Richard Barrett – Interference (1996-2000)
for contrabass clarinet solo, voice and bass drum
Carl Rosman, contrabass clarinet/voice/bass drum
Janet Sinica, video/editing
Jan Böyng, editing
Stephan Schmidt, recording producer/editing
Some pieces are more personal than others: for me, Interference is very much at one end of the spectrum.
The score tells me that Richard started this piece, commissioned by the ELISION Ensemble, in 1996. I no longer know precisely (this was back in the days of telephone calls, and of slowly self-erasing faxes on thermal paper) at what point Richard informed me that he had dreamt a beginning in which I sang Latin in high falsetto while accompanying myself on a pedal bass drum. But so it happened, and it has been a great pleasure to watch the reactions of many different audiences to the opening over the last twenty-plus years.
Richard being Richard, he was of course interested in exploring specifics of my voice. I had no real training beyond a handful of lessons and many hours spent singing in various choirs and chamber groups, but I had done a few little experiments for myself over the years (partly spurred by hearing Julius Eastman’s recording of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King), and Richard had heard me perform solos such as Globokar’s Voix Instrumentalisée and Richard David Hames’ Zurna which combine clarinet playing with various kinds of vocal gymnastics. I knew that he had a thing about F natural and was happy to inform him that f’’ at the top of the treble stave was a nice safe-ish limit for my falsetto; at the other end of the range I could reach the lowest note of the contrabass clarinet as an inhaled subharmonic, a fact which Richard exploited in having the opening vocal solo end, and the following first entry of the instrument begin, on this very note.
As it happened, interference gave me a modest unexpected parallel career as a vocalist: Xenakis’s Kassandra was an obvious next port of call, and was followed by performances in Vienna, staged by La Fura dels Baus, of Xenakis’s complete Oresteïa. (Among other things, I was required to run up the steps of the Karlskirche wearing stilts.) The first of several requests to sing Eight Songs for a Mad King (an unforgettable experience, with Max himself in attendance) followed not long after—all ultimately thanks to Richard’s dream of interference’s opening, and most appropriate given that it was Max’s piece which had piqued my curiosity in the kinds of singing I brought to interference.
Richard joked around the time of the premiere that there was presumably no need for an exclusivity clause in the commission contract. As it turned out, not even two years had elapsed since the first performance (in May 2000) when Dominique Clément gave the Paris premiere, and the piece has not lacked for performers since (Richard Haynes, Theo Nabicht, and Lori Freedman to name a few)—testimony of the power of unusual performance demands to attract adventurous performers rather than, as is usually feared, the opposite.
I remember thinking early in the work’s career, concerning the vocal part: I wonder if I’ll still be able to do this at 40? As it turned out, my misgivings were to a certain extent justified. 40 was fine, as it turned out, but for my vocal cords at 50 the sustained high beginning is just a little too much of a strain. It’s a pity, since the purely instrumental side of the piece has never been quite so enjoyable, and recent advantages in page-turning technology have certainly improved the logistical side of things—and only now has there been such a good chance to make a video, as part of the wave of such things prompted by a certain pandemic. Alas, I now have to start the piece a whole-tone lower than written (with Richard’s kind understanding)—not the happiest chapter for me in the interference story, but part of it nonetheless. I don’t know how much longer it will make sense for me to continue to perform what has probably been my signature piece for most of my professional career. But for now I can still stand by the result, and hopefully there will be a few more chances yet before I have to start the piece any lower…