Music by Women on a Mission

Interview with Carol Barnett

Recorded April 9, 2020

April Angilletta: Hi everyone, and welcome to Choral Arts. I’m April Angilletta, Associate Director of Communications for the Choral Arts Society of Washington. And I’m here with our Artistic Director, Scott Tucker, and Carol Barnett, one of the composers who had some pieces featured on our concert, Music by Women on a Mission. As everyone probably knows by now, that concert wasn’t able to happen because of the current health situation, but we wanted to make sure we featured the music of women composers in some way, so that it could be out there and be heard. So, we’re here with Carol today to talk about her music. And Scott, I’ll hand it over to you.

Scott Tucker: Okay, thanks a lot. April. Well, hello Carol. How are you doing?

Carol Barnett: Doing fine, Scott. You’re looking great.

Scott Tucker: You’re looking great yourself. Before we just started rolling, we were just discussing that we haven’t seen each other for several years. Although it seems like yesterday we worked together in 2006. And that is a very fast 14 years ago.

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Carol Barnett: Yes. Really fast. It seems like about five.

Scott Tucker: Yeah, I know it. To me too. So, in exploring with you today, I would just want to ask you a couple of background questions, answers of which I think I already know. But you started as an instrumentalist, didn’t you?

Carol Barnett: Yes.

Scott Tucker: A flute. A flutist, is that right?

Carol Barnett: Well, actually, my dad was a piano teacher, so piano was my first instrument. We had instruments lying around the house from when he was a Music Ed person. And so I started on uncle Alfred’s cornet and graduated to what I really wanted to play, which was flute. Then I discovered that lots of flute players were around. So I said, well, okay, I’ll play piccolo. Not everybody likes to play piccolo.

Scott Tucker: Aha! So, growing up in a Music Ed household- that gave you a sort of a general background to lots of different instruments?

Carol Barnett: Oh yeah. Well, you know we had a trombone, we had a cornet, we had a violin. Both my sisters- no, I and my sister- played violin. And at one point we actually had four pianos in the house, but we were storing a few of them for other people. Duets and lots of recordings, classical recordings mostly. And my dad taught at home; he had his own studio. So it was a great education and we all sang in church choir and school choirs, all that sort of thing.

Scott Tucker: Right. Well that maybe leads me to my next question. I was wondering, with all that instrumental background- a lot of your music is vocal. Not all of it, of course. I know you’ve written a lot of instrumental pieces as well, but maybe a majority has been written for voices. Is that accurate?

Carol Barnett: I suppose as far as title count goes, half? I don’t know. You know, the reason for that is because of Dale Warland. I got to be composer in residence for him in 1991. He had commissioned a couple of arrangements before that and suddenly my life turned 90 degrees into choral, and it was wonderful. It was like going back to graduate school, because he would hand me a whole big pile of CDs and say, “find the good stuff”, and I knew what he wanted to hear. So it was listening, listening, listening, and it was great.

Scott Tucker: Yeah. I wanted to ask you about that. So you were about 10 years with him, is that right?

Carol Barnett: I think nine. I can’t remember. It was the nineties, basically.

Scott Tucker: And actually, the first time I discovered you was through your work with Dale Warland. So how did that collaboration work? I mean, did it work in different ways? Did he say, “I really want this kind of piece; what can you do, Carol?” or would you come to him with something that you really wanted to do? How was the collaboration generally working?

Carol Barnett: It was multifaceted, actually, and it developed as time went on. He started by asking for maybe two or three arrangements per year. And perhaps one big piece or major thing for one concert a year. I attended most rehearsals, which was great, and got choral sound into my ear. And I felt more and more comfortable speaking up during programming. So aside from finding the good stuff, I would get to say why I thought that this piece should follow that piece and “the tonalities meshed better there than they did here” and all that sort of thing.

Scott Tucker: Interesting. So Dale was pretty collaborative that way then. It was pretty open to input from others while he was doing his…

Carol Barnett: Yeah! His associate assistant conductors and Jerry Rubino were others that had a lot of input. You know, if he trusted them, he was very open to collaboration.

Scott Tucker: Yeah. Did you find that your choral writing changed during those nine or so years at all?

Carol Barnett: Probably. I can’t put my finger on what, but I’m sure that I was more used to thinking about, “Well, the voices sound better here than they do there” and “Don’t paste them up on G’s for the whole piece.”
And it’s a question also of being aware of who’s singing what, what ensemble is singing, so that if I were writing for Dale, I would write to their strengths. Then, if I’m writing for somebody else, I try and listen to them to see how they sound and what I can write that sounds good for them.

Scott Tucker: Well, let’s zip toward 2006 for a minute. So that’s the year you wrote “Song of Perfect Propriety” for the women of the Cornell University chorus. One question I had right away: I noticed in looking at the publication list that we did that the same year that you published, or maybe wrote, “The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass”, for which you’re very well known. Were you writing those at the same time? I know that “Song of Perfect Propriety” is much smaller, but were you writing those concurrently?

Carol Barnett: No, no, I think “Perfect Propriety” was slightly before, because if it was in 2006… I’m looking at my notes here. The Bluegrass Mass was actually premiered in January of 2007, if I am right. And I probably just hopped right off “Song of Perfect Propriety” and got on with other plans.

Scott Tucker: I was listening to an interview you did in Vancouver when you were out with Electra and you mentioned “Song of Perfect Propriety” as well as “Remember the Ladies” in your list of your favorite treble pieces, which was great. I had forgotten you had mentioned in that interview that the text suggestion actually came from one of my students at Cornell.

Carol Barnett: Yes, it did. And in fact, the whole process, a “Song of Perfect Propriety” was, you know, “move my mind a little bit forward” as far as that kind of collaboration. And you’re seeing “No Whining, No Flowers.” It’s great. And ever since I’ve sort of thought, “no whining, no flowers” is a good thing to have when you’re looking for texts.

Scott Tucker: And the women really took to it. And in fact, that that project is still going at Cornell. They’ve been doing it now for… I can’t remember. You weren’t the first, but you might’ve been the second or third composer that I asked to do that. And then we did several until I left in 2012. And then Robert Isaacs has kept that going with a number of things since then. It’s really taken off, which I’m really so excited about.

So briefly, for people who don’t know it, the project was to commission women composers to set texts by women which were not about, “Oh, woe is me, my man has left me”, or “Oh, look at the pretty flowers.” So no whining, no flowers. And the text that you set is just so fantastic. In fact, of all the things that we did in that project- it’s my favorite, honestly. And I’ve done it now a couple of times since in different contexts.

Carol Barnett: Well, and the women who came forward with all those texts- I still have some that I’m waiting to set because there were a lot of good ones.

Scott Tucker: Yeah. It’s remarkable group of women over there and, and it was such a nice part of the project to make it collaborative in that way.

So it’s very piratey. And it’s a pretty tough piano part, actually. Not impossible, but it’s certainly it’s not your average “oompah” piano.

Carol Barnett: I know, but the piano parts need to be more than “oompah” and I’m a militant about that.

Scott Tucker: In a lot of your music, you’re so sensitive to text, especially textual rhythm. And so a lot of things that gets set by you are, it seems, mixed meter. They have some odd meter in them, right? There’s always that slight off-kilter moment in, especially in prose, but in poetry too, where you’ll just go with that rhythm and it’s really so delightful. Do you have any influences based on that sort of setting of text? Anybody in your past, or are there composers that you are particularly interested in?

Carol Barnett: One of my teachers, Dominick Argento, it seemed to me that he didn’t hesitate to give the texts and syllables the room they needed. There was one moment, in fact when I was talking with Philip Brunelle about the Bluegrass Mass. He pointed out a section that said “fur and feathers” and he said, “Nobody will ever get that.” I thought, “Oh, they sure will”.

Scott Tucker: You made sure they’d hear that! Ah, that’s great. The other piece we were going to do is “Remember the Ladies” and you mentioned in your interview that your sister recommended maybe you look at the letters of Abigail Adams.

Carol Barnett: Yes. Well she lives near Boston on Cape Ann and she loves reading about John Adams and of course Abigail as well, especially Abigail. So that was natural. It fits so well because the women of the All State choir in Minnesota were looking for something like that then. Oh, perfect.

Scott Tucker: Again, just a perfect text. I’m wondering for you, is there any difference because that text was prose? It comes from a letter. Basically, Abigail is saying to John, when you’re writing your constitution, remember the ladies. Don’t put all the power into men because-what did she say? All men will be tyrants if they could. Right. So, it’s a great text. But I’m wondering about the difference between setting poetry and prose like that. Are there any special challenges for you?

Carol Barnett: Not really.  Dominick always used to say he preferred prose because he wasn’t then interfered with by the rhythm of the poetic text. It is what it is. You know, sometimes you can even stretch out the poetic text and it becomes prose, if that’s what it needs to be.

Scott Tucker: I see. I think, April, was there not a question or two from a chorus member about the these two pieces?

April Angilletta: I do have a couple of questions from the chorus about your two pieces. And if you don’t mind me indulging, husband is a banjo player and he actually has a question about the Bluegrass Mass. So if that’s okay, I’ll ask that one as well. But Linda, who is a member of our chorus, asked, “How did you choose this particular letter to set to music, and have you considered letters of other wives or women who may or may not have influenced their husband’s political decisions? What did you want to emphasize most in how you put this text to music?”

Carol Barnett: (laughs)

April Angilletta: Yeah, this is a question one from Linda, which is five parts.

Carol Barnett: I chose it because my sister recommended it and I thought, “Wow, this is great.” And it cut down on the time that I would have to spend going through all the letters, especially like that one. So that was a good thing. I have considered other texts. I haven’t used any of them yet, but I certainly am open to it. So, third one?

April Angilletta: And what did you want to emphasize most in how you put this text to music?

Carol Barnett: The individuality and the emphasis on, “yes, we are women and, and this is our view of the world. And all men would be tyrants, and we know that, and we are prepared.” So there.

Scott Tucker: Also, it was interesting that you set it musically in kind of an early classical style.

Carol Barnett: Actually, what I was trying to do was to set it in the style of music as it would have been heard at the time of the writing of the letter. But then, of course you need to emphasize the tyrant thing. And so, there are a few more modern things that come in.

Scott Tucker: The “tyrants if they could” line certainly sticks out in your head when you hear it. Was there another question as well, April?

April Angilletta: Yes. We also have this question. Have you considered putting other Dorothy Parker verses to music? I can imagine Dorothy Parker damning her perceived position as a little lady ready to show the males that she can do as much or more than they, just as she did through words at the Algonquin. Have you considered other 20th century female poets?

Carol Barnett: Oh, yes. And my mind goes blank as to names, but this particular Dorothy Parker sort of started out working against “no whining, no flowers” because she was sitting there at her desk writing “Little Words”. But there’s Dorothy Parker underneath that, and we know that she was not just sitting at her desk writing a little verse. I find a lot of Dorothy Parker a little surface-y; to be written to be funny. And I think I would have to again, dig underneath the surface, to find what Dorothy Parker is really talking about, which is probably, “Here I am. I am alone, but I’m sitting at this Algonquin table and I’m not going to give an inch.”

Scott Tucker: It was great the way you set that with the dichotomy between those two thoughts. How she’d love to be a pirate, all that incredibly graphic description of what it would be like to be a pirate and then always ending with, “But I am a writing little verse, as little ladies do.” And you know, musically, you just pointed out, there’s so much a liveliness to the pirate music and so much verve and blood and guts, and then you have this Victorian sounding parlor music for the little ladies. It’s just so wonderful. It really points out that there’s the sarcasm in that final line each time.

Carol Barnett: Sure. And then, the second part of it is the siren who’s ripping men’s hearts in two. And at the end, she’s “writing little verse”, but underneath there’s that current, the syncopation, those nasty noises from the choir.

Scott Tucker: It was terrifying to conduct as a male, I’ll tell you, because they’re all are digging into this verse about ripping our hearts in half.  April, why don’t you go ahead with Chuck’s question about the Bluegrass Mass.

April Angilletta: Chuck, my husband, is a composer and a banjo player. And he asked, “Was the Bluegrass Mass written for a particular bluegrass band? And have there been issues with subsequent performances because most bluegrass musicians don’t read music notation?”

Carol Barnett: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Early on we decided that an established band would be a good thing to work with because at least they know about working with each other, and having to cross the divide between bluegrass and classical choir music is hard anyway. So we found a wonderful band here. And the fiddle player and lead singer was classically trained, so, no problem. Her husband, the bass player, read [music]. The mandolin player could read, but he hadn’t for 20 years. The guitar player didn’t read it all. And the original banjo player- I sent them the first movement, which was I think the most gnarly one on it. It just did not sound at all like bluegrass. The banjo player packed up and left in the middle of the night.

Scott Tucker and April Angilletta: [laughter]

Carol Barnett: But then they got their original banjo player back who is a polymath. And he had the whole thing memorized by the time the first performance was, and he could do anything. I actually sat and worked with the band for several sessions before they even got together with singers, and I sang with them and played parts on the piano, like choir parts in it. It was trying to squash things together. But yeah, there have been lots of issues since. It depends on whether the players have played together before and sometimes I go to a performance, or dress rehearsal and performance, and in their pickup group, three or four of them would be excellent. And then one of them is, for the first time ever, having to walk a conductor, which is really a challenge, isn’t it? It’s always different and it’s always interesting.

Scott Tucker: Yes. I was wondering that too, because when I’ve looked at, I’ve looked at that score and I thought, “Oh wow, I have to get a couple of players who really can read”. And then that issue of trying to do it with a pickup group. Then you lose that cohesiveness of the other band. But, not impossible. So just shifting gears a bit, I know in your artistic statement you say this, “I believe that music is a language based on nostalgia.” Could you build on that a little bit for me, and let me know what you mean by that?

Carol Barnett: Well, as a composer, when I’m thinking about what to express, whatever sounds we hear bring back other memories of when we heard those sounds before. So, for instance, if I want to express something that sounds like Abigail Adams’ time, I’m going to go looking for something that will help the mind go to that time. So, I’m searching for words here. I’m thinking of the music that was at that point. But if I want to express happiness, for instance, as a good thing, I’m definitely not going to be in a minor key. I’m going to be in a major key probably or in a happier mode. And, I’m probably going to write something that sounds like something I heard when I was happy. I might, in fact, try and imitate composers that I heard when I was happy. For instance- there’s one spot in the bluegrass mass. And it’s not the- I’m really missing the words- but it sounds like a sort of a protest song from people who are not in power. And I thought, “This is going to sound like the 60s, and it’s not the (sings).

And, you know, I always sing along in that part, because it brings me back to when I was in college and I heard that kind of music, and that’s my nostalgic take on it.

Scott Tucker: In the mid 80’s sometime when I was working at Harvard, Dominick Argento came to Harvard because they were doing one of his pieces and I asked him a lot of questions, many of which were probably very naïve. But I do remember one thing he said to me, which struck me at the time, because in the mid 80’s, he would have been in his seventies, maybe? Born in 1927. So, okay. So, he was in his sixties. I said, “Well, what would you say to young composers now?”

He said “I would say to young composers, write as much as you can now. Write everything you can when you are young”. And I read into that a little tinge of, you know, it was harder now for him in his sixties or late sixties. And you’re such an active composer, and I’m not going to ask you your age, but I know that you’re not in your 20s. So, what do you think about that statement that he made? I mean, how do you relate to that, or do you feel like that’s not you?

Carol Barnett: As somebody who used to march into Dominick’s office- not really march, creep- into Dominic’s office every week for a lesson with my 12 measures because I hadn’t been writing that much, I think it’s great advice. I always tell composers, listen, listen, listen, read, read, read, you know, and just experience the world around you. But I think Dominick has a good point- “And don’t forget to write it down.” You know, there are composers who wait to write until the moment is right and that’s not a good idea. You need to practice your craft. That’s the only way it’s going to develop. And I think I love best, of Dominick’s music, some of his earlier things. It doesn’t get harder and you know, if it gets harder, maybe it needs to get different. I get bored writing the same thing.

Scott Tucker: I’ve noticed it about your music. I mean, it’s so varied and eclectic. You have such a variety of styles. And

Carol Barnett: It’s fun to go underneath, into the next levels down on a project. You get assigned something and you think, okay, I’m going to use this text. And it’s sort of like the texts that I’d used before, but it’s by a different writer and they’re from a different part of the world. What can we do this different about that?

Scott Tucker: You’re very facile. I mean, your piece that was inspired by the Syrian uprising- I’ve forgotten what it’s called- but it’s got that Arabic flavor to it, but I think a lot of composers would fall into a dilettante sort of tokenism when trying to take on styles like that. But yours reaches deeper. It expresses the text so perfectly and… I don’t know how to say it except that it just has a genuineness or an authenticity to it.

Carol Barnett: That text I found orally. I was listening to a BBC broadcast and they read it, and I started researching who had written it and what it was for. And it turned out to be Mohja Kahf, who is a comparative literature professor down in the University of Arkansas. And it was taken from a much longer poem. And I read through that poem and I thought, “I am not equipped culturally to take on that whole poem, but I can get into this page. It would have taken a lot longer and maybe it would have been impossible for me, as a non middle-Eastern, non Arabic person, to really give that whole poem the respect it deserves.

Scott Tucker: Well, what you did, I think, is really wonderful and it’s another great treble piece. Really. It’s beautiful. And so moving. So, as we’re sort of wrapping up, I wanted to just ask you how you’re doing now, and how you’re doing in this new environment. And, a composer, I mean, it’s a collaborative job of course, but it’s also a lot of time writing on your own. So maybe life hasn’t changed a whole lot for you yet?

Carol Barnett: You know I think the biggest change has been the increase in temptations to not be at home working, which of course we always are, but now there are all these streamings. I mean, the Metropolitan Opera has a different opera every night. You could spend your whole day being culturally enriched, but no! (Laughs.) Philip Brunello sent out a really fun JPEG the other day, which the first picture was a composer sitting at the keyboard with some monitor and speakers in an empty room. And the second page picture was composer in isolation and it was the same picture, which is true. I don’t feel different. It is what it is. I mean, the thing I miss most is going is going to the the Y to go swimming. It’s shut! And of course, the library with my audio books, but there are podcasts and things.

Scott Tucker: My wife has said it is isolating, but if it weren’t for the internet, we’d all be a goner.

This has been wonderful to talk with you about your music and how you’re doing with everything that’s happening. I know it’s a crazy time for everyone. But we’re just really glad we got to spend some time with you today.

Carol Barnett: Yeah, this has been fun.

Scott Tucker: Thank you so much, Carol. I really, really appreciate it. And what a joy to hear you again. Before we go- do you have any projects you’re working on right now?

Carol Barnett: Yes- the project I’ve wanted to do for years! It’s a setting of five soliloquys of Shakespeare women. So, I finally found a mezzo that I really love, and she sings occasionally with a local orchestra. It was a community orchestra that my late husband used to have all his pieces done by, because the conductor of the orchestra was in the Minnesota orchestra along with my husband. So I thought, “Well now that John has gone, maybe I can inherit this lab band.” And so it’s happening. It was supposed to happen, in fact, in May, but alas, now it’s happening in November. So Portia, Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, and Cleopatra.


Scott Tucker: Wow. What a great project. That’s wonderful. What a great idea.

Carol Barnett: It’s been fun to finally put it down on paper and to learn piles of new information because I’ve been doing all the engraving myself.

Scott Tucker: Yes, of course.

Carol Barnett: That’s the project that I’m trying to wrap up and it will not wrap up, but it will eventually. What’s really interesting, aside from new composing projects, is that when you get to be a certain age all your pieces are stored in media that is going out of out of style. So, all my pieces up to a certain point had been hand engraved by me because I used to do that for a living. And now the big thing is changing them all over to computer engraved, which, unless you have a big trunk full of loot from being a pirate, you’re going to do it yourself. In the morning I compose, in the afternoon I’m an administrator, and at night I’m an engraver. It’s all working from home and it works really well.

Scott Tucker: Well, again, a pleasure. Pleasure to talk to you, Carol.

Carol Barnett: My pleasure.

Scott Tucker: Please take good care. Stay safe. Okay. All right. Take care now. Bye bye. Thank you.

Carol Barnett: Bye bye.