Were you to attempt to draw some sort of visual chart of Matthew Barley’s musical exploits to date, you’d be setting yourself a fearsome challenge. The mass of separate genre and activity categories dotted around the page would likely resemble an inky, abstract fireworks display, such would be the sheer number of separate lines shooting out of each category to then explode with those from others. The same approach to his discography would yield similar results: a fizzing cornucopia of new classical works mixed with world music, electronic music and jazz, none of it repeating anything previously recorded by any other artist.
So while it was clear that this cellist and I would begin our chat with a focus on his new recording of Tavener’s The Protecting Veil, it was much less clear to me, during my pre-interview planning, where we would leap next. But as it happened, even the standard opening question, ‘Why record The Protecting Veil, and why now?’ took us off down a fascinating diversion – which tells you all you need to know about Barley and the way he works.
‘I suppose the timing of it is just a simple question of the moment when the required forces come together being the right moment,’ he begins. ‘The Riga Sinfonietta came along because I’ve been working quite a lot in Latvia for years, which itself happened because one day the director of Riga’s Ad Lucem Introvert Art Festival called me for a chat and said: “You’re known for really unusual ideas. Can you give me an unusual idea, please?” Right there and then on the phone! So I just said the first thing that came into my head, which was: “Why not do an all-night concert where I start at 11pm and finish at 7am, and then we all have breakfast together?” They loved it, and I’ve done it four or five times there now. So I knew about the Riga Sinfonietta, and basically with them it’s still Soviet-style training, which is so good for strings; and while The Protecting Veil’s orchestral writing is not at all virtuosic, you do need a really good sound and also the ability to be able to play absolutely in tune, both of which those players have.’
Didn’t Barley have Russian training himself? ‘Yes,’ he affirms. ‘Two years at the Moscow Conservatoire. And it’s interesting because if you look down orchestral personnel lists in London it’s like the United Nations – there are so many different nationalities! – whereas in Russia every name is Russian, and it’s pretty much the same in Latvia: the teachers there are all Russian and they’re all Russian-trained, meaning it’s one of the few places that you can really hear a national pedigree in the sound. And this Russian sound just feels right for Tavener with his conversion to the Orthodox Church.’
It’s the perfect swerve back to the piece itself, and this time we stay there. ‘It really is my favourite concerto,’ he claims, ‘and it has been almost from its beginnings, too, which coincide with my own career’s formative years. I first heard it at Snape in what was probably the second year of its existence, when I was in my early twenties. Then soon afterwards, in 1992, again at Snape, the London Sinfonietta performed it under Oliver Knussen, who had conducted its 1989 BBC Proms premiere. Olly and I had met at Tanglewood in around 1987 and got on really well, and because it was the London Sinfonietta’s own principal cellist Christopher van Kampen who was taking the solo part, Olly suggested I play principal cello for that concert. I remember that experience so clearly. I’d already been doing quite a bit of Sinfonietta work, and we’d been playing all these incredibly difficult scores from really tricky Boulez-type composers. Then here was The Protecting Veil, where Chris played the first three notes, stayed on the top A, the orchestra came in, and … kind of nothing happened! But I was just very, very moved, and wanted to play the solo part. I then did so soon afterwards at Dartington, but this wasn’t a very satisfactory performance, because I hadn’t memorised it at that point, meaning I had a page turner which is so weird. Plus, I love to play with my eyes closed, which obviously you can’t do if you’re reading music.’ He continues, ‘It’s actually very difficult to memorise, though, because the whole piece is in song form, with the verse – consisting of five cello phrases and five orchestral answers – coming back seven times in all, on each occasion with identical material but in different keys and with subtly different note values. However, I just happen to have a weird memory for numbers – if I hear a telephone number I’ll remember it for two or three days. So now I’ve got these huge sequences of numbers that I can just recite when I play. I have still had memory lapses, but it’s worth the suffering to be able to play in the conditions I want.’
Looking at that aforementioned fizzing discography, I notice a fascination with Indian classical music – and this is another part of the work’s lure for Barley, much as he didn’t know this back at the beginning. ‘Later, in June 2011, I spent a day with Tavener working on the piece,’ he explains. ‘I was very curious about one of his directions which asks you to play as in the microtones of Byzantine chant, and when I played him a few options to establish what he meant, the one he chose was the one closest to ornamented Indian classical music. It turned out that he’d been listening to Indian music a lot at the time of writing, and once I knew that, the piece suddenly made sense on a completely different level. I refingered the whole thing then, to make it full of slides and much more like the way I play Indian classical music. So now it’s become dear to me for even bigger reasons, because it’s the only piece in the classical canon of my repertoire that I play as though it’s not classical.’
With the rest of the CD programme, Barley further honours Tavener in his own unique way. First, there are three of the composer’s favourite poems read by actresses Julie Christie and Olwyn Fouéré, in recognition of Tavener’s ideas of the eternal feminine. Then there’s Barley’s new transcription of Tavener’s choral work Mother and Child. This features Barley improvising, which is something he does widely – not just in his own music-making, but also through coaching activities (notable past projects include Paavo Järvi inviting him to lead daily improvisation sessions with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen before they recorded the Schumann symphonies). When I say how beautiful I find his reworked Mother and Child, Barley’s face lights up in pleased surprise. ‘One of my favourite bits of the entire CD are the orchestral bits in that!’ he exclaims. ‘But funnily enough, that piece was ever so squashed. I only prepared its structure the night before, and the improvisations not at all. Then, by the time we got to it in the session, we only had 15 minutes left, and no overtime. So I just thought, OK, let’s just read through it. Which means that the improvisations you hear are the only ones I ever did.’
Those improvisations have a definite Indian tinge to them, and it’s with Indian music that the album climaxes, with Sultan Khan’s The Song of Separation and Waiting, for which Barley is joined by tabla player Sukhvinder ‘Pinky’ Singh. ‘I met Sultan Khan when I was directing the grand finale of a WOMAD festival,’ he recounts. ‘He played the sārangī, which might be one of the oldest relatives of the violin. It’s played with a bow, upright like a cello, and it’s kind of violin-sized; but you stop the string with your cuticle so it’s sort of a dying art because it’s so painful that nobody wants to play it! We didn’t speak each other’s languages, but we got together in this weird little hotel room in Brisbane and he taught me the piece via a friend who was interpreting.’
Barley doesn’t try to imitate the sārangī himself, except for in one tiny section. ‘They have an ornament called the gamak,’ he explains. ‘Our closest equivalent is vibrato, but while we play vibrato with a stationary finger, for the gamak they wave the whole hand around so that the pitch varies much more. I just play the sārangī melody as a cellist, but in the cadenza, although it’s hard to hear, with the three lowest notes I do that oscillation as a sort of tribute to India.’
There’s a more obvious tribute to India this coming November, with a major project planned with Indian musicians as part of the Wimbledon International Music Festival. But perhaps the best example of how this cellist likes to make music is a pair of June concerts at Austria’s spa retreat-cum-classical chamber venue Schloss Elmau. ‘I’ll gather a bunch of ingredients that look like they’ll be really fun, have an allotted work time, and just see what happens,’ explains Barley. ‘These particular concerts are with my violinist wife Viktoria Mullova, mandolin player Avi Avital, the tabla player on my disc, Sukvinder Singh, and sarod player Soumik Datta. So it’s a pretty cool bunch of ingredients, and at its most simple it may merely be that I create some new bits of Indian-type repertoire with Pinky and Soumik, and then Avi, Viktoria and myself play some movements from Bach, and we just find a nice order for it all. However, what I’d love is to devise some meeting points: transition passages, either freely improvised or structured.’
Does he ever just play core classical repertoire without a twist, I wonder? ‘Oh, definitely, yes,’ is the reply. ‘In fact, I’ve just emerged from nine performances in a row of the Dvořák Cello Concerto at venues including Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. But it’s a valid question, because that is really unusual for me. Almost always I find a way of putting something else in there.’ As if proof were needed, we next touch on his excitement over a forthcoming jazz project in November with the BBC Concert Orchestra for the London Jazz Festival: the world premiere of a new concerto written for him by his stepson, Misha Mullov-Abbado, a BBC New Generation Artist. And I can’t possibly conclude our interview without at least alluding to the ‘Gear’ section of his website, which lists all the equipment Barley uses, including a ‘Digitech JamMan footpedal loopstation’. Should we slip in some talk of electronic music, then?
‘Ooh, yeah!’ comes the enthusiastic response – and off we go. Ports of call include a new piece he’s playing by Dr Oded Ben-Tal, using software which listens to the instrument and then improvises in response, and his excitement over German composer Nils Frahm (‘Have you heard of him? I think it might be electronic music coming of age’), before we arrive at a surprise.
‘I might be challenging myself to compose in the future, and I think electronics is the way to go,’ he announces. ‘I’ve been thinking about it for about 20 years now, but I’ve just never chased it to the end. So I probably need to start owning up to it in interviews! It’s terrifying, but I think a residency might be a really good place to start.’ You heard it here first.
Matthew Barley’s recording of Tavener’s The Protecting Veil is out now. Read the Gramophone review
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe