Story by Wesley Orser, one of Barry’s former Hofstra students who sat in on a mix session for Rich Coffey.
In the midst of widespread lockdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic, many residents left isolated in their homes have been reminded why long walks and fresh air are so important to one’s mental health.
It was a complete coincidence that I was asked by Barry to write about one of his recording clients, Rich Coffey, and his ongoing “Nature Suite” project right as these nationwide lockdowns started to take effect. Still, unexpected circumstances nevertheless informed the importance of what Coffey is trying to communicate through his music.
Coffey’s “Nature Suite” invites listeners to develop a further appreciation of nature by evoking its tranquil effect and beauty through music. Featuring a wide variety of styles and genres from classical orchestra to Native American oriented music, every composition shares a common theme by including quotes on nature and a photo the composition is meant to represent.
“In the Woods,” a tune posted on his website, for instance, is a lush piece that includes a photo of a gentle creek and a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life-no disgrace, no calamity-which nature cannot repair.” Sound fitting to current predicaments?
Almost every part of this project was recorded by Coffey in his own home using Digital Performer, but he eventually came to Barry to work on further enhancing, doubling, or replacing sounds. “I was looking around, and had the choice of maybe hiring a band to do this stuff, or to find someone that was more technologically advanced than me.” When the latter became a more viable option, Coffey quickly admired Barry’s focus on giving equal merit to all kinds of music and abilities as an engineer to clearly balance and separate every part in a mix.
Using Digital Performer, Barry has remixed many of the tracks through such methods as enhancing the bass sounds originally recorded on Coffey’s Oberheim (and playing a real fretless bass on “Earth’s Music”) or enhancing/layering parts such as the strings and guitar with complimentary yet more sonically interesting timbres to enrich the soundscape (see below for specific details). Online websites also provided additional sounds such as percussion samples and bird sounds from freesound.org.
Much of the “Nature Suite” is defined sonically by Coffey’s use of samples and patches mainly from the most prominent synthesizers of the late 80s and 90s, including the Oberheim Matrix-1000, the Roland JV-880 and his own custom-made patches on the Roland D50. Although he may not have realized it himself, many of the pieces sound strikingly similar to video game music of the same era, as games were once limited only to sounds from synthesizer technology. Video game composers often have the same goal in creating atmospheric music that evokes the varied natural environments found in games.
As an attempt to do something similar to a concept album, “Nature Suite” was inspired by Coffey’s own life experiences hiking and biking in state parks and forests. “When my son got to be six years old, we started mountain biking together. It was fabulous. I kinda fell in love with the woods. I decided to write some music based on impressions of my love for it.” Particular favorite hiking sites have included the Pequonnock River Valley: a mountain bikers paradise of giant granite outcroppings and moss covered forests in Trumbull, Connecticut, and Perry Hill: a lush dreamland of deep green forests, ferns and amazing trails in Waterbury, Vermont. Photos from these sites are included in many of the pieces on his site.
The array of genres found throughout the collection is thanks in part to Coffey’s diverse musical background. Listening to lots of classical music while growing up in Upstate NY, he briefly studied composition with Pulitzer Prize winner Karel Husa, studied jazz trombone at Berklee College of Music with Phil Wilson while living in Boston and went on to tour as a trombonist and keyboardist with bossa nova singer, Astrud Gilberto. Although a greater need for financial stability eventually weighed on his decision to pursue additional multimedia work in interactive design, he has never stopped being a creative musician.
He also became more involved playing the Native American flute later in life, and this is where the connection between Native Americans and their lost land becomes another dominant theme running in many of the pieces. Many quotes throughout the Suite are attributed to Native Americans, and the wooden flute is the featured lead on several songs including “Last Stand” and “Niawen.” The latter is the Mohawk word for “thanks,” signifying the tribe’s deep appreciation for the gift of nature.
The “Nature Suite” was originally intended to be two or three pieces at first, but has since become an ongoing project with no end in sight. As an advocate for structuring deep rich harmonies, Coffey believes strongly in the importance of applying his studies to his music. “You really need to listen and study the masters: from Mozart to Shostokovich! As much as people may think theory and practice is not necessary, you really don’t know how to break the rules until you’ve learned them.” He is clearly fulfilled, as a result, in expressing through music how the natural world has remained an important part of his life.
Towards the end of one of Coffey’s last sessions with Barry, I asked if he had any words of advice to aspiring composers. “I think people are born to do things and are born to be passionate about certain things and try to live out their goals. It’s weird how every day if I’m somehow not creative, I’m unfulfilled. Music’s an integral part of my life, and it’s really not so much about playing as much as composing. That’s how I get my greatest joy.” Another piece of encouraging advice for musicians stuck in their homes all day for the unforeseen future.
Some of the additional sounds added by Barry include:
– A Conga sample in Discovery Series: Cuba (Kontakt)
– Djembes and Kalimba samples (Kontakt Factory Library)
– A Frame Drum sample in Discovery Series: Middle East (Kontakt)
– The Grandeur (Kontakt) – Barry’s favorite virtual grand piano!
– A Mikro Prism synth guitar sound (Reaktor)
– Synth bass sounds (Absynth)