An interview with John Barber

How did you get into composing?
I always liked making up my own stuff at the piano more than learning pieces and used to annoy my piano teacher by playing her the music I’d written at the end of every lesson. I suppose I first started to take it seriously when I wrote a piece for my violin teacher aged around 13 and he played it. Hearing your ideas played back by other musicians is as good as it gets.

Are there any composing/musical projects that you’re particularly looking forward to?
I’ve been really excited recently to work with the Youth Opera Company at the Royal Opera House on a short film opera. They’re amazing kids – fantastic musicians, bags of energy and best of all, they don’t sound overtrained. They combine all the energy of the playground with the highest musical levels of performance. You can watch it here.

Have you come across any challenges in writing for vocalists as opposed to instrumentalists?
For me it’s usually the other way round, I almost always write for voice, whether it’s opera, choral music or songs. I have a voice and can sing (in a kind of folky Simon and Garfunkel way!) so I know what the instrument feels like to some extent and I always sing every line I write. I find that words give me my structure and help me make musical decisions. Writing pure instrumental music really challenges me, especially if it’s an instrument that I’ve never played. But I do make myself do it and am usually happy at the end of it!

Do you have a particular process that you follow in composing? Are you systematic or sporadic?!
I’m sporadic, definitely. Bernstein sums this one up for me. “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time”.

Are there any artists you particularly admire?
So many. Here’s a few. Joni Mitchell for combining words and music in a way that is unsurpassed in popular song. Jonathan Dove for his understanding of drama and for being so consistently generous to his audience. Reich and Glass for bringing back pulse and tonality when their backs were against the wall. Richard D James (Aphex Twin) for creating music that manages to sound completely childlike and massively threatening at the same time.

Which composer, alive or dead, would you most like to talk to, and why?
Leonard Bernstein. I’m not really sure why. I just massively love and respect him and reckon he would be fun to hang out with.

What styles/genres of music do you most enjoy composing for?
My favourite is opera and theatre music. I love the collaboration and sense of so many different artistic practises coming together.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I play in my band, Firefly Burning (although that probably counts as work!), I’m running the Brighton marathon next year (gulp) and I really like taking out all my frustration on the squash court.