The state-of-the-art in avant-garde high modernist classical must be searched out. It is not as readily accessible as it might have been in the halcyon heydays of the late-'60s-early-'70s, when Cage, Stockhausen and myriad local composer groups were represented by major labels and mass distribution. But then part of it involves the decentralizing centrifugal nature of the internet and how that disperses information over a vast field for the would-be cultural squirrels to traverse in search of stylistically specific nutrients.
The internet is not like a record store or the Schwann catalog of old. And the hardest part is attempting to browse.
Thankfully there are distribution channels who continue to be a centralizing constant for the music. And smaller labels abound.
All this an introduction to Richard Barrett, improvising instrumentalist and avant garde composer of genuine distinction. He's been involved in the avant jazz-oriented realms of Evan Parker, notably the latter's electro-acoustic ensemble, and has created on his own a pretty formidable set of compositions that go on into new pathways of the high modernist camp.
His compositional suite Dark Matter (NMC D183) joins soprano Deborah Kayser with a fairly large chamber ensemble composed of the melding together of two groups, Elision & Cikada, and the composer on live electronics for music that takes the musically contrapuntal, sometimes anarchic, nearly always sonically innovative sounds of late Darmstadt and Cagean compositional ways and extends them further into an electronically-acoustically complex music that is personally distinct. Richard Barrett music, in other words.
Dark Matter, conducted skilfully by Christian Eggen for the premiere recording, consists of eleven interrelated, sometimes contrasting movements. Each has a particular instrumentation and a resultant sound that relates to the whole while remaining separable from it, according to the attentive listener's point of view, anyway.
This is music that represents, for the composer, that which is "unknown and possibly unknowable." Via a sonic poetics that bounds between the improvisational and the more formally structured, Barrett's work has very successfully created a music which is neither "purely classical," whatever that might ultimately mean today, and the new avant improv camp. Then there is the post Hendrixian Star-Spangled out electric guitar work of Daryl Buckley that shines in segments where Barrett has build invigorating settings for a skronk-maelstrom that I certainly appreciate.
What matters for the listener approaching this recording is that the music is filled with avant excitement. The soprano-centered movements rub elbows elegantly yet emphatically with the instrumental episodes, electronically and acoustical-electronically generated sounds share the stage with traditional instruments in a coherent convergence that shows us the progress that live electronics has made, thanks in part to technical developments, but also thanks to the continued presence of electronics in music over the past 50 years. Just as in seemingly every period of musical history, the introduction of distinctive new instruments changes the way the music sounds and eventually the composer and the individual instrumentalists move closer to the new sounds, with ever more integration.
Richard Barrett's Dark Matter has that sort of wholeness of intent that perhaps earlier Cage or Stockhausen were precursors of but never quite fully realized (and in Cage's case, never wanted to realize). And after 200 years of the sound of industry and mechanical objects, greatly intensified in the past 75 years, both our envisioning of sound and our hearing of music has changed. Dark Matter is a work that befits this new sensibility. Barrett represents what we may never understand by incorporating and transforming what we hear daily, at least in more urban zones, that is, complex noise and complex inter-relations of sound and music.
That might not be sufficient in other hands. Dark Matter wholly satisfies the need for a new music for today because Richard Barrett is genuinely hearing a new combination of sound and music, and giving us a superlative example of the known in the unknown, the unknown in the known. It is an avant highlight of this decade so far and Barrett could well be one of the most important composers we have living and creating today.