Steve Barry: “My music is a broad canvas traversing between schematics and watercolours”

I struggle finding something to top John Hardaker’s description of Steve Barry, so I might as well stop trying and just repeat it: “Barry is not only a musical cosmonaut in the sense of an intrepid and fearless space explorer, but the universe he explores is largely one of his own making.” This universejust expanded recently, with the addition of ‘Blueprints & Vignettes’, his latest album, which he discusses in great detail, in this interview.

How did ‘Blueprints & Vignettes’ come to be?

There were a few catalysts for the record. The first was coming across set theory in David Cope’s Techniques of the Contemporary Composer and starting to play around with those sounds. In pitch-class sets I found a systematic way of investigating some ideas I’d discovered playing jazz and standard repertoire approaches to harmonising V7 chords, for example – say using a major7 (b9) as a substitute for a regular dominant- or basing melodic lines on small cells of notes. I’m fascinated by harmonic colour, so the last couple of years of have definitely been a kid-in-a-candy-shop period.

The second stimulus was hearing people like Matt Mitchell (on Fiction and Vista Accumulation), Marc Hannaford (Can You See With Two Sets of Eyes), Kris Davis (Waiting for You to Grow), Tyshawn Sorey (Oblique-1) and Scott Tinkler using pitch-set-like material in really broad and interesting ways – Blueprints & Vignettes is very much a reflection of their influence.

How did you work on it?

I set out to explore the full spectrum of tone colours that could be derived from each individual set, and covered most of the possible unique intervallic groupings of four or five notes. Most of the pieces on Blueprints & Vignettes are the product of inversions and transpositions of different collections of seed sets – in each case around 5-9 members. I discovered that each individual set could be arranged (both vertically and horizontally) to produce a more or less dissonant tonality; each set contained a spectrum between (to my ears) structural stability and volatility. It was interesting how much just swapping the top and bottom or internal notes of a voicing, or expanding or contracting the range of a melodic line could change its character.

There’s also plenty of space for open-ended/free improv on the record, in most cases based on and expanding the themes of the compositions.

When I first listened to the album, the thing that impressed me was its pace and its use of space, both in arrangements and in the compositions themselves; how would you describe your approach to both elements?

Pieces like Primed do have very systematic approaches to space;Part 2 is all formed around chord durations based on prime numbers, which contrasts with the soundscape-y/toy-instrument/extended-techniques free improv underneath the rubato melodic line in Part 1. I also wanted to juxtapose different types of musical activity – Mammoth ambles between sections of density and spaciousness, with each section being a different permutation of the material in the first few bars of the piece. The opening of Grind uses a cycling series of semi-quaver durations which gradually shifts through modes of itself, and the solo section is based on the same structure instead with longer durations. In #34 we freely morph the various themes of the head into a sort of collectively emerging hodgepodge. Ultimately my aim was to investigate the type of rule-based composition strategies that were pretty new to me at the start of the project, while allowing plenty of space for the guys to do their thing and bring it all to life.

How did you choose the musicians you worked with?

Dave Goodman, Max Alduca and I started playing together as a trio a couple of years ago and quickly discovered this really intuitive and empathetic way of navigating free improv. Jeremy Rose and I had been playing some duo for a while, and with both his vast knowledge as a composer and his beautiful sound on the bass clari was the obvious choice to round off the quartet. They are also top blokes!

The guys really got stuck in, and were amiable the whole way through to my relatively frequent edits and additions. I also didn’t write any drum-specific parts, so Dave pretty much just memorised all the material – no mean feat! The whole thing was an interesting process, in the sense that the compositions were very much open to revision after playing them through as a band; sections would stick out as being too formulaic or having an awkward flow, notation may have to be clarified rhythmically for ease of reading, or melodies were added to act as holding patterns as transitions from free improv back into the composition to minimise ambiguity/etc. I even rewrote/added a few things in between the recording and the release.

Everyone put a lot of time into the project, and there’s no way I could have realised it without the guys’ dedication, musicality and mateship.

How would you describe your music to someone not familiar with it?

One foot in the jazz tradition and one foot in contemporary classical music – a broad canvas traversing between schematics and watercolours.

Who is your ideal listener?

Interesting question… anyone who comes to the gig? Haha. Really anyone prepared to turn up with an open mind and open ears.

If ‘Blueprints & Vignettes’ was the soundtrack for a movie, what kind of movie would that be?

Oh man, that’s a hard one… zero idea on any sort of narrative. I can picture a static image though – the music is hugely influenced by Kandinsky’s paintings, particularly pieces like Composition VIII with its juxtaposing of circles and sharp lines – and those colours!

What inspires you?

Many things. At the risk of rattling off cliches, nature. My fiance and I live just down the road from Sydney’s Callan Park, a fairly large parkland 10-minutes from town littered with asbestos-ridden decrepit old buildings, which is a great place to pretend to escape the city. I spent a couple of weeks at the Arts Centre in Banff last year, and some time in rural New Zealand last week; I’m finding more and more that it’s things like hiking, cycling and generally decompressing away from the city that spawn new creative ideas – it’s easy to lose that open headspace around the usual work and teaching routines.

Developing world travel, abstract art, practical philosophy (e.g. talks and content from Alain de Botton’s School of Life) and good design (especially urban/landscape/architecture) have all helped drive fresh perspectives over the last few years.

Finally and obviously, all of the incredible music that keeps coming out of Australasia.

Who are your heroes?

Bjarke Ingels is the first to come to mind – a Danish starchitect revolutionising the way we consider urban spaces, sustainable living and community, particularly in the face of climate change. One project transforms a trash recycling centre into a giant roof top, man-made snow-park and ski-slope, complete with a chimney that puffs a giant smoke ring when various plant-efficiency targets are met. Awesome.

My now old friend and mentor Roger Manins is another without whom I likely wouldn’t have found the joy in playing music that propelled me to keep exploring it. As well as being a monster musician, Rog has also been a transformative influence on the jazz scene in Auckland, together with his partner Caroline and local saxophonist Ben McNicoll and the club (Creative Jazz Club Aotearoa) they founded nearly 10 years ago.

What does jazz mean to you?

I can only echo what plenty of people have said before: to me jazz can be attached to any music that holds innovation, imagination and improvisation at its core, acts as an inter-cultural medium of sharing and dispersing musical and philosophical knowledge, and promotes interpersonal understanding and empathy.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

My fiance and I are planning a wedding, so it’d have to be Hakuna Matata from the Lion King.

Steve Barry Launches ‘Blueprints and Vignettes’ at the Jazz Lab, on Tuesday 27 February

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