Barry Guy: Ploughs into Swordshares (Part 1)

Barry Guy: Ploughs into Swordshares (Part 1)
Duncan Heining By

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Edgar Varèse's defiant statement in the face of public and critical indifference -"The present day composer refuses to die"—could so easily apply to composer-bassist Barry Guy. He has earned over the years a deep and lasting respect from certain fans and critics, though more so in North America and Europe than in the country of his birth. Nevertheless, the struggles of the creative artist in a world where culture is increasingly corporatized and debased are real indeed.

Barry Guy spans the worlds of jazz, improvisation, classical and baroque music with ease and élan. It is not so unusual to find musicians whose talents are sought after in both jazz and classical music. Barely a handful, however, have deserved success as composers in both fields. Guy is, in this and other respects, a worthy exception.

As a bassist his technique is powerful and virtuosic. His abilities as an improviser, whether working in his own groups or those of others such as Evan Parker, Cecil Taylor, Roscoe Mitchell, Howard Riley, John Stevens and Bob Downes, take second place to no-one as soloist or accompanist. Yet he is able to translate that talent into the more formal settings of baroque duos with his partner violinist Maya Homburger, the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra led by Sir John Eliot Gardiner or the late Christopher Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music. More than that his forays into classical composition—After The Rain (1992 NMC) performed by the City of London Sinfonia, Folio (2005 ECM) with the Münchener Kammerorchester and, most recently, Time Passing with the Camerata Zürich (2016 Maya)—reveal a composer capable of great emotional intensity and drama but also one able to match that with a sense of space and delicacy.

His work as a composer draws upon a knowledge base of subjects as diverse as art and architecture, literature, history and music. As a musician, he came of age in the context of a 1960s London jazz scene keen to experiment and find new and authentic ways of making music and playing jazz. In that milieu, he found ready and willing accomplices in musicians and group situations such as the Howard Riley Trio, John Stevens and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Bob Downes' Open Music and Paul Rutherford's Iskra 1903.

On leaving school, he had commenced work in an architect's office—an abiding passion and one that informs his compositional practice—but, in the evenings, he studied double bass with James Edward Merrett, then of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and composition with the South African-born composer Stanley Glasser, Emeritus Professor at Goldsmiths. "That was one of those evening classes which was very rewarding because it introduced me to lots of other musics, which I was hardly aware of," Guy explains. "We talked about Stockhausen, Penderecki and the second Viennese school. The other things that were happening then were the events at the Little Theatre Club or at Peanuts with Mike Osborne and Louis Moholo-Moholo. I was also working with Bob Downes' Open Music but I suppose that the Little Theatre Club was in a way pushing me or inviting me to move in a different direction. But I didn't really make any conscious decision to do one thing or the other. I just let the music take me. I was an open book and every moment I enjoyed whatever musical event I got involved in."

Diverted away from a career in church and ancient buildings restoration, music became his all. He auditioned at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and at his audition, the composer Buxton Orr was on the panel. From the main theme of what Guy describes as a "Mozart-ian type piece," he was asked to play it, embellish it, return and recapitulate the theme. He continues,

"I picked up the tune alright but I didn't know what to do with it. So, I just did the usual thing. I kind of deconstructed it and at that point two of the professors' jaws hit the desk but Buxton had a huge smile on his face. He thought it was a rather novel way of dealing with a bit of Mozart. Anyway, I came back to the theme again but it was a rather circuitous route but it did the job. Buxton recognised in me something that he enjoyed. So, thanks to him, I got in to the Guildhall."

Buxton Orr became a mentor and friend and even worked with Guy as a conductor on the bassist's monumental work Ode (1972), which drew inspiration from Olivier Messiaen's (much shorter) Chronochromie (translated "Time-Colour") and a number of surrealist paintings. The piece, composed when Guy was just twenty-two years old, established early on the breadth of his interests and visions.

He describes those years as a "caldron of activity" to the extent that he wonders how he actually managed to write any music. "I did come across one diary entry," he says, "and it was one day that was free and it said, 'Leave for composition.' This was a short time slot for a slow composer! I was lucky I came out of the Guildhall pretty much to land on my feet into a very busy time of music-making, which suited me because I was enjoying every minute of it."

He did sessions with pop and rock musicians, like Elton John and the Rolling Stones—he is on the latter's "Angie." "It was not unusual to do a film session in the morning," Guy says, "a rehearsal in the afternoon with one of the orchestras and play with Howard Riley in the evening or do a recording session in the morning, shoot up north for a concert and return the next day for contemporary music rehearsals, followed by an evening of improvised music. This was my regular pattern in the seventies."

However, the crucial lesson that Guy learnt from this frenetic activity was that there were certain elements, which had reference across these different approaches, as he says,

"For instance, when I got involved in extended double bass techniques on the contemporary music side, I would find that some of these things that I had read about in a book or talked to players about, I'd already been doing within the context of the improvised areas. I suppose it was just a matter of defining what one was doing. The improvised music was pushing all of us into new areas of expression and new ways of communicating and to do that you had to extend your technique on the instrument to embrace all of these new ideas and sometimes I found there was a kind of cross-referencing."
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