Guy Barker

Henry James's writing inspires a new work for Bejamin Britten's centenary

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Guy BarkerGuy Barker's new piece That Obscure Hurt will receive its premiere performance at Snape Maltings today in a concert that will be broadcast live on Radio 3. The work is inspired by a short story by Henry James called The Jolly Corner and was commissioned as part of the Benjamin Britten centenary celebrations. We spoke to Guy Barker about the piece and why he, like Britten, had turned to the masterful writing of Henry James.

Tell us a bit about how  this project come about.
The seeds of That Obscure Hurt came from a previous commission, a piece called dZf which was written to mark Mozart's 250th anniversary. It was a re-imagining of his opera The Magic Flute and I collaborated with author Robert Ryan on the work. We performed dZf in many venues, including Snape Maltings, and it was as a result of that performance that, when the Britten centenary came along, I was asked by Aldeburgh Music if I would be interested in doing something along similar lines to celebrate Benjamin Britten.

Where did you get your ideas from for That Obscure Hurt?
I collaborated with Robert Ryan for the project and we wanted to find a story that was inspired by Britten. After several false starts, we hit upon the idea of basing the piece on a Henry James ghost story – The Jolly Corner – and Rob found a way of re-telling that tale to suit the kind of music I wanted to write, from symphonic to contemporary jazz. Britten, of course, used two James stories – The Turn of the Screw and Owen Wingrave – as the basis of operas, so we felt we were attempting to follow in his footsteps.

Can you give us an idea of what the piece sounds like?
It's written for a full symphony orchestra plus a 15-piece jazz orchestra, although, importantly, they are not treated as separate entities, but more as a one integrated, homogenous unit. It features the great Kurt Elling as our male vocalist and the wonderful actress, Janie Dee, as our narrator. The piece follows a story that starts in the '40s, moves to the present day, then goes back to the ‘60s and then becomes contemporary again, so the music does have an intentionally broad range of extremes stylistically, from a '40s dance band to full symphonic music via '60s boogaloo, from Romantic passages to sections of atonality.

Did you draw on any of Britten’s works in writing this piece?
Absolutely not. I would never touch anything of the composer’s original music. I don’t think that would work and I don’t think that was the point. The title of the series is Inspired by Britten, so Rob and I looked at what had inspired him, rather than referencing the music directly. So his love of the sea, the outsider element that permeates his works, the supernatural and so on, we incorporated those elements into the piece. However, within the narrative there are little nods to the canon. So, for example, early on in the piece there is a New York club called the Pagoda, and the house singer is Harry Prince [Britten wrote a ballet called The Prince of the Pagodas]. There is a dissolute jazz musician called Curlew Rivers who gets a namecheck [Britten wrote a church parable called Curlew River]. One piece is called Powder Monkey, after the gunpowder boys in Britten's opera Billy Budd, and there is a huge, all-guns-blazing finale which we referred to as Floods of Noise [a nod to Britten's work Noye's Fludde].

For people less familiar with Britten’s work, where would you recommend they start?
There’s so much amazing music, it would be difficult to pinpoint one starting place that would suit everyone. But he is such an incredible composer, you can dive in anywhere and find something that speaks to you. For me, it is the beautiful string quartets and the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, as well as the astonishing music in The Turn of the Screw.

Guy Barker’s BBC/Aldeburgh music commission, That Obscure Hurt, will receive its world premiere at Aldeburgh Festival on Wednesday 12 June 2013 at 7.30pm. The performance will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 as part of their month-long celebration of British music.