Margaret Barrett | Composer
Featured Artist | October, 2014
Margaret received her Bachelor of Music from Baylor University, under the direction of Dr. Scott McAllister for composition and Dr. James Williams for piano performance. Margaret stayed at Baylor for her Master of Music in composition, which she completed in 2010. During this degree she continued to study with Dr. Scott McAllister, save for a stint in Prague at the Czech-American Summer Music Institute in 2009, where she studied with Florida State’s Dr. Ladislav Kubik.
From 2010-2013, Margaret served as an adjunct professor teaching composition, music theory, ear-training and serving as a collaborative pianist at Baylor University, McLennan Community College, University of Texas at Arlington and at North Lake Community College. Since 2009, Margaret has also worked in the production department of the Ojai Music Festival in Southern California, where she now serves seasonally as the Assistant Producer. She now serves as the Executive Director at Voices of Change. Currently, she is rehearsing her 30-minute composition Universal Language, writing a percussion piece for Mark Utley at University of New York, Stony Brook, and preparing to manage the production of Steven Stucky's The Classical Style at Carnegie Hall in December of 2014.
Favorite Dallas Restaurant: La Calle Doce
Favorite Dallas Coffee Shop: Mudsmith
AHD: Four-piece rock bands seem to be a little more prevalent than classically trained composers. Can you tell us a little bit about your unique journey and how you came to write for live performances by classical and experimental musicians?
MB: I went to college to study composition with the end goal of being a singer-songwriter. I had always gravitated most to music by songwriters such as Joni Mitchell or Billy Joel, as well as various rock and jazz artists. So as I set out for college, I saw the study of music composition as a way to fully understand the craft of musical expression and become the best songwriter possible.
For my 18-year-old self, musical expression was about finding the right chords, an infectious rhythm, a haunting melody and beautiful acoustic guitar picking. But studying the craft of classical composition showed me how much more was possible with the art of musical expression. "Chords" expanded from "three note structures, either major or minor" to any two or more notes that sounded at the same time to express something. Instead of being trapped in traditional 3/4, 4/4, 12/8 or 6/8 meters, I learned to embrace rhythm as a much less defined concept, one that really meant the way music occurs through time. Melodies could take many more shapes than I realized, and some notes I might not have considered brought completely new sonic possibilities to my songs. Lastly, the instrument families that are possible in the world of "composition" allow for absolutely any timbre I wanted - ranging from banging trash can lids to marimbas to oboes to a lion's roar (an actual instrument!). Each of these sounds actually can express something - and I had had no idea of the power of such expression.
Essentially, studying music composition opened me up creatively in a way I NEVER thought possible. The time in both my undergraduate and master's degrees exposed me to other composers who were trying to think hard and philosophically about what "aural art and expression" can mean. I fell in love with that approach, and it was actually there much more than songwriting that I found my own artistic voice.
AHD: Your 30-minute composition Universal Language will be performed by the Obscure Dignitaries November 22nd. Tell us about the work and what it is a response to?
MB: Universal Language is a work composed for my friends and their band, The Obscure Dignitaries. The composition was written as a response to an art exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art called Concentration 57: Slavs and Tatars. Essentially, the art exhibit focuses on the oppression that has been experienced by people groups east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China. This exhibit especially highlights the oppression that has come through "linguistic-politics". This term refers the circumstance of powers who enforce a certain way of speaking or writing (e.g. an alphabet system) on other people groups, therefore stifling cultural and linguistic identity and development of others as a way of enforcing power and control. This exhibit expresses through various visual media the gravity of these oppressive systems.
Dr. David Silva, a linguistics professor at University of Texas at Arlington, and I came up with the idea to set the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights to music. David formed the (lengthy) libretto of Universal Language into languages that are represented in the Slavs and Tatars exhibit. Therefore, the music seeks to assert in various languages of the affected regions the freedoms and inalienable rights that are inherent to being a part of the human race.
AHD: The themes of language, equality, human rights, freedom and unity pervade both the exhibition Concentrations 57: Slavs and Tatars and your own composition. Why are those themes important to you?
MB: There is just so much hurt and brokenness in this world, to the point that it can overwhelm me. What can I do about Ebola, ISIS, and military oppression? These questions plague me on a regular basis, and despair inevitably ensues, as I cannot find a lasting solution. But a quote from Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz has stuck with me: "Nothing is going to change in the Congo until you and I fix what is wrong with the person in the mirror."
I believe the hardest thing about changing the world is changing ourselves, and the little injustices we present to the world every day. The failures of our world are symptomatic of a disease that exists within each one of us; these symptoms range from regret, broken relationships and insecurities to power struggles, oppression, poverty and war. If each of us could just change ourselves; but the fact is, we can't do this no matter how hard we try. We struggle with our insecurities, our own choices, our broken nature, our personal limits, we struggle to love others the way we would like to, we strive to improve and yet we continue to violate the freedoms and the inherent dignity of other human beings. But I am reminded that Christ came specifically to set us free. That by ourselves, humanity is too limited to fix our world's failures.
But God came as a man to dwell with us, to love us, and by loving us, show us the way to freedom and thereby save us from ourselves. That Christ is our hope for any freedom at all. So ultimately I am inspired to write music about the themes of oppression to encourage the oppressed, to remind us that each of us is given inherent dignity by God, that we all play a part in the oppressions of the world, and to point to the love of Christ as the place where we can bring that brokenness and expect ultimate liberation.
AHD: Fine Arts Chamber Players commissioned your work with funding from the 2014 TACA Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund. Why is it important to support the advancement of new works in the area of performing arts?
MB: There are multiple reasons to support new work:
1) The arts are powerful; part of the reason you are probably reading this blog post is because you believe that. Composers, playwrights, songwriters and choreographers aspire to create works that influence individuals and our greater culture, and presumably you can think of a time where a play, a piece of music or an element of dance changed and influenced something inside you. However, in order for you to have that experience, multiple factors (and multiple costs!) had to come together: The artist having the time to create, then having the manpower and additional artists commit to the work (a choreographer depends on dancers, a composer depends on musicians, a playwright depends on actors), then finding the stage facilities that accommodate such a performance, not to mention depending on an audience to come and experience the work! All for your (and hopefully many others') life altering experience in the audience.
So much goes into new creation, and in every age new creation has been made possible by the individual patrons, donors and audience members who care, who give their time, money and efforts to make the art possible. So support performing arts if you like performing arts, because without your support NONE of this happens.
2) Art reflects not just the individual that made it, but the time and place the art was made as well. It reflects our current culture, and therefore art serves as a way to historically catalogue the journey of the human artist and her spirit. One should support the development of new works of performing art for posterity.
3) Excitement of new work and experimentation: I think of each creator as a bit of a pioneer spirit, we all yearn to try new things. What's amazing about art is that the expressive possibilities are never exhausted. By supporting new works in performing arts through your attendance or your time or money, you are affirming this pioneer spirit, the sense that innovation somehow always needs to continue, and that artists can have the capacity to do that. It is a very exciting experience to be a part of a work that is on the cutting-edge. It's having a front row seat to hearing the new expressions of the human spirit, it's an opportunity to see and hear things you've maybe never heard before, it's an opportunity to have your mind opened up even more to new and undiscovered aesthetics, and that's exciting! So find out what new works are happening in your area, and go partake. I guarantee that if you invest yourself in understanding new art, it will change you and you will learn something!
AHD: In addition to freelance composition, you're also head Voices of Change, a professional chamber music ensemble dedicated to the performance of “music of our time.” Why are you drawn to contemporary composition, and what can others learn from it?
MB: Personally, I'm a bit of a modernist at heart. I tend towards reading modern literature, listening to modern music and even watching modern films. Though I studied the great musical masters like Beethoven, Brahms, Tschaikovsky, I'm not really interested in listening to them anymore. What interests me is what the living person is creating, how that is inevitably influenced and shaped by current culture and the artist's life, and how it can speak to us today in a very profound way.
Contemporary music can have a stereotype of being "ugly" or "hard to understand." I couldn't disagree more. Contemporary music is the area in which I find the most musical bravery and freedom and expression. In order to be "beautiful" to our western ears, music often follows a specific subset of rules. But artists are often compelled to break rules and see what happens, and contemporary music is filled with composers who are questioning what music really means, and are making art with sound in ways some of us might never imagine.
The great thing is that if you are around this sort of music-making that does not follow old rules, that in fact makes up new ones or follows none at all, you discover a new kind of beauty that you never knew existed. It turns out that our mainstream definition of what makes music beautiful can be very true, it's just also very limited. Contemporary music can make you redefine what's beautiful and in turn become more of a lover of music than you thought possible!
AHD: For a novice, what is the best way to engage with and eventually appreciate classical and experimental music?
For a novice, the best thing you can do is expose yourself to new music. Try it! Pay attention to it and ask yourself questions: Why is the musician playing the notes he's playing? What might a composer have in mind when she asked the percussionist to play those instruments? What does their particular sound evoke? And then, feel free to hate it. Feel free to love it. But don't form an opinion until you've engaged with it. Ask questions about it and learn from it. We don't always expect a positive audience in contemporary music, that's part of the fun! As a newcomer, your opinion of the music is valid. No outside knowledge is requested or required for you to have an informed opinion and experience of an aural artwork.
With Voices of Change, for example, when we perform a brand new work, we often have the composer there to explain his creative process and why he wrote what he did. So for the newcomer, these experiences can be especially helpful as they'll teach so much about what is going on in the mind of a composer. New music is often abstract and very unfamiliar, so it's intimidating to many. But learning from the artists themselves will break down those walls of intimidation and help you realize that the modern day composer is speaking to the same modern day experiences you are having. You might have a lot more in common with a modern musical work than you think!
AHD: How did you choose the local world-folk music group the Obscure Dignitaries to perform your composition?
MB: Actually, the reason I chose to write for the Obscure Dignitaries was multi-faceted. First, because they specifically play music from the regions addressed in the Slavs and Tatars exhibit- therefore the seven languages in which the work is set as well as the musical idioms I might borrow from those regions would not be altogether unfamiliar for the musicians. Secondly, have you heard them?! They are amazing musicians (and fabulous people), willing to experiment, improvise, and think openly about new musical expressions. They do this with technique and thoughtfulness, and I knew they'd come to the project seriously and skillfully. I just felt that writing for them was both the perfect fit for the thematic material of the work, and that their musicianship would result in a very fun and successful artistic collaboration.
AHD: Where can we go to learn more about your DMA performance and other projects you have in the works?
MB: If you want to find out more about the upcoming performance, check out the Fine Arts Chamber Players website, the DMA website, the Obscure Dignitaries website. My website is currently getting updated, but should be available soon at www.margaretcbarrett.com. There you can soon keep up to date on upcoming premieres of my work, submit a request for a commission, or just listen to previous works I've composed. But until that's up, you can also just touch base with me directly at email@example.com!