Profile by John Shand
It was Mark Simmonds, the maker of Australia’s most intense jazz, who first spotted Simon Barker’s promise. That was over two decades ago; two decades during which Barker has made himself the most original drummer/percussionist in the country. This is partly thanks to his intensive study of traditional Korean music, but then even the fact he undertook that study reflects a distinctive mind-set: an innate curiosity that underpins the work of significant artists from Turner to Picasso and from Beethoven to John Coltrane.
Barker has also worked with Mark Isaacs, Scott Tinkler, Paul Grabowksy, Rick Robertson, Carl Dewhurst, Stu Hunter, Cameron Undy, Sandy Evans, Matt McMahon and Phil Slater, enjoying a rapport with the latter pair for his entire adult life. Their collaborations have included projects assembled by Barker around the astounding Korean Pansori singer Bae Il Dong. Add the fact that he now lectures at Sydney Conservatorium and there was surely much to talk about other than running. Running? Yes, amid all the music Barker finds time to be a long-distance barefoot runner!
‘About 10 years ago I felt that when I was playing I was getting tired, mentally and physically,’ he explains, ‘and couldn’t sustain the kind of energy that I would have liked to. I was running a lot, but I kept getting injured. One day I went for a run with Carl Dewhurst, who had decided to experiment with barefoot running, and Carl’s really great with technique, whether it’s music or yoga or anything. So I went for a run with him without shoes on, and had this kind of epiphany. It was the most intense sense of natural physical well-being and pleasure that I’d ever experienced. So I just committed at that moment to really exploring what this kind of running could be for me. From then on I’ve been running pretty much every day, and that’s built up over time to being able to run 70 kilometres, now. That’s helped me in all sorts of ways in my playing and daily life.’
If running barefoot for eight hours sounds like an act of prodigious willpower Barker disagrees. ‘There is a sense of willpower in that you have to say I will go out and do it,’ he says, ‘but it’s so pleasurable, and there’s so little impact in terms of no feeling pain and not getting injured if you’re doing it well… It gives you this incredible sense of strength and posture-focus, and when you bring that to playing, the benefits are extraordinary.’
These benefits for his playing extend beyond stamina and posture to mental focus. ‘The first thing to go when you get tired is your concentration,’ he observes. ‘I’m playing with people like Phil Slater, Scott Tinkler and Matt McMahon who require you to be focused and able to process lots of musical information for long periods of time. This has really helped in that way.’
The Runner at Work
Anyone who has seen Barker live will know just fluid he is behind the kit, something he used to think was more conceptual than physical until he studied with Korean drummer Kung Sun Il. Kung’s approach combined the playing of a rhythm with specific motions of the body and breathing techniques. ‘That gave me a sense that every rhythmic idea I wanted to explore could go through this physical process,’ says Barker. ‘Being relaxed when you play, and producing a warm, broad sound is such a physical thing, and it requires you to understand what’s happening when the stick’s hitting the drum, and how you’re manipulating that. None of those things for me were natural, so I had to learn them.’
Despite the unique path that Barker’s artistry has followed he is not in the business of churning out Korean-oriented drummers from the Conservatorium, so much as stripping their learning back to basic technique. ‘Your creative self being much more advanced than the actual drumming side of yourself can get really dangerous later on,’ he suggests, ‘because you can be conceptually really advanced, but still unable to articulate any of the ideas. I like to focus on being really relaxed, so whenever they just produce a sound it’s pleasurable and it feels good to do it.’
Barker actually feels uncomfortable about pushing his students in in any stylistic direction, let alone that which he has pursued himself. ‘Taste is such a strange thing,’ he opines, ‘and everyone’s coming to it from different places, and heading in directions we don’t know… I wouldn’t want to teach them what I’m doing now. They can come up with their own things later.’
The Korean Connection
Barker now has a pool of players with whom to pursue his ideas of combining Western and Korean musical vocabulary. This year his extraordinary Mujing project included Slater, (trumpet), Dewhurst (guitar), Matt McMahon (piano), Bae Il Dong (vocals) and, making his debut with these players, Australia’s shakuhachi master Riley Lee. It is Lee from whom Barker has intermittently been learning shakuhachi since 2006, as may be heard on his recent solo album Descalzo (Barefoot).
He restricts his composing activities to these solo pieces, however. ‘The sort of solo things I do take a long time,’ he says. ‘It seems that for a two-minute piece it’s a couple of years’ work in terms of new rhythms, new techniques and new vocabularies, and then turning it into something… It’s not about song-form and pitch, it’s about rhythm aesthetic, which is very different, and again it’s not something that is such a big part of jazz musicians’ lives.’
This is another concept to which Korean music introduced him. ‘Something about it really clicked,’ he says. ‘Like this idea of, “Can I produce music that’s satisfying to me with just two wood-blocks, and what would I do if that were the case?”… There’s a focus with jazz drummers that when they’re experimenting with new ideas it has to be able to work in a standard song-form context. That’s something I’ve thought about a lot and felt that I was willing to let go, and see if it can just be music for itself.’
Although Barker avoids pushing students in stylistic directions he does encourage them to emulate his curiosity about music made in our corner of the world, with its potential for engendering a fresh improvising language. ‘There’s things around here that can help them understand ways of playing that perhaps it’s harder to get if you just look to America all the time,’ he says. ‘If they’re listening to hip hop music you can listen to traditional Aboriginal music and some of those same rhythms are in there, which is amazing… There’s so much to learn here, and I think when you go to something that is associated with traditional music, you’re thinking about it with different ears and a different mind, and it helps you maybe see something in your own playing that you couldn’t see when you’re focusing more on jazz styles. Regional music is interesting to me because it’s here and we can actually experience it first-hand if we like. You can’t get that kind of experience from recordings.’
This was an attitude that Phil Slater encountered from the late Peter Sculthorpe many years ago when studying composition, and Barker acknowledges that Slater, in turn, has been instrumental in opening his own ears to new options. That Barker, Slater and McMahon collaborate just as closely now as 20 years ago, when all three have found their own paths as artists, is remarkable. They have come a long way from devouring Wynton Marsalis records together.
‘Even though we are checking out all this other music we’re also jazz nuts,’ says Barker. ‘We’re still talking about the same records we were talking about when we met, and so for me it feels like nothing’s really changed. We’re just all trying to understand things in music, and the way others have approached it, and I guess our listening’s expanded as well. But ultimately we’re asking the same kinds of questions we were asking way back then.’
They are just finding new answers.
Simon Barker on the web – at Kimnara – kimnara.com.au
Simon Barker on the Sydney Conservatorium of Music website