5 questions to Stephen Barr (Composer)

As a composer, are you inspired by other art forms? If so which ones?

First and foremost, spoken word and poetry.  I’m a choral and voice guy through and through—I trained originally as a bass-baritone and sang in choirs from grade school through all of my university education, and now I direct the choral program at the University where I teach.  So I’ve always felt a connection to words and try to write as much vocal and choral music as possible (too little as of late, but I’m working to rectify that).  Secondly, film—I am not an avid movie-goer, but I do appreciate films that are conceived and executed well.  Also, I have a very high regard for (well written) film music.  Finally, theatre and opera.  I’m picky about the shows and operas that I like; I generally go for the older musicals and not so much the newer shows, and in opera there are only a handful that I truly love, Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” being at the top of that short list.

Do you use a computer for your work? When did you start?

Yes, and I can’t imagine working without it.  I’ve been using a computer for at least 15 years now.  I started on a PC running Finale notation software back when that program was really starting to get noticed (at least in western PA where I went to school), and eventually found my way to the Apple Macintosh platform and Sibelius notation software.

Do you still use paper? What for?

Yes, I use pencil and paper for sketching quite a bit.  I find that the exploration of motives, themes, harmonies, and ideas about shape and form, has to happen away from the computer.  I also spend a lot of time just thinking about a piece in my head; most of the best music I’ll never write happens when I’m on a walk or driving a car.  At a certain point I arrive at a saturation of ideas and thinking, and then I can go to the computer and start pouring notes into it, but the preliminary sketches are vital to my workflow.

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Does working on a computer affect the way you compose?

Sibelius lets me write very quickly once I’ve really thought through a piece on paper and in my head.  The ability to quickly revise and try out new ideas on the computer is an important stage in my composing process.  I do think I would be a much slower writer if I had to do everything by hand, especially for large scores—often when I’m orchestrating, I hear new lines or harmonies in my head as I listen to the playback and I can then quickly add those in the program, try them and out and make a decision about whether they work (or mark them for deciding later).  Also, Sibelius really helps speed up my workflow because the interface is very intuitive and makes it feel a lot like I’m actually working on paper, so the transition to working at the computer from the sketches is pretty seamless.  I began studying composition when computers and notation programs were not ubiquitous (and many of my teachers did not use them), but I love computer notation and sequencing programs and use them everyday, so I feel I benefit from the paper-to-computer hybrid approach to writing.
I know this is a somewhat contentious topic, but I appreciate the aural feedback that computer music programs give.  In a day and age where we can’t just put our works out in front of a group on a regular basis, have them read and get that all-important aural feedback, I feel having the ability to simulate the result is important.  I definitely spend too much time time fiddling with sounds (I prefer third-party sounds over the built-in ones, and Sibelius does not support those well in my opinion), so I have to be careful not to get derailed when the playback doesn’t work the way I want it to.  It’s not a substitute for the real thing by any stretch of the imagination.  But on the other hand, there are composers who have made the process of creating a realistic-sounding “mock up” of a score quite an art in and of itself, and there’s quite a bit to be learned about composing and orchestration by trying to make a mock-up sound realistic!

Are you concerned with a possible loss of craftsmanship because of technology?

It is vitally important to be cognizant of the pitfalls of working on a computer.  Composers who work only on a computer often lack basic orchestration chops; I’ve arranged and orchestrated works for other composers who often wrote lines “off the horn” just because the computer could play whatever note they asked for, and beyond that didn’t have an understanding of basic instrumental technique, sonic capabilities of acoustic instruments, timbres, etc.  “Cut-copy-paste” is a blessing for workflow, but a curse too because it can be used liberally in a very uncritical fashion.
A mistake that I find younger composers often making is just sitting down and entering stuff into the computer without considering even the basic parameters of the work they are trying to compose.  There’s nothing wrong with “stream of consciousness” writing and not “over-thinking” things (which I probably tend to do), especially when generating ideas, but an uncritical approach to the process of assembling and shaping a piece results in music that is poorly constructed and disconnected.  It’s episodic in that the composer hasn’t taken any time to explore the possible relationships within his or her material and work for an economy of means.  It’s just one disparate idea after another.
For me, craftsmanship comes down to being self-critical and willing to continually revise music to make it better.  I feel blessed to have had composition teachers who showed me the importance of taking a long hard look at every note I write and considering how it all fits into the total concept of a piece.  I rarely feel that my pieces are “finished,” because I am always finding areas where improvements can be made.  There’s a point where you let go of working on a piece (read: deadline) and see whether or not it flies.  Also, too many composers do not sing their own lines and conduct their own pieces as they are writing them—these are important considerations that a computer cannot help you with!  As a singer and conductor, I am sensitive to these failings and encounter them all too often in other composers’ work!

Stephen Barr is a composer, conductor, and orchestrator working in the greater Pittsburgh, PA area.  Currently in his sixth year as Assistant Professor and Director of Choirs at Slippery Rock University, he teaches music theory, music technology, and orchestration, and conducts the University Concert Choir, Women’s Choir, and Chamber Singers ensembles.  As a composer, Stephen works in a variety of mediums, from concert music for choirs, wind bands, orchestras, and chamber groups, to contemporary film score and music for media in orchestral and electronic styles.  Stephen’s conducting experience includes a variety of choral and instrumental ensembles including large and small mixed choirs, chamber and full symphony orchestras, wind ensembles, and more. Read more about Stephen at www.stephenbarr.com