INSIDE THE MUSICIAN. Barney McAll: Catching Invisible Fish

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Written by: Barney McAll

You begin playing piano as a seven-year-old. You know that music is unlike any other art because it’s something you can’t see. Music is a child’s game in your head where those who can play it are the only ones allowed to live on earth. Contestants are tested by the ‘Alien Ruler’ to see how well they play and if their playing suffices, they may live. This mental game goes on for many hours over many years. You improvise new songs and melodic ideas to impress the ‘Ruler’ and hope not to be put to death. You have vanished into a ritual meditation and when you reappear, you notice that it’s no longer light outside and you have been playing from afternoon until evening without even knowing. Later on in life, your parents tell you that you headed directly to the piano after quarrels with your siblings to just ‘play it out’. You knew as a seven year old that you would need the piano during your time here. You sense your future and a music within you…

Barney McAll

I’ve always dreamt along with music and even today, imagination games are crucial to my improvisation and composing. The sounds I make are often backdrops to some images or scenarios in my mind and my greatest aspiration is that my music can also take others on a journey and that they might dream along with it.

One of the first songs I learned was Fleetwood Mac’s Rhiannon. Once I could vaguely play it, I hammered it out for weeks on end. This was the first of many sound rituals for me. In retrospect, I realise I was using sound and repetition to enter another state and within that state I was learning how to learn.

Not long after that I remember a family friend came by and performed Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca. I was awed by the sense that Mozart himself had been brought through the centuries, into our suburban lounge room, via his own sound Tardis.

I repeatedly listened to Miles Davis’ album Tune Up (Prestige) to the point where I could sing every solo and knew every nuance. Even though I was only a small child and had no direct cultural experience of it, black American music resonated with me in a way that was powerful and all consuming. As it turns out it was also an important formative ritualistic pathway for me. It’s how a boy from Mooroolbark wound up touring the world with American artists such a Gary Bartz, Dewey Redman, Fred Wesley and Billy Harper.

Gary Bartz, Billy Harper and Barney McAll

At 18, I hitched-hiked up to Sydney and felt my first brush with true spiritual music and virtuosity in the form of an Egberto Gismonte and Nana Vasconcelos concert. That concert marked a profound evolutionary shift in my musical DNA.

There was so much power and cultural weight in their music, it was beyond magical. I was so changed by this one concert that, even today, I make music from what I was exposed to that very night. My song Nectar Spur, for example, stems from that night but was written some 30 years afterwards.

With Billy Harper

From that gig on, things moved pretty fast for me. I began to hear threads of my own music slowly emerging in the form of improvised melodies. I began touring internationally and uncovering clues. For me, travel and experiencing other cultures/atmospheres/people is crucial to unveiling music. Musicians can be like town criers who give us an incorporeal report on the state of things. Itinerant bards are more informative than breaking news and so, I aspired to Bird’s maxim “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn”.

One night while touring with Vince Jones, he was doing one of his raves. He liked me to play under his patter and I would usually just dial in in some half-cut Bill Evans type stuff. But this one night, I really listened to what he was saying and suddenly, I heard the music that would underscore his words. That was a pivotal moment because I had connected a sound with what Vince was saying, in the present moment. This fleeting place “where all future plunges into the past”, is where the best music lives. It’s where all wood-shedding can blossom into something creative. I call it “singingness”.

It’s interesting to me that when asked to improvise over some chord changes, many of my students have trouble flowing on their instruments. Yet, when I play the chords and ask them to just sing a solo, they can really flow. There’s something to be learned from this disconnect and so more and more, I’m trying to forget what I know and just try to play and compose with a ‘singingness’. Don’t get me wrong, I have paid my dues in terms of musical theory and science but, now I must deliberately find new ways to cast off all knowledge.

Gary Bartz once told me “the melody is the umbilical chord and in music, if you cut it, you’re lost”.

With Fred Wesley

I’ve found songs that were hidden for years but that revealed themselves in small sections over time until completion. I once wrote a song and then found I had already recorded it on an old cassette ten years before. I suppose we have to keep our antennas up and if we don’t, the music just finds other composers. The poet Robert Bly says that every song, every poem, every journal entry and every creative act helps fight evil. I believe this wholeheartedly. Write three pages of automatic writing in your journal every morning before you talk to anyone.

Speaking to pianist Tony Gould recently about greedy, money-hungry people in the world he commented “they are very unmusical”.

Randy Weston says “music must always serve the community” and I am honoured to be a musician and to have the chance to offer sounds and ideas. I marvelled recently that I actually earn my living by generating sound.

I have a recurring dream where I catch invisible fish. I reel them in and can imagine invisible rainbow hues across invisible silver scales. Sometimes they fight hard. I can feel their weight and sense their nobility but I can never actually see them. They are unwritten songs and untaken solos.

“Barney, if you ever work out what music is all about, CALL ME COLLECT” – Dewey Redman

With Dewey Redman


Barney McAll is a Grammy nominated, ARIA winning pianist and composer. Barney lived in NYC from 1994- 2015 and has toured or recorded with Gary Bartz, Fred Wesley, Billy Harper, Dewey Redman, Josh Roseman, Peter Apfelbaum, Maceo Parker, Vernel Fournier, Jimmy Cobb and Kurt Rosenwinkel.  He won the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Composer Residency in 2015. Barney also worked as musical director for international sensation Sia Furler. Barney has twelve solo albums and has appeared on over one hundred albums as a sideman. He has also written scores for numerous award winning political documentaries. Barney’s best and most beautiful musical works however, are the two children he wrote with his wife.

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