In many ways, Barbary Coast reminds me of the times when classical music halls produced brawls and minor scandals. This is not to say that you’ll stand up and punch your audio player of choice, demanding for it to act responsibly towards Western civilization, but that the music is demanding and provocative in a fashion that perhaps originates in new ensembles from the last 15 years or so. Their challenging approach to ‘classical music’ is preceded by collectives such as Bang on a Can, but there are some key differences conveyed primarily in a formal dislocation from pop music. It’s not that it’s ignored or given a lower status, it’s just taken for granted. There’s no need to build bridges and attempt to reconcile modernism’s violence with the popular – regular listeners of this kind of stuff are mostly aware of the limits of the life/art divide conceived as relationship between ‘high’ and ‘low’. No, the focus lies elsewhere, in a place that recovers said divide and tears it down from its haughty abstraction, raising the stakes at a much more personal, more intimate level.
The album’s name is an indication: it alludes to the European name for the North Africa coast once seen as dangerous for its pirate raids, but more importantly it also refers to the historical San Francisco red light district. The ensemble’s name comes, then, to the fore here, raising the question of what exactly a Red Light New Music could consist of. As suggested in the liner notes, this collective emphasizes the life of the music as it comes into being; the pieces are all composed specifically for it, articulating a form of collectivity that allows extreme individuality as well as communality, highlighting the concerted effort of each and every member on equal standings. If a red light district is all about the edges of life and pleasure experienced both at the edge of individuality (you might not have wanted to be seen by the neighbor) and the common (however, if the neighbor was also there, you now shared something unquestionably intimate), then this New Music revels, too, in the strange danger of an accepted, yet frowned upon, challenge to convention.
If this reminds you of modernism itself, it’s not by chance – this album does not aim to please a standard, finding and producing its pleasure in new forms, new relations, new lives possible only at the inner edges and divisions of, in this analogy, (respectable) cities. “Cirques”, the opening piece, is about geological formations in glaciers that resemble amphitheaters, all plucks of strings and swift strokes that build up a soundscape of echoes. In its rapid changes and its general atonality, the piece bustles with activity, as if the ice was slowly decaying into form, its twists and turns making the players seem like explorers of sounds unknown. With such an opening, it’s no wonder the rest of the album is full of surprising compositions, sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes plain surreal.
This is, perhaps, the spirit to which the collective’s name refers to, in the sense that it sets up a complex web of sensations and ideas that cannot really exist anywhere else outside the chamber music arena; it comprises an intense life that no longer causes people to try and negate it because, like the red light district, it’s ingrained already in the dynamics of the city, an already popular form of defiance that needs no artistic approval to keep its edges sharp. (David Murrieta)