“The finest music in the world? The music of what is happening.”– Fionn Mac Cumhaill
Composer Barbara White has decades of experience in concert music as well as in interdisciplinary collaboration. She is also an idiosyncratic clarinetist. White is devoted to working intensively with performers—sometimes performing alongside them—to create works that are finely rendered and suited to the players’ personalities and performance circumstances. She has been recognized for her exploration of expressive extremes, ranging from kinetic virtuosity to contemplative stillness; for engaging deeply with the instruments she chooses; and for creating works that are captivating in performance. Her current projects profit from her presence as a performer and her devoted efforts at getting to know her partners. Farewell to Music, a duo project with shakuhachi performer Riley Lee, is supported by White’s seven years of shakuhachi study and White’s and Lee’s sensitivity to the subtleties of the sounding breath. Fork & Spoon, White’s duo with guitarist Charles MacDonald, grows out of White’s four years’ immersion in Cape Breton’s quasi-Celtic idiom and her desire to enter the world of MacDonald, a rhythm guitarist who is steeped in a rural, traditional idiom and has no need for notation..
Other recent work embraces the theater of the concert stage. In 2009, at the invitation of percussionist Dominic Donato, White undertook a series of works for solo tamtam entitled Nothing Doing. Some of these are ritualistic, others conceptual; some are not quite intended to be performed. Soon after entering into the world of the gong, White began to study the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute). The chance (or not) meeting of the gong and the shakuhachi led to an evening-length performance, Desire Lines, directed by Mark DeChiazza, wherein White performed clarinet alongside Dominic Donato’s gong and Ralph Samuelson’s shakuhachi. Incorporating video, spoken word, movement and White’s own moving images, Desire Lines explores the intersection between contemplative and creative practices. The program as a whole prizes stillness, silence, and nuance, honoring the richness that can emerge from focusing on simple materials; it also seeks mindfulness through humor, paradox, and the unexpected.
March 2012 saw the première of Weakness, a one-act opera for which White wrote the libretto as well as the music; Kate Weare provided choreography for dancers Leslie Kraus and Douglas Gillespie, and Mark DeChiazza served as director. The opera is based on a Celtic story, known as “The Curse of Macha” or the “Weakness of the Ulstermen,” which White learned from storyteller Tom Cowan. Weakness uses words, song and movement equally to explore the mysterious and elusive aspects of the myth.
White is Professor of Music at Princeton, where she has been teaching since 1998. As a composition teacher and dissertation advisor, she aims to listen receptively to young composers’ ideas and to cultivate an attention both open-minded and rigorous. In addition to teaching the standard and essential fare of music theory and composition, White has developed a number of courses and seminars on wide ranging topics, including “outsider music”; interculturalism and exoticism; autobiography and masquerade; and a freshman seminar concerning the relationship between specialized art-making and everyday experience. In Spring 2012 she hosted Riley Lee in her graduate seminar concerning composing for shakuhachi, which culminated in a full concert of premieres. Lee returned in the Spring of 2016, and he and White taught two composition seminars, which culminated in nine new students works for shakuhachi and other instruments.
White’s scholarly writings concern the relationship between musical “nuts and bolts” and cultural context, focusing on such matters as the coordination between sound and movement and the relationship between creative activity and everyday life, as well as the impact on music of gender, listening, and spirituality. “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Mickey Mouse” considers synchronization in music-dance and music-film relationships. An ongoing series for Open Space Magazine called “I Am Not Making This Up” muses on the relationship between life and art, juxtaposing musical observations with informal recollections of everyday moments. For example, “In Search of Silence” (2008) considers the elusiveness and preciousness of quiet, both within and outside music; and the most recent, “Days, Numbered,” marvels at the gifts of everyday experience and ponders the points of contact between the arts, professionalism, and ethics. Other articles have been published in Cambridge Opera Journal, Opera Quarterly, Intercultural Music, Indiana Theory Review,and the American Assembly’s Creative Campus.