Monday, January 31, 2011

Celluloid Heroes #1 John Barry (The Beyondness Of Things)

There is an inescapable quietness, an unavoidable sadness that underpins today: the world is collectively mourning one of the compositional giants of modern music – John Barry.

There will, no doubt, be acres of prose written in the next however long in praise of his lush melodies and remarkable prowess with minor and major chords as well as his skill at letting notes just hang in the air like so much honeysuckle-scent on an evening breeze.

Yet – more often than not, it wasn’t (as I believe Miles Davis once said) the notes that were played that counted, but those that weren’t – JB created spaces within music in which one’s imagination was left to roam.

Above all, though, it is the sheer elegance of his music; exemplified by a series of unmatched film scores that were… still are… (and crucially) remain to be discovered by generations to come... his remarkable legacy.

Quite a few years ago (in 1999 to be exact), when a project involved a close working relationship with The English Chamber Orchestra, they played a couple of nights under JB’s baton at The Royal Albert Hall. This was a year of so after JB had signed to Decca and released his first non-soundtrack album for a quarter of a century, the timeless The Beyondness Of Things.

Not being on the ball as rapidly as I should have been, I missed out at the box-office. The shows were beyond sold-out; tickets were as hard to find as hen’s teeth – this being only the second time in many, many, years that JB had played a UK show and coming on the back of the critical acclaim that his Beyondness album had received. Thus, it was all about cadging a gigantic favour. So, it was after much grovelling and begging on bended knee, that a pair of guest tickets arrived in the post.

In the hall that night, as my pal Honest John (the financial adviser) and I settled in the side-stalls, the air was thick with expectation… could the maestro deliver; would these themes of his, these glorious and magnificent melodies translate to a space like this without the visual benefit of being set to celluloid?

The players took their seats, tuned up as they do – taking their cue from number one fiddler – then the lights dimmed. Smaller than imagined, a gaunt, somewhat insignificant-looking, grey-haired figure took to the platform…

He tapped his baton a couple of times and then… the distant thunder of kettle drums cracked the air; the strident shout of trombones marched to the beat as swelling strings added their own counterpoint to… the opening title-music to Zulu.

Three or so minutes later, as the final chords washed away, there was absolute silence for maybe five or six seconds (although it felt longer). Then the audience, as one, stood as an explosion of applause detonated throughout the hall.

Two and a bit hours later, the man who conducted by using his shoulders as much as his baton had satiated the five or so thousand people in the hall with music. As much as we’d been beguiled by the lushness of the Beyondness album, we’d been treated to a voyage through his soundtracks by way of symphonic sadness within the likes of Out Of Africa and Mary Queen Of Scots and the evergreen branches of enticement of a near-thirty minute James Bond medley.

It was one of the greatest shows (among countless hundreds) I’ve been luck enough to witness.

Was he a composer as important as (say) Puccini or Beethoven? Should he be revered as painter of musical sound-scapes as important as (say) Monet or Kandinsky?

Yes, I would argue that JB rightly occupies a pedestal alongside those who are rightly regarded as colossuses within their own field.

The world is a richer place for his music and a sadder one for his untimely passing.

Fare thee well then, JB… a lion of Africa sleeps tonight.

1 comment:

Patrick said...


I lead an insulated life, I was completely unaware of his passing. How sad. I have played his Beyondness of Things countless times, often back to back. He was in my shortlist of all time heroes I'd like to photograph.

It will be melancholy playing his albums now. How fortunate you were to see him live.

:-) nice article, by the way