Barry O’Sullivan talks with the multi-award-winning musician

Dr Steve Barry is a multi-award-winning pianist, composer, improviser, and lecturer at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Born and raised in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland and now living and creating on Gadigal land, Barry works across the music industry as a performer, accompanist, educator, and consultant.

You were born and raised in New Zealand. What were some of your earliest musical memories and influences there?
My mother is a ballet teacher, so I grew up with the sound of mazurkas, polonaises, and jigs firmly in my ears. Quite often I would sit listening to Mum take a class in the old, cold wooden hall where she taught, and to the class pianist who became a proxy Nana to me. I started playing at about four years old on one of those classic Yamaha keyboards with built-in Disney songs and these awesome assignable SPD-like buttons with drums in one bank and animal and vehicle sounds in the other. I’m still amazed they didn’t give out after so many hours of bashing.

Two things got me started on jazz. Firstly, at about age eleven, my teacher introduced me to the jazz piano syllabus of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), one of if not the first jazz-specific music syllabuses for young learners. Shortly afterwards, my great-uncle turned me on to Band-in-a-Box, an early algorithmic accompaniment software that made it easy to jam with what at the time felt like a real band. I was fortunate that my high school had an exceptional music department led by a passionate music teacher, who curated a lot of external performance opportunities for us, including playing in a festival at the Sydney Opera House. I joined the stage band on the piano after an early debut on congas and started a trio out of school with two classmates that went on to play a regular local cafe gig on Saturdays and Sundays for three years. We weren’t paid much, but it was the perfect sandbox to experiment with new material and ideas.

What were the motivational reasons for furthering your musical career in Australia?
New Zealand was a beautiful place to start a music career, being such a close-knit and supportive community, and one where the hierarchies between teacher and student were non-existent. I was fortunate to be playing early on with some of the more senior musicians. After a few years of playing a regular Friday night residency in the city, I started to get the itch for something more. It was rare to see international jazz artists tour New Zealand, and I wanted to experience the buzz of a big city scene which I’d heard about from older musicians who had spent time abroad. My dad was working between Auckland and Melbourne at the time, and a couple of trips I made as a teenager to the festival at Wangaratta further highlighted the advantages of larger scenes. There was more music infrastructure, venues, musicians, music and yes – competition. I started to see that Australia was the next logical step if I wanted to pursue the kind of breadth and calibre of craft I was aiming towards. After hesitating for a year, I made the move.

Apart from your busy performance schedule and teaching at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, what are some of your non-musical interests?
I’m an avid runner. Many people have written about the meditative nature of running, and it’s certainly become that for me. I find it a reset time for ideas to percolate without distraction. I find compositional ideas come to me during a run, or compositional problems seem to quickly resolve themselves after returning from one. I reckon it’s made me a better improviser too. Longer distances are a particular favourite. I’ve run a few 50km and 100km events and I am eyeing up my first 100-mile event in New Zealand in February next year.

It’s five o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and you want to chill listening to some music. What would your personal choices be?
Lately, I’ve been exploring Khruangbin, a soul-dub-psychedelia trio out of Texas; Little Dragon, Hiatus Kaiyote and Scary Goldings are also regular faves. Or if I’m feeling exceptionally chilled, it might be some Mozart piano sonatas, Sylvan Esso or Ella and Louis. A bit of a mix.

What is your current musical project?
There are two at the moment. The first is a new set of compositions and improvisations for solo piano, a kind of juxtaposition of 20th-century pianism and very melodic ‘songs without words’ (though there may even be some words). The second is a large ensemble suite that explores our relationship to the places and cities that we live in, real or imagined, and the reciprocal process of identity formation that relationship entails.

This article originally appeared in the august issue of the 2MBS Fine Music Sydney Magazine