There are only a handful of living composers whose new works I invariably feel I must hear. Off the top of my head this includes: Sofia Gubaidulina, Kalevi Aho, Arvo Part, James MacMillan — and the latest addition would be Gerald Barry.
Gerald Barry’s music has the rather special quality of being challenging and mind-boggling while also being immediately accessible and, on the whole, rather merry. Even his most violent music makes me smile giddily.
Canada began its life unusually. Barry was in a Canadian airport, terribly stressed, and upon finally making it through security and to the bar, an idea came to him: a setting of Beethoven’s ‘Prisoners’ Chorus’ in English, French and German, all with the original text or translation — except for one addition, the word ‘Canada’.
Canada is a short piece, hardly ten minutes long. It begins with an exclamation by tenor Allan Clayton, then frenzied orchestration, then sorts of musical exercises, until finally Clayton shushes the orchestra into silence.
Canada is ‘everyday and other’, Barry said in the interview broadcast in the interval. (It is worth listening to the entire interview, in which he demonstrates his remarkable ability to make the banal seem exciting.) Exemplifying this, one section sees Clayton singing musical exercises Barry wrote when he was nineteen. This is all set to one word (I’ll let you guess which one). The exercises keep repeating, and with each repeat sound sillier, to what sounded in the radio recording like much laughter from the Prommers. It is like when you keep saying certain words over and over again: the normal becomes unfamiliar and amusing. As I think I’ve said before, Barry’s music, like Beethoven’s, does a hell of a lot with very little. It’s economic, tightly-controlled, inspired music.
The piece ends with a simple dialogue between Clayton and the orchestra. In it Clayton is Fidelio and the orchestra are the prisoners. Fidelio says ‘softly’ and the orchestra replies ‘Canada’, each time quieter than the last. Fidelio is teaching the orchestra how to be quiet and discreet.
At the end, the radio presenter told us that Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (the conductor, and one to watch out for) burst out laughing and embraced Barry.
You can listen to the concert on the Radio 3 site for the next 30 days.