orchestra - 27'
After the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Arturo Tamayo premiered the outer movements of Vanity in January 1995, word quickly got around that Richard Barrett had created one of the most strikingly original orchestral scores of recent years. The subsequent CD release of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Vanity secured its reputation: here was a genuinely new music for orchestra taking advantage of the scale of the orchestral medium to make profound musical statements.
Such an achievement in any composer’s first orchestral work would be remarkable; what was even more remarkable about Vanity was the way in which an ensemble of 83 instruments had been made to behave like the small ensembles which one had come to expect in vintage Barrett. In part this was a matter of personnel: those parts of the orchestra which didn’t meet Barrett’s sonic requirements were either discarded or reinforced, with timpani replaced by electric bass guitars, cimbalom and piano (played by two pianists) added to the tuned percussion, saxophones added to the woodwind.
But as well as making these adjustments to the composition of the orchestral body, Barrett also undertook a reconstitution of its parts into new heterogeneous entities with which he could simulate the instrumental writing of his recent chamber music. In these works Barrett subjects instruments to an intense acoustic, and ergonomic, scrutiny; indeed the music’s expressive power might be said to be won from the intensity of this scrutiny. Instruments are dissected, their sounds and the way in which those sounds are produced analysed, classified and quantified; every part of the instrument becomes potential compositional material. Were such an approach to be transposed directly to the orchestra, with each instrumental part treated individually, the result would be a chaotic concatenation of detail. Instead, in Vanity Barrett creates new composite ‘instruments’ within the orchestra, marrying the attack and sustaining characteristics of different instruments to one another so that individual players become component parts of what one might call ‘meta-instruments’. In the first movement of Vanity, for example, Barrett writes for an ‘instrument’ whose sound is made up of pairs of contra-bassoons and tubas, with sliding upper partials provided by two trombones.
The radical reconception of the orchestra allows Barrett to make the orchestra his own, organised into perceptibly distinct, yet ever mutable groupings. The result is a soundworld that is ‘complex’, in the best sense that, like any interesting phenomenon, it teems with ever-varying life, but this complexity animates larger, more immediately comprehensible forms. The same is true of the music’s structures: at the largest level the music falls into three movements, Sensorium, Memento and Residua, each dominated by a central musical image. In Sensorium, Barrett makes an aural transcription of the conventions of the 17th century ‘vanitas’ still-life paintings. In these enigmatic images a number of objects is disposed within the frame; each is represented in exquisite detail, each may have some significance beyond itself (fruit whose lustrous flesh is about to be broken by an insect, jewellery or scientific instruments as the attributes of wealth or learning, most explicitly a skull as memento mori). Sensorium is a frame in which Barrett disposes six of his meta-instruments, formed from groups of 25, 14, 10, 7, 19 and 5 instruments respectively. Each is timbrally distinct but each includes a percussionist too; each has what Barrett calls its own specific ‘behaviour’ and he suggests that ‘one might relate the first five... to the symbols in the vanitas of the five senses’ which are ‘confronted’ with the sixth group (piano duo, 2 bass guitars and percussionist).
The second movement, Memento, opposes what Barrett calls ‘the mechanical convulsions’ of this sixth group with a seething mass of microtonal activity which moves gradually through the orchestra, ending in a dense cloud of muted strings from which a brief cimbalom solo provides a bridge into the last movement, Residua. The abiding impression of this final movement is of the processional, both in the word’s etymological sense - a number of musical processes slowly unfold (the most discernible is a series of chords, sounded in the piano and cimbalom and ‘resonated’ in the winds) - and in its normal meaning, as a slow duple march rhythm emerges from more complicated metric surroundings. At the very end of the work this ghostly echo identifies itself as Schubert’s Der Tod und das Mädchen, a final enigmatic twist in the music’s tail which was, nevertheless, anticipated by the sinuous turning figures heard at the very beginning of the work; the work’s hidden secret, perhaps?
If Vanity ends with a question, it is a question at the heart of the work. Like a vanitas painting, this is a work whose lustrous surface belies a sober reflection on the nature of the human condition: vitality or rigor mortis, energy or atrophy, the skull beneath the skin...?
© Christopher Fox, 1997