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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."

Covering Barry Guy's musical involvements in adequate depth—even for the period 1966 to 1972/3—would be task enough. However, dealing with a career that encompasses two-hundred-and-fifteen recordings -as leader, composer and sideman—would require a book not just one article. Instead, in these three articles, we will concentrate on Guy's work as a composer for large ensemble with the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra, with the smaller but no less magnificent Barry Guy New Orchestra and with his most recently established group, the Blue Shroud Band.

Once one immerses oneself in Guy's musical world, much big band jazz or large scale free improvisation (with notable exceptions) seems second-rate and superficial. If his music were a drug, it would be in great demand and banned in every country in the uncivilised world. Guy makes music that is about something, music that matters profoundly.

His latest work, The Blue Shroud, offers the perfect example of his multi-faceted approach to music and composition and, more importantly, to their realisation in the performance context. The piece simultaneously references Picasso's most famous painting Guernica, the horrific event that inspired it and its strange and ironic connection with U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell's speech at the United Nations to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Guy explains, "Three strands informed my writing of The Blue Shroud -the bombing in 1937 of the Basque city of Guernica by German Condor Legion pilots at the invitation of Franco, the painting by Pablo Picasso that arose following the event, and in more recent times (2003) a blue drape that was hung over a tapestry reproduction of the Guernica painting in the United Nations building before U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered his case for invading Iraq to TV viewers and the world in general. Incontestably, the Guernica image of death, panic and mayhem would have sent a far too literal message about the horrors of war to the receivers of Powell's statement. In an act of extreme cowardice, it was deemed necessary to sanitize the presentation, so the tapestry was covered with a blue drape by U.N. staff and media personnel prior to the broadcast."

The very idea that a musical work, certainly in a 'jazz' context, might encompass such goals and inspirations is not just bold. In many other hands, it would be foolhardy in the extreme. However, Guy was convinced that "a piece of music could be written reflecting the actualities of the subject matter, one that would indicate the power of the human spirit to withstand the oppression of tyrants." At the same time, he is clear that this is "not a tub-thumping anti-war piece." Rather, as its programme notes explain, "It is a composition that presents superb musicians in a creative scenario that reflects my humble belief that compassion is still a currency open to all, with the ultimate hope that humanity might at some stage learn from history."

What Guy offers—here and elsewhere in his work—is less a statement and more a disquisition that invites the listener to engage intellectually, emotionally and imaginatively through the music with its inspiration and values. "Stop the bombing" is a statement and one with which Guy would no doubt concur. But his purpose is different—more a questioning of what these events mean, what their outcome may be, how they may relate to other similar events and, most importantly, what might we learn from them and from history. One thinks of musical works with similar aesthetic and ethical concerns—Mike Westbrook's Marching Song, Charlie Haden/Carla Bley's first two Liberation Music Orchestra albums, Freddie Hubbard's Sing Me A Song of Songmy and in the world of classical music Britten's War Requiem, Haydn's Missa in Tempore Belli and Messiaen's Quatuor Pour Le Fins Du Temps. These are not didactic works. Indeed, they contain certain ambiguities (perhaps less so in the Charlie Haden examples!) and can be read in different ways. What they share is the invitation to thought and dialogue.

In the process of planning and formulating the composition, Guy approached the Irish poet, Kerry Hardie, a friend, with "some ideas about referencing the characters in Picasso's painting." Hardie came up with a set of verses called Symbols of Guernica to "highlight the figures on the canvas and this provided the text and context for the piece."

The Blue Shroud also exploits Guy's love of and involvement in baroque music, as well as his grasp of both jazz and contemporary compositional techniques. It is a demanding and challenging work to play and includes within it extracts from two H.I.F. Biber's Mystery Sonatas (the 9th and 10th) and the "Agnus Dei" from Bach's Mass in B minor. Given the subject matter, their images of compassion in the face of suffering could not be more appropriate. This aspect of the music, however, made the choice of players crucial to the realisation of the piece.

"I really brought specific players together who could handle the overall structure of the piece and the type of music," he points out. "We have three baroque music practitioners in the group, so it was necessary to have people in the band who could play that music as well as improvising."

As well as Guy himself, his partner Maya Homburger plays baroque violin and Fanny Paccoud from France plays viola. We will address Homburger's talents later. With regard to Paccoud, Guy tells me, "She plays with John Eliot Gardiner but is also a good improviser." Frenchman, Michel Godard plays tuba and serpent, which is "a nice sound to accompany the baroque element." Then, there is the quartet of saxophonists. Here, Guy has chosen players who have the ability to perform a role similar to that of a string quartet rather than that of a jazz big band sax section and he notes,

"There's Torben Snekkestad on soprano and tenor. He runs the Copenhagen saxophone quartet and is a fine improviser. I made an album with him and he is a wonderful musician. Michael Niesemann is John Eliot Gardiner's main oboe player and plays great alto sax. Then there is Julius Gabriel, who is a student of Michael's. He usually plays tenor and soprano but here I have asked him to tackle the baritone. And finally, there is Per Texas Johansson from Sweden on tenor and clarinet. These players where chosen because of their ability to be creative and to make a perfect blend in the ensemble music."

The brilliant American improviser and trumpeter Peter Evans played on the Première in Krakow but for recent concerts Guy brought in Brit Percy Pursglove—on Peter Evan's personal recommendation, due to his own other commitments. Spaniard and regular associate Agustí Fernández is on piano with Ramon Lopez, also from Spain, and Lucas Niggli on percussion. The wonderful Greek singer Savina Yannatou provides The Blue Shroud with its most immediately human—or mammalian!—qualities and Irish classical guitarist, Ben Dwyer, completes the line-up. Dwyer's role is particularly important "because it provides the link between the continuo (the bass line) and the Spanish aspects of the subject" and music Guy has written, which almost inevitably recall Rodrigo and Alexandre Tansman. The Blue Shroud was premiered in Krakow in November 2014. Unsurprisingly, given its subject matter and Guy's dramatically beautiful music, it seems to have had a powerful impact on those hearing it live. "People seem to find it a very emotional piece," Guy says, "and it has gone down very well. People keep coming up to us and saying, 'It had me in tears.'"

This is not "Third Stream" music. There is no attempt to 'jazz up' baroque with a walking bass line or create 'cross-over' music. This is music, which draws effectively on a number of different musical languages from jazz to baroque to contemporary music. Or as Guy puts it, "As in concerts by the Homburger/Guy Duo, early music sits side by side with contemporary modes of expression, the rhetoric of each being sufficient to bridge the centuries."

As to the music itself, listening to a near-finished copy of the recent Warsaw performance reveals what may be one of the composer's most successful and complete works to date. It begins with Guy reading Kerry Hardie's opening verses referencing Picasso's Guernica and with perfect irony the words from Isaiah 2:4 written on the monument outside the United Nations building in New York—those "ploughshares now hammered into blades." From its opening with Percy Pursglove's lamenting trumpet cadenza to the ending of its final tenth movement with the "Agnus Dei" arranged for strings and with Michael Niesemann's alto playing the vocal melody quite beautifully, The Blue Shroud is a triumph. Its ending is inconclusive, appropriately so, leaving as it does so many questions unanswered.

Throughout , the performances are quite superb with all the players rising to the occasion. Michel Godard makes light of the cumbersome tuba. Percy Pursglove is eloquence personified, whilst Savina Yannatou has a timbre and range that stretches from a childish whisper to the cracked tones of an ancient and venerable old woman. It is a voice that Hemmingway would have loved, one to frighten tyrants and fascists into instant submission. There is simply so much to discover in the piece, whether in the performances or the composition itself. The way guitarist Ben Dwyer draws out its Spanish aspects or the way the strings combine in the baroque sections do not in any way jar with the more abstract sections of the work but instead add to its overall coherence. And throughout the two percussionists, Ramon Lopez and Lucas Niggli respond with the creation of delicate textures to equally bravura outpourings of warlike mayhem.

At times, the way the instruments combine is quite unearthly and it is hard to believe that the sounds one hears were created by musicians on acoustic instruments in real time rather than electronically. But this just shows how skilfully Guy uses different instruments to create highly unusual and distinctive, signature colours and textures. It is here that his ability to draw on the languages of jazz, improvisation, baroque and classical music is most evident. Given that one event that the work references involves a tapestry of Picasso's Guernica, the notion of the work as a musical tapestry is never far from one's mind. In this respect, The Blue Shroud moves easily from the song-like structures of the second movement into the freer, looser third and fourth movements and is then matched by the use of the Biber's "Mystery Sonata No. 9" at the opening of the fifth movement. It is here, that the music is at its most gorgeous and heart-rending. Maya Homburger's playing is perfectly weighted and the accompaniment of Yannatou's voice, sung and spoken, by bass, violin and piano is quite majestic. There is one section where saxophones and strings combine in an effect not unlike that of Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. Mention must also be made here of Godard's serpent, Guy's bowed bass, specially developed by Guy himself with luthier Roger Dawson, and Julius Gabriel's baritone in establishing the sombre mood. There is no attempt to depict each historical event or each detail in the painting. Rather the work stands as a journey through a series of images suggested by the subject itself. What is also clear is that it is a triumph performed by musicians committed to its realisation. The commitment shown by the musicians he has chosen is clear to Guy,

"A major aspect of the piece is the way people have worked together. We have great players but there are no big egos fighting it out. It's also a much younger band than I have had in recent years, so there's a lot of vitality and very precise playing."

It is a triumph of musical and ethical values in every respect.
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