Music that mattersMay 03, 2021 07:52PM ● By Steven Hoffman
There’s a worldliness in contemporary classical composer Jennifer Margaret Barker’s pieces. She’s a native of Scotland who has traveled often around the globe, and her style is programmatic, inspired by stories, experiences and visuals.
There’s also a depth that cannot be conveyed by any of the languages that she knows. “I want to share and say something with my music more than words can,” said Barker, a Newark resident and a full professor at the University of Delaware, teaching music composition and theory.
Those attributes are part of the reason that earlier this year she was awarded a master’s fellowship, the Delaware Division of the Arts’ highest honor for individual artists, following her 2007 award as an established professional artist. To meet the guidelines for the $10,000 award, she will showcase her work in an October event at UD. She’ll talk about each piece before it’s performed.
The event will be the live debut of “Ocean of Glass,” a chamber work for flute, clarinet and piano that will get its virtual debut at the National Flute Association convention this summer.
“Ocean of Glass” was inspired by a 2019 trip to Alaska. “What struck me is in the Inside Passage how much of it looked like a mirror, reflecting the mountains and the sun,” Barker said.
On www.jennifermargaretbarker.com, she lists 43 compositions, with titles drawing from six languages. “I don’t want to write hundreds and hundreds of pieces,” she said. “I’d rather write a lesser number that I’m happy with and that meant something.”
From the heart
That meaning has generated praise from her colleagues and those who commission her work.
“I find her music to be very colorful, contemporary without losing the most important part of music making, which is something that comes from the heart, not just the brain, to challenge the audience but the heart to connect with the audience,” said Xiang Gao, a UD music professor who has commissioned three pieces for 6-wire, his violin and erhu duo. “And I happen to enjoy the great tradition of Scottish folk music, where her music is deeply rooted in.”
“She has such a wonderful, colorful and distinctive voice as a composer,” said Eileen Grycky, a UD flute professor who has commissioned four pieces for various groups. “She is often inspired by a programmatic idea. The piece she wrote for my flute-guitar duo, “Seann Oran,” was a musical reflection on a poem by Derick Thompson. There is a recording of the poem read by Jenny’s father and brother that is played during the performance.
“I asked Jenny to write a flute quartet in honor of my friend Dr. Lynne Cooksey’s retirement from the Music School of Delaware, where she taught flute and was head of the woodwind faculty. Lynne loved horses so Jenny wrote a piece titled “Chincoteague,” inspired by the horses on the island. Each flutist had to whinny like a horse at one point.”
Barker started piano lessons at age 5. Her mother allocated most of her nursing salary to pay for music lessons for her children. Barker added the violin and oboe before starting college.
After earning her honors bachelor of music degree from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, she immediately headed to the United States for graduate work, first with master’s degrees in piano performance and music composition from Syracuse University, and then a master’s degree and a doctorate in music composition from the University of Pennsylvania.
She moved to Newark in 2000 to teach at UD, encouraged that she would be “closer to bigger cities with more opportunities for classical music” than the job she had then, in Virginia’s Tidewater region.
Her students tend to focus on contemporary classical or jazz composition, with graduates getting jobs teaching, administrating the arts, scoring films and video games, executive-directing performance ensembles, working in publishing and succeeding as singer-songwriters.
Her personal interest is in contemporary classical music, strongly influenced by teacher George Crumb, a resident of Media, Pennsylvania, who she said is known for his “colorful, texture-driven work” in compositions expressed in boundary-breaking shapes like a peace sign or a cross.
When asked to name-drop leaders of contemporary classical music, she also included minimalist Philip Glass (composer for numerous films) and John Corigliano (who scored “The Red Violin”). She and her husband, John Anthony Palmer, emphasized that many people don’t realize that many films resonate with contemporary classical music in their scores.
At UD, Barker co-chairs New Music Delaware and directs Still Breathing, a contemporary music ensemble. She loves teaching, wishes she had more time for composing and tolerates paperwork.
Those responsibilities left little time for life itself. “I was too busy to get married and have kids, so I inherited a daughter and three grandchildren,” she said. “Being a grandmother was a lot more fun.”
A collaborator and a husband
The new family developed because in 2003 she was on a Baltic cruise with her parents and was drawn to Palmer, the videographer hired to film the ship’s entertainment. He was one of the few younger people on board, and they clicked with their mutual belief that multimedia will reach people who don’t go to traditional classical concerts.
They started collaborating professionally before they married 2005. She was ready to release her second CD, and he suggested a bonus DVD that matches visuals to her music. The scenery that he films is often “ethereal,” as one composition suggests in playing directions.
“We love nature,” Palmer said. “We’re saving the planet in our own way by making people aware of the beauty around them, rather than being stuck looking at the little screen of their phones.”
They have since shot video in Delaware and around the world.
On her mind now
Palmer said that Barker has learned a lot about multimedia over the years and now storyboards, directs and edits. “I just follow her around like a good husband.”
During her sabbatical this spring, Barker was juggling five pieces, including “Ocean of Glass.”
The second was “Kaitiaki,” for two violins and symphony orchestra; accompanying a nature film and named after the Māori word for “guardian.”
The third was a third movement to a piano suite that she began a decade ago.
The fourth was an untitled piece “about the strength of the human spirit.”
The fifth was commissioned by percussionist Catherine Doersch. “Caledonia” recalls the fight against the Romans in Barker’s native Scotland.
Palmer looks forward to when Barker retires from UD and they can create even more multimedia music together.