Although his journey with music first began with a love for acoustic guitar and the classic albums of Def Leppard, Wellington born composer Jacob Barrett has listened to, loved, and composed for many genres – from contemporary classical to barbershop, jazz, concert band, choral, and even musical theatre! Notable achievements include being a finalist in the Todd Young Composer’s Composition Award 2020; winning 3rd place in the NZSM Lilburn Trust NZSM Composer’s Competition for 2020 and 2021; winning the Matthew Marshall Prize in Guitar Composition 2021 for “Rattlesnake”; and being commissioned by Latin America CAPE and the NZSO to write a collaborative composition that brings the cultures of New Zealand and Latin America together. He is currently completing his conjoint degree in Instrumental/Vocal Composition and Marketing, and plans to embark upon an Honours Degree in Instrumental/Vocal Composition starting in 2022. Outside of music Jacob is also very involved in his community, helping to teach at his local karate dojo while working towards his 4th Dan black belt and volunteering at the Free Store. He also loves to bake (his specialty is orange date scones), and particularly enjoys playing board games with friends and family. 

General questions: 

  1. Tell us about yourself and the music you write. (Instruments you play, special interests, how long you’ve been studying, what you hope to achieve with your work, influences, musical pet peeves, etc.)

To this day, I think that there isn’t a single aspect or type of music that I don’t like – every time I see an instrument I want to play it, every time I hear a new genre I want to write for it, and every time I hear music live I just get so inspired to write my own. This is reflected in the variety of instruments I play, as I just keep on collecting and learning new instruments. Although I started out on guitar, I can now play bass, ukulele, piano, drums, cavaquinho (a banjo/ukulele hybrid from Brazil), harmonica, and more! Learning all these instruments, even on a basic level, has given me a much greater appreciation for what it takes to play them and helps me write music that is effective and enjoyable to play. However, I mostly do it because learning new instruments is fun and it helps to connect me with other musicians that I can play with or learn from. 

My musical influences are equally varied – including choral composers, 80s rock legends, and 50s/60s jazz artists – but recently I have really enjoyed listening to musical styles from around the world like Javanese Gamelan or Choro from Brazil. There is so much amazing music out there, and I just want to hear it all! However, I have to say that I am particularly drawn to the spectral and contemporary classical composers of the 20th and 21st century, such as Salvatore Sciarrino, Kaija Saariaho, and Unsuk Chin. The way that they use instruments to evoke ideas, feelings, and concepts we can’t describe with words is just extraordinary, and it’s something that I have been interested in since I started studying at university about four years ago. 

All of these influences can be heard in my music, which I think has a contemporary classical feel but is also coloured with streaks of all the other musical styles that I listen to and play. My guiding principle for writing music is experimenting and trying something new, and every time I write music I challenge myself to do something differently. I always like to think “what will make this memorable?”, and that helps me to make music that I can get excited about and will (hopefully) get others excited too.

  1. Tell us about your work in this year’s NZSM Composers’ Competition. This year I entered my piece Rattlesnake for solo classical guitar in the NZSM Composer’s Competition. It was inspired a lot by the physicality of a rattlesnake, and I really wanted to capture that in the dangerous, mysterious, and altogether unpredictable atmosphere of the piece. My intention with the piece was to craft a narrative around a rattlesnake hunting in the wild, growing more and more dangerous as we build up to the eventual strike of the rattlesnake – and then following it as the prey feels its life force draining away. This piece was special because it was my first major work for guitar, so I wanted to make it epic and try out all the awesome guitar techniques I could imagine. Notably, I used natural harmonic runs, brush strokes, and scordatura (retuning the guitar strings to E, G#, D#, G, B, and E). I also got to use Tone Clock Theory (I used permutations of the 3rd hour, i.e. a minor 2nd and a minor 3rd, to create unusual sets of pitches to write with), which I think that has helped to imbue Rattlesnake with an evocative harmonic colour.

As I was writing this piece I worked a lot with guitarist Sirisan Sobhanasiri, whose advice and guidance was invaluable. Guitar can be quite scary to write for as it is a very technical instrument in a solo context, but with his help the process was a lot of fun! We would catch up every now and then to talk about it, play some of it, and slowly shape it into a better, more vibrant piece of music. He’s a good friend of mine now, and I look forward to writing more music for him in the future. 

Overall, I learnt so much about the idiosyncrasies of writing for guitar through this work, especially how to write guitar music that is new and interesting but still dynamic for the performer.

  1. How do you go about creating a new piece? Could you describe your process? Does it change with each new work?

My compositional process always starts when I think of a musical idea that I just have to write. I am often drawn to concepts when creating a new piece of music (i.e. inspiration from a rattlesnake), but just as often I will hear some other music or see a new musical technique that just sends my brain into action! I write all my ideas down to come back to later, and at this point I have a book full of sketches for pieces that I plan to write in the new year or two (which helps me to write when I am lacking inspiration). 

However, I don’t start working on ideas straight away – usually I write down as much of the idea as I can, and then I leave it for a day or two. This gives me time to really think about it, to test it myself or with other musicians, and generally gain a better understanding of what the idea could be and what I want it to become. 

Once I’ve started to meaningfully work on a piece, I think that there are two key aspects to my compositional process: planning and iteration. Before I start I will always plan the musical progression of my piece and decide what elements are in each part. This starts with a broad structural outline, followed by sketching the harmonic development of the piece and some gestures/melodies. When I settle on the idea(s) that I want to base my piece around, I will start to draft out melodic/gestural transformations, slowly changing my original idea and recording how I arrived at each transformation. Once I have a page or two full of different variations on the theme, I will choose just a handful of the most interesting ones to work with. Now that all my planning is done, I start to draft up phrases of effective material (either directly or liberally joining the melodic/gestural transformations together), and gradually these start to form larger sections. 

This continues until I have reached my first draft of a piece, at which point I start to iterate on it. Sometimes I will do this by playing through a piece myself and fixing up parts that don’t work as well, but whenever possible I like to send my work to others. I love working with performers because they often have a more grounded approach than I do – they’ll pull me back from trying anything too crazy and they know their instruments so well that they will have ideas I never would have thought of. If I’m able to consult with a performer I will usually do that semi-regularly throughout the writing process, but otherwise I will just continue to redraft it until I’m happy with how it sounds.

  1. What aspects of your piece are you particularly proud of?

I think that what I’m most proud of in Rattlesnake is the harmonic language, the energy of the piece, and the use of extended techniques. As mentioned earlier, I used Tone Clock Theory for harmonic development because it is such a powerful tool for writing in a complex, chromatic language that still feels structured. Although the basis of my harmony was around the 3rd hour, I chromatically blurred it by creating alternate sets and mixing them in to give the piece a greater sense of ambiguity. At some points I even directly contrasted my original set by only using chromatic intervals from outside of it, which ended up sounding fantastic! Working out how to make the energy flow throughout Rattlesnake so that the ebbs and flows would not bring the piece to a halt every time it slows down was important too. Creating a sense of flux with the tempo but also the rhythm played a part in this, as I often juxtaposed the pulse of the music with material that plays against it. This created a really powerful sense of momentum when I wanted that, and it meant that whenever I wanted to reach a moment of arrival I would slowly start to phase the music back in time with the pulse. I also spent a lot of time thinking about how to use the extended techniques in the piece (i.e. brush stroke, harmonic runs, etc) so that they would integrate seamlessly into the piece and not feel like add-ons for the sake of having them. Looking at the end result, I’m really happy that all of these elements worked so well together and I think they contribute a lot to the uniqueness of the piece.

  1. What projects do you have coming up?

I’m working on several musical projects that are all really exciting in their own way. The largest one is a 16 minute collaborative composition for a large ensemble that I have been writing with 3 other amazing young composers – Thomas Bedggood, Michaela Cornelius, and Jose Jugo. This piece is the result of a programme that the four of us have been a part of with the Centre of Asia-Pacific Excellence (CAPE) Latin America to learn about the amazing culture and music of South American countries like Argentina and Colombia. Due to COVID-19 we were unable to go to these countries in person, but over a few weeks last year we were able to digitally engage with a number of South American composers, musicians, and historians that very generously gave their time and expertise to teach us. We were then given the opportunity to write a piece together (mentored by professional composers from New Zealand, Colombia, and Argentina) to celebrate the relationship between New Zealand and South America; using what we have learned to create this magnificent contemporary artwork that is inspired by Latin American music as much as western musical aesthetics. This has been an especially cool project because working with other composers to write music is a really interesting process; on one hand we are never short for ideas, but on the other we have to work four times as hard to make it all fit together and not seem completely disconnected. We also decided to feature the Charango (a beautiful 12 string instrument only found in Latin American) as something of a soloist in the piece, which has been awesome as we got to write a unique part for it that will really impress people. It has been such a valuable learning experience and I’ve really had a lot of fun writing this piece, which is why I’m really happy we’re planning to record it sometime this year (fingers crossed). Stay tuned because we’re recording it on the 27th/28th of November, so with any luck I’ll be sharing it before christmas! 

I’m also writing a few other pieces that I plan to finish throughout next year: a choral work that explores some of the extended techniques choirs can produce, a guitar piece inspired by Brazilian choro and other genres, and an orchestral work that I hope will make it into the Todd Award Young Composer’s Competition next year. I love to keep busy with lots of different projects that expand my ability as a composer, and I can’t wait to see how each one turns out.