Interview: composer & performer John Barber


We’ve worked with John Barber for many years, from his magnificent composing of community opera We Are Shadows with librettist Hazel Gould to his work on the Big Sing in 2008. John is now joining us as both a performer and composer at our Summer Festival, so we took a moment to talk to him about Firefly Burning and how he got the opportunity to compose for The Sixteen.

Hi John! You’re performing with minimalism-meets-folk ensemble Firefly Burning on Wednesday 11 June – when did the group get together and how did you meet the others?

About six years ago. We had all met on various collaborative projects and had worked in different combinations. We were doing a lot of devising work with non-professional groups (which we all still do!) but wanted to make some music for ourselves. We started by spending almost a year doing free improvisation and gradually we moved towards the opposite end of the spectrum, crafting songs painstakingly and agonising over every detail.

You will be playing a gendèr barung in the performance, as well as playing the piano and singing. For those who don’t know, can you explain what this is and also what stirred your interest in Javanese Gamelan music?

I became really fascinated by gamelan music when I was at university. The rhythms, structures and textures of Indonesian music were the perfect antidote to the more traditional music I was studying on my degree course. I love the way that gamelan is made – people with a high level of virtuosic skill playing rhythms that would make Steve Reich blush sit alongside others who only play a few simple notes.

The gendèr barung is kind of like the glue that holds all the gamelan instruments together. It doesn’t sound very loud on it’s own but it’s so pervasive and it colours everything. Proper players of this instrument (of which I am not one!) can do the most incredible things.

You’re also having one of your compositions performed by The Sixteen – can you tell us about your piece and how the commission came about?

In 2011 I wrote a community opera for Spitalfields Festival called We are Shadows which involved five wonderful singers from The Sixteen. During the process I completely fell in love with choral writing. A year or so after the performance Harry asked me to write some pieces for this concert setting text from the Song of Solomon. At first I wasn’t sure about setting biblical text but as soon as I got to know it I became really obsessed with it – it’s simply the most incredible poem about love.

I’ve arranged my favourite bits of text into three songs. ‘The voice of my beloved’is about falling in love, ‘By night’ is about the pain of separation and ‘love is as strong as death’ is a defiant celebration of the enduring power of love.

What was the first piece of music you ever wrote?

I had to call my mum to ask her the answer to this. Apparently when I was three years old I made up a syncopated tune for ‘this little piggy goes to market’  whilst playing with my little brother’s toes which i then made everyone join in with. I’m still excited by fun rhythms and I still like getting people to join in so I guess not much has changed.

What would your advice be to someone aspiring to be a professional composer?

Yikes. This is hard – different people need such different advice. I’d want to listen to what that composer was interested in before offering any advice I think. I guess the advice I’d give to my younger self is: write what you want to write, try not to be put off by what you think other people want you to write and work practically with other musicians as much as you can. Dots on paper are not the be all and end all – only a tiny fraction of the world’s music is made this way.

And finally, as a composer, performer and workshop leader, why do you think music is important?

If I could put this into words I would. But I guess what I love about music is that it puts things into words that cannot be put into words. (…I’m pretty sure that’s a quote from somewhere…yep, I’ve just checked on google and it’s Victor Hugo…). I’ve had so many experiences where a musical event brings people together in a way that is unique and indescribable. I think that having creative musical experiences is a basic human right and that working as a composer is a real privilege.

Firefly Burning
Wednesday 11 June
Wilton’s Music Hall
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