Archive for Saturday, August 15, 1998


August 15, 1998


James Barnes, who is best known for his military band compositions, is focusing now on writing orchestral works.

By the time James Barnes was in the 10th grade, he knew he'd be a composer. But he also knew his chances of getting his compositions published were nil.

Still, Barnes beat the odds.

He has 80 to 90 published works under his belt and has been commissioned to write more.

``I'm not from a musical background. My dad ran a feedlot,'' said the Oklahoma native, adding that his father was supportive when he announced he wanted to write music for a living.

``Dad said, `Give it a couple of years and if it doesn't work out you can always do something else.'''

Barnes, professor of music theory and composition at Kansas University, came to KU in 1969 to study with John Pozdro, a music professor who has since retired. He majored in music composition and earned bachelor's and master's degrees.

``Bob Foster (KU's director of bands) needed someone to run the basketball band,'' he said, recalling how he went from student to faculty member. ``I ran the band from 1971 to 1981 or 1982.''

By 1982-'83, he was teaching woodwinds part-time and music history part-time. Next fall, he will teach courses in music history and music theory.

Barnes said universities cannot teach students to compose, but instructors can help students to learn how to put their music on paper.

``You can learn how to write down what your head hears so you can get back exactly what you thought,'' he said.

Barnes said he can't write a composition unless he has a title in mind.

``It's easier for me to write music with stories,'' he said. ``I write down my thoughts and then it comes together. ... I usually write the end before the beginning.''

Moving away from the military

The majority of Barnes' compositions in the past six to eight years have been for military bands. He's written at least one piece for the U.S. Army Band, U.S. Navy Band, U.S. Air Force Band, U.S. Marines Band and the touring Army Field Band.

``I plan to cut back on band compositions and focus on orchestral compositions,'' he said.

Already in the works are: ``The Yellowstone Sketches,'' a three-movement piece for orchestras; a composition for the 40th anniversary of the Kansas City Youth Symphony; an overture for Warner Bros. based on George Gershwin's ``Girl Crazy,'' which includes ``I Got Rhythm'' and ``But Not For Me''; a composition for the 200th anniversary of West Point Military Band; and a commissioned work for a North Carolina high school band.

Are commissions from high school bands commonplace?

``High school bands raise all this money each year. They can spend it on something like this (a commissioned work and a chance to work with its composer) or spend it on buses to go to a parade,'' he said.

College and military bands have been commissioning works for years. However, because of cutbacks in budgets, military bands are turning to in-house composers to write new works.

Getting international recognition

Barnes' ``Symphony No. 3,'' a 40-minute work was premiered this year in Osaka, Japan, and later performed by the U.S. Air Force Band. Both the Osaka band and the Air Force band have recorded the composition. His other works have been performed widely in the United States, Europe and the Pacific basin.

Barnes goes to Japan one or two times a year to conduct -- ``My music sells well over there'' -- and this summer traveled to Holland to conduct the Queens Military Band in a two-hour, live radio concert of his original music.

In addition to Japan and Holland, he also has traveled as a guest composer, conductor and lecturer in the United States, Australia and Great Britain.

Much of Barnes' music is not difficult to play. However, all of his music is demanding in that it requires musicianship and expression.

``I believe that music that fails to affect the listener emotionally is not music at all; it is merely organized sound,'' Barnes states in the liner notes of his CDs. ``I also believe that all of us as artists are children of tradition, and that we cannot and should not abandon all that has gone before us in our art form just to produce something that is `new.'

``In the historical perspective, it is more important for new creations to be of good quality than it is for them to be simply `contemporary.' I compose what I feel.''

-- Jan Biles' phone message number is 832-7146. Her e-mail address is

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