Professor to compose for Berlin Philharmonic

KU music professor James Barnes teaches music composition, orchestration, arranging and wind band history/repertoire courses. Barnes has been commissioned to compose a piece of music for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

KU music professor James Barnes teaches music composition, orchestration, arranging and wind band history/repertoire courses. Barnes has been commissioned to compose a piece of music for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. -Sarah Hockel

Imagine sitting at a piano. A blank piece of white paper stares at you from the music stand and the white and black keys rest untouched below your fingers.

You write a note on the page and begin to hear music. Not coming from the piano, but from your head. At once you hear an entire orchestra playing what you write.

This is what happens in Professor James Barnes’ head.

This is why the internationally renowned Berlin Philharmonic commissioned Barnes to compose a flute concerto for its 2012-2013 concert series.

“I’ve got this little orchestra in my head and I just write what they’re doing,” Barnes said of his method for composing pieces. “It’s an acquired effect.”

Andreas Blau, long time flutist for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, had heard one of Barnes’ symphonies and contacted Barnes last fall about composing this work. After initial shock and disbelief, Barnes met with him in Munich to discuss the offer.

He said being commissioned for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is the most prestigious offer he has ever received, but he doesn’t want to approach this piece any differently than other compositions.

Barnes began composing early in life. He started writing his own music by ninth grade. You might think a teenager with this natural skill would have gone to an art school in New York, but not Barnes. You can tell by his accent.

He grew up on a cattle farm in western Oklahoma and his father knew nothing about music.

“He is like an interesting combination of somebody who is one of the most literate and knowledgeable musicians I’ve ever known, yet someone who also is very much from Oklahoma,” said Brian Haaheim, associate professor of music theory and music composition.

Haaheim has worked with Barnes for almost ten years. He said Barnes is known as one of the world’s most renowned wind ensemble composers. He also said that nothing about him would lead you to believe that.

“He doesn’t tend to blow his own horn,” Haaheim said. “He just does the work and continually puts out exceptionally good music.”

Barnes has been living in Lawrence ever since coming to the University for his undergraduate degree. His experiences in Oklahoma and the skills he learned at the University shaped Barnes into the creative person he is today.

The death of his father when he was 21 and the earlier death of his mother when he was eight affected Barnes deeply. Without his father, he was left to support himself throughout college. He said if nothing dramatic happens to a person in life, then they really don’t have much to say.

“It’s the wear and tear of life that makes an artist,” Barnes said.

The deaths of his parent forced him to look inward. This self exploration enhances his creativity and translates directly into his music. When he is composing, Barnes says he is writing music that conveys emotion and that is saying something. Its not simply notes on a page.

It is a process everybody faces, says Barnes, to look at a nothing and create something.

Barnes has no set process for composing his pieces. He never writes two the same way. Some he writes from ending movement to beginning, some from beginning to end. He believes if there is too much of a set process, the creation turns out bad. He tries to share that with students now at the University.

Barnes received his master’s degree in 1975 and has been teaching at the University for 37 years now. He teaches music composition, orchestration, arranging, and wind band history and repertoire courses in the School of Music. He also serves as the director for the division of music theory and composition.

“Jim Barnes is, in many ways, the heart and soul of the KU School of Music,” said Forrest Pierce, assistant professor of music composition.

Pierce has worked with Barnes for five years and is amazed by Barnes’ mastery of large ensembles. Pierce also said Barnes is “exceedingly humble” despite all of his accomplishments.

Barnes has performed and conducted at music halls all over the world, including Carnegie Hall and Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow, as well as guest conducting in Japan more than 35 times.

As far as the concerto for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Barnes says he’ll “be done when it is finished.” Although he likes working under deadlines, he doesn’t want to put a specific date on when the work will be completed.

He was confident, talking through a thick cigar pinched between his teeth, that he will begin the three movement concerto in January, and will eventually have it done on time for Berlin, which is quite a distance away from his roots in western Oklahoma and his home in Lawrence.

KU music professor James Barnes teaches music composition, orchestration, arranging and wind band history/repertoire courses. Barnes has been commissioned to compose a piece of music for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

KU music professor James Barnes teaches music composition, orchestration, arranging and wind band history/repertoire courses. Barnes has been commissioned to compose a piece of music for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. -Sarah Hockel

KU music professor James Barnes teaches music composition, orchestration, arranging and wind band history/repertoire courses. Barnes has been commissioned to compose a piece of music for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

KU music professor James Barnes teaches music composition, orchestration, arranging and wind band history/repertoire courses. Barnes has been commissioned to compose a piece of music for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. -Sarah Hockel

Edited by David Cawthon

  • Updated Sep. 1, 2010 at 1:29 am
  • P

    Firstly, the journalist got it mixed up, at the beginning: writing down what one heard in one’s mind is not exactly the same as hearing what one wrote down.
    Secondly, there’s nothing unusual about the ability like one Mr. Barnes possesses: it’s something that can be fully developed by an adequate aural training. Every musician schooled in e.g. Central Europe and Russia possesses it. It’s only that these musicians haven’t been making fuss about it (but they have been quietly laughing at the rest of us), and those among us who know about it prefer to keep the difference quiet.
    This ability has always appeared ‘supernatural’ (case: Mozart) – but only in the societies in which the musicians’ aural training has, for ages, remained inadequate.
    Igor Stravinsky once toured the composition departments of the major music schools in the U.S. Once he realized that the musicians he’s been talking to do not share the a/m ability with him he abruptly cancelled this tour.
    Our music world has much to change.
    Pathan Krakauer