Richard Barrett – 13 selfportraits (UK Première)

The next quartet i’m including in my Lent series is one that i’ve been grappling with for over a decade. When Richard Barrett’s 13 selfportraits was given its first UK performance at the Huddersfield Festival in 2002, i can’t have been the only person in the audience to have been struck hard by its apparent impenetrability. That’s not an epithet one would usually associate with Barrett; there’s layer upon layer of intricacy and connotation in his work, but almost always borne by material that’s both immediate and strikingly emotional. Put crudely, grasping exactly what Barrett’s on about isn’t always straight forward, but getting where he’s coming from certainly is. All of which makes the 13 selfportraits even more of an unusual and inscrutable entity.

It’s perhaps not unreasonable to find the work problematic; in his programme note, Barrett addresses this when explaining its structural aspects:

Although it does indeed consist of thirteen structural elements (of widely differing durations), these do not follow each other in sequence but are often fragmented, alternated, superimposed and so on; one of them is distributed throughout the work’s duration, ending as well as beginning it, and reappearing within and between the others. So it is neither a composition in several independent parts nor a single unfolding time span, but a combination of the two.

I am rather intrigued by the fact that exactly the same music might be described as “confused and incoherent” or on the other hand “a sequence of exquisite miniatures” depending on whether it presents itself in the form of separate “movements” or not. (Imagine, for example, playing Webern’s op.10 without any breaks between the pieces, or even overlapping them…) The present work attempts not to define itself one way or the other, so that if it does sound confused, then perhaps it might be exquisitely so.

i’ve never actually counted to verify if i can make out thirteen distinct material strands, but in any case that seems beside the point. Self-portraiture is the central concern here, although by citing Rembrandt’s famous series, Barrett sidesteps the prospect that the portraits are of himself (materially, there is a connection to a number of his earlier works, but not in a way intended to be audibly referential). The focus of attention is instead on the impulse that drives a self-portrait into being—introspection—a process that, as in so many of Barrett’s works from this time and earlier “seems to find a certain amount of emptiness”. i’m not sure if 13 selfportraits sounds empty, as such, but it is certainly among the most withdrawn material Barrett has ever composed; often the quartet lurks at the brink of inaudibility, and their sense of inward preoccupation makes listening feel almost intrusive. Beneath the evolving but ever threadbare textures, all swishing bows and splintering tremolos, there seems to be something melodic—lyrical even—at the heart of the material, occasionally brought to the fore in periods of not-quite-unison; it collapses every time, but it’s undoubtedly there. Furthermore, there’s a tenuous but implicit connection to one of Barrett’s most prominent musical inspirations, Franz Schubert; almost eight years earlier, at the conclusion of Vanity, the orchestra subsided to leave a fragile string quartet playing a fragment from Schubert’s Death and the Maiden—curtailed before the final chord. The tonic G can be heard at various points throughout the 13 selfportraits, and the final chord materialises, wafer-thin, at the end.

None of which, to me anyway, seems to make 13 selfportraits any more accessible; it somehow remains a mysterious and even arcane piece despite everything i’ve said about it. That in itself is fascinating; perhaps in the next decade, i’ll find a way in. If more quartets were prepared to take it on (in the UK at least), that might make the task more possible.

This recording is of that first UK performance from 2002, given at the Huddersfield Festival by the Kairos Quartet. Also broadcast was an interview Barrett gave to Alwynne Pritchard, where he explains in more depth his thinking behind the piece.

Richard Barrett – 13 selfportraits (UK Première)

FLAC [101Mb]

Interview

FLAC [35Mb]

Programme Note
Having been written at a time when the majority of my musical activities are exploring different directions in which collaborative work might be taken, 13 selfportraits takes an opposite trajectory. During work on it, I found myself asking what it might mean for music to be “introspective”. When this particular music looks in on itself, it seems to find a certain amount of emptiness – in this and other respects it forms a counterpart to the much denser Blattwerk for cello and electronics. While Blattwerk is centrally concerned with the idea of proliferation, this quartet is often in danger of disappearing altogether.

Although it does indeed consist of thirteen structural elements (of widely differing durations), these do not follow each other in sequence but are often fragmented, alternated, superimposed and so on; one of them is distributed throughout the work’s duration, ending as well as beginning it, and reappearing within and between the others. So it is neither a composition in several independent parts nor a single unfolding time span, but a combination of the two.

I am rather intrigued by the fact that exactly the same music might be described as “confused and incoherent” or on the other hand “a sequence of exquisite miniatures” depending on whether it presents itself in the form of separate “movements” or not. (Imagine, for example, playing Webern’s op.10 without any breaks between the pieces, or even overlapping them…) The present work attempts not to define itself one way or the other, so that if it does sound confused, then perhaps it might be exquisitely so. 13 selfportraits was initially motivated by the sequence of self-portraits by Rembrandt, which embody a poetic documentation of ageing. What could be meant by a musical “selfportrait”?

Another aspect of “introspection” in this music is that much of it derives in various ways from a number of previous works of mine, a feature which, however, one would not often actually hear even with a knowledge of the models in question. I was not interested in “recycling” material or indulging in a private orgy of self-reference; the intention was primarily to make the aforementioned structural elements as disparate as possible from one another in “origin”, as if, like Rembrandt’s images, they spanned a lifetime. 13 selfportraits was written for the Kairos Quartet and was commissioned jointly by Wien Modern and the BBC. It is dedicated to Ingrid Beirer.

—Richard Barrett

Posted on by 5:4 in HCMF, Lent Series
Tags: ,

5 Responses to Richard Barrett – 13 selfportraits (UK Première)

  1. David

    Thanks for these great quartets (and all the other music you make accessible). The Barrett keeps “skipping” and won’t download!

    • 5:4

      Thanks for the comment David; occasionally readers have reported their browsers experiencing difficulties downloading a file, in which case i recommend using JDownloader, which is free & which seems to solve the problem. i just tried the Barrett in JDownloader & it downloaded without any problems in just a couple of minutes. i hope that helps.

  2. Purgatori

    Thank you very much.

  3. alan munro

    Wonderful piece but ended v.abruptly? What is full duration?

    • 5:4

      It lasts 21:40, & the file is 101Mb.

Reply to David

Anti-Spam Quiz: