, and composer Ivan Moody chanting a Byzantine hymn: The hymn was the basis for Ivan Moody's composition, "Nocturne of Night"; I had the extraordinary privilege of attending the premiere at Symphony Space in NYC. Wow!

Iambic Admonit said...

... and here is Part One of "Nocturne of Light":

…and Part Two: