Clarence Barlow’s name is well known in avant-garde contemporary classical circles, especially within the bit of the Venn diagram where North Indian overlaps with computer-generated music. Unfortunately, the intersection of those sets isn’t a place most of us think to visit. Fortunately, Barlow is UCSB’s Corwin Chair in Composition, and guest pianist Kristi Becker was able to make it all the way from Cologne, Germany, to celebrate his compositions with a recital in Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall. Though Barlow made his name tinkering exotic computational methods into producing output suitable for staff paper, Becker interpreted the composer’s oeuvre with, for the most part, a setup about as low-tech as they come-a piano.
On only three occasions did the arrangement deviate from the simple union of fingers on keys. The opening piece, the surprisingly melodic (though infused with rising and falling waves of dissonance) Ludus Ragalis, commenced with a pre-recorded raga-style vocal. The piece that followed, 1974’s …until…, set piano on top of a penetrating, almost aggressive steady tone, which after several minutes uncannily resembled-and perhaps caused-the kind of ringing that lingers in one’s ears after a run-in with some piercing noise. Even without accompaniment, Becker interpreted Barlow’s work with all the unpredictability contemporary classical has come to accept as its reputation: storms of clusters, swirling shards of notes, high-pitched stabs like icy raindrops backed by the ground tremors of rumbling low chords, and movements that suddenly rear into existence and, just as abruptly, skid to a halt.
Contemporary classical music, especially the stuff generated mathematically, isn’t amenable to fence-sitting; envelope-pushing is less a convention than its driving purpose. Thus, some audience members at this recital sat in rapt attention, while others fidgeted, seemingly awaiting an opportunity to flee. (That sustained ringing sound flicked quite a few escape mode switches by itself.) Unfortunately for them, they missed the recital’s third departure from the solo piano format: Barlow himself stepped up to introduce a video showing how he composed 1998’s Kuri Suti Becker-say it out loud-which displayed graphical representations of each of the piece’s notes. At first it looked patternless, but an image gradually emerged from the dots that collected on screen: a portrait of Becker herself! As music it sounded much like one might expect, but what a reveal.