for voices, ensemble and electronics, composed 1990–2003, duration ca. 80 min,
recorded on the NMC label
DARK MATTER is a large-scale composition that features great contrasts of color, of different kinds of polyphony, of serenity versus violent music bordering on chaos, of slowly evolving music versus fast sound snippets. The form of the work is rather open and does not fall into a particular category. Apart from a common theme and the connecting element of Transmissions, recurring interludes between the sections that are dominated by a hybrid instrument of electric and acoustic guitar, the music is bound together precisely by the overarching element of wide-reaching explorations of ever new territory of musical texture and color. The music is mostly dense and complex, with exciting and often dazzling polyphony. Dark Matter refers to the much larger portion of invisible (non-radiating) matter over visible matter in the universe, inferred by, e.g., the way galaxies rotate and hold together, yet in this work it also stands more generally for "that which is unknown, and possibly unknowable" (Barrett).
There is a lot of writing for solo voice (male voice, mostly in high register, and soprano voice) in DARK MATTER, and it is enormously successful, which is noteworthy and on its own would make the work stand out, apart from the captivating writing for instrumental ensemble and electronics. An achilles' heel of atonal music is the apparent difficulty for a composer to achieve distinctness of melodic lines or textures for solo voices. Too often the listener is confronted with a boring generic similarity of vocal textures to other ones heard before (a pronounced interval leap here, another one there), even if the surrounding instrumental music is interesting or even unique. Yet when a composer is able to write distinctively for solo voice in the atonal medium the results can be riveting, e.g. in Stockhausen's output throughout his career.
Barrett is among the rather few composers of atonal music who consistently manage to produce music for the human solo voice that is distinctive, compelling and memorable. At times extreme vocal techniques are employed in this work, like in the central part featuring mostly high-registered male voice, while other passages employ more regular singing techniques.
The play of colors in the music is remarkable. To name just a few examples: In part three there is a moment, as the cello breaks free on its own, when it turns out that it, and not actual electronic sounds, had been the bottom register of the previous electronic music. In part five an exquisite timbral interplay is created between the plucking of acoustic guitar and a particular kind of percussion, flower pots struck with small sticks. In the central part of the work the wild, growling timbres of electric guitar and contrabass clarinet complement each other in a fascinating way.
The work begins with The Empire of Lights. A falsetto male voice (Carl Rosman who later also plays clarinets), quietly sings lines with gentle slopes of pitch and slight pauses between each word or syllable; the phrasing is frequently emphasized by a talking drum. The vocal lines, presenting a creation myth from the pyramid texts, are ornamented in harmonious polyphony by two flutes, with violin as accompaniment or counter voice. Over time the music evolves towards incorporating more heterogeneity, beginning with the appearance of plucked sounds from acoustic guitar. Later on the soprano voice chimes in, at first forming a quasi-canon with the male falsetto voice, in a seductive extension of the earlier imitative polyphony between voice and instruments. Transmission I (track 2) introduces great contrast with its predominance of agitated, dense guitar sounds; after a while the soprano sings against them with an excited voice, polyphonically ornamented by piccolo flutes.
(The Transmissions are derived from Transmission, a composition for the hybrid electric/acoustic guitar and live electronics. This excellent – enormously varied yet tightly structured – 17-minute composition is found on the CD of the same name, which among others also contains Interference, the solo backbone (contrabass clarinet, voice, bass pedal drum) for the central part of DARK MATTER.)
The third part, Khasma (track 3), presenting Greek cosmological texts, is for string quintet, electronic music, soprano and two flutes. The attractive writing for string quintet features a rather open dialog in which gestures tend to wander between instruments while being transformed. In the middle section the long-stretched sounds of the electronic music rotate in timbre and in space, swaying in cycles within the aural field. In great contrast, the soprano voice not just stands fixed in space; its vocal lines, imbued with a flux of high-voltage energy, are trembling yet at the same time, in a gripping way, 'frozen'. Transmission II, track 4, presents wildly howling electric guitar, which is cut into by violent shreds of sound from electronic music.
De vita coelitus comparanda ('on capturing the life of the stars'), track 5, a Greek invocation to the "blessed one", presents serene, soaring singing by the soprano against which the instrumental ensemble paints often dense "fields of color", leading to the unfolding of sublime beauty. In Transmission III (track 6) the soprano at first continues, with pauses in between phrases, to sing against the guitar.
Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae ('The great art of light and darkness'), track 7, is the central and longest part of the work with a duration of about 15 minutes. The sung Latin text describes the sudden and violent destruction of the world. The part begins with falsetto male voice singing the text with terrified expression and rapid pitch fluctuations. Dense ensemble play follows presenting a quasi-endless rising line, an aural illusion based on ever new ascensions entering at the bottom as they drop out at the top. This thread of two minutes duration at first is fluid, then a bit more broken. An extended section for soloistic playing follows, in which the wild, growling timbres of electric guitar (interjecting into this part the material of Transmission IV) and contrabass clarinet connect to one another, and electronic sound snippets fly around the instrumental gestures. Percussion adds to an atmosphere that seems rather chaotic. Yet the passage, also featuring improvisatory elements, is still sharply controlled on the compositional level, like even the most chaotic events in nature, such as explosions of massive stars in supernovae, are tightly governed by immutable laws. More quiet sections follow, and the part ends with a vocal line ascending over a wide range. In Transmission V (track 8) the soprano sings in a similar manner as in Transmission III; its singing of an existential text by Blaise Pascal against two guitars is beautifully 'shadowed' by the clarinet.
Katasterismoi ('transformation into stars'), track 9, contrasts a large swarm of brief electronic sound snippets in continuous agitation with static long-stretched chords from the ensemble. The electronic snippets are digitally processed from concrete sounds; large-scale processes of slow changes in pattern, shape of sound shreds and timbre are overlaid on the swarm of electronic snippets often flying by with enormous speed. The dissonant static chords from the instrumental ensemble sound uncannily electronic as well, an effect additionally highlighted when later on a very slow electronic downward glissando seamlessly takes over as the component of sustained sound – yet below the surface that glissando, which at first seems smooth, is actually made up of bits of sound.
In Sounds, track 10, the prose of Samuel Beckett of the same title is spoken by the soprano in a measured, rather solemn, beautifully stylized and serene tone. It is contrasted by brief and highly-compressed movements, 'stirrings' (the composer) from ensemble that emerge at several points during the recitation of the text. It is arresting how the colorful music partially comments on the spoken words but at the same time forms its own parallel world.
The work concludes with the final Transmission VI in which "six superimposed guitar parts create a chaotic and meaningless tangle of notes, against which the live [electric] guitar struggles aggressively but is ultimately defeated, first in its attempt to make sense of things and finally in its ability to make any sound at all" (Barrett, from the link on the work on his website, well worth reading in its entirety; the lyrics to the work are available on NMC's website).
© Albrecht Moritz 2012