A Bright Sadness: an interview with pianist Paul Barnes

I've admired Paul Barnes' playing since I heard the recording he made of Philip Glass' Annunciation with the famed string quartet Brooklyn Rider. Many pianists are drawn to minimalism, but it requires someone of Barnes' ability to capture both the structural underpinnings and the music's ability to "change one's perception of time and reality" (to quote Barnes). Barnes possesses both, along with something that I wasn't able to articulate until I watched his virtual performance of his most recent project, A Bright Sadness. Here, in this program that incorporates chant from multiple religious traditions, I was finally able to find a way to describe what I heard in his playing: he believes in (and plays from) a place of holy mystery.

When I approached him, Paul graciously agreed to be interviewed for No Dead Guys and responded to my (sometimes personal) questions with depth and eloquence. Through our correspondence, I've met a pianist who lives what he believes, plays from a place of deep integrity, and is eager to discuss topics as wide-ranging as music, Greek Orthodoxy, and fine red wine. Thank you, Paul, for this interview and for your beautiful playing and words. 

What drew you to the piano, and what caused you to choose music as your profession?

My dad played by ear and I was fascinated by it! I was a late bloomer, started lessons at 8, but was always interested in so many things! I missed my first piano recital because of softball and pleaded with my dad when I was in the fourth grade to let me quit piano! He was stubborn and unrelenting in his opposition to my plan so I had to stick with it! As far as a career choice, I knew in high school that I would study either engineering, theology, or music. And in a way I really ended up doing all of those things!

With the notable exception of Franz Liszt, most of the music you’ve recorded was written after 1900, and many of these pieces feature works by living composers. What drew you to modern music, and when did you begin commissioning pieces? 


I’ve always been interested in history and especially how ideas and concepts develop over time.  I’m particularly fascinated with the development of theological ideas and how they are adapted to contemporary reality. In terms of music, I’ve always been interested in how different genres of music develop over time, in particular the sonata. I’m currently teaching my piano lit class at the Glenn Korff School of Music and the main focus of the class is understanding the continuity of the development of all the wonderful genres of piano music. There is a common thread of the communication and participation in beauty that is the core of all great music. I’ve always been drawn to communicating how living composers deal with the past as they forge ahead in their own search for the beautiful.

You met Philip Glass in 1995 while on an airplane. Since that time, you’ve performed and recorded many of his works, most notably Glass’ piano quintet, Annunciation, which you recorded with the famed string quartet, Brooklyn Rider. What attracted you to Glass’ music, and how has it influenced your concert programming?

Meeting Glass in March of 1995 completely changed my life! My own religious tradition, Greek Orthodoxy, has a beautiful mystical tradition that incorporates meditation as part of an approach to divine reality. In fact the very first conversation I had with Glass was on the connection between Byzantine and Buddhist chant! Glass’ minimalism does musically what Orthodoxy does spiritually. It completely changes one’s perception of time and reality – slows it down, allows one to contemplate the beauty of simplicity. And so many wildly different audiences love his music! So my audiences are a wonderful combination of Glass fans, traditional classical music fans, and then new music types. It’s a great mix!

In addition to your career as a concert pianist and piano professor, you also serve as a Greek Orthodox chanter. How do you feel your faith is reflected in your music, and how do you feel your music deepens your faith?

I was raised in an evangelical Protestant tradition and embraced Orthodoxy over 25 years ago.  In addition to the food being way better, Orthodoxy’s understanding of beauty as a defining element of God’s nature was life-changing to me. Even the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, reflects this understanding. When God creates the universe as written in the first chapter of Genesis, v.10 states “And God saw that it was good.” The Greek scholars translating this verse used the Greek word “kallos” which can also be translated as “beautiful.” God by nature is a cosmic creator of beauty and being made in His image, we are also meant to create beauty. This is what I do as a musician, teacher, chanter, and human. As far as music deepening my own faith, music has that ability to integrate everything that is important in our existence – beauty, time, truth, intelligence, intuition – music unites all of this in an epiphanic event – a meeting place that really confirms that we are so much more than just a collection of cells and molecules.

What drew you to composer Victoria Bond’s music, and why did you choose to commission her to write a piano concerto, Ancient Keys, based on Greek Orthodox chant?

I’ve known Victoria even longer than I’ve known Philip Glass! I recorded her first piano concerto Black Light over 20 years ago and have always loved her music. It was during those recording sessions in the Czech Republic that she asked me to chant something for her. I sang the beautiful communion hymn Potirion Sotiriu, the Cup of Salvation, for her. She was moved enough to write a glorious piano solo that she then turned into the piano concerto Ancient Keys.  And since that time, Victoria wrote her gorgeous piano solo Simeron Kremate which is based on both a Jewish Passover hymn and an Orthodox crucifixion hymn. And even now, she is writing her third piece for me based on Orthodox chant which will be based on our regular Sunday communion hymn Enite ton Kyrion, Praise the Lord from Psalm 148. I’m scheduled to give the world premiere of this on Victoria’s Cutting Edge Concerts series at Symphony Space in New York on April 19, 2021. Philip Glass will be there also as I’ll be giving the New York premiere of my solo transcription of Annunciation. Sooo hoping that it happens!

Your most recent project, A Bright Sadness, was one of the most intriguing online concerts I’ve watched this year. Tell me what inspired you to combine Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Native American chant with works for solo piano?

So glad you liked it! I’ve been so lucky in my life to meet and collaborate with so many incredibly creative souls! All of the music on Bright Sadness with the exception of the Liszt was written specifically for me by these dear friends. Since they all know about my love for chant, it was very easy to create a program of all works based on all these different chant traditions. And as I stated earlier about my love of history and making connections, the commonality in all of these mystical traditions inspired me to create this program that really seeks to unite all of us. I wanted to communicate musically that truth and beauty reveal how as humans we really seek the same ultimate reality. And then there’s Liszt!  My doctoral document at Indiana University where I studied with Menahem Pressler was on religious symbolism in the B Minor Sonata. And my recording and lecture recital Liszt and the Cross:  Music as Sacrament in the B Minor Sonata was my first experience in connecting music and the sacramental experience of God. And Liszt’s revolutionary work Via Crucis was an important part of unlocking Liszt’s unique language of religious symbolism. Playing Liszt’s musical meditation on the cross and the ultimate triumph of the cross was the perfect addition to Bright Sadness.

Why do you feel that chant is such an important part of so many different world religions? 

There’s a beautiful saying in the Orthodox tradition that “He who sings prays twice.” Since most ancient religious traditions are about the experience of divine reality, music and chant facilitate that participation of humans into a reality that is so much more vast that our own individual existence. But it is through that individual existence, that lone voice chanting, that we can be connected to that ultimate reality of divine love.

Why did you title your program A Bright Sadness?

Orthodox priest and theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann had a profound effect on my spiritual formation, in particular his book For the Life of the World. His beautiful Lenten meditation Great Lent used the term “bright sadness” to explore the poignant paradox of the Lenten journey.  Especially during Orthodox Holy Week, we relive the pain and suffering of Christ, but that pain and suffering is always brightened by hope. We know there is meaning behind the suffering.  And with such a year as 2020, I felt it was important to musically communicate hope in the midst of tremendous uncertainty.

Due to the pandemic, you released A Bright Sadness in its entirety on YouTube. How do you think this virtual format has changed the reception of the music? 

I actually did several performances in online format over the summer and while I had certainly missed the visceral feedback of a live audience, the informality of performing in my living room opened up some unique possibilities. Having a live call with Philip Glass before I played my solo version of Annunciation during the Lied Live Online event was a blast! And having my beautiful dog Clara join me right during the most difficult passage of my encore during this recital certainly couldn’t have happened in a recital hall!   

But as far as my Lied Center performance of Bright Sadness on Sept 24th for a live audience, it was clearly the highlight of the year for me! Just hearing applause and being able to see faces of the audience members was incredible! And I was thrilled with the performance of the Schola from Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary conducted by Nicholas Lemme. Hearing the beauty of their chant NOT filtered through speakers or headphones was transcendent! But YouTube has been a great vehicle to enlarge our audience and so I’m thrilled that my fans around the globe have access to the performance. And I want to specifically thank both Cameron Shoemaker and my graduate student Christian Johnson for doing the sound and camera work for the livestream of the event!

Do you have plans to tour with A Bright Sadness when the pandemic ends? 

Yes! I had to cancel all of my engagements for this fall and most likely next spring so whenever I can travel normally again, yes I’d love to do this unique recital at a venue near you! I’m scheduled to do this at an Orthodox music conference in Chicago in June and of course hoping to reschedule performances in Korea, Greece, Canada, etc.

What message of hope do you think this music offers listeners?

Love is at the very core of creation. Love is at the core of our existence as humans. But love is only possible with freedom. And freedom is wrought with danger, pain and suffering! I truly believe that music and art powerfully communicate the fullness of our humanity. Even in the midst of such devastation, political unrest and general angst, music can prevent us from being amnesiacs!  We cannot forget what it means to be human! We can remember, participate, and experience our true nature as a vessel of divine love to a very troubled world. That gives me great hope for our future!

photo by Peter Barnes

Praised by the New York Times for his “Lisztian thunder and deft fluidity," and the San Francisco Chronicle as “ferociously virtuosic,” pianist Paul Barnes has electrified audiences with his intensely expressive playing and cutting-edge programming. He has been featured seven times on APM’s Performance Today , on the cover of Clavier Magazine, and his recordings are streamed worldwide.

Celebrating his twenty-four-year collaboration with Philip Glass, Barnes commissioned and gave the world premiere performance of Glass's Piano Quintet "Annunciation." The work is Glass's first piano quintet and first work based on Greek Orthodox chant. In a Journal Star interview, Glass stated: "You have a world-class pianist in Paul Barnes. He's a pure piano virtuoso." The Journal Star described the world premiere as "meditative...striking...touchingly played by Barnes and the quintet, 'Annunciation' is a romantic, late-period Glass masterwork."  Fred Child, host of APR's Performance Today was present for the premiere and wrote: "Pianist Paul Barnes put together and performed a thrilling evening of music!" Child's interview with Barnes and Glass and the world premiere performance of the quintet was featured twice on Performance Today. The New York premiere took place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where New York Classical Review called the quintet a "fascinating mosaic of Glass's late style...with a warm inner expression that seemed to echo Brahms." PBS NewsHour recently featured a Nebraska Educational Telecommunications video production highlighting Barnes' creative collaboration with Glass and the new quintet. Barnes' recording of the quintet with string quartet superstars Brooklyn Rider was released in October of 2019 to critical acclaim.ResMusica in Paris wrote: "Paul Barnes, whose pianistic lines are always clear, is a marvel of dialogue with Brooklyn Rider." 

Barnes twelfth CD New Generations: The New Etudes of Philip Glass and Music of the Next Generation has received rave reviews. Gramophone Magazine wrote, "Pianists of Barnes's great technique and musicality are a boon to new music." And American Record Guide commented, "This disc provides further proof of Barnes's ability to communicate new music with flair and passion." Produced by Orange Mountain Music, the recording features a selection of Glass's etudes juxtaposed with works by N. Lincoln Hanks, Lucas Floyd, Jason Bahr, Zack Stanton, Ivan Moody, and Jonah Gallagher. The sonic result is a breathtaking panorama of the energetic and expressive landscape that is twenty-first century piano music. Barnes has performed the recital version of New Generations in Vienna, Seoul, Rome, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago, Interlochen, and most recently at the Music Teachers National Association Convention in Glass's hometown of Baltimore.

Barnes also commissioned and gave the world premiere of Glass's Piano Concerto No. 2 (After Lewis and Clark). The Omaha World Herald praised Barnes playing for his “driving intensity and exhilaration.” Nebraska Educational Telecommunications' production "The Lewis and Clark Concerto," a documentary/performance of the concerto featuring Barnes, won an Emmy for Best Performance Production. Additional performances included collaborations with conductor Marin Alsop at the prestigious Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music and also the Northwest Chamber Orchestra where the Seattle Times called Barnes' performance "an impressive feat." The world-premier recording with the NWCO was released by Orange Mountain Music. Gramophone Magazine remarked that this recording is "certainly one of the most enjoyable recent releases of Glass's music...Paul Barnes is a shining soloist." Barnes gave the Chinese premiere of the concerto at the famous Sichuan Conservatory of Music in Chengdu China as part of an inaugural American Music festival.

Orange Mountain Music also released Barnes' recording of his transcriptions from the operas of Philip Glass, including both the Trilogy Sonata and the Orphée Suite for Piano.Gramophone Magazine observed, “Barnes offers a surprisingly expressive reading…. Atmosphere and rhythmic vitality are important, and these qualities Barnes has in abundance.” The American Record said "Barnes is an expressive pianist with a lovely tone and a flair for the dramatic." The Trilogy Sonata and the Orphée Suite for Piano are published by Chester Music of London and are available at sheetmusicplus.com. Barnes' eleventh CD, The American Virtuoso, featuring the music of Philip Glass, Samuel Barber, and Joan Tower was released on Orange Mountain Music to much critical acclaim. The American Record Guide wrote, "Another fine release from the amazing pianist Paul Barnes...with a pianist like this, new American music is in good hands."

Barnes also commissioned a new piano concerto Ancient Keys written by Victoria Bond based on a Greek Orthodox chant. The world-premiere recording of this concerto as well as Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue was released on Albany Records. Barnes has also commissioned Victoria Bond to write a new piano work based on the Greek Orthodox hymn on the crucifixion of Christ.  Simeron Kremate (Today is Suspended)" was co-commissioned by the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts and the SDG Music Foundation in Chicago. The world premiere of Bond's new work was given at Kimball Recital Hall on March 3, 2019 with the Chicago premiere on March 10 at the beautiful Nichols Hall at the Music Institute of Chicago. 

Barnes is Marguerite Scribante Professor of Music at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Glenn Korff School of Music. He teaches during the summer at the Vienna International Piano Academy and the Amalfi Coast Music Festival. In great demand as a pedagogue and clinician, Barnes has served as convention artist at several state MTNA conventions, most recently at Virginia in October of 2018, and was recently named "Teacher of the Year" by the Nebraska Music Teachers Association.

Barnes latest recital A Bright Sadness: Piano music inspired by Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Native American chant features a contemplative and cathartic program of piano works inspired by the mystical world of chant. Barnes, also a Greek Orthodox chanter, has collaborated most recently with Philip Glass and Victoria Bond to create piano works based on ancient byzantine and Jewish chant. Barnes has also been a passionate champion of the works of Liszt and performs Liszt's late masterpiece, Via Crucis, the Way of the Cross exploring the painful but ultimately hopeful journey of Christ to the cross. The overall theme of "bright sadness" permeates the program as the tremendous depth and intensity of ancient chant is seen through the bright prism of hope and love. New chant-based works by Native flutist Ron Warren, David von Kampen, and Matthew Arndt are given their premiere performances.

Barnes' recordings are available on Spotify, Pandora, ITunes, Apple Music, YouTube, and Amazon.