Proms 2017: Gerald Barry – Canada (World Première)

They may start to behave in ways that are challenging and distressing, both for themselves and those around them. For example, they may:

  • become restless or agitated
  • shout out or scream
  • become suspicious of others
  • follow someone around
  • ask the same question repeatedly.

It is important to look at why the person is behaving this way and try to identify which needs are not being met. This will mean trying to see things from their perspective as much as possible. Meeting a person’s needs appropriately can make these behaviours easier to cope with, or prevent them from happening in the first place.

The above words are paraphrased from guidelines on how to respond to someone grappling with the effects of dementia. They’re a useful starting point, i think for considering the output of Gerald Barry, particularly his most recent offering, Canada, premièred at the Proms last Monday. For while Barry himself may not display the signs of this affliction (though, listening to his painfully weird pre-concert interview with Louise Fryer, one wonders), his music most certainly does. It’s perhaps the archetypal ‘Marmite music’: you either think it’s the best thing since – and the perfect accompaniment to – sliced bread, or a ghastly streak of shit-coloured malevolence that you wish with all your being had never come into existence.

Let me switch analogies for a moment, from dementia to the Mr. Men, and to that most sage of characters, Mr. Jelly. For those unacquainted with the genius of Roger Hargreaves’ children’s books, Mr. Jelly lives up to his name, reacting with instant terror to the slightest of sounds, until a kindly tramp teaches him to count to ten in order to remain calm and appraise the situation properly. It’s not just good advice for life generally, it’s excellent counsel, again, for dealing with Gerald Barry’s music. Because of the extent to which i reviled this piece on first listening, i’ve opted to live with Canada for nearly a week now; i’ve experienced it multiple times, and pondered it at length. And breadth. i’m not sure this was a wise use of time.

The conclusion i’ve reached is that while it occupies these dimensions, it fills them, not with a void, but with an almost indescribably stupid collection of entirely arbitrary, meaningless ideas. There is, i know, absolutely nothing wrong with that. Personally, for many, many years i’ve tried to express to people how much i value incomprehensibility – not just in music but in all the arts – and the benefits that can arise and the fascinating authenticity and expression that can miraculously make themselves apparent in art that (ostensibly at least) seeks to do the complete opposite. Why should music meet us halfway? But in the six minutes of Canada – a duration that has rarely felt so mercifully brief – we find ‘stuff’ that’s neither simple nor recondite, neither single- nor multi-layered, neither posing questions nor seeking to answer them, offering neither superficial delight nor deep profundity. There’s clearly intention to it, but those intentions are at the mercy of an approach to invention that’s less capricious and whimsical than merely frivolous and impassive. The music simply doesn’t seem to care about anything.

Notwithstanding the fact that it doesn’t work superficially, perhaps we might switch off our brains for a while and consider the possibility that it is all meant as straightforward, silly entertainment. Reciting the lines from the Prisoner’s Chorus in Beethoven’s Fidelio – regularly interpolating the word ‘Canada’ – in French and English (Canada’s languages) as well as the original German with wildly histrionic zeal, becoming a kind of madcap recitative: tickled yet? How about when the orchestra then gets going in a lengthy boisterous burst constructed from borrowed mannerisms: laughing now? Or how about when this is done all over again but now in a blasted, dissonant version? No? Okay, then how about when the tenor repeats the word ‘Canada’ again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again over a staccato wind accompaniment like a drunk rendition of ‘Three Blind Mice’: that’s hilarious, right? Surely by the time the music slows and lets fly a tattoo of trombone farts, all of our sides are communally split?

Some works are bad, others are boring, but Canada is just a wretched display of the most rampant bravura idiocy that doesn’t so much require a review as a crash investigation and forensics team. Or, indeed, a team of care-givers who can work hard to “make these behaviours easier to cope with, or prevent them from happening in the first place.” If only. Until now i’d thought of the adjective ‘demented’ as a positive one when describing music, but the musical derangement demonstrated in Canada has ruined it for me. Vacuous, pitiable, demented garbage.

The world première was given by tenor Allan Clayton and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

Gerald Barry – Canada (World Première)

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Gerald Barry – Canada
  • Loved it! (51%, 38 Votes)
  • Liked it (7%, 5 Votes)
  • Meh (9%, 7 Votes)
  • Disliked it (7%, 5 Votes)
  • Hated it! (27%, 20 Votes)

Total Voters: 75

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11 Responses to Proms 2017: Gerald Barry – Canada (World Première)

  1. Daniel Pett

    Like “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue”, I think Gerald Barry should come with the tagline “The antidote to composers”. His twitter Q&A, hosted by NMC (https://storify.com/nmcrecordings/gerald-barry-q-and-a) shows that he is worth of it.

    Personally, I’m really looking forward to how he will apply his “not giving a s***” style to the organ concerto that he’s writing for the CBSO.

    • 5:4

      More an antithesis than an antidote, i reckon!

      • Daniel Pett

        Well exactly. When other composers get a commision, I imagine and hope they try to put as much thought and effort into it as possible. Barry just provided some music which, whilst undeniably for 6 minutes there were musicians doing stuff, was amazingly contentless on an artistic level.

        All of his pieces are just him exploiting the freedom to write almost nothing. Still. I much preferred the stupidity and laziness of conception of Canada to the over-intellectualisation of Grids for Greed

        • 5:4

          I know what you mean by this, particularly as far as Grids for Greed is concerned – not a piece that greatly lived up to the ‘explanations’ of what was supposedly going on…

  2. Steven

    Purcell’s dirty songs are quite ‘contentless on an artistic level’, but they’re rather good fun to listen to and sing. Canada is a six-minute piece of entertainment, and seemed a good fit for the Proms. (I liked it a lot, but will readily admit that the bit he tacked on about surveillance borders on pretentious.)

    There’s something to be said for music that means nothing — refreshingly silly music, music for it’s own mischievous sake. In Canada, Barry gives us taut, highly concentrated, meticulous nonsense. But I wouldn’t say this is necessarily representative of his oeuvre. A work like ‘Beethoven’ could hardly be interpreted as superficial, lazy or stupid.

    Must admit, though, I rather enjoyed your review

  3. Dan JC

    I wonder if Barry’s music has had an influence on a certain Mr. Thomas Adès? I’m aware that you were extremely unimpressed with Adès’ latest operatic effort, and I think I can hear some of Barry’s goofiness, and his love of inserting musical quotations, in that opera. Adès is after all one of Barry’s most vociferous champions…

    Personally I did find this piece quite funny, although I was definitely laughing at it and not with it. I wholly agree with your assessment of it; you really are getting good use out of that “unforgivable just crazily inept bullshit” tag this season. Indeed, as an Irishman myself, I almost feel the need to apologise on behalf of my country for this utter garbage.

    • 5:4

      i’ve generally found Adès’ music has a great deal more going for it (putting it mildly), and his tendency to clown around is very much more measured than Barry’s. Adès is hardly alone in praising Barry, though; as in centuries past, it seems the fool is a character that continues to garner a very particular kind of curious admiration.

  4. Jen

    The lack of understanding you have for this piece and the degree to which it therefore infuriates you, just makes me confirm my love for it. Terrible review.

    • 5:4

      Thanks for the comment, Jen. i certainly wasn’t infuriated by it – at least, not once a little time had passed(!) — but as will have been clear, i did find it enormously irritating and frustrating.

      i’d be interested to hear what you thought of it, and where you thought my understanding was lacking.

  5. Bob

    I think it’s silly to write such a negative review of such a nothingy piece. Barry’s already an amazing composer, The Intelligence Park and Chevaux-de-frise are the best things since 1980 imo. ENO got similar reviews for Petra Von Kant in 2005 (?) from people who didn’t get it. It’s not for everyone, sure, but I think one’s reaction to his music says a lot about the listener. Some people get the joke, others get frustrated looking for a joke. I guess it depends how comfortable you are outside your musical comfort zone.

    • 5:4

      i think it’s silly to advocate anything other than giving good pieces positive reviews and bad pieces negative reviews. If the alternative is only to write positive reviews and avoid writing about the bad stuff, then i don’t think that’s a very meaningful or indeed truthful engagement with new music.

      And for what it’s worth, i don’t particularly have a musical comfort zone, and my reasons for disliking the Barry piece had nothing to do with such a non-existent zone. In general, absurdity and incomprehensibility are both fine by me.

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