The Berlin-based, American composer Mark Barden writes music that is both technically refined and irresistibly gripping. He has an ear for rhythmic propulsion and microtonal chords that make sense and sound beautiful without falling into Spectral stereotypes. I met him one afternoon at his apartment in Sonnenallee, a wide Berlin avenue full of falafel shops and people smoking hookahs. His new installation for the hotel bar of the Westin Grand here will be premiered on June 19.

Photo © Simon Höfele
Photo © Simon Höfele

VAN: It looks like you play a lot of instruments.

Mark Barden: I own a lot of instruments. There’s a spring drum, piccolo, trumpet, violin, viola, cello. And piano is my real instrument, the only thing I actually play—the rest I just screw around with. I also got these from the hardware store: spackle tools. I have 15, they’re microtonally tuned. Bowing them? So good.

Are you the kind of composer who wants to be able to play every extended technique he writes?

I come at it in a different way: it’s not that I want to, it’s that I mess around and find things. I fall in love with sounds. I think a lot of composers do that actually, it’s not terribly unique.

There are definitely a lot of composers who write by falling in love with sounds, but then you have many others who only write what comes into their head.

No [laughs]. I start way more concrete. But often I run into the problem that, because I don’t play string instruments very well for example, I make these stupid errors. I find these chaotic things I think are cool, but which a player can’t do, because they’re just based on bad technique that they can’t fake anymore.

I fell in love with this broken accordion that I got at a flea market at some point. It was only a little bit leaky, but because the air seal was not tight you could do all these beautiful things with it. You would never get that on a real instrument. You have to find compromises.

How do you make those compromises?

I work with a player and figure out what I can actually do, what’s reliable. You end up having to throw some stuff out; you have to filter. So it’s the research, then the editing, which is the next big phase.

What does the editing stage mean to you as a composer?

I’m working with sound palettes, the sounds I’m interested in exploring. There’s all the standard stuff you learn about instruments in orchestration and instrumentation classes in conservatory, and that ends up being 10 percent of what I actually need in a piece. The other 90 percent comes from what an extremely accomplished, experienced player can do with his instrument. It’s a lot of new knowledge, all of which has to come in and get processed.

At what point do you make formal decisions, like what is going to be repeated, when the music is going to be loud or soft?

That’s a good question. I always end up somewhere different to where I thought I would end up at the beginning. I start with a pretty simple sketch. It’s like, If you put a gun to my head, here’s what the piece would be. And that is inevitably different from the result. I just need something from which I can start working.

While composing and teaching, I often think about what you as the composer want the audience to hear. What’s important to you, and are you presenting that in a way that we can actually hear it? You have to give us time to hear your idea with ears that are approaching it for the first time. You have to remember that first moment and try to recreate it.

How do you recreate that first moment?

Honestly, it’s just a matter of giving time. Varèse told Feldman to think about how long it takes for a chord to reach the back row. When you compose something, you’re so intimately familiar with that material, you’re deep inside it. But no one is going to be as deep inside as you when they hear it for the first time.

I don’t work from a masterpiece paradigm where I expect people to listen to my piece 200 times and analyze it. They’re going to hear it maybe once, maybe like three times [laughs]. I like to have things that reward repeated listenings, but I have to assume that if I want the audience to hear something the way I’m hearing it, I need to readjust my gauge a bit. Usually that’s just a matter of sticking with a sound a bit longer—which is scary, because you’re edging on the point of too little happening in the music.

I’ll give you an example. There’s this point in my piece “Die Haut Anderer,” where they’re just whaling on this G# for a while. [He plays at the piano.] If you do it short, you don’t hear it the way I want you to. In the piece, the section is between one and a half and four minutes. The longer you hear that sound, the more the wooden part of the attack becomes its own thing, the pitch becomes its own thing, aural hallucinations set in.

Mark Barden, “die Haut Anderer”; Rei Nakamura (Piano) 

It’s interesting that you compose for the first listen. The idea that it’s difficult or impossible to appreciate a piece of new music at the premiere is widespread.

That’s out there. I think it was Randy Coleman, back at Oberlin, who said, “You might as well just accept that’s how the new music industry works. You can moan about it, and wish it were different, but most of your music is going to be heard once.”

I do think there has to be something powerful that comes across in a single listen. And it has to be something that’s integral to the core of the piece. It can’t just be spectacle and jazz hands.

How do you tell the difference between spectacle and the core of the piece? Is spectacle something non-musical?

If someone stands up in the middle of a piece and screams, I think that’s spectacle, and not a moment of organic development of material—or it would be hard for me to hear it that way. Sort of the in-your-face, wow-factor moments.

I find myself gravitating towards simpler forms. The form of “aMass” is a crescendo. It takes awhile for the crescendo to get going, but once it does it’s very clear where it’s going. It just keeps getting louder until it gets as loud as it’s going to get. I’m totally cool with that not being formally sophisticated.

That sounds like a technique to reach the audience on the first listen. They’re able to immediately describe the form.

In that case it’s not about what is happening. If you don’t check out, and keep listening after you realize it’s a crescendo, you get inside of how that crescendo is happening. In this case, that’s a deeper kind of listening. If I think about looking at a mountain, and I’m like, The mountain goes up and then goes down, I’m bored—that’s a dumb way to look at a mountain [laughs].

I was listening to your piece for solo percussion and orchestra “Anatomy,” and it was gorgeous. I found myself wishing it was 40 minutes longer. How do you decide when a piece is the right length?

As a student composer, you start off by writing music that’s too short. And then, as a confident young composer, you write music that’s too long. And then eventually you find the middle ground somewhere. I’m including myself in that blatant overgeneralization [laughs].

Can you remember the first time you found microtones beautiful?

I think it was the first time that I realized they exist [laughs]. I grew up playing piano, and I thought, Those are the notes that exist. If you’re not playing them you’re out of tune. For me, the world was just that—forgive the pun—black and white. And then at some point in my undergrad, we had an exercise in aural skills where you had 10 seconds to do a glissando over a half step. It was like someone held up a giant billboard to my ignorance.

Things get political fast when you start realizing that there’s this structured ideology of thought that you’ve unwittingly been a part of. I literally felt the friction in my brain, not being able to sing a G-quarter-sharp. And then, when you see a structure like that, the first thing you want to do is break it, explore it, figure it out.

One of your installations is called “looking for a man to love and fuck.” Do you approach an installation differently from a work of concert music?

The listening mode is the main thing that’s different, and as a listener, that is absolutely the one thing I’m most excited about. When I discovered installation art, around 18 or 19 years old, works by Yayoi Kusama and James Tenney, it was a total revelation. I’m just going to own this language: it takes you on a personal journey. That’s a hard thing for me to do as a listener in a concert hall. Obviously, if you and I go to a concert and hear the same programs, we might have different impressions, but what we were offered was exactly the same.

That’s no longer true in installations; the role of personal agency becomes huge. My thinking really tries to privilege that: From the listener’s perspective, why would I want to explore this space, and what would a rewarding or exciting thing be for me to find there?

In “looking for a man to love and fuck,” one of things I thought was just really fun was having these Discmen throughout the space. I took the Discman, put it on repeat, and stuffed it into a couch so it was hidden. There were these headphones just chilling. And so you could just sit down and be like, “What the hell is this?” and put the headphones on, and listen to pop love songs.

YouTube video

That aspect was me poking fun at myself. The piece itself is actually a pretty serious treatment of sexuality, objectification, a genuine search for love in a climate, like this city, where sex is so easy to find and in your face, over-amplified. The title was just somebody’s Grindr headline that I saw online, and I was like, That’s the name of the piece. It was heartbreaking.

Were you single when you wrote the piece?

I was.

Did it help you process that in any way?

It did, actually. I met my first long-term boyfriend at a bar during the run of the piece. It’s not like being single is a terrible thing, not at all, but it was something I wanted to change at the time. We actually talked about how my next piece needs to be called “looking for five million euros.” ¶

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… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...