Clarence Barlow Leads the Civilized Avant-Garde
by Gerald Carpenter
After Bill Kraft retired as Corwin professor of composition at UCSB, the university conducted a search for “a composer of international stature who will be an effective educator and play a leadership role in our composition program. Of particular interest are candidates with interdisciplinary interests in the arts, humanities, sciences, or engineering, and who will thrive in a department with strengths in traditional composition, electro-acoustic and computer music, performance, musicology, ethnomusicology, and music theory.” On these grounds, the search committee hired Professor Clarence Barlow. Of European descent, Professor Barlow was born and raised in Calcutta and has degrees from the University of Calcutta and the Trinity College of Music in London. He has studied electronic music at the Musikhochschule Köln (Cologne), where he studied composition with Bernd Alois Zimmermann and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Breathtakingly accomplished, Barlow began composing when he was 11. When I interviewed him, he was in Europe, supervising a big computer music festival, of which he was initiator and curator.
The great bulk of what I have read about your music — almost all of it approving — makes no attempt to deal with it emotionally, preferring instead to explore and extol your technical mastery and ingenuity. How do you plan to inspire your students to touch the hearts of their listeners? A technical description of music, relying as it does, more or less, on accepted definitions, is usually less challenging than an aesthetic one, particularly due to the near impossibility of effectively anticipating the taste and experience of potential readers. A worthwhile description, on an emotional level, presumes a clear awareness of the recipients’ collective psyche. On the prescriptive level, however, the composer must consciously investigate to what extent the music — while possibly founded on one or another technique — can engender feelings sensed by a reasonably large section of the public. After all, a composer has the choice to allow fantasy and creativity to run an unbridled course at the risk of opening up uncharted territory, or, to keep in view the listeners’ ability to assimilate, perhaps by remaining on safe and well-trodden paths. For some this poses a conflict, but for others, it is one of the facets of culture. Some would follow the path of John Cage, others that of Philip Glass. I hope to help make my UCSB students aware of this choice and to weigh their responsibility therein.
You were quite young when you began to compose. What composers and compositions made you want to write music? As a young boy, I played the piano in the school orchestra. The music featured was by composers like Franz von Suppé and Ambroise Thomas and it triggered enormous emulous energies in me. Furthermore, at age 11, I was in, albeit short-lived, training to be an organist, so the standard church organ literature provided the inspiration there. Somewhat later, thanks to the local symphony orchestra, composers like Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven entered my scene, followed, on the one hand, by composers from Bach back to Perotin, and, on the other, by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Bartók, Schönberg, Webern, Stockhausen, Cage, and others. As an example of actual works, let me single out Brahms’s 4th Symphony, Sibelius’s 7th Symphony, and Bartók’s 4th String Quartet.
Is there a possibility, in your view, that the boundless availability of music on the Web will have the ultimate effect of diluting and devaluing it? A great and extensive library, which the Internet provides, cannot dilute or devalue its contents by sheer virtue of its size. Rather, those who seek or have access to this library must learn to discern between the different types of information available and to process this information in sufficient depth. Those who manifest a more superficial approach would probably do so even with a much smaller supply of knowledge available to them. Teachers can be of help here in pointing out interesting sources and most of all in thoroughly discussing matters of content.
I think Schönberg demonstrated the limitations of the theoretical approach to composition. Do you think music must stay connected to folk culture? There have always been composers of value who chose to extensively base their work on more or less creative theoretical research, and there have always been composers who sought to reach the general public by the employment of recognizable and consumable artifacts such as those from folk culture. In this, music shows a relation to science and to entertainment, which is not to say that science cannot be entertaining or that entertainment is necessarily devoid of a scientific foundation. … Music should simply be good, without having its scope limited.