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Confessions of an OSF ghost writer

Todd Barton, who's retiring after 40 years, secretly slipped in his original music
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Music director and resident composer Todd Barton is retiring after more than four decades with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Barton was first hired in 1969 to play instruments. He became OSF’s music director in 1972.Bob Pennell
 Posted: 2:00 AM November 20, 2012

Todd Barton spent years secretly composing original music for Oregon Shakespeare Festival plays before he was finally able to step forward and write in the open.

Hired in 1969 to play instruments for plays and Green Show performances, Barton rose to become OSF's music director in 1972.

He retired this year with the title of both music director and resident composer, but back in the 1970s, then-Artistic Director Jerry Turner — Barton's boss — wasn't interested in having new music composed for OSF's productions.

Turner would, however, task Barton with tracking down sometimes esoteric and elusive music for plays, so Barton often secretly composed and recorded the music himself — work made possible by his ability to play more than 20 instruments and his mastery of electronic synthesizers.

"I would create music and tell him I found it," Barton recalled.

All the while, Barton was able to earn public recognition for music he openly composed for concerts and other events during OSF's off-season.

His days as an OSF ghost writer finally ended in 1979 when two directors asked him to compose pieces for their productions.

"They knew I was composing for other things. I don't know if they knew my secret," Barton said.

He and Turner — who worked for 20 years helping OSF become a theater powerhouse before his death in 2004 — never openly discussed how Barton had been slipping original compositions into OSF plays.

But after 1979, the original music floodgates opened.

In the 1980s and '90s, Barton was sometimes composing music for eight or more plays each year.

"I was young and it was fun. I had the energy to do it," he said. "Sometimes I was working on three plays at a time. If I stalled on one, I would set it aside and work on the other two, and then I would be ready again with ideas for the first."

More directors clamored for original music, and OSF eventually hired additional composers to ease Barton's unsustainable workload.

Although he's composed more than 250 works for OSF and 100-plus for outside concerts and musicians, Barton said he still has endless curiosity and wonder about the world of sound.

Composing for theater has kept music fresh for Barton, who has an interest in poetry and Shakespeare that dates back to his high school days.

"Working in theater, you're able to cover so many emotional and psychological states and time periods," he said.

Barton has composed music for every play in the Shakespeare canon — often more than once.

He said it wouldn't make sense to dust off and re-use music from a previous production of a particular Shakespeare play because every production is different, with varied settings, cast members and costumes.

"In 40 years, there have only been a few times where I thought, 'I can't write this another time,' " Barton said.

He said music for a play must perform many roles. It helps create the emotional setting for a scene, acts as a bridge between scenes, and can even be an alarm clock.

"I respect and honor the person who is helping the actor doing a quick change," Barton said, speaking of the fast-paced costume change teamwork that goes on offstage between actors and costume department workers. "They hear the music running out and they know the actor has to be out in 15 seconds."

When musicians are performing live music for a play, they have to know the script inside and out, he said.

"The musician has to think, 'When this is happening, I have to be inhaling,' " he said.

Looking back, Barton said his time at OSF was a dream come true.

He traveled to Ashland in 1968 with his college roommate, who came to visit an uncle.

In those days, the Elizabethan Stage was not surrounded by tall walls, so Barton and his friend were able to sneak a free viewing of a play from Pioneer Street.

When Barton saw musicians in the play, he knew instantly he had found his calling and created an audition tape that led to his hiring.

Decades later and newly retired from OSF, he is as busy as ever, working on commissioned pieces, teaching at Southern Oregon University, experimenting and tackling a host of other musical projects.

"Every day is a full day of exploration," Barton said.

Barton will play with other musicians during concerts on Dec. 1 and Jan. 5 at The DanceSpace, 280 E. Hersey St., Ashland. Both concerts start at 8 p.m.

His music will be featured during a celebration of the poet William Stafford at 7 p.m. Jan. 17 in SOU's Meese Auditorium.

He also wrote the musical score for the documentary film "Money & Life," set to be released in March 2013.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.


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