Barry Guy: Ploughs into Swordshares (Part 1)

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

Sign in to view read count
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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.


comments powered by Disqus

Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.

Related Articles

Read Jeff Chambers' Chosen Alternative: The Therapies of Tijuana Profiles
Jeff Chambers' Chosen Alternative: The Therapies of Tijuana
By Arthur R George
May 31, 2019
Read Omar Sosa: Building Bridges Not Walls Profiles
Omar Sosa: Building Bridges Not Walls
By Duncan Heining
May 2, 2019
Read Unforgettable: Nat King Cole at 100 Profiles
Unforgettable: Nat King Cole at 100
By Peter Coclanis
March 17, 2019
Read Robert Lewis Heads the Charleston's Jazz Orchestra Profiles
Robert Lewis Heads the Charleston's Jazz Orchestra
By Rob Rosenblum
January 27, 2019
Read The Complete Jan Akkerman: Focusing on a Life's Work Profiles
The Complete Jan Akkerman: Focusing on a Life's Work
By John Kelman
November 24, 2018