Growing up in rural County Clare, Barry has little exposure to music except through the radio: “The thing that was the lightning flash for me, in terms of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus, would have been an aria from a Handel opera, from Xerxes maybe, that I heard on the radio. I heard this woman singing this, and bang – my head went. And that was how I discovered music.” He is educated at St. Flannan’s College, Ennis, County Clare. He goes on to study music at University College Dublin, in Amsterdam with Peter Schat, in Cologne with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel, and in Vienna with Friedrich Cerha. He teaches at University College Cork from 1982 to 1986.
“Barry’s is a world of sharp edges, of precisely defined yet utterly unpredictable musical objects. His music sounds like no one else’s in its diamond-like hardness, its humour, and sometimes, its violence.” He often conceives of material independently of its instrumental medium, recycling ideas from piece to piece, as in the reworking of Triorchic Blues from a violin to a piano piece to an aria for countertenor in his television opera The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit:
“It seemed to me unprecedented: the combination of the ferociously objective treatment of the material and the intense passion of the working-out, and both at an extreme of brilliance. And the harmony – that there was harmony at all, and that it was so beautiful and lapidary. It functions, again, irrationally, but powerfully, to build tension and to create structure. It wasn’t just repetitive. It builds. And the virtuosity, the display of it, that combination of things seemed, to me, to be new, and a major way forward.”
“He writes ‘what he likes’ in the way Strindberg does, not trying to characterise his characters, but letting them perform his own specialties, a kind of platform for his own musical specialties. As in Strindberg where you feel every sentence stands for itself and the characters are sort of borrowed for the use of saying them (borrowed to flesh out the text, rather than the other way round), that they’ve been out for the day. In Gerald’s opera the whole apparatus – for that’s what it is – takes on a kind of surrealistic shape, like one person’s torso on someone else’s legs being forced to walk, half the characters in the opera and half the composer.”
It is written in The Irish Times that “no other Irish composer springs to mind who carries the same aura of excitement and originality or whose music means so much to such a wide range of listeners. Certainly, there has been no Irish premiere that has made the impression of The Conquest of Ireland since Barry’s opera The Intelligence Park was seen at the Gate Theatre in 1990.”
In a 2013 guide to Barry’s musical output, Tom Service of The Guardian praises Chevaux-de-frise (1988), The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (2005), Lisbon (2006), Beethoven (2008), and The Importance of Being Earnest (2012).