Those Magic Moments

Composer, classicist Stephen Barber's encoding and imprinting

Those Magic Moments
Photo By Todd V. Wolfson

Over a cup of coffee at Flipnotics, Stephen Barber rifles through a thick stack of sheet music, carefully examining the endless series of dots spread across them. On Nov. 2, those intricately arranged notations will instruct a local 10-piece ensemble at his Dia de los Muertos concert. For 40 minutes, those ink spots will finally yield music, ending the Austin composer's monthlong stretch of 14-hour days at his piano bench.

Completed under the guillotine of deadline, "The Fallen Sisters" represents Barber's most ambitious work to date. As its title suggests, this chamber music pays tribute to the victims of 9/11. Capturing the date's wide emotional range has presented the utmost challenge for Barber, a musician who has long surrounded himself with similarly eccentric and expressive visionaries: from celebrated rock stars like Keith Richards, Billy Gibbons, and David Byrne to renowned composers and arrangers Van Dyke Parks, Joe Zawinul, and John Corigliano.

As grave as it is, "The Fallen Sisters" is poised to become one of Barber's most significant accomplishments. And yet, after receiving its local premiere, the dotted composition paper will likely land in one of three large footlockers full of sheet music that Barber hauls between Austin and New York. They're his life story, his musical memoirs: hundreds of scores for large orchestras, small ensembles, and choral groups. They're also the key to understanding Barber's almost paranormal discipline/ obsession: expressing himself through wood and rubber.

"I generally go through erasers faster than pencils," explains Barber. "Composing with pencil and paper is sort of a Pavlovian thrill. Watching the paper get higher and the pencils get shorter, you start to feel good about yourself -- like you're working."

Truth be told, Barber has been "working" virtually nonstop for over three decades. For the musical diversity of his canon and the quantity of recognizable collaborators, his résumé puts him in the top echelon of modern composers/arrangers: from his tutelage under Parks and Corigliano to his ongoing work with Richards, Byrne, and Arto Lindsay.

While commissions from as far away as Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia have given his work an international profile, Barber remains a mostly anonymous figure both abroad and in Austin, where Barber's notable contributions include being a founding member of Eric Johnson's Electromagnets and keyboard/arrangement with Christopher Cross, Alejandro Escovedo, Stephen Bruton, and Shawn Colvin.

"I actually enjoy the anonymity," admits Barber. "I'm not embarrassed to say I'm 52 years old, but anonymity in arranging can be valuable. Without keeping a high profile, they're less likely to say, 'Oh, he's too old to figure out a trip-hop piece.'"

Indeed, with his recent work on Meshell Ndegeocello's Bitter and Joe Henry's Scar, Barber does have ethereal, almost-trip-hop-leaning pieces among his vast credits. Over time, Barber's only trademark is that no two Stephen Barber pieces sound alike.

"[He] refutes Leonard Cohen's comment that composers usually have one or two main themes, which they keep doing versions of," says singer-songwriter Jennifer Warnes, a longtime Barber collaborator. "I've never met anyone that hears what Stephen hears."

"The Fallen Sisters" is unambiguously less abstract and more emotional than the bulk of his work, but Barber generally deals in the aural equivalent of one of his hobbies: folk art. His compositions reflect on found objects. His signature work, for instance, "Gran Calavera Electrica," is based on a woodcut by lithographer Joe Posada in which a trolley car full of souls arrives at a cemetery.

Other pieces have originated from his travelogues, movie dialogue, and conversations overheard in New York coffeehouses. Barber calls the process of turning slices of life into music "encoding and imprinting," and says he has been at it since he was at least 12. In the still-segregated Abilene of the Fifties, where he was born, Barber began collecting influences: from his piano-playing mother's love of classical and country music to the Church of England hymns he heard on Sundays.

"I started by playing Bach preludes and sort of veering off the page and improvising sections," says Barber, who picked up piano at 5 and guitar at 11. "I loved classical music and believe I somehow sensed the magic. For a kid starting work in composition, it was like finding a mediator between the crazy world out there and what was going on inside me. To be able to express my emotions was empowering."

Barber's later work finds him expressing himself outside the tight constructs of what's generally classified as "classical," but he says that even the pieces that might be considered avant-garde must strike a balance between discipline and abstraction.

"Music is like air sculpture," he says. "You're just pushing air in different directions. But just like architecture, there are laws. If you build something without considering gravity, it's going to fall down. Music is the same.

"Something Billy [Gibbons] said has always stuck with me; that playing melodically and slipping a note can bring major humanity to the music, like Miles Davis. But if something goes wrong rhythmically, the natives get restless. Sometimes you have to push air a little more carefully than others."

The Fairy Tale

Stephen Barber spent most of the Sixties safely ensconced in military school. Given the choice between high school in Texas or Tennessee, he opted for Suwannee, thinking its proximity to Nashville would enable him to run into George Jones at the Grand Ol' Opry. Instead, he split his time between classical composition courses and an instrumental trio modeled after Booker T & the MG's.

"Our sole escape was our junior class prank," he says. "Our whole class went AWOL; we went to Memphis to see Led Zeppelin. We lost our minds being able to see Zeppelin live."

Three years and several more inches of hair later, Barber graduated and made his way to San Marcos to attend Southwest Texas State University. His first Austin band was called Cadillac. Influenced by the post-Vulcan Gas Company scene -- one that featured Crackerjack and Johnny Winter -- and later the opportunity to see ZZ Top at the New Orleans Club, Cadillac played classic rock -- Mountain, the Allman Brothers.

On the heels of brief avant-garde jazz experiments with Aussenhorowitz and the Edsels, Barber and ex-Cadillac drummer Bill Maddox founded the Electromagnets in 1973 and brought Eric Johnson into the fold a year later. From there, they became Armadillo regulars, sharing bills with their idols: Weather Report, Captain Beefheart, and Frank Zappa, who famously described the Electromagnets as "Mahavishnu with a sense of humor."

By the time the Electromagnets disbanded in 1976, Barber had immersed himself in composition study at Southwest Texas under the tutelage of famed composer Russell Reipe.

"He changed my life," says Barber. "There was one day I was playing a Beethoven sonata very nervously. He took me to a bar and said, 'Beethoven was a wild guy -- he'd flip plates over and get drunk. You have to understand he was a hellraiser. You have to loosen up.'"

It was precisely that new outlook that made him pass up an invitation to Juilliard after Dean Gideon Waldrop told him he'd need to spend at least 12 hours a day in conservatory. Instead, Barber moved to New York where Waldrop recommended Barber to composer John Corigliano. For three years the pair met for intensive lessons while Barber made inroads into New York's tight-knit scene as a copyist.

"I was doing 'take-downs' -- transcribing other people's music," recalls Barber. "It's not creatively charged work. It's like being a stenographer. Part of me thought I'd be a copyist the rest of my life."

Those Magic Moments

By 1983, Barber had begged, borrowed, and stolen enough studio time to have a small, but apparently impressive, demo of his own compositions. A mutual friend of Shelley Duvall's brought the actress Barber's work when she was looking for help with her Faerie Tale Theatre series for Showtime. She asked if he'd done soundtrack work. He said he had (a white lie), and became the series' staff composer, working on 13 original scores under the supervision of Van Dyke Parks.

"I was working with someone who wrote for the Beach Boys," enthuses Barber, still jazzed by the opportunity.

Barber's score for "The Three Little Pigs" received an ACE nomination for best score, its composer finding himself on the set and at dinner with Faerie Tale collaborators like Warren Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola, Mick Jagger, and Susan Sarandon.

"It was pretty heady stuff for a kid from Abilene," admits Barber. "Van Dyke was a Hollywood star in his own right -- he'd ridden horses with Grace Kelly. I remember talking Texas history with Mick Jagger over dinner and walking into the office to find Tom Waits hanging out. I was definitely starstruck."

Although Barber's efforts in New York were increasingly focused on having his own compositions performed, he continued to keep one foot in the classical realm and another in pop/rock circles. For much of the Eighties, Barber continued recording with Eric Johnson while also working in Christopher Cross' touring band, living what he calls a "double life."

"With Christopher, the appeal was primarily getting to work within a band," says Barber. "But there's a similarity to the classical world in that his music was very tightly arranged. We were trying to re-create the records. And it was pretty humbling to slip a note at Budokan and feel like the whole world heard you."

Third Act

Although the music itself can be performed by as many as 40 or even more people, classical composition is mostly a solitary pursuit. Since 1997, Barber has written from South Austin, typically alone from atop his living room piano bench. Unlike pop or rock, Barber doesn't have the luxury of hearing a piece performed before it's committed to paper. Instead, he must imagine how each instrument will sound.

"It's an internal dialogue," he says of the process. "After working with instruments long enough, I've developed a tonal memory. I know their coloration. I know what they sound like."

More difficult still is arranging strings and orchestral passages for popular musicians. On those jobs, he needs not only imagine the instruments, but also how the artists in question might choose to express themselves.

Barber says the closest thing he's found to a middle ground between his classical and pop arranging is his ongoing relationship with David Byrne. For three years, Barber has worked with the former Talking Head on arrangements for his solo tours.

"He's very articulate," says Barber who has also done the arrangements for an as-yet-unreleased Byrne set. "He also gives you plenty of freedom. And it's a rare and wonderful combination to have someone who knows what they want emotionally and will also give you some space."

Easily the sexiest of Barber's ventures is his work with Keith Richards. Four years ago, after Barber played keyboards on Rolling Stones backup singer Blondie Chaplin's solo effort, Richards asked longtime Stones engineer Rob Fraboni to whom he had just been listening. Not long after, Richards invited Barber to a New York studio session. The pair shared a piano bench and rolled an afternoon's worth of tape.

"At the end of the session, I told him I'd had a great time," smiles Barber. "And Keith said, 'I have a feeling we'll be working together very soon.' Even if we didn't, it was nirvana. I knew this was one of the best stories to come out of my life."

By Barber's count, he's gone on to contribute to at least seven unreleased albums' worth of Richards' material; the latest call to Richards' Connecticut home studio was for work on a gospel album.

"His musical palette is panoramic," says Barber of Richards. "He breathes music. You wake up at his house and he's playing Mozart. And it's ridiculous to watch him work. There's so much improvisation and freedom for us to do what we want. It's not, 'Show me what you don't know.' It's, 'Show me what you do know.'

"And I always try to remember that feeling when I get discouraged," adds Barber. "When there's a rift within a band or a deadline looming, I try to remember why I first picked up an instrument -- that instant freedom to explore and improvise. I can reach beyond the drama that way and toward those magic moments. They must be what heaven is like."

Barber is the first to admit that constantly chasing nirvana has done serious damage to his personal life; he has an impressive string of marriages and failed relationships. Reaching the half-century mark has had a profound influence on his career outlook.

"In some ways I've come to realize music is only worth the paper it's printed on," he says. "At 50, I think it's time to unlock the footlockers and get my stuff out there."

To that end, Barber and Matt Orem from UT's School of Music have founded Barbwire, a nonprofit group advancing the interests of concert musicians, composers, and scholars through public performances, workshops, educational outreach, and recording sessions. Barber's Dia de los Muertos concert, featuring both "Gran Calavera Electrica" and "The Twin Sisters," is the group's inaugural presentation. By design, it will feature decidedly non-classical elements for "new audiences," including an invitation for concertgoers to bring picado (candles, flowers, candy) for an alter.

"My goal with the Barbwire concerts is to demystify classical music and turn the concert hall into a club," explains Barber. "It's kind of like seeing a movie: You don't want somebody to yell over what's going on, but the stiffness and protocol of classical music today is unnecessary. Back in the old days of operas or Mozart, the audience would interact with the work. If they felt like chiming up and giving a good belly laugh, they could.

"And the sad thing is that a lot of American classical is becoming obsolete as a result of this stiffness. For some reason, it's taken an overtone where unless you're 'educated,' you can't understand it. That's hogwash. It's just music."

Although there are plans to carry the Dia de los Muertos concert across Texas and perhaps even into Mexico as early as next year, Barber hasn't backed off new projects. Barber is all over Arto Lindsay's new Righteous Babe release, Invoke, and has been commissioned by T-Bone Burnett to write a pair of arrangements for Sam Phillip's forthcoming album. Burnett last commissioned Barber for arrangement of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood soundtrack.

Barber has also been working with composer David Torn on the score for writer/director Brian Helgeland's The Sin Eater. Meanwhile, celebrated saxophonist Jon Nelson recently earned a New York Times rave for performing Barber's work with the Meridian Arts Ensemble, plus Barber's ambitious 11-year collaboration with saxist Bob Malach will finally surface in December. After recording a tune a year, they've titled it "Same Time Next Year," the title of Eric Johnson's contribution to the set.

"I guess I'm a late bloomer," posits Barber. "It's just now that everything seems to be opening up for me, and I guess it's my belief in the music that's made that possible. It comes from a spiritual place. I think I'll understand my music and where it comes from better when we step off the planet. And I personally believe there's another side.

"There's so much I don't understand about the process of writing that there has to be another side. But there's no question this is what I'm supposed to do with my life. My interest in the human elements and expression will keep me busy more than a lifetime. And I hope if there is a next time around, I'm lucky enough to do this. I'd do it again in a heartbeat." end story

The kickoff concert for Stephen Barber's Barbwire is the Dia de los Muertos concert on Saturday, Nov. 2, 8pm, at the University Presbyterian Church, 2203 San Antonio. Tickets are available at the door and from

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Stephen Barber, Electromagnets, Eric Johnson, Bill Maddox, Keith Richards, David Byrne, Barbwire, Dia de los Muertos, The Fallen Sisters, Van Dyke Parks, John Corigliano

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