Review of “Elan Valley”
APRIL ‐ JUNE 2018 MUSICAL OPINION QUARTERLY
The titles of the individual pieces, and those of the separate movements in the concertos, are cleverly designed to put the listener in the correct receptive frame of mind to experience the haunting qualities of these finely‐wrought scores by Barry Mills (b. 1949).
His musical language is inherently founded upon late-Impressionism in terms of the creation of instrumental imagery, and the contemplative qualities the music undoubtedly possesses betoken a creative mind inherently inspired by natural phenomena ‐ the observance, and being moved by, deeply layered forces of nature.
If the inner movement of Mills’s music has the almost inevitable quality of pacification ‐ in the sense of nature as one with humanity ‐ the foreground surface of his larger works is full of fascinating details of orchestration and instrumental timbres, with the soloists in all three concertos not so much taking centre stage at all times but adopting what might be termed a universal co-operation for tone and inner movement ‐ the musical foreground constantly ’on the move’ whilst the musical background providing the foundation of the surface impressions at all times.
This is music of, inherently, a profoundly contemplative nature, and as such speaks to our troubled and often chaotic times with a profound sense of inherent calm.
As such, it is music for those moments of reflection ‐ too rarely encountered in art of all kinds today. Mills is honoured by what appear to be excellent performances; the recording quality is first‐class.
Robert Matthew-Walker, Musical Opinion Quarterly Apr – Jun 2018
Review of “Elan Valley”
Classical Guitar Magazine Summer 2018
Compelling concertos and orchestral works from English composer.
The music of Sussex England-born Barry Mills certainly deserves to be heard. Of the pieces on offer here, only two works include the guitar, but one of them – the beautiful Guitar Concerto (The Travels of Turlogh O’Carolan) is quite substantial in six movements and lasting more than 32 minutes. O’Carolan was a 16th century Irish harpist, popular today with many guitarists, and here Mills has interwoven some of O’Carolan’s melodies with musical episodes of his own evoking wind, sea, rivers, mountains, and night, to give the listener a sense of the blind harpist’s lifestyle of constant travelling. The music is magical from start to finish, and this concerto really deserves to be discovered and played. The style, naturally, is very Irish-folk and therefore highly accessible, but also gripping. Sam Brown is the guitarist, and he plays the piece wonderfully well. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Peter Vronsky and, of course, adds much to the piece.
The other guitar work is the Mandolin and Guitar Concerto, in four movements, and again concerned with nature – three of the movements are “Rainfall”, “The Piercing Wind”, and “The Ever-Changing Sea”. The style is more modern, but very tonal throughout, and again full of wonderful moments, effortlessly played by both soloists.
The non-guitar pieces are Mandolin Concerto and two orchestral works, both in the same lovely, almost ethereal style. A wonderful recording!
Chris Dumigan, Classical Guitar Magazine Summer 2018
Review of “Elan Valley”
Barry MILLS (b.1949)
Elan Valley – orchestral (2016) [8:24]
Mandolin and Guitar Concerto (2003) [13:28]
Evening Rain – Sunset (2012) [6:51]
Guitar Concerto (2014) [31:48]
Mandolin Concerto (2016) [13:20]
Daniel Ahlert (mandolin)
Birgit Schwab (guitar)
Sam Brown (guitar)
Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra/Vronsky
rec. Redula Hall, Olomouc, Czech Republic, 2017
Stereo 24/192 (as reviewed) and 24/96; also available on CD CC6040-2
CLAUDIO BD-A CC6040-6 [71:33]
Barry Mills is a new name to me, and it makes a change to review music by someone who is both alive and younger than I am. Mills seems to be active around the Brighton area and has a considerable quantity of music of all sorts to his name. This is his fifth disc for Claudio. His website at barrymillscomposer.com is full of interest. It reveals amongst other things that he is mostly self taught and cannot be described as a professional composer because he worked as a postman to give himself afternoons to compose. One has to admire such dedication. One suspects that there are a lot of such people in the arts world who wish to create but cannot earn enough from it to live on. The history of music is full of such. It would seem that riches are not the expectation of most creative artists.
The two short orchestral pieces and the three concertos presented here were all written well within the last two decades. On this occasion he has gained the cooperation of a fully professional orchestra, in the Czech Republic, to present his works in the best possible light. Engaging with Claudio records to advise on, master and market the disc, as he has before, Mills has guaranteed one thing few can claim, even some of the biggest names, and that is well nigh perfect recording quality. Listening to these beautifully crafted works, full of the most delicate and attractive orchestral effects has been an easy job for this reviewer. Mills does not believe in making life uncomfortable for the audience in that these pieces, though clearly modern, are never raucous or noisy, and indeed often have a very tuneful quality. The tunes are sometimes folk melodies but treated to a rather atmospheric development. I am tempted to draw parallels with some of the gentler minimalists but Mills gets somewhere quite quickly and here at least none of his music outstays its welcome. The three concertos are each in several movements which have descriptive titles referring mostly to the environment. Mills is very much a landscape artist in music. The music has a meditative quality mixed with rhythmic flourishes that enliven the flow of colourful sounds giving a certain narrative quality to the experience. The soloists are all very expert players and articulate the music very cleanly under the intense audio scrutiny of a microscopically clear recording.
As implied above, all five works are well played and recorded with the usual outstanding Claudio fidelity, resulting from using very simple recording arrays placed in exactly the right position and of course using the finest microphones. The majors could learn much from this.
David Billinge of Musicweb International
Review of “Under the Stars”
MusicWeb International August 2019
Barry MILLS (b. 1949)
Under the stars
Eight Haiku for mezzo and piano [7:15]
Piano solos: Transitions [8:39]; Landscapes [9:43]; The Pavilion Gardens [5:16]; In the Mist [7:52]
Chief Seattle Fragments for mezzo and guitar [10:03]
Guitar Sketches (5) [19:04]
Duo for Violin and Guitar [4:25]
Julian Elloway (piano)
Corinne Shirman-Sarti (mezzo)
Paul Gregory (guitar)
Andrew Sherwood (violin)
rec. 1993, All Saints Chapel, Eastbourne; St John’s Smith Square, London
CLAUDIO RECORDS CC4324-2 [75:02]
English composer Barry Mills found a welcome with Colin Attwell’s Claudio label. The present Mills collection, entitled Under the Stars, was first issued in the mid-1990s. It has been fledged afresh and now tries its wing-beat, alongside various other Mills-Claudio re-launches, in today’s market.
The Eight Haiku are simplicity made distant and strange. The words from are all set out in the booklet or, I should say, fold of glossy paper. The programme notes are adequate and we should celebrate that all the sung words (and the poems by which some piano solos have been inspired) are printed there but I would have like to know more about these pieces; perhaps some life or inspirational context. Apart from music-publishers being identified there is little to read. On a more personal note, among the persons thanked for this disc are composers Michael Finnissy and Colin Matthews.
As the liner says, these Haiku trace the passage of the seasons. They show a disciplined minimal approach rather than any suggestion of luxuriating in oriental atmosphere. A tinkling effect high in the piano’s register impart an otherworldly feeling. These songs are, as you would expect, sparely done but are varied with slow swirls of notes … but when were they written? They somewhat resemble a surely much earlier work: Holst’s Medieval Songs for mezzo and violin.
Transitions is another Japanese poetry-inspired cycle but with the music continuous and the piece intended to be enjoyed as an entity. The words that kindled this work are not haiku but single verse poems extended across up to six lines. This distant Neptune-style is sustained from the Haiku cycle and also made me think of that Baltic poet of the firmament, Urmis Sisask.
Transitions are not songs but piano solos inspired by Japanese poems. These deliquescent dreams resemble Sorabji but with simplified textures. There’s no trace of Sorabji’s extrusion and compression and length of expression. Landscapes continues an immersion in the piano language of Haiku and Transitions. These are thoughtful pieces moved into notated form by something that was touched off in Mills psyche. There can be little doubt that the twinkling of stars and the interplay of direct and reflected light are there among sudden flurries that are assertive and commanding. Then, just as suddenly¸ there is a sinking back into mysteries.
The composer does let slip that he used to work at Brighton’s pavilion gardens for a number of years. His The Pavilion Gardens also step out, very much, from same book as Haiku and Transitions. In the mist, another solo piano piece, was inspired by the changes wrought by the morning mists seeping and surging around a valley in Granada.
Then come the Chief Seattle Fragments. These are the Chief’s ponderings on the passage of time and the descent of the once great native Indian tribes. Their treading down by hungry generations of white men is offset by the fact, as the Chief sees it, of their being in turn swept away. For guitar and mezzo, the words are again set in English and are printed in full. This is more of a prose meditation than a poem. It is very moving, especially around the words “there was a time when our people covered the land as the waves of a wind-ruffled sea … there is no death only a change of worlds…”.
The Guitar Sketches (Across Water; Summer Wind; Rain; Fireworks; Under the Stars) are bare and spare yet always accessible and very enjoyable. Mills is even more resourceful when writing for guitar. Ideas seem to cross, bounce and bump to good effect. Under the stars plays to a mood Mills is completely at home with. I would urge guitarists to seek out these pieces. They appear challenging yet are intensely rewarding for the listener. The Duo also reflects this sense of renewal.
It is good that the Claudio label is giving fresh chances in an ever-expanding ever-forgetting musical world. We should also recall Claudio’s Milner and Bush CDs rescued from Hyperion vinyl. As noted on their website all new releases from Claudio are now available as 24/192 Stereo Blu-ray Audio Discs or HD Download as well as standard CD.
Review of “Mosaics”
NOVEMBER 7, 2019
THE ART MUSIC LOUNGE
MOSAICS Vol. 3 / MILLS: Wind Quintet / Charlotte Munro, fl; Philip Edwards, cl; Catherine Pluygers, ob; Huw Jones, bsn; Henryk Sienkiewicz, horn / String Quartet. Clarinet Quintet / Stuart Deeks, Ellie Blackshaw, vln; Robert Winquist, vla; Sarah Stuart-Pennink, cel; Edwards, cl / Flute Sketches. Mosaic for Flute & Piano / Christopher Hyde-Smith, fl; Jane Dodds, pno / Duet for Flute & Violin / Caroline Collingridge, fl; Blackshaw, vln / 3 Movements for Viola / Winquist, vla / Violin Duo / Deeks, Blackshaw / Ocean for Double Bass / Stephen Philips, bs / Duo for Mandolin & Guitar / Nigel Woodhouse, mand; Martin Vishnick, gtr / Where the Sea Meets the Shore / Richard Hand, Tom Dupré, gtr / Claudio Contemporary CC4325-2
This has to be the oddest physical CD I’ve ever reviewed, because as soon as I opened the jewel case, the front cover of the album popped loose from the booklet and landed in my lap! Astonished, I looked at the CD box and there, believe it or not, the booklet was still in place—but with an entirely different cover on it. This is, then, the only album I’ve ever seen that has two different covers at the same time. Both are reproduced above for your viewing pleasure.
Barry Mills, it turns out, is also somewhat odd for a composer. Born in Plymouth, MA in 1949, he got a degree in Biochemistry from Sussex University in 1971 but, having learned to be a composer on his own, returned there in 1976-77 to study musical analysis with David Osmond-Smith and David Roberts as well as composition with Colin Matthews and Ann Boyd. He then became a mailman for 30 years, a job which he says gave him the leisure time to compose in the afternoons! The Society for the Promotion of New Music has programmed three of his pieces: the Clarinet Quintet and Septet and Harp Sketches. Although this is the third CD of his music to be issued under the title Mosaics, it is the first I have been able to review.
Much of the music on this CD sounds, at first blush, like soft “ambient” classical, but it is not. After the opening theme statements of the Wind Quintet, for instance, the harmony suddenly shifts to bitonality, and this vein continues into the development section. Moreover, Mills understands that rarest of all qualities in a modern composer, how to appeal to the heart as well as the mind. Despite its occasionally abrasive moments, this music is appealing, in much the same way that Hindemith and Françaix could be appealing. As the quintet goes on, he uses counterpoint to build his structure but always falls back on lyricism as the uniting force. The music thus has a fascinating dual personality that sometimes contrasts, sometimes blends. Some of it reminds me of the music of my online friend, Augusta Cecconi-Bates, who writes in a similar style reflecting her own personality. And oddly, this quintet ends in the middle of a phrase.
The String Quartet begins with soft murmurs from the cello, above which the violin and viola are heard. Interestingly, Mills seems to use his strings as if they were winds, thus the overall mood, if not the structure, is similar to the wind quintet. Little swells (what singers would call messa di voce, a crescendo-decrescendo on a held note) come and go, as do fluttering tremolos and long, downward glissandi that move through the entire scale chromatically as if he were writing completely non-tonal music as in the case of Julián Carrillo. One thing I’ll say for Mills: his style, though drawn from several sources, is entirely his own. Indeed, the Clarinet Quintet begins with the four strings all playing sliding atonal figures in the Carrillo style, against which we then hear one of the violins playing pizzicato against that backdrop. When the clarinet does enter, it is playing at first in its lower or chalumeau register, blending into the strings as if it were a second viola. Eventually, around 6:25, the clarinet gets its own solo, playing odd themes and variants that slink chromatically through the scale although leaping around the notes in that scale with rapid eighth-note figures. In all of these works, too, the tempo is elusive; one can really only feel a pulse when there is some rhythmic impetus to what they are playing, which is intermittent. Light pizzicato string figures eventually emerge, but here again there is no feeling of a forward-moving rhythm. Then the pace picks up with a clarinet motif, around which the strings play odd figures, sometimes swirling, sometimes sliding chromatically, sometimes in soft tremolos or even touches of spiccato in the bowing. And again, the piece ends in the middle of nowhere.
The Sketches for solo flute follow a similar pattern except,. of course, there is no harmonic texture here to work with in terms of voicing, just one instrument that cannot play chords. Yet even here, his use of “slithering” harmonies is injected into the flute’s lines, creating a forlorn rather than a serene mood. He also has the flautist blow air sideways into the mouthpiece, creating a somewhat edgy quality. This, then, almost blends into Mosaic for flute and piano, which uses similar themes at the outset but changes subtly with the entrance of the piano, playing what appear to be random notes in the upper treble end of the keyboard. The pianist acts here, to my ears, less like an accompanist and more like a solo-note percussion instrument that is trying to find its way through the odd labyrinth of Mills’ musical construction. This is also the first composition to be broken into individual sections, four movements in fact, but even in the faster second movement the piano sticks to single-note runs and gestures, sounding to some extent as if it were chasing the flute but never quite being able to catch up no matter how “busy” the music gets. And in the pattern of the preceding works, the fourth and last movement presents no real resolution, just another musical maze through which flute and piano meander trying to find each other but not quite meeting up.
The Duo for Flute and Violin opens with the latter instrument playing very high, whining notes while the former is again spitting across the mouthpiece of his instrument. Then the flute settles down, if such is the proper term for it, to play what sound like random atonal notes while the violin plucks its way through equally atonal pizzicati. This random-sounding duet goes on for a little more than five minutes, with the pieces slowly but surely falling into place. Another strange piece, excellently played. The 3 Movements for Viola are in much the same vein while the two-movement Violin Duo has one playing high, held notes while the other plays lyrical lines around the first. The second piece opens with one of the violins playing those atonal slides once again.
Oceans for Double Bass is another atonal piece, opening with the bass playing very low As before moving into its strange journey. Up and down the neck of the bass the player goes, contrasting a few semi-lyrical motifs against low grumbles and edgy, serrated figures. Following this is the Duo for Mandolin and Guitar, which follows a similar pattern to the preceding works. Here, however, Mills seems to revel in the plectrum effects he can elicit from the two instruments, which in themselves create interesting patterns.
W end our journey with Where the Sea Meets the Shore for two guitars, and here Mills explores not merely the plectrum effects of the instruments but also their ability to create lyrical and edgy figures, some at the same time.
This was quite an ear-opening disc for me. You can be sure that I’ll be looking for more of Barry Mills’ music to review in the future.
Lynn René Bayley, The Art Music Lounge
Review of “Under the Stars”, “Mosaics”, “Summer Waves”, “Morning Sea” and “Tartano”
“An extraordinary but delicate chill descends at the opening of the Bekova Sisters’ (before they were famous) disc of Plymouth-born Barry Mills’ music. This is partly due to the sonics which are supremely caught by engineer Colin Attwell in each of the four discs in 1993 (only the last disc is unclear about when). Imagine a Webern space with touches of atonality; and modality, different types of modes rather like Messiaen – especially the octatonic scale. The pieces themselves are usually no more than seven or eight minutes, quite often only four or five minutes or in the form of tiny triptychs. Then scrub out some of the maximalism, insert a Feldman-scaled sound-world, sounding timeless and unwinding unhurriedly, but somewhat more compressed – a lot more in fact. Then the melodic figurations, often with a kind of jewel-watch precision and turning; recalling tiny winding-up motifs: Ligeti, perhaps Donatoni or Dusapin. Rhythmically Mills is insidious, unwinding over apparently unhurried paragraphs until you realise that a good deal of notes have been expended in a small space without seeming to be. That’s the Feldman feel to these remarkable, microcosmic works. Taking another tack, when you look at a municipal gardener clearing leaves in Brighton Pavilion, imagine him writing a Ligeti-esque piece etude ‘Pavilion Gardens’ both of which, of course Mills did.
Barry Mills was born 13 November 1949. After reading Bio-Chemistry at Sussex 1968-71, and taking an MA in music there in 1976-77, studying with Colin Matthews and Ann Boyd, and analysis with Dayid Osmond-Smith and David Roberts. Mills first worked for the Brighton Corporation, then when it was nationalised, from 1990 as a Postman, to give him time to compose in the afternoons.
The opening CD is a rich, remarkable exploration of piano/strings combinations. The Piano Trio, more chordally assertive and pianistically harder-edged than other works, recalls a distant forefather in its haunted chill, Bridge’s Piano Trio No. 2 of 1929. They could be profitably programmed together, where Mills’s more compressed world asserts itself over seven minutes in a soaring set of solos. He rarely writes much in the way of pure tuttis, preferring to skein out the instrumentation and language, some tangle of melody, some shifting thread of tonal logic; a centre revolved round, for instance a frequent use of minor thirds, or an ostinato pattern. The importance of each musical gesture and colour, a harmonic tension suggestive of atmosphere, light and shade links to Webern and Debussy.
The Piano Quintet is a more rounded beast, making ampler claims in a single movement of 8’09” – unlike the delicate programme titles of the Trio, something Mills employs frequently and Darmstadt-shamelessly The Quintet too unravels a softer grained piano against a dialogue of more massed writing, for Mills. More reminiscences of a Ligeti sound-world suggest themselves. Despite its brevity, the Quintet like the Trio is enormously satisfying, quite solidly realised and memorable in its melodic contours.
Other pieces for solo violin and violin or cello with piano, or for violin and cello (neatly counterpointing the whole world of Ravel), each contribute to Mills’ two kinds of sound-world. Both are related under the foregoing remarks, but solo pieces tend to soar in a more angular way, breathe with an ardent-edged lyricism that one can recognise as part of the clear modernist tradition. There’s a paradox in this too, since Mills when confronted with the most melodically recalcitrant of instruments, the guitar, writes nearest to his edge of atonality, especially in the Duo for mandolin and guitar on the third disc. And this just when you’d expect a mushy film track or at least a diatonic pliancy in ensemble work. Solo cello pieces on this first disc, or the solo double bass in the next, are like everything else beautifully executed and caught. They point at a bass-heavy language that Mills explores, for instance, in Tartano, for piano and orchestra. But given his instrumental timbres here, they of course get only the piano for support; a support Mills only feels drawn to occasionally, the way a painter doesn’t use black for shadow.
Mills’ use of the mezzo voice is, however, far more angular – and haunted. The Eight Haiku – seven by Basho, one by Muira Chora, and the Chief Seattle Fragments, are remarkable in understanding the true proviso that really only fragments of words can truly be set: that to really set a poem you have to destroy it, as in Pli SeIon Pli. Mills more compassionately sets haiku and lets these float over the voice, so again the atmosphere can both hyperventilate in its intensity, and release itself. The melismas of the setting are more important in their nuance than their individual word: a paradox since Mills possesses a jewel-like technique and is never blurred. The truth is that the haiku as a form sets up a final line as release mechanism, and isn’t about word painting or articulating imagined worlds in quite the way other longer pieces are. Much of the intensity can be subsumed in an inflection, a kind of pay-off in music.
The second disc features a masterly String Quartet, which spins away from quartet textures in a teasing and enchanting manner, but with a gritty quality at times that leaves you in no doubt as to its abstract power. Violins, then viola and cello take leads and fade motifs, twist textures towards each other like glinting threads in a cat’s cradle. This, like the sectional Clarinet Quintet that follows it, is another one of Mills’ finest works. Mills is naturally made to write for the Bb clarinet, its long-suspended melancholias perfectly adapted for his subversion and transformation of these into something other than that. This Quintet, like its piano counterpart, embarks on a miniature odyssey, more readily identified in its movements, where the clarinet is delicately pitted in between the spaces of the String Quartet. Mills has a remarkable gift, letting wind and strings mesh in timbres that render them multi-valent to each other. There are discords, but never an avant-gauche jar. Before either of these pieces, the Wind Quintet again sharpens the sense between the instruments, as well as fulfilling this in bewitching melodic profile, sometimes the merest tangled wisps. Again, one is reminded of Ravel and more powerfully Bridge. He would have understood Mills.
The piano pieces, too, whether with the Bekova Sisters in the Children’s Pieces or the three in the third volume, recognize that not entirely-screened out English pastoral. It’s a language at once modernist and purified of all superfluous weight, even that of more obvious modernist techniques – though these lie unobtrusively in the texture. One critic has in fact called him a ‘tonal Webern’. The listener is directed, as in a pointillist painting, to each glowing note and the resonating space around it. In fact this purification of language, despite the apparent heterogeneous pulls here of Feldman, Webern, Ligeti, is Mills’ hallmark, together with his instantly recognizable sound-world and melodic gift. Like George Benjamin, he can display each fully in the service of modernism; there’s no sense of post-modernist compromise yet the music is serenely beautiful, and appeals to a wide audience. The piano pieces rarely pull virtuoso resources down onto them, but in fact their gently cascading vortices and evocative titles command a technique from the player, one of gradation and terracing. These sound like quieter Ligeti Etudes, but descriptive, as though Bridge had convinced Ligeti of something. It reveals an Englishness in spite of all internationalisms, or perhaps because of them this peculiar essence is revealed when most bare, as in the piano works, where everything has to be negotiated on one betraying instrument. These should – and could easily – be programmed at a Radio 3 Lunchtime concert. Like most of Mills’ work they remain largely unpublished and hardly known.
The first three discs, covering music Mills wrote from 1985 to 1992, aren’t dated or placed in any chronological order. The guitar pieces – the Five Sketches are all titled and the last gives the third disc its title – often wander in some hidden narrative to a single string line, resonant and utterly spare, recalling the early works of Richard Rodney Bennett. These, and some of the winds point to the last disc, which might have been recorded in 1993 and 1996, and though released later, seem to inhabit a larger, more public sphere. The solo saxophone piece recalls, if one has to use the parallel, Jan Gabarek in the sonic hit – Colin Attwell’s engineering again – as well as the full noise of the Sax and Guitar Quartets respectively. But a few seconds dispel the too comfortable John Harle sound-world, there’s that melody treated to a wailing wire again, somewhere near the edge of what it’s supposed to do. Not any harshly dissonant flutter-tongue or abrasive attempts to wrench the natural rounded word of the sax, but to edge its capacity from the inside up to its genuinely expressive limits. Again one follows Mills in one of his faster movements, again like something that has been wound up before the piece commences and is being released, like a pre-signalled language where we’ve come in at the dénoument. The Sax Quartet unwinds in a way we’ve expected, sparing in its alternation of sonorities, but here Mills prepares even more cunningly, and there’s more a sense of larger-scale organisation, more tutti, with a few Macmillan-like wails (from his Clarinet Quintet) – purely coincidental but the former’s were rhapsodised over – we’re in more recognizably tonal territory.
The Clarinet piece, ‘The Wind and the Trees’, is a nuttier, more quizzical offering. One often feels among Mills’ contemplative and natural universe (he’s a keen Green activist) a benign, amused humour. Here’s one sharply burbled minute of evidence. The clarinet and flute duo seems to extend this into a twined colloquy, winding down and up in a kind of ghostly sarabande. The Guitar Quartet is a more wild heterogeneous affair than even the Saxophone sister, and it shows. But ever insidiously, like some of those early Rodney Bennett pieces where he was truly exploratory, and not exploiting himself. The guitars follow each other down a glittering dark valley of sound, unravelled. They form a kind of slow cascading arc, a model that Mills often brings to mind. The Trios which both employ flute and viola swap harp for guitar, and thus both come within the same Debussian (and Baxian) ambit. There’s a language here that fully exploits the viola’s range, and indeed Peter Sulski has helped release in Mills many of this underrated middle-fiddle (to borrow Grainger’s bizarre pseudo-anglicising) seams. Tougher, but timbrally more spectral and glistening in higher registers – burnishing off altogether in a kind of slow high-wire vanishing. This is Mills’ contribution to the healthy English (and composer-as viola player generally from Mozart to Britten) obsession with this very British instrument. The harp too, provides more than points of colour, a tickling serration of almost visible waterfalls – an 18th century cliché from the Welsh harp, but in this case oddly apt.
Mills has written more extensive works, including symphonies, for orchestra. Satisfied as we can be with these heroic Claudio recordings, Mills must move to take more centre-stage, and orchestrally really breathe the large concert hall air he’s heir to, as it were. He is very frequently performed in New Music Brighton concerts and by other southern counties ensembles, and is much appreciated by them. He’s also performed in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and the Czech Republic. NMC have recorded him, and the powerful, spare Tartano of 1991 has been recorded on Vienna Modern Masters 30401 by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra in June 1996. It evokes a landscape in Italy, willowing between percussion-keyed delicacies and slow-falling woodwind solos, wound in those familiar gyring patterns, with tuttis of colour and forward-moving harmonies. Mills is clearly master of all genres he’s so far tackled. More must follow. There is more than a touch of genius in some of these works; here’s a major miniaturist who in fact has had larger works simply sidelined. Mills was not a composition student initially, and his lack of contacts has told against him, despite the endorsement of Matthews and others. He really must now receive his due. Start with the Bekova Sisters, then move to the Clarinet Quintet and String Quartet disc, with the popular Wind Quintet the opening piece. The last disc has a feel-good factor unusual for Mills, yet is as profound, and some might prefer to start there.”
Simon Jenner, Musicweb International, Nov 2005
“Here is a composer who may not be familiar to the majority of classical guitar aficionados but his healthy output of compositions for the instrument and chamber works that include the guitar ensure a position of solidarity that comes from an appreciation of the subtle range of nuances and extremes of pitch that can be obtained from such combinations as a guitar quartet.
The Guitar Quartet on Summer Waves is performed by the English Guitar Quartet and has Tom Dupre and Andrew Marlow on regular instruments with Richard Hand on treble guitar and Tim Pells on classical bass guitar. This is a particularly engaging three-movement work based on the key points of day through to night. Scurries of tremolandos, clusters of harmonics and initially, in the first movement, the Play of Light on the Sea , the thematic material sounds like a distant relative of Rodrigo’s Evocacion y Danza. Atmospheric elements are focal points in Mills’s work and the natural elements are never far from the discourse of his musical language. The Guitar Quartet is a particularly good starting point to be introduced to his music.
‘Unassuming’, ‘unaffected’ and even ‘stripped of superfluity’ from one of my own reviews (Trio for flute, viola and guitar) are ways to describe Mills’s sound syntax. The campanella effects and flourishes of light and shade show a raw and unfettered control of the guitar in compositional terms. A particularly strident piece is the relatively short Duo for Violin and Guitar with dramatic unison passages.
Looking at the range of ensembles that Mills has composed for one can be assured of variety. The language is definitely accessible but is certainly uncompromising. Avoiding guitaristic cliché, on the whole, and sticking to harmonies that anyone whose ears have carried them further than post-Webern/Berg and even Messiaen, although I wouldn’t dream of comparing or setting up these composers in a line, will find stimulating and well worth checking out this consistently fascinating composer. Mills’ website is an excellent way to access further information regarding biography, news, etc. and his CDs can be bought directly from him. All are excellently produced by the man himself, with Colin Atwell as recording engineer.
Tim Panting, Classical Guitar, September 2003
Bloody Amateurs (Unknown Public UP14CD)
“Brighton-based composer Barry Mills earns his living as a postman, and the first movement of his guitar quartet ‘The Play of Light on the Sea’ is a quite beautiful piece, with an unexpectedly complex surface derived from the most economic of means.
Philip Clark, The Wire, December 2002
Reviews of ‘Summer Waves’ CD
“His imaginative nature-inspired music on this disc finds its medium in diverse settings, ranging from solo instruments (saxophone, harp) to quartets for guitars and saxophones.
Pictorialism in the Saxophone Sketches deftly delineates the autumnal fall of a leaf and some chilly overblowing presages winter. In the Saxophone Quartet we can hear the restrained, colouristic, essentially tonal but angular writing of the first movement, Morning Song and in the following movement the soprano saxophone lends a ghostly patina to the evocative Night Winds. Mills exploits the b flat clarinet by pitch-bending and flutter-tonguing in The Wind and the Trees, a solo for Philip Edwards, whereas in the succeeding Duo for Flute and Clarinet elliptical tonal contrasts and blends are fully explored.
The impress of the excellent Guitar Quartet is consonant with Mills’ avowedly poignant appreciation of nature in its widest sense – it is impressionistic, reflective, refractive and subtle. Moving with the Wind, the middle movement, with its plucked strings is especially attractive as are the thrummed sonorities of In Deep Night, the last movement. The cogent and well-argued trios are concrete examples of Mills’ narrative gifts – with their moments of occasional heightened expressivity – and he is notably successful in his viola writing, where he pursues extremes of register for valid musical reasons, never resorting to comfortable and generic gestures.
The performances are more than merely dedicated and the sound is perfectly adequate. A welcome disc.”
John Woolf, Classical Music Web
“This is not the first recording of the expressively refined music of Barry Mills, but it is an important one, containing eight works, mainly of short duration, and sufficient to acquaint the listener with the work of a genuine artist who possesses a very solid compositional technique. There is fine music here, with a surprisingly wide range of articulation and texture. My favourites are the two Trios and the extended Guitar Quartet, but each piece is worth close attention from the serious music lover.
Much of Mills’ work is suggested by natural phenomena. The title track, the first movement of ‘Saxophone Sketches’, so beautifully played by the late Tony Sions, largely sets the tone of the album. The performances and recordings are admirable. The composer’s booklet notes could have included composition dates, but this is a fascinating and rewarding album to which I have returned with increasing pleasure.
Robert Matthew-Walker, Musical Opinion, March 2002
“…as the title suggests, nature has a profound influence on Barry’s music. While listening you find yourself transported into the natural setting of the music, such as the falliing of a leaf in the second of the ‘Saxophone Sketches’, entitled ‘Autumn’. Summer Waves is an extraordinary CD brimming with emotion and only serves to illustrate Barry’s considerable talent as a classical composer.”
Paul McCarthy, “In Touch”, published by the University of Sussex
Review of ‘Morning Sea’ CD
“His music has a similar candour – bountifully expressive yet unassuming … Expressive eloquence and a certain unaffected quality make this a fine set of pieces.”
Catherine Nelson, The Strad
“The most inventive piece was the ‘Trio for Flute, Viola and Guitar’ by Barry Mills aiming to convey the ebb and flow of nature’s rugged power and doing so admirably, music stripped of superfluity and rendered in stark but striking colours.”
Tim Painting, Classical Guitar Magazine
” … and so this miniature planted itself firmly in the listeners’ imagination. In a different, gentler and conspicuously idiomatic way so did Barry Mills’s exquisite ‘Harp Sketches’ almost as brief and given eloquently by Hugh Webb.”
Stephen Pettitt, The Times
“The most memorable piece to my ears was Barry Mills’s ‘Saxophone Quartet’, comprised of two movements, Morning Song, a wistful rather grave aubade which is stopped dead by a granitic chord at its close – and Night Winds – a really superb piece of naturalistic tone painting ….premiered with elan by Saxploitation.”
Guy Rickards, Tempo
“Scarcely less impressive were Michael Finnissy’s French Piano (1991) perhaps the most polished item in the concert and the “Saxophone Sketches (1993) by Barry Mills. This latter work was rendered beautifully by Tony Sions on the alto instrument. Mills’s four sketches describe a seasonal course from the languid ‘Summer Waves’ through rather more active ‘Autumn’ and ‘Winter’ to the calm of ‘Spring Morning’.”
Guy Rickards, Tempo
“Of particular note The Aulous Ensemble premiered Barry Mills’s ‘Duo for Flute and Clarinet’. This experimental piece featured vivid evocations of landscapes and river scenes, brief solos, switching dominances and high tone flute production.”
Sancia Scott-Portier, The Richmond and Twickenham Times
“Mills’s ‘Saxophone Quartet’ has two movements, ‘Morning Song’ and ‘Night Winds’, and these neatly complement each other in their gentleness of voice, mood, pattern and colour. Indeed, the closing chord of ‘night’ echoes and reminds us of ‘morning’, instilling in us positive affirmations of the certainty of life’s cycle rather than doubts brought on by weariness and loss. This is a telling piece of music, portraying stillness and calm.”
John Alexander, The Clarinet and Saxophone Magazine
“Christopher Hyde-Smith’s ability to change tone colour was beautifully displayed in the ‘Flute Sketches’ by Barry Mills. This is a pastoral journey for unaccompanied flute with subtle use of harmonics,fluttertongueing and bent notes evoking bird song and a fading sunset.”
Helen Lee, Pan – The National Flute Magazine
Atmosphere is Mills’ forte, 20 Jun 2002, on Amazon website
Reviewer:Simon Barrow (Exeter, United Kingdom)
“I discovered Barry Mills’ refreshing collection of miniatures, ‘Morning Sea’, quite by chance – at an art open house associated with the Brighton Festival a couple of years ago. Intrigued by what I heard, I bought a copy. This CD is part of a trilogy, the other chamber collections being ‘Mosaics’ and ‘Under the Stars’.
His work is impressionistic rather than formal in its concerns, however. On ‘Morning Sea’ the emphasis is very much on building a sense of atmosphere through tone, texture and contrast.
Mills’ music is tonal, but not unadventurous in its melodic patterns in the way that distinctly non-modernist moderns can be. After a while you begin to recognise one or two fairly evident techniques – insistent repeated riffs, doubling, call-and-response, moody key shifts, interesting block chords (sometimes vaguely reminiscent of Messiaen or Crumb), slow arpeggiated bursts. It can feel a little mannered, but it is thoughtful and often strikingly beautiful.
I enjoyed listening to the ‘Piano Sketches for Children’ alongside Chick Corea’s ‘Children’s Songs’ – very different, with their changing washes of sound held on sustain and una corda pedals (as the composer points out in his useful accompanying notes).
The Bekova Sisters and their accompanists obviously have a feel for Mills’ music and give tender performances. I found the rather plummy acoustic a little distracting – a small quarrel with the producer / engineer. And the one compositional area where Mills’ contrasts seem a bit too subtle for his own good (given what else is going on) is in the tempo department. It’s all so intense in its moodiness.
But these are quibbles. This is a fine, graceful collection of chamber pieces in a modern romantic (but not reactionary) vein. I thoroughly commend ‘Morning Sea’ and will make a note to check out the other two discs at some point.”
Review of Mandolin and Guitar Concerto, Basel, 22 September 2007
“… Barry Mills in his Concerto for Mandolin, Guitar and Symphony Orchestra seems to have used a type of Neo-impressionism. His wonderful, finely sculpted music often sounded like a contemporary reworking of the musical language of Claude Debussy.”
Rolf De Marchi, MZ Tuesday, 25 September 2007, Basel
“….scheint sich Barry Mills mit seinem Konzert fuer Mandoline, Gitarre und Sinfonieorchester einer Art Neo-Impressionismus verschrieben zu haben. Seine wunderbar fen ziselierte Musik kalng oft wie eine modernere Variante Claude Debussys. Das Duo Birgit Schwab (Gitarre) und Daniel Ahlert (Mandoline) spielte souveraen die Solo-Partien der beiden Konzerte, sensibel begleitet vom Akademischen Orchester.”
Review of Three Pieces for Piano, performed by Adam Swayne
“The occasional allusion to French Impressionism in Broughton’s Sonata were echoed in Barry Mills’ Three Pieces for Piano with their overt references to Ravel and Debussy reworked in Mills’ own individual manner. As in the Broughton, water was an image in “The River at Val di Mello”. Mills seduced the audience with exquisite harmonies hanging in the air with their evocaive resonances and the final trill of “The Moon and the Stars” seemed to resonate far into space.”
Phil Baker, Worthing Herald, Chichester Observer
Review of “Evening and Night”, performed by Imogen Hancock (classical trumpet) and Jennifer Hughes (piano)
Barry Mills Evening and Night was the three-part centrepiece. Mills’ works is often pictorial, evocative of natural imagery with a gentle modernism and expressive quietism. The first movement breathed a coast at night, very like Brighton’s with a glittering nightscape as the trumpet muted ranged rather like a quiet wind. the second slow movement evoked a contemplative pitch dark with hushed tones rippling out from an unseen centre. The finale though was spectacularly haunting It’s the ‘Last Post’ quoted, where Hancock turns away from the audience and pays straight into the piano strings on the raised piano lid (unusually open for accompaniment, because the trumpet’s so overwhelming and it’s a large acoustic too). The resonances from the piano strings are allowed an echo effect like a ghost answer. Each phrase is paused to allow it.
No wonder the soloists who commissioned it exactly a year ago instantly fell in love with it when it was delivered just too months later. Both artists possess the hush and stillness Mills works demand, and by this time you feel te trumpet’s soft snarl has come into force.
Simon Jenner, Fringe Review 2018 UK