Barry Guy: Ploughs into Swordshares (Part 1)

Duncan Heining By

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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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