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Barry Guy: Striving For Absolute Spontaneity

By Published: May 31, 2011
AAJ: Please tell us about balance between composition and improvisation in your music, particularly for bigger ensembles. Do you think there can exist an ideal ratio between the two approaches?

BG: I work hard at imagining how improvisation and composition can coexist together. I try to reinvent the wheel when a new piece is envisaged, since all circumstances are different. So there is no immediate solution nor any ideal ratio or balance that can be replicated. Every large ensemble piece poses new problems—not unlike designing a house for a client. I take on board the various parameters and doggedly work away, until a sense of structure emerges that best reflects the aspirations of the ensemble. The musicians come first.

AAJ: What other orchestras work in the same genre as LJCO?

BG: Every large ensemble is guided by its players and composers. I have my own methods, which will be different from others. So it is difficult to speak about the same genre except to say that any searching orchestra will have similar objectives, and that is to provide a platform for the improvisers' art.

AAJ: Large jazz orchestras seem to be a rare phenomenon these days. Is it mainly because of economic factors?

BG: Economic factors obviously play an important role in the continuity of any large ensemble. The big band era, as such, is long past, but it has in fact been quite heartening that musicians have got together and continue to do so to research and perform large group music. Concerts are infrequent, but most countries possess a few lively spirits that allow the medium to survive. The technical facility of many young players and their awareness of musical genres has been gratifying. There is a future for improvised music in the large ensemble, I think.

Barry Guy with Lithuanian Musicians

AAJ: Please tell us about freedom in free music. As a composer, what do you think about striving for absolute spontaneity?

BG: I am a composer and an improviser that can operate with the most rigorous written music and the totally free context. Being creative is my main objective, and being aware of one's colleagues active in the art of playing music is a priority. Hopefully, spontaneity will result from a lot of performing and a discipline behind the endeavors. Absolute spontaneity? I can only say that we must always be ready to react.

AAJ: Can "non-idiomatic improvisation"—proposed by Derek Bailey
Derek Bailey
Derek Bailey
1932 - 2005
—still be called music?

BG: I have never understood "non-idiomatic music" as proposed by Derek Bailey. One definition of idiomatic is "characteristic of a particular language," and as far as I can understand it, improvisers are involved in a language, a communication. There are, of course, different dialects, not all compatible, but nevertheless there exists a potential for understanding. An idiom is a form of expression peculiar to a language, person or group of people, so to think that successful music can be made by abandoning the core principles seems to me somewhat dilettantish.

Derek's phrase has been often quoted as a revolutionary principle. In fact, I think it was thrown in to the improvising arena as a taunt to musicians who abided by a set of principles that included continuity and self-development in their individual practices. The phrase also, to my mind, represented a contradiction, since Derek himself continued to develop quite systematically his playing methods. Idiomatic, even...

AAJ: Composed or written music is often perceived as an antidote to free improvisation. While there are doubts whether that is correct, what is your opinion on the following: can performing/interpreting somebody's music be compared with making it on the fly, in terms of the required amount of creativity and enjoyment?

BG: I personally enjoy the challenge of interpreting music— different disciplines are called for. Naturally, the creative aspect represents a smaller percentage of the overall commitment, but other factors compensate— not least the reward of getting inside a composer's music.

AAJ: The ability to improvise has seemingly become a creativity standard for any modern musician. Is domination of improvisation some sort of cultural trend or real necessity in the genesis of European and American culture?

BG: The ability to create music through improvisation represents a kind of liberation of thought and action. Paul Lytton has often taught aspects of improvisation to business people who are very often locked into a methodology. Discipline is also important, so I hope that improvisation—and it can come in many forms—will establish itself within the consciousness of all stratum of culture and society.

AAJ: What tendencies, in your opinion, sound the most promising?

BG: I really cannot read the future. Only hope is a currency that can be circulated, and musical survival is at the mercy of many contingencies. As I said earlier, the young voices will represent a continuum, but it may be different from what we have been involved in. It's a short answer here.

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