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Barry Guy: Ploughs into Swordshares (Part 1)

Duncan Heining By

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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.'"

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