Crouched at the foot of an outdoor stage, J. Paul Barnett poises his fingers and steadies his hand with a concentration as intense as that of the 110 or so musicians whose fevered notes fill the night air. Barnett’s instrument, however, is not a violin or cello, but a 10-inch by 12-inch blue metal box with 16 toggle switches. As Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture moves through the “Battle of Borodino,” Barnett flips five of them in rapid succession, and five cannons—stationed safely in the distance—roar. With each boom comes a 20-foot belch of fire and smoke—a spectacle that will be repeated when, 90 seconds later, Barnett looses his last 11 blasts during the “God Save the Czar” finale.
“I think I’m the world’s only concussionist,” says Barnett, 54. A former Indiana state trooper, who later taught high school English, he now specializes in putting the oomph Tchaikovsky intended into the 1812. This may not be battle, but it’s a job that still makes Barnett sweat. “The pressure is tremendous,” he says. “You’re trying to play 3,000 pounds of iron like a musical instrument. I have a split second to react and hit my cue. I’ve never missed.”
An antique-firearms buff since college, Barnett builds cannon replicas in a large workshop behind his three-bedroom colonial house near South Bend, Ind. His clientele includes collectors, the National Park Service, community boards and anyone else who wants a cannon to embellish a lawn. Barnett’s cannons are displayed in Colonial Williamsburg and have sailed on warship replicas.
Barnett was minding his cannon business part-time back in 1967, when he got a call from Erich Kunzel, then the newly appointed assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He dreamed of conducting the 1812 with real cannons instead of the usual rifle shots or amplified cap guns. Intrigued, Barnett showed up with 16 miniature cannons, which, unfortunately, didn’t do the trick: They popped instead of thundered. So Barnett hit the books and discovered that “in 1880, when he wrote the Overture, Tchaikovsky intended to have an electrical switchboard at the disposal of the conductor. He wrote the cannon blasts right into the score and wanted them ignited with an electrical charge.” Barnett built the switch box, then got himself 16 Lyle guns—170-pound turn-of-the-century cannons that make very big booms. Two summers later he and the Cincinnati Symphony tried again, this time enjoying a roaring success. Except for one hitch. “I discovered that 110-volt electricity and wet grass don’t mix,” reports Barnett. “Shocked the hell out of me.”
Barnett, who now uses a battery-operated switch box, has been going great guns ever since. He’s given nearly 200 performances—for up to 350,000 people—and worked with the country’s top symphonies and most prestigious conductors, from Mstislav Rostropovich to Henry Mancini. He keeps one of Mitch Miller’s cigar stubs pinned to the wall of his shop.
Barnett hauls his guns with a trailer attached to a one-ton pickup. His two assistants, Bob Gerencser and Wes Speake, position them in the woods or on a hill up to 150 feet from the orchestra and put black powder down the barrels. Of 15,000 attempted blasts, only four or five have failed, usually because of rainwater dribbling down the barrel. “It’s embarrassing to me,” he says, “but nobody else notices.”
When he’s not shooting the guns, Barnett is usually building them at the home he shares with his wife, an insurance-company sales rep, and a stepdaughter. He’s written a book on the Lyle gun, which was used to fire ropes to ships in distress in the first part of the century, and also publishes a catalog of his antique-cannon replicas.
Barnett won’t disclose his fee (“nice,” he says), but his clients are satisfied. “Tchaikovsky would have loved to have had you around when he wrote that monster piece,” wrote Paul F. Stapel of the Binghamton Symphony in Binghamton, N.Y., in a thank-you note. “In principle, I’m part of the orchestra,” says Barnett. “I’m a performer.” Not that he’s all that easy to spot. While his peers onstage bend and sway under the restriction of tuxedos and black-crepe gowns, Barnett pursues his art in jeans and a white T-shirt. Only close observers can read its message: Concussion Section.
—By Tim Allis, with Bill Shaw in South Bend