Clarence Barlow portrait
13 min read

Clarence Barlow

A Personal Reminiscence

Clarence Barlow, “a genial, gregarious soul with a delightful sense of humour”, and my perhaps most important composition teacher, passed on recently. That’s gotten me listening through recordings of his music, revisiting some of his lectures and interviews, and thinking through some of what I learnt from him.

In the late eighties, while a music student at the University of the Witwatersrand, I came across Summer Gardeners, Kevin Volans’ collection of interviews with composers at the 1984 Darmstadt Summer Courses. Something of a counterpart to Walter Zimmerman’s Desert Plants, a collection of 23 interviews with American composers conducted nearly a decade earlier. 1 Deeply interested in composition, but without much of a composition ‘scene’ in South Africa, I poured over those interviews again and again, eagerly soaking up their perspectives. Feldman, who later became the subject of my dissertation, and whose texts Zimmerman collected and published, was one of those interviewed, as was Clarence: talking about tunings that could be recalculated on the fly as one moved from one key to another, and the importance of punk in shaking things up a little.

After completing my studies in South Africa, and finding myself the fortunate recipient of a DAAD scholarship, the intention was to study with Walter Zimmerman in Berlin. Things took a different turn however and after two years in Bremen I ended up in The Hague, where, while not officially a Sonology student, I made good use of the Royal Conservatory’s openness, spending many a day wandering down the basement corridor to Clarence’s studio tucked away at the back.

My first ‘real life’ encounter with Clarence was at the Darmstadt Ferienkurse in 1994. I found myself amongst a small group of people granted a preview (in a small room on a very hot afternoon) of Farting Quietly in Church, a music-theatre ‘lecture’ that Clarence had created for baritone, 6 computers, and MIDI player piano. My next encounter was at the Ubersee Museum in Bremen (during my time studying there), with Clarence placed in-between the grass huts and canoes of the their permanent Oceania exhibition, performing live with his Autobusk software and creating a music that I could somewhat relate to Kevin Volan’s Mbira for two harpsichords (in an African tuning).

Algorithmic composition (as opposed to spontaneous compostion, to adopt his own distinction) was Clarence’s big thing. His ability to give a (mathematical) structure to his ideas, often expressed in the form of a computer program, lent itself beautifully to teaching. He could aid students in finding a more precise form for their ideas – perhaps establishing a set of ratios for the underlying tempi of a composition, to take an example, rather than simply ‘plucking them out of the air’. Sometimes even doing a little programming himself to help the process along, all of which brought a very hands on aspect to developing the compositions in question, rather than questions of style or taste.

“Style is not the way to begin a composition” – that was Kevin’s motto and might very well be taken to have been Clarence’s as well. The focus on how to give expression to an idea meant that, for both Clarence and his students, it was possible to somewhat side-step the often stifling criteria of the post-war new music ‘style police’ and get on with creating something on its own merits. The focus was not so much on how an idea fitted in with a particular aesthetic, as on making it into a piece, whatever its form, and in whatever medium that might be.

* * *

In the late seventies Clarence made a large number of field recordings over a period of three months in Calcutta, the city of his birth, later forming them into a large 8-track soundscape (or radio play as he described it, crediting Kagel with having opened up that medium to include ambient sound). I was very intrigued by the simple structural idea underlying the piece – two minutes of sound (from the various locations recorded) for each hour of the day, organised chronologically from midday to midday, creating a portrait of a day in the life of the city condensed into 48 minutes. I took a similar approach with my soundscape A Walk with Bongi in Alex, adapting the scheme to two and a half minutes for each hour of the day – making for 24 hours covered over the span of 60 minutes. 2

I remember a lecture in which Clarence also showed photographs from the various recording locations along with anecdotes and short stories related to them, before playing the 8 track version of the piece – something sadly not available to others in some form or another.3

Around the year 2000, Clarence expanded on that idea using a similar structure, this time undertaking a trip around the world, in 80 days as it turned out, making sound recordings and taking video as he went. Some of the audio from that trip was presented in a lecture shortly after his return, and later presented as the piece Zero Crossing on German radio. The video aspect had to wait some fifteen years to be realised with the help of students while a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and turned into a film.

“Im Januar am Nil” (1984) – Spiral Structure
“Im Januar am Nil” (1984) – Spiral Structure

It occurs to me that circular forms play a structural role in many of his pieces. The cycle of the day in CCU. Circumnavigating the world in Zero Crossing. The spiral structure of Im Januar am Nil. The orbits and historical cycles of 1981 for piano trio. The overlapping circles of Les Ciseaux de Tom Johnson.

Two Stages in “Les Ciseaux de Tom Johnson” by Clarence Barlow
Two Stages in “Les Ciseaux de Tom Johnson”

Clarence once mentioned the idea of writing a novel using the structure of a Möbius strip – which I remember made a particularly strong impression on me given the weight traditionally placed on the aspects such as character and dramatic narrative when it comes to that form.

* * *

Clarence didn’t solely define himself as a composer, although composing was certainly an activity he devoted a lot of time and energy to. While perhaps closest that mould, his creative impulses led him in many directions: Music derived from visuals, visuals derived from music. Speech music. Language. Films. Soundscapes. Software. Teaching. Research. The principles and structural aspects of one area could find expression in another.

Clarence took a wide perspective in which the post-war ‘avant-garde’ was simply one aspect of a broader picture stretching out over history and beyond the borders of Europe. His research into both (the perception of) sound and the musical forms it was organised into, cut to the point in what he chose to focus on in a way that I rarely came across during the many years of my musical education. That research found expression in both the software and music he created, as well as his teaching, with the concise materials collected in his Musiquantics book something I still regularly refer to.

In terms of other figures on the (European) music scene the one he perhaps felt himself closest to was Xenakis. Clarence’s attempts at formalising music (as reflected in his Autobusk software, for example) bear some resemblance to a similar drive by Xenakis, someone who also pioneered the use computers at a time in which it was unusual for composers to do so, and also embraced a wide range of fields over a broad range of history, creating events and visuals with a shared basis in his musical principles, alongside soundscapes and software.

* * *

Speech music was another aspect that captured my imagination (for better or for worse!) forming the basis of a number of my own pieces, amongst them Popular Memories and Antjie in Berlin. The idea that the sound structure of speech could itself be a material – a kind of found object on which one could build music. While I’ve tended to focus mainly on the melodic aspect, Clarence’s ‘synthrumentation’ technique is involved with phonemes as much as speech melodies, and given masterly expression in his ensemble piece Im Januar am Nil.

Clarence had a wonderful facility with language, commanding many of them, and enjoyed the play that could arise when shifting from one to another. Klarenz, his German alter ago, or his American manifestation as Barlus Californiae.4 A gifted communicator, something that greatly contributed to his teaching activities, the particular clarity of his English was a pleasure in itself, as if he somehow managed to lift spoken language to some special level that resonated with the clarity of his thought.

Given his many fields of interest Clarence didn’t completely fit into the contemporary music scene with its premiere-chasing demand for new pieces by celebrated personalities. His teaching activity meant that he could complete and present works at his own pace – sometimes over a period of decades. He eschewed self promotion, avoiding any push to ‘market’ his music. As attested to by the many pieces composed on the occasion of the birthdays of performers or composers he was close to, the aspect of creativity as a ‘gift’, one to be both received and passed on to others, was central to his approach.

* * *

I think back of Clarence and his beloved Atari and how his beginnings in an earlier age of computing gave him a relationship to it very different from the modern software environments that we know today. While computers have improved greatly both in terms of their practicality and power, there’s something refreshing in the directness of the Pascal examples5 that he included in some of the earlier versions of his Musiquantics book. The sense of programming as a tool to get something done. Still a bicycle for the mind rather than the inscrutable automation of a modern vehicle.6 With my own recent excursions in Lua I’ve been rediscovering a little of that pleasure.

While very much coming from the world of composition I appreciate Clarence for showing a path in which creativity could take on many forms, each of them cross-pollinating the other7, however always with music at the core of it all.8 I appreciate his thorough (non-reactionary) look into the workings of tunings, harmony, and perception, placing Schoenberg’s serial bottleneck and the avant-garde it spawned in a wider historical and geographical context.

* * *

While perhaps not immediately apparent, the ‘Compositions’ page on his website contains links to a number of scores and soundfiles. I wish though for a better presentation of his collected works, one in which the photographs from the Calcutta recording locations might be presented alongside the audio, to pick an example. In which the visual representations of Relationships #4 (1976) for 2 pianos are presented alongside the audio, rather than spread across different locations on the web, as they are now.9 I’m wondering if something along those lines will be undertaken.

Relationships #4 (1976) for 2 pianos – colour plan
Relationships #4 (1976) for 2 pianos – colour plan

In the meantime, a few starting points that I’ve found valuable:

Bob Gilmore’s 2007 interview with Clarence provides an excellent overview of his thought and work.

Music Derivata – chamber works beautifully played by the Ives Ensemble.

Musica Algorithmica – an extensive double CD set covering a large part of Clarence’s output, including the larger works that Bob Gilmore lamented weren’t available at the time of his interview.

I’m still very fond of the computer realization of Im Januar am Nil – the ensemble version of which is available on the aforementioned Musica Algorithmica CD. Here’s the full version on SoundCloud. (The Musica Algorithmica ensemble recording is also unfortunately marred by glitches, for some reason not fixed on the release.)

His wonderfully crazy and infamously difficult piano piece Çoğluotobüsişletmesi.

And the beautiful …until…

For a look at the visual aspects of his work I recommend this video, Clarence Barlow, On the Sonification of Image and the Visualisation of Sound as an introduction, even though the video quality is perhaps not the best. A PDF of the works in question can be found here.

Algorithmic composition based on my own work during the period 1971-2017. A video of a lecture covering much of his output.

Another good introduction to his life and works is this interview from the start of his tenure at the University of California Santa Barbara.

And finally On Musiquantics – a PDF of the lectures that I enjoyed back in my student days in The Hague, and still find myself often referring to, to this day. See also the list of texts on Clarence’s site for further lectures.

  1. Similarly ‘home made’ in its feel, with computer print-outs of the interview transciptions rather than the beautiful IBM Selectric type of the Zimmerman edition. 

  2. Later I’d undertake a larger version based on the same principle with recordings made over seven days and in seven areas in and around Cape Town, assembled into the soundscape Seven Spaces both as an installation and a version for Dutch Radio.  

  3. My old friend Mendel Hardeman did however, under Clarence’s supervision, make a two track mix of the piece at the time.  

  4. A playfulness that lives on in Goodiepal’s similar naming jaunts, for example.  

  5. Still earlier versions had those examples in Fortran, and the final version from 2008 has them in C.  

  6. Not to mention the black box that is A.I. 

  7. In the aspect of translation, similar to Feldman (or Beckett). Always translating from one aspect/field/parameter to another.  

  8. It’s interesting to consider what can be brought to life in other creative fields from the vantage point of a particular vocation: Making a film that would never be made by a dedicated (professional) film-maker, a visual work that would never be made by an artist as such, yet still have value, perhaps precisely in its coming from a different angle. 

  9. In the pre-web 70s the possibility creating those visuals was out of reach, and first realised with the aid of a computer around the turn fo the millennium. At that point the presenting that visual translation on the web still a little far away and by the time it was more easily within reach, Clarence claimed to have lost interest.  

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Hi, I’m <a rel="me" class="p-name u-url" href="">Rudiger Meyer</a>, a composer interested in the play between music, sound, and&nbsp;media.