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An Interview with Charlie Barber

Given the recent success of The Artist, it would appear that NYWOW’s performances this year have been timed to perfection. Not that anybody planned it that way. ‘Ty Cerdd first mentioned this project to me 18 months ago’ Charlie Barber tells me, ‘so nobody knew about The Artist.’ It is serendipitous that these live performances of Barber’s new score for the recently reconstructed The Fall of the House of Usher take place in a climate of renewed interest in silent cinema.

Charlie Barber

The form has been one close to Barber since his production company, Sound Affairs, started doing projects featuring live performances of newly-composed film scores in the late 90s. ‘I discovered it was quite a nice medium to work in. It was reasonably easy to tour and, from a marketing point of view, the venue managers could see it as an interesting thing to sell to their audiences. Unlike contemporary music concerts, where it’s sometimes difficult to attract audiences, with something like this, OK you would be dealing with contemporary music, but there was a visual aspect as well.’

It is the early silent films which prove to hold the most meaning for Barber. While the mass production of culture can be an obstacle for some, he finds them to be an overwhelming connection to the past. ‘All these amazing people, performances and personalities are captured on celluloid and they’re there pretty much for eternity.’ But it is the juxtaposition of past and present which he finds most captivating, ‘because the live music is often pumping out some emotional surge or energy to this thing which is from a previous century, on which you can see the performers there emoting in their own way, in their own time.’

So how does Barber go about composing the music to underscore this visual emotion? ‘It’s not really music that’s written for the film scene by scene as it goes along’, he says. ‘It’s not meant to underscore what is happening visually – the music is independent of the film. What’s happened sometimes is that I write a section and once I’ve written that and I think it works as music then I’ll find a place in the film to put it.’

‘When you try it against the images – because the music’s got its own structure, its own architecture which makes complete musical sense and logic – there are going to be points where you think, "my goodness, I hadn’t planned on that happening there, that’s amazing." I find that more interesting, because the music has been driving along to that point, and maybe visually the film hasn’t been driving the same way; but it makes that point, visually, pregnant with some sort of meaning. I prefer to do it that way rather than to try and manipulate it.’

In 2002, the chamber ensemble Entr’acte premiered an earlier version of Barber’s score to accompany a 35-minute version of the film. How does this new score compare to its precursor?

‘It was quite clear when I began this new score that I wouldn’t have enough material to just rescore the original. A lot of the material has been developed in different ways, and also it is 10 years since I wrote the previous score. In those 10 years I’ve hopefully developed and a lot of new influences have gone into the melting pot.’

And how did he find the process of rescoring for a much larger ensemble? ‘I was quite keen to use the whole ensemble,’ he says, ‘but the other challenge is to keep all the musicians involved all the time, and not to give them 197 bars rest!’

Joe O’Connell, Cardiff University

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