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Charlie Barnett hopes to update the classical-music concert with a bit of style, a little humor, and a whole lotta volume.
“This was Duke Ellington’s theatrical home,” says composer Charlie Barnett as he strolls down the aisle of the Lincoln Theatre, his eyes filled with admiration for the elegantly restored showplace and its history.
It’s still three weeks until Barnett will be onstage. He’s here now to check the acoustics and to double-check various other details with the theater staff. The panic hasn’t set in yet. But it probably will.
After all, Barnett has hired almost 60 musicians, has commissioned lighting and sound technicians, and will be conducting a concert of his own music, a show he’s calling “35 Millimeter Music: An Orchestral Road Trip.” Plus, Barnett has rented out the theater more or less by himself—which means that he has the responsibility for filling just about 1,200 finely reupholstered seats before showtime.
By day, Barnett writes film and TV scores for the likes of the Discovery Channel, HBO, and various Hollywood producers, often flying from his Bethesda home to Los Angeles to supervise recording sessions. “Psychically and artistically,” he says, his life revolves around the “synch moment”—when his music and the film’s images come together. “I think I work well in a collaborative medium,” he says. “There’s something in my psyche that makes that all-important to me.”
Until recently, finding that moment was enough for Barnett. But the longest music cue for a film is four minutes—and that’s rare. “Can you say everything you’ve got to say in four minutes?” Barnett asks, quickly answering himself: “Generally not.”
So now he’s exploring his art “without the synch moment” by indulging his pent-up muse with a concert that will include not only a medley of his film scores but also a 30-minute violin concerto, a double-bass serenade, songs from his jazz-pop band Chaise Lounge, and the premiere of his four-movement orchestral piece “The Blue Chevrolet.”
The last work, Barnett says, is about “going on vacation with my parents and four sisters in an un-air-conditioned car, fighting with them, driving from Fredericksburg, Va., to Damariscotta in Maine. Just a horrible trip.” The second movement is called “Ah, the Scenic Overlook.” The third movement is “The Detour, the Argument, and Finally, the Map.” “I always thought something can be fun and serious at the same time,” says Barnett.
It’s a sensibility that has shaped every aspect of “35 Millimeter Music.” “There’s such a lack of drama in presentation in orchestral music,” Barnett declares. “If you go to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion [in L.A.] and pay $75 for your ticket, what you see when you actually get your seat [is] a bunch of guys in tuxedos wandering around, fussing with their music, maybe tuning a little bit—they’re kinda disheveled. They’ve got last week’s tuxedo on and yesterday’s shirt. And there’s this whole orchestral style to presentation that is so”—he squinches his face with disdain—”it’s the antithesis of drama. They just squeeze all of that out of it.”
Barnett draws the analogy of going to a Broadway show and having to watch an actor put on his makeup before going onstage. “You would feel used,” he snorts. “I took my daughter to the symphony. And you’re sitting there [before the show], and you see 80 people’s arms moving, and you see them doing things, and you’re reaction is, ‘Excuse me? Hello?’ It’s dull.”
Though his perpetual grin and easy chuckle underscore his youthful demeanor, Barnett is coy about revealing his age, which he fears may “categorize the concert.” Barnett prefers what he calls “the Hollywood Reporter approach,” which declares that everyone is 36. Noting that no one in Los Angeles will ever ask how old you are, Barnett cheerfully reports that “everybody lies. And if everybody lies, we’re all telling kind of the same truth.”
A truth the “36-year-old” Barnett does reveal is that he lived in Fredericksburg until the sixth grade, when his family moved to Pennsylvania—something else he prefers not to dwell on. Barnett escaped from the Keystone State to attend college at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where the music-minded kid majored in English. After graduating, he taught high school Latin for three years in Annapolis, Md.—an experience that soon convinced him he needed to find a new career. “I never drank more,” he says.
So Barnett quit his teaching job and decided to make a living with music, playing mostly jazz piano around Annapolis and D.C. A break came when he was hired to direct the band at the Andrews Air Force Base Officers’ Club, a gig he held for five years. With no rehearsal, the group would sight-read scores that, Barnett says, “had been around from 1952. I did dog acts, unicyclists. I wondered, How did this happen to me, a hip guy? Looking back, I had the chance to play the last vestige of vaudeville.
“I remember playing for this marimba player, Ruth Day, whose act was A Night With Day. If she was any younger than 75, I’d be astonished. She’d sweat through her dress, and at the end of her act, she’d bend over with her butt to the audience, and out would come this little marimba with this puppet. And the puppet would play, ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.’ Full-bird colonels would be laid out. I had to keep a straight face.”
Around 1981, a friend from high school asked Barnett to write a song for a local PBS show on the important topic of truancy. Barnett devised a bluegrass tune, “Skipping Out of School.” “It was nothing,” he says now, “a complete throwaway piece of music.”
But when Barnett first heard his song playing in time with the show’s images, he says, “I truly had the aha moment. I looked at that and I said, ‘Good God, look what my little piece of music does to this film. It makes it absolutely come into 3-D.’ I just looked up and said, ‘Can a person really make a living doing this?’ I really said that. And, ‘How?’”
Barnett spent 10 years finding the answer to that last question, gradually taking on more soundtrack projects. Today, his resume includes work for The Cosby Show, Third Rock From the Sun, and The Chris Isaak Show, as well as the Discovery Channel’s Raising the Mammoth and the History Channel’s Holocaust: The Untold Story. For the past eight years, Barnett has spent about 10 days a month in Los Angeles, where he shares a house with Survivor producer Cord Keller, whom he met working on America’s Most Wanted.
“When I first got there,” Barnett says, “some completely dissolute writer came up to me at a party and said, ‘This town will encourage you to death.’ I never forgot it. It’s true. Everyone says yes in L.A. That’s probably why I haven’t moved there. One of the healthy attributes of the East Coast is ‘no’ means ‘no.’”
But Barnett doubts that he would have had a chance to do “35 Millimeter Music” out West. “I was kinda in a good place, because the National Symphony had chosen to do a piece of mine,” he says. “But when that happened? I didn’t get to conduct. I thought, I’m not getting my jollies out of this. I thought, How will I end up enjoying my own work?”
So this past Jan. 1, Barnett made a New Year’s resolution: “It was ‘Eat more protein, have better posture, and court certain death by putting on a concert.’”
Sitting on the edge of the stage at the Lincoln, Barnett lists the elements that will differentiate his show from a “regular concert”: The curtain will rise dramatically. The orchestra will be nattily costumed. Lighting director Skip Larson will strategically enhance the visual flair. “This is going to be more of a—if there is a difference—more of a show than most concerts,” he says. “It’s not going to be exactly a Laurie Anderson concert, but it’s going to be more visually interesting than most.
“The other thing I’m doing is I’m miking the orchestra,” he continues. “That raises a lot of eyebrows in certain circles. I don’t know why, but it does.”
For the generations raised on amplified music, Barnett contends, classical concerts lack impact. “Maybe you get really clean and wonderful acoustics, but you don’t get that thump in the chest that sends us. I’m hoping to add that. I think it should be an invisible 30 percent, but a 30 percent that everyone has been missing. I’m completely unapologetic about this. I think it’s important.”
Barnett also has definite ideas about what should take place in the seats. “Audiencemanship. Is there a word like that?” he asks.
Remembering his experiences playing in Paris nightclubs on a trip overseas a few years ago, Barnett praises the French for their tendency to “take their role as audience members very seriously…They come in fully expecting that their role in that night’s concert is important—just as important as the performers’. Their role as energy….I’ve never quite seen it as palpably as there. Ever since then, I’ve craved an audience that’s willing to do that. And understands their job.
“Their job is to give back,” he continues. “And you can feel it sometimes. As a performer, when you don’t feel it, you can feel the vibe of the performers just crumble. It turns into paper. But when you do feel it, all of a sudden everything takes on this three-dimensional aspect. There’s more there than there was before: There’s more music, there’s more—what’s the word? The word is ‘vibe.’ It just spirals upward until you’re all getting gone. That’s why you’re there. And you can’t do it alone.”
Toward that end, Barnett is “going the technical limit” with “35 Millimeter Music.” “I had a whole list of venues between 400 and 3,000 seats,” he says of his pre-concert preparations. “There were all these auditoriums—I’m not sure what they were there for. Certainly not for music, but they put music in them now. I mean, even DAR [Constitution Hall] wanted me to bring this concert there. But, you know, that’s where my daughter graduated from high school. I can’t get that out of my head. They do have nice concerts there. But there’s no groove to it.”
Suddenly, a voice rings out: “This is gorgeous!”
Janice Martin, the featured violinist for “35 Millimeter Music”‘s concerto and a veteran of previous Barnett scores, walks in, in her first visit to the Lincoln. As she admires the scenery, Barnett explains that he wrote the concerto for her—and with her: She created the intricate cadenzas herself.
“When you write for a film score, you write to have it immediately playable. With basically one rehearsal and a recording,” Barnett says. “That’s your gig. You can’t write virtuoso passages. You’ll spend your whole budget trying to get two minutes on tape.
“So when Janice came over, she would just skate around the fingerboard and say, ‘Have you ever thought of this, this, this, this, this, this….How about if I took it down nine octaves up here?’ She really expanded the notion, for me, of what was going to be possible in this piece.
“That’s really cheating as a composer,” laughs Barnett. “I just wrote, ‘Open improvisation—Janice.’ What a thing to do! I don’t think Beethoven did that.”
“That’s not true,” corrects Martin. “There were many artists who made up their own cadenzas in many concertos.”
Of course, this being Washington, there is a palpably wonky aspect to the production. Barnett even created a foundation to put on the show: the Foundation for New American Symphonic Music.
“I know that’s a wordy title,” admits Barnett, “but I wanted to make that easily accessible to corporations, so they wouldn’t have to ask, ‘What do you do?’”
Barnett started the foundation, he says, “with the worst of impulses, the most venal of impulses. I was just trying to cut a couple bucks out of it. This is an expensive thing to do. And it’s all me, baby. So, if I can save something on taxes, make this a nonprofit, that would help.” As he was investigating the IRS code, Barnett says, the foundation idea came up, and his original plan of a “tax dodge” was put on hold. So far, the FNASM has raised about $15,000, which covers only part of “35 Millimeter Music”‘s cost.
But Barnett is still optimistic about the future. “I don’t want to make this just a one-shot deal. I want this to go on,” he says. “I want to be able to conduct other people’s work. It’s a chance for me to put my greasy thumbprint on a couple of things: on how concerts sound, on how they look. And maybe how the music is written. I get to choose music that I think will, in some way, further the case of orchestral music in America.
“We’ll see if I do it well.” CP
“35 Millimeter Music: An Orchestral Road Trip” takes place at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 22, at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. For more information, call Ticketmaster at (202) 432-7328 or visit www.charliebarnett.com.