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Paul’s early years

As well as a professor of physics Paul Barnes is  a self-taught pianist and composer. He did start with some introductory piano lessons, somewhere between the age of 7 and 9 years.

Every Friday evening a larger than life ex-opera singer, who had to be addressed as “Madame Doreena”, gave the children in his street 15 minutes of hell, otherwise known as a piano lesson. This situation didn’t last long as the Barnes Family moved from London W10 to South Wales, returning to his mother’s roots where there seemed to be a clear shortage of piano teachers. For all her fearsome presence, Madame Doreena did light some musical spark in PB, but it was not to be the standard progression. On his first lesson, PB was shown the C-major scale which he was told to practice up to the next lesson. PB became quickly bored with this and instead spent all his time trying to put the C-scale to various combinations of harmony. His parents were totally unaware of this switch and the element of deception it entailed. And so it continued: a week of experimenting with harmony then a mad rush to get in 5-10 minutes practice on scales or simple pieces just before Mdme Doreena would arrive. PB became infatuated with the piano, and after his move to Wales he found that life without Mdme Doreena gave him more time to do his own thing.

Progression on the piano now proceeded by random events, such as seeing a pianist perform on TV and then trying to copy him/her. Other children complained they couldn’t get on the piano to practice as PB would already be there claiming squatters’ rights – PB suspected anyway they were secretly glad of the excuse to get out of practiscing. Other complaints alluded to PB’s coninuous piano-playing into the small hours, depriving them of their full sleep. However as some compensation, the “Wales period” had one great musical advantage for someone like PB – there was always plenty of singing everywhere, particularly in school Eisteddfords and in church where PB became the resident pianist/organist.

The local church also had a resident poet (Tom Burns who claimed to be distantly related to Robert Burns) who struck up a working relationship with PB, writing lyrics which PB would set to music and then perform with the church choir. Although limited to church music, this became a useful developmental period for PB; a kind of “learning basics on the job”. At University things changed. Upto this point most of PB’s piano accompaniments and solo playing consisted of playing by ear and improvisations. But at University PB joined a record library and quickly realised there was so much music out there he knew nothing about, and eventually he was goaded by student friends into trying Chopin’s Opus 25 Studies. At first this almost back-fired disasterously, for the first Chopin study PB tried, No.11 “Winter Wind”, proved to be a struggle, so much so that PB almost quit thinking that he was obviously not cut out for this kind of repertoire. It was sometime later that PB discovered that Winter Wind was one of the most difficult of Chopin pieces and could be a struggle for even the accomplished pianist.

With confidence restored, PB resumed building up his repertoire, and with it the continuation of his belated musical education. The next turning point was much later, involving 3 connected events: PB’s daughter, Rebecca, learned to play the violin (under the distingished BBCSO violinist, Richard Aylwin) followed by PB himself at the ripe age of 62 (also under Richard Aylwin) for the simple reason that he didn’t want to pass this world by without having ever sampled the experience of playing in an orchestra – a goal he then achieved with the Learning Orchestras at the age of 65. The value of these events, however, turned out to be far more than just the experience; they furthered yet more his belated musical education and opened up new doors, one of which is today’s recital and the premiere of “Layers of Life”.

ANY REGRETS? Like Edith Piaf, PB will say that he doesn’t believe in regrets; but should he be permitted just one, it would be that he should have managed his life differently so that, like the great Alexander Borodin, he could have fully lived his two lives, one in science and one in music.


About Paul Barnes

Paul Barnes is essentially a self-taught amateur pianist and composer harbouring a long-held and over-ambitious desire to add a substantial string-quartet, symphony, piano concerto and a choral work to his collection of short compositions.

Only the first of these ambitions has so far been realised, the string-quartet which is being show-cased today. As a Professor of Physics and Chemistry in the University of London, Barnes’ previous composing activities had to be shoe-horned into the limited time left available after his University ‘day job’. There is some parallel here with the case of Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) who managed to combine his day job as a Professor of Chemistry at Saint Petersburg with becoming one of the ‘Mighty Handful’ 19th. century Russian composers; indeed the Nocturne in his second string quartet arguably ranks as the most popular quartet composition of all time.

If Borodin is then the obvious role model for Barnes, his hauntingly beautiful and timeless Nocturne is no less an object of desired attainment. While aiming high with Layers of Life Barnes, without fully realising it, combined two opposite modes of composition which he termed “formulaic”, a more mechanical/predictable and instantaneous output from the concious mind, and “inspirational”, an unpredictable/uncontrollable delayed output from the subconcious. This technique, or something similar, is used by several composers; Barnes just re-discovered it for himself and while composing “Layers of Life” he took it to a new level by resolving that he would only use inspirational themes to determine the musical direction of “Layers of Life”.

He stuck throughout to this principle, without any compromise towards the length of time it was taking, with the end result that the composition took literally years to complete. This was done in the belief that it would deliver music sufficiently full of character and innermost feelings as befits a professional performance to an appreciative audience. We trust that it will deliver on that promise and give pleasure to all that listen to it.

Description of Recital


The premier of Layers of Life took place on October 15th, 2017.

“Old ones, new ones” was part of a catch-phrase (Old ones, new ones, loved ones, neglected ones) used to introduce the radio music programme, Semprini Serenade (1957-1982), of the versatile pianist/composer Alberto Semprini.

Semprini delighted in extremes, notably performing across popular, jazz and classical music genres, to the annoyance of the critics of the day. One could almost borrow this catch-phrase to describe the extremes in that recital: the established K. 423 string duet by Mozart followed by the Premiere of Layers of Life.

After the performances the audience was invited to a reception followed by a discussion and question-answer session with the performers and surviving composer about their work.

A video of the event is available, as is a CD of Layers of Life.

Description of Layers of Life

Layers of Life is a 21st century composition written for the string quartet by Paul Barnes. It is in effect a commemoration of any or all lives that fulfill some aspects of their potential, whether small or large, whether noticed or hidden.

The numerical number “4” is embedded deeply into Layers of Life: As a quartet the composition naturally consists of 4 parts for 4 players and their 4 instruments with 4 strings, but there are additional fours, derived from the 4 movements which represent 4 life stages of physical development (1st movement), mental/emotional development (2nd movement), maturity (3rd movement) and fulfillment/celebration (4th movement). Also,  Layers of Life uniquely uses aspects of the 4 well-known stylistic periods of music (Baroque, Classic, Romantic, Modern) to illustrate the passage of time through the four stages.

The music itself is a merger of many inspirational themes experienced by the composer over a decade (2006-2015), creating a celebration of life from cradle to grave. The story ends with a sequence in which the subject enters a dreamy phase which becomes strongly agitated when its status, a life finale, is realised. However the dream then reforms into a vision of the subject’s whole life flashing quickly past, as represented by the distorted re-appearance of several themes from the earlier movements, before slipping into a peaceful finale.

The work ends on an ambiguous harmony, thereby inviting interpretation concerning the nature of the finish.

CD has arrived

The CD of Layers of Life has arrived! It is available for purchase at a price of £6.

The manufacturer has an amazing graphic to see the finished object. To see it, paste this link into a browser and wait a few seconds:


Quartet Premiere, Sunday October 15th, 3pm.

Layers of Life, a new string quartet by Paul Barnes was played in public for the first time on Sunday October 15th, 2017.

The venue was Platform. 

This building used to house public baths and a swimming pool. Anyone traveling along Hornsey Road near Seven Sisters road may have seen the graphic of a diving woman that continued to decorate the building long after its role as public baths  ended. It has been converted and modernised with elegance to form an impressive new performing arts centre,  where the fine old brickwork can still be seen.

The programme  included Mozart’s duo for violin and viola in G major.

 The event was advertised with a nice  poster.