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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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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.

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."
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