Interview with Barry Guy:

Nature, Architecture, Art and Music constantly resupply me with energy and hope

.Barry Guy. Photo: Marcel Meier

Interview: Patrik Landolt, 2003

You are a master of composition, avant-garde playing and improvisation. Wherein lies the fascination of bringing these disciplines together?

Barry Guy: The first thing to say about improvising and composing is that the music emanates from the same body – the brain and the heart (soul) working at the music in a totally committed way. This fact is indisputable and inescapable. In my case there have been many years of assimilating different musics, so in one sense the marriage between the two does not present a problem. It is just a matter of discipline and being aware of the potential conflicts that may lay ahead for the unwary creator. The act of freely improvising – constructing and reacting in real time represents and recognises an absolute in communication. In the right circumstances this embodiment of intention/implementation, process/realisation and receiving/giving provides for an often euphoric sense of being. Performer and composer as one. Composing alone has similar objectives but exists in a different time frame without the obvious physical involvement and (naturally) of course the composer has a singular discourse where the main physical activity is in the mental gymnastics rather than in the body. Creativity is the key. In these days of diminishing liberties and increased surveillance improvising and composing possibly represent one of the last bastions of freedom. Whilst composing and writing down music, I try to preserve that sense of spontaneous creativity and freedom which then (If I achieve my goal) affects and liberates the interpreting musicians.

Is there a connection between your love for improvisation and Baroque music. Where lies the influence of composed and improvised music and vice versa?

Barry Guy:I cannot say that there is an overt connection between improvisation and baroque music although it is obvious that the music of the baroque period utilises improvisatory techniques – within the tradition of course. My interest in baroque music gained momentum as I performed great masterpieces of the genre, and within the ensembles of the Monteverdi Orchestra with John Eliot Gardiner and Christopher Hogwood’s Academy of Ancient Music as well as with Roger Norrington’s baroque opera projects I found a sense of discovery in terms of style and articulation. In the early days of the period music researches there was always an enquiring spirit and resolve to «find» the authentic centre of the music. Perhaps this is the connection with improvised and baroque music – the search. Other than my interest in baroque music there is of course the music of the 20th century with its national and pan-national resolutions to the subject of sonority and structure. The various methodologies developed to open the act of composing have been very interesting to me – from the serial procedures of the second Viennese school through to the ramifications of number theory, stochastics, electronic modifications of instruments and sound processing. The result in sonorities secured by these developments have been important, not least in their relationship of theory, performance and importantly «playability» – this being the balance of compositional desire and realisation.

For more than 30 years you have directed the London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO). When one listens to the eight CDs (three of them double CDs) one notices an immense musical development. You have divided the long development of the LJCO into three phases – how would you call them and how has your way of composing changed in these 30 years...

I have often suggested that there were three phases of the LJCO, which is more or less true, but like many long term developments there are periods of crossing and implementing new initiatives. The first period is represented by my first work ODE and subsequent compositions such as «Statements I, III, IV» and «Patterns and Time passing». As these pieces progressively moved from the initial ODE impulse of a pluralistic music through to a more defined musical vocabulary (perhaps more influenced by European contemporary musics), they incrementally began to alienate some players. My own enthusiasm for both genres (improvisation and composition) somehow took me on a journey that bypassed the practicalities of interfacing the subject matter in a balanced way. I had forgotten that many of the players had not received a classical musical instrument grounding and had no desire to be slotted into a most difficult interpretative situation.

The second phase overlapped the first, after it became evident that some of the musicians had their own ideas of solving the obvious paradox of composing for improvisers and started to compose their own pieces. These arrived in various forms: some graphic others verbal, others with clearly defined pitch structures and ambitions. From this period up until the third phase there were compositions from Howard Riley, Paul Rutherford, Tony Oxley, Kenny Wheeler, John Stevens, Phil Wachsmann (with film). Also from the so-called «straight» composers came works from the LJCO’s conductor Buxton Orr, Bernard Rands (professor of composition at York university, now Harvard University, Cambridge MA) and Krystoph Penderecki (a work originally written for the Globe Unity Orchestra).

The third phase had a definitive start with the re-emergence of the orchestra after a break. My piece «Polyhymnia» invited the players into a looser scenario without a formal conductor. I had also re-evaluated the relationship between the players and my own musical objectives. Other than freeing up the performance aspects it indicated a return to a more pluralistic approach, taking greater note of the strength and differences of playing styles whilst structuring the composition in a more organic way. By this I mean that the structures were informed by the expected resolutions of ensemble interaction whilst simultaneously defining many events as sign posts on an (often) long and colourful journey. The consequence of this was that as time passed, each composition had a clear objective and refinement of procedure. Within this process was also the desire to research ways of presenting the score in as concise a way as possible. Perhaps I was trying to throw away the baggage of the «Twentieth Century Composer» and return to a music of the heart rather than just the intellect and certain expectations what contemporary music should be. Crucially the musicians acted like gravitational forces that would shape the structure.

What was the role of the LJCO for your artistic development?

In compositional terms I had always thought of my extended pieces for the LJCO as symphonies and concertos, since in my output as a composer they represented thinking and developing ideas on a large scale whilst creating cohesive almost architectural structures. Over the thirty years of the LJCO’s existence it has always posed the question, Why? Why compose, why organise? But always after each concert there was a hunger for more adventures. Because of the time consuming nature of the project and always the financially draining aspects of running a large group, I developed a spirit of optimistic survival where time problems were dispensed with in favour of a dedication to a successful outcome and financial juggling to achieve a resolution satisfactory to everybody. The LJCO has therefore not only versed me in organisational abilities, but has also opened up the larger picture of an extended compositional rhetoric. It has also of course given me a constant reference point of the musicians’ own ideas as players and composers. In recent times Maya Homburger has magically understood the LJCO dynamic and transformed the organisational parameters.

What was the role of the big musical scene in London?

In many large cities, there often exists a vibrant music scene and London is no exception. The integration of the various musical disciplines within the fabric of the city is of course a variable feast where often we see fiscal remuneration in inverse proportion to the interest and intensity of the subject matter. This is probably true for most art forms in most cities, although there have been initiatives that would contradict this observation. As it happened, in my own case, I touched on many of the scenes that would be considered by many to be artistically devoid of content and worse, to be ultimately standing for the opposite of what creative improvised music stood for. However I must say that (other than providing the means to purchase instruments for my profession), despite the suspect nature of much of the wider musical scene, I found that the total education provided me with a set of criteria that firmly enabled me to value what has become the focus of my musical life. Thus, pop sessions, film sessions, chamber music and orchestras as well as improvised music all provided their own nuances to a busy musical career. For me it was essential to keep everything in its place avoiding the desire to elevate one discipline onto the plain of another perhaps obviously more successful music.

The Barry Guy New Orchestra (BGNO) continues the orchestral work in a smaller group of 10 people. Was the decision to compose for a smaller group mostly economical or was it a musical wish?

The initiative for the BGNO was instigated by Patrik Landolt who responded to my and Maya Homburger’s frustration of trying to set up new projects for the LJCO. His argument was that a smaller group may firstly open up new working opportunities with less financial outlay, secondly be an easier ensemble to organise and thirdly, a different type of focus as regards musical material and individual contributions. I resisted the idea for a while because I just could not get a sound in my head of a smaller group. Somehow the orchestration seemed to elude me and it was difficult to reconcile my desire for large format pieces with what seemed a limited colour palette. The breakthrough came when I moved from the «abstract» to the «reality» of hearing (conceptually) special musicians bringing their individual voices to a collective. There’s nothing special about this revelation (it has been replicated countless times!), except that there seemed to be a need to bring together musicians that had over the years played together in various projects and (crucially) constituted an aggregation of musicians that featured in my more recent concerts as well as keeping an historical perspective. It was also important to consider the chemistry of the ensemble where musical egos could rest happily with the collective spirit. The search was for an electric combination and an elastic scenario – a plasticity.

A central part of your musical life is the collaboration and friendship with Evan Parker and Paul Lytton. There is the legendary Parker/Guy/Lytton trio, the Evan Parker/Barry Guy Duo and they both also feature in your LJCO and BGNO. What role do these two friendships play for your music?

The association and friendship with Evan Parker and Paul Lytton has been long and fruitful and represents a major pillar of support throughout my musical life. The continuity has allowed us to develop an intense trio music which has so often taken us to elevated areas of communication and energy. The fact that they have also invested their time in my larger ensemble projects has given me much confidence in developing a music appropriate for these two friends.

As a counterpoint to the orchestral work there is your solo bass playing. The two solo CDs show you as a grand master of bass performance with an unmatchable technique, which enables you to convey an immense musical span and a fantastic wealth of emotional expression. What does your solo bass work (recitals) mean for you? How would you describe the development of your bass solo playing?

Ever since playing my solo recital as the final event of my Guildhall School of Music studies, I have always enjoyed the discipline of preparation and eventual performance of solo music for the double bass. The accumulation of knowledge and the technical facilitiy to interpret composed pieces has gone hand in hand with the research into the expansion of extended techniques sourced through improvisational scenarios. If my main focus is now improvised solo recitals, the interpretative aspect still features in my musical life. I find, however, that the rigours of constructing a series of structures in an improvised context is on the one hand intellectually challenging and on the other hand extremely satisfying. As such, the vocabulary has broadened with an expanded fluency. Despite the many «prepared» sounds gained through the implementation of external objects (sticks, brushes and mallets mostly) I have in mind «sonority». Extended techniques are not worth their sound deviation unless they can be integrated into a cohesive musical language.

Sound and Colour («Klanglichkeit») is a very important factor in your music, in improvisation – like for example beautifully done on your solo CDs or the Odyssey Trio-CD, but also in composed pieces like «Inscape- Tableaux» for the BGNO etc. Have the main aspects shifted slightly from the more noise orientated music of the 70’s to more of a balance between sound and noises, composition and improvisation, turbulence and calmness?

The balance between the parameters you mention seems to me essential for any piece of music, improvised or composed. It’s really the search for the Holy Grail in terms of getting the proportions right. My music has shifted to a more pluralistic approach as I mentioned earlier, where melodic lines can coexist with «noise». It’s all a matter of preparation and structure.

In Marilyn Crispell you have found since the mid 90ties a musician who has in recent years expanded her own sound world and colours. Is this the reason why you love to work with her?

I have said this before, but there is no reason not to repeat the mantra that Marilyn Crispell creates the most wonderful piano orchestration with exceptional clarity of register, articulation and energy. For a bassist she is a dream player, inviting one to enter a beautifully constructed tapestry of space and colour. Her sense of harmonic development (even in a freely improvised piece) has both logicality and deviousness. This of course keeps musicians in a constant state of attention to the building of the musical argument.

There are a few standards or hits like «Harmos», «Double Trouble», «Odyssey» which you have also used in small formations or even in your solo playing. Also in these pieces you combine a beautiful sound world with advanced techniques and improvisations. What does fascinate you about the reduction of these orchestral pieces for smaller formats?

To be honest, I never anticipated any kind of reduction of certain orchestral passages to the trio format. It just happened that Marilyn wanted to play the «Harmos» theme and that set me thinking about some other appropriate moments that could be given a new life. As far as «Odyssey» is concerned, well – that started out as a bass solo, was then used in the trio and finally ended up in «Inscape-Tableaux» with the trio and a simple harmonisation for the orchestra, so in a sense this piece travelled in the reverse direction, from singular to multiple. It is a fact that Marilyn can make almost anything sound great, which is an inspiration and comfort. As a general rule though, I set out to compose music for each project without the thought that «sonic shadows» would eventually manifest themselves in new realisations of the music either expanded or contracted. Ultimately, whether improvised or composed, or both, there is a necessity to be rigourous in the evaluation of the given parameters (line-up, length of composition, occasion) to get to a creative and balanced final result.

And your influences?

Influences arrive from many quarters – specifics are hard to pin down, generalities easier: Nature, Architecture, Art and Musicians constantly resupply me with energy and hope. The resourceful natural world surviving (partially) aggressive homo sapiens implies change when evolutionary tendencies are allowed to develop. This fascinates me. Architecture has been a life long companion. I marvel at the ingenuity of architects to reinvent space and encounter. Conversely I despair at crass resolutions of buildings and environments that create tensions and anxiety. Even in the public sector there are fine examples of low cost building that recognise the human condition and work to involve the individual. Sadly, such examples are all too rare, and it doesn’t take a genius to spot the parallels between rubbishy architecture and uncreative music. Art in all its forms has exercised my critical faculties for most of my life and it is no secret that certain paintings have influenced my approach to composition as well as architectural manifestations. I have great admiration for artists who can present us with visual and conceptual dialogues that stretch our intellect. Music and musicians that have informed and influenced me are many and few at the same time. The «many» extends through the whole of my listening experience where moments of «contact» are indelibly imprinted on my mind. The first moment of hearing Monteverdi, Stravinsky, Xenakis and Beethoven; the first jazz sounds from King Oliver, the original Dixieland Jazz Band and Sydney Bechet, the modern jazz sounds from the glorious roster of Afro-American musicians and caucasian counterparts; the new sounds emanating from my European colleagues; all of these musicians have painted a wonderful picture as colourful as any canvass. Perhaps the «few» that have given me extraordinary first Jazz impressions are Charles Mingus and Albert Ayler. These gentlemen grabbed my attention in very special ways – Mingus for a powerful completeness of vision and Ayler for sheer incomprehensibility on first listening that gave way to wonderment concerning diction and space. Other than that, scientific discovery and the writings of contemporary commentators interest me. So do politics. I only wish that more politicians would adopt the sensibility and quality of listening and respect without which improvised music can not exist.


Interview for the portrait-booklet BARRY GUY of Intakt Records and Maya Recordings by Patrik Landolt, 2003. Please order the booklet:



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