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Interview with Charlie Barber about his 2016 National Youth Choir of Wales commission,

Muse of Fire




Mae'r cynnwys hwn ar

gael yn Saesneg yn unig.

Charlie Barber has been a distinctive figure in the Welsh music scene since the 1970s, drawing his influences from an eclectic range of sources including inimalism, renaissance polyphony and hip hop.  He has created a highly individual catalogue of work across many artforms including dance, film, installation and performance art.  We caught up with him recently to ask him about Muse of Fire, his new commission for the National Youth Choir of Wales.

What was your starting point for Muse of Fire?

In summer 2015, Tŷ Cerdd approached me regarding the possibility of writing a new work for the National Youth Choir of Wales to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.  Rather than using one of Shakespeare’s sonnets as my text, or a speech from one of his plays, I thought it might be interesting to gather together various fragments, or rather metaphors, from his works that contain references to a single theme.

The idea of ‘fire’ seemed to be a rich source and from dozens of quotations, I selected four which spoke to me directly on a number of themes: love, inspiration, destiny and death.
How did the text you chose influence your compositional approach?
The music has grown out of my interest in Renaissance vocal music as well as more recent research into the music composed for early productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

Are you a particular fan of the works of Shakespeare?
The works of Shakespeare have influenced my own music on a number of occasions. As a young composer in my twenties, I composed music for several theatre companies, including productions of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet and Two Gentlemen of Verona. 
Recently, I’ve been working on a concert version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest for voice and period instruments: countertenor, two viola da gamba, harpsichord, baroque oboe, sackbut and violone. As well as my own compositions, the programme includes works by Henry Purcell, Matthew Locke and Thomas Linley written for different productions of the play during the 17th and 18th centuries.

When did you start composing and what or who were your early passions and influences?
When I was a teenager living in Newport, my school music teacher arranged for me to have composition lessons with David Wynne. I used to come across every week from Newport to the Welsh College of Music & Drama (as it was called then) in Cardiff Castle. 

The earliest and most influential experience I had in my mid-teens was the music of Alban Berg. I remember seeing a production of Lulu at that time and I had all the scores and recordings of Alban Berg’s works. The other person I was particularly interested in was Hans Werner Henze, and through the plays of Bertolt Brecht, the music of Kurt Weill. 
I had already written some incidental music for theatre, including music and songs for two separate productions of Brecht’s play The Caucasian Chalk Circle, when I was invited to work with Agnes Bernelle, who was a cabaret singer of the Lotte Lenya mould. 

Around the same time, I was asked to work on another Brecht / Weill music theatre piece, Die Kleine Mahagonny. Out of that experience, I met some musicians who wanted to set up a contemporary music group and The New Arts Consort was formed which lasted about ten years. 
Other early influences were the French artist, film-maker, poet and dramatist Jean Cocteau; the German Expressionist silent cinema; Japanese Kabuki theatre; the French author and activist Jean Genet; as well as the theatre of Lindsay Kemp – the last an early mentor for both David Bowie and Kate Bush.

Can you give us a little more insight into how you compose? – ie. methods you use, how things come to you.An important and crucial element to my work has been collaborations across a number of different artforms, including dance, film, installation and performance art. This has resulted in a rich series of partnerships, exchanges of ideas and exploring the creative process with artists working in other disciplines.


Contrast, or dramatic tension, plays a strong part in my work, not only within the music itself but also in juxtaposition with another artform, such as dance or silent film. In my own composition methods, I am particularly drawn to older structural music forms, such as passacaglia (or ground bass), and various forms of canon, as well as hocket techniques, palindromic constructions and rhythmic schemes derived from music of other cultures.


Can you tell us a little about your artistic interests and influences?
During the course of my life, there have been many interests and influences. Although the music of the American minimalists in the late 70s formed one of the starting points for my own music, equally important were the influences of World music and the use and deconstruction of the music of the past. 

At one stage, I was particularly  interested in African music – I was intrigued by the rhythms of African drumming and wanted to find out how all that happened, how it evolved, and what was going on in those rhythms. At another stage, I became very interested in Indonesian gamelan music – especially as it is one of the earliest forms of orchestral music. And similarly later on, Indian music and the Raga system.
Some interests and influences are fuelled by specific research into current projects. The music for Salomé, for instance – four live percussionists performing alongside the 1923 silent film starring Nazimova – was totally inspired and motivated by the rhythms and time structures of Arabic music. For Michelangelo Drawing Blood, my research took me into on the musical processes employed by Franco-Flemish composers working in Italy during the sixteenth century.

What is your musical philosophy?
I’ve never had that notion of ‘boundaries’ between different musical genres. Some people seem to believe that a work, or even an art form, has certain parameters; I just don’t see those ‘walls’ as existing. And I think looking at other types of music and world music just helps to reinforce that: even though they may have evolved in different ways, there do seem to be certain things which are just like basic ‘building blocks’.

I’m a strong believer in John Cage’s and Merce Cunningham’s idea of two art forms running together in parallel, so one art form isn’t dependent on the other supporting it. It seems to me that a sort of ‘electricity’ is generated – a kind of synergy between the juxtaposition of two or more different strands which often provides a unique stimulating and illuminating experience. This concept has informed a lot of my work, whether it’s with music and film, music and theatre, music and dance, or so on. 

What’s your next project?
Currently, I’m working on a few different projects: a new orchestral work, a chamber ensemble project for touring, and a couple of other ideas still in the early development stages. And, most importantly, clearing out my work space for new adventures!

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