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Interviews

Barry Guy: Striving For Absolute Spontaneity

By Published: May 31, 2011
AAJ: How did you come up with an idea to put together a big orchestra? How was the London Jazz Composers Orchestra born?



BG: The LJCO was formed because of my desire to celebrate the picturesque musical life I was leading at the beginning of the '70s in England. I brought together lots of the musicians I had been working with across a fairly wide spectrum of improvised music. And, to make some sense of this powerhouse of creativity, I envisaged an extended composition that moved and flexed with the improvisers' aspirations. The extended composition was called "ODE," consisting of seven sections that would feature all of the musicians of the LJCO in one scenario or another. My composition professor at the Guildhall School of Music, Buxton Orr, conducted the first performance and continued to direct for about 10 years after that. The excitement of the final result filled me with energy and enthusiasm to embark upon other projects.

The realization of "ODE" was difficult and often contentious, with many musicians having to deal with time/space notation, plus improvising. The fact that we got a recording made me realize that the human spirit is indeed resilient.

AAJ: London Jazz Composers Orchestra—why "jazz" and why "composers"?

BG: You will recall that there existed the Jazz Composers Orchestra in the U.S. in the late '60s/'70s. Michael Mantler
Michael Mantler
Michael Mantler
b.1943
trumpet
wrote some original scores, which interested me because my own writing method accorded with his presentation of the music—basically a time/space notation. In a rather naive way, I hoped that there would be a future collaboration between large ensembles, so I called my formation the London Jazz Composers Orchestra to honor the existence of the American counterpart. The name seemed appropriate because the orchestra was made up of jazz/improvising musicians, and composition represented the structural spine. Over the years of LJCO existence, the amount of composed material varied greatly, which was as I had hoped. No rules were laid down, although I guided the ensemble towards a format of composition and improvisation rather than a totally improvised format.

AAJ: You have mentioned "time/space notation" a couple of times. Could you to tell us about that in more detail?

BG: This way of notating music allows a certain flexibility in the delivery of musical information. Simply put, measures or bars can be fixed by chronological time rather than metronomic beats, and within this time period [space] events can be delineated. These events can take on more precise articulations or can be improvisational. Imagine the goal posts in football. Between these vertical posts, the player can judge where the football should land—just inside, towards the center, perhaps central. The music can be visually laid out to suggest the positioning of a note or phrase within the external limits of the bar lines or goal posts.

Time/space notation appears in many forms—each composer having a different objective. It just happens that a certain freedom away from the "tyranny of the bar line" occurs and is particularly suited to music that has improvised elements.


For its relevancy to the discussion, Guy gave us permission to excerpt from the article "Freedom In Restraint," by Kees Stevens, in the interest of highlighting some of the goals behind the LJCO.
"There are three periods to distinguish in the 25 year-old history of the LJCO. At the beginning the music scores were very detailed. They also worked with a conductor, Buxton Orr, Guy's composition teacher. Due to the constant refinement on the compositional side and radical abstraction, Guy alienated musicians from himself. For example Bailey left the orchestra because he absolutely could not feel at home with such an approach. In the second period he invited his fellow musicians to write pieces for the orchestra. Kenny Wheeler
Kenny Wheeler
Kenny Wheeler
b.1930
trumpet
, Paul Rutherford
Paul Rutherford
Paul Rutherford
b.1940
trombone
, Howard Riley
Howard Riley
Howard Riley
b.1943
piano
and Tony Oxley
Tony Oxley
b.1938
drums
delivered contributions. The orchestra also played a piece by conductor Orr, whilst in the repertoire of that period there was also a piece which Penderecki had written for the Globe Unity Orchestra. That repertoire offered a broad spectrum of complete, written scores, through the looser ones from Rutherford to the more graphic ones of Tony Oxley. Furthermore, the "orchestra's composers" saw the business from the other side.

The decision to drop the conductor marked the third phase of the orchestra. According to Guy an orchestra with a conductor causes you to write for an orchestra with a conductor, and he wanted to get away from that. He advocated a looser approach, in which a few directions are sufficient and the musicians are responsible for taking initiative. He was very aware that a working method of that sort could not be achieved in a few years, but the construction of the orchestra has barely changed in the last ten years, so that everybody knows what they can expect from each other. There are still meticulously notated passages. That's how he, for example, will work out riffs, but in contrast to the orchestra's first period, the result heard is more supple, more natural."


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