Barry Guy: Striving For Absolute Spontaneity

Maxim Micheliov By

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Barry Guy seems to be one of the most convincing figures in a long line of contemporary innovators whose discoveries possess everlasting value. Being a diverse improviser, a bassist of exceptional technique, an accomplished composer and a big band leader, this artist amazes by the scope of his interests and his variety of his accomplishments.

Guy held a concert with Mats Gustafsson in Lithuania on January 11th, 2009. The short-but-eventful visit was crowned by the glorious performance at St. Kotryna Church. Guy played solo, in duo with Gustafsson, and in a sextet with Gustafsson and Lithuanian musicians Liudas Mockūnas (reeds), Skirmantas Sasnauskas (trombone), Eugenijus Kanevicius (bass) and Arkadij Gotesman (drums). The performance was released by the new label NoBusiness Records on a limited-edition LP, Sinners, Rather Than Saints.

All About Jazz: Barry, you are a rare example of a musician who feels equally at home in classical (baroque) and so called "new music." Is classical training useful or even essential for an improviser?

Barry Guy: Perhaps [I'm] an unusual case of being a musician equally at home in baroque, classical, contemporary and improvised musics. As such, I feel fortunate and I enjoy the disciplines that each offers, but of course this situation is not for everybody, and indeed not every musician has had a good fortune to receive such a rich musical education.

So your question concerning the usefulness of classical training for improvisers is somewhat speculative, in the sense that many musicians have thrilled us with their music without a classical foundation. In my case, I think it has helped because a sound technique has allowed the analytical and creative aspects to operate unhindered by technical restrictions. Having said that, none of us is foolproof, so there is always the mountain to climb. Expanding and refining one's language is the driver for continuity. Each of us has to find our own direction according to what we have been given or what we find.

AAJ: How would you describe your music in terms of style? Who do you consider your predecessors or greatest inspirations?

BG: Within creative music, I've never thought of "style" as such. My musical vocabulary is built upon my contacts with like-minded players and composers. I inhabit musical areas loosely known as free jazz, improvised music, new music—all inadequate terms to describe a vast variety of musical communication—and for me, the word "communication" represents the focus of my endeavors.

Inspiration has come from many quarters and this should not to be thought of as plagiarism. Inspiration for me implies lessons that open up channels of thought, and ultimately testing the hypothesis. Monteverdi, Bach, Beethoven, Biber, Xenakis, Bartok, Shostakovich and Mingus are composers that have inspired me with their sonic architecture. And what an important last word that is—the structure of music, buildings, paintings and text all offer us ideas which challenge us to dig deep into ourselves.

Most bassists of my generation have huge respect for Gary Peacock and Scott LaFaro—two players that redefined what pizzicato was all about. But you know, we cannot play like them—they are unique. But what we learn are the possibilities that are open to us. We take on the idea of space, fluency, construction, but not the pitches—these are special to those people. I am inspired by Charles Mingus for his daring to break away from routine models and create passion in his music. Now my greatest inspiration comes from the musicians that I make music with—it's an ongoing love affair.

AAJ: Is there a fundamental difference when composing music for big orchestras, small groups and solo performance?

BG: Well, firstly and obviously, there are different degrees of scale in terms of the ensemble size. The art of composition assesses each situation and proposes a structure appropriate to the formation and, importantly, the players. The thorough composed input has to be balanced with the improvisational goals, so it is safe to say that the larger ensemble generally demands more organization, unless of course the group plays without composed elements, which is equally valid. My goal has always been to provide music that engages the players and allows the individual maximum freedom within the context of defined material.

AAJ: What are the basic principles behind an improvising orchestra (or the set of musicians/instruments)?

BG: As far as I am aware, there are no basic principles concerning the instrumentation—it is purely a matter for the organizer or the collective to decide who plays. My preference was for an orchestra that approximated existing or historical big bands, mainly because I had an interest in writing for a "Classical" well- tried format but changing the way in which the ensemble was used.

AAJ: How did you come up with an idea to put together a big orchestra? How was the London Jazz Composers Orchestra born?

BG: The LJCO was formed because of my desire to celebrate the picturesque musical life I was leading at the beginning of the '70s in England. I brought together lots of the musicians I had been working with across a fairly wide spectrum of improvised music. And, to make some sense of this powerhouse of creativity, I envisaged an extended composition that moved and flexed with the improvisers' aspirations. The extended composition was called "ODE," consisting of seven sections that would feature all of the musicians of the LJCO in one scenario or another. My composition professor at the Guildhall School of Music, Buxton Orr, conducted the first performance and continued to direct for about 10 years after that. The excitement of the final result filled me with energy and enthusiasm to embark upon other projects.

The realization of "ODE" was difficult and often contentious, with many musicians having to deal with time/space notation, plus improvising. The fact that we got a recording made me realize that the human spirit is indeed resilient.

AAJ: London Jazz Composers Orchestra—why "jazz" and why "composers"?

BG: You will recall that there existed the Jazz Composers Orchestra in the U.S. in the late '60s/'70s. Michael Mantler wrote some original scores, which interested me because my own writing method accorded with his presentation of the music—basically a time/space notation. In a rather naive way, I hoped that there would be a future collaboration between large ensembles, so I called my formation the London Jazz Composers Orchestra to honor the existence of the American counterpart. The name seemed appropriate because the orchestra was made up of jazz/improvising musicians, and composition represented the structural spine. Over the years of LJCO existence, the amount of composed material varied greatly, which was as I had hoped. No rules were laid down, although I guided the ensemble towards a format of composition and improvisation rather than a totally improvised format.

AAJ: You have mentioned "time/space notation" a couple of times. Could you to tell us about that in more detail?

BG: This way of notating music allows a certain flexibility in the delivery of musical information. Simply put, measures or bars can be fixed by chronological time rather than metronomic beats, and within this time period [space] events can be delineated. These events can take on more precise articulations or can be improvisational. Imagine the goal posts in football. Between these vertical posts, the player can judge where the football should land—just inside, towards the center, perhaps central. The music can be visually laid out to suggest the positioning of a note or phrase within the external limits of the bar lines or goal posts.

Time/space notation appears in many forms—each composer having a different objective. It just happens that a certain freedom away from the "tyranny of the bar line" occurs and is particularly suited to music that has improvised elements.

For its relevancy to the discussion, Guy gave us permission to excerpt from the article "Freedom In Restraint," by Kees Stevens, in the interest of highlighting some of the goals behind the LJCO.
"There are three periods to distinguish in the 25 year-old history of the LJCO. At the beginning the music scores were very detailed. They also worked with a conductor, Buxton Orr, Guy's composition teacher. Due to the constant refinement on the compositional side and radical abstraction, Guy alienated musicians from himself. For example Bailey left the orchestra because he absolutely could not feel at home with such an approach. In the second period he invited his fellow musicians to write pieces for the orchestra. Kenny Wheeler, Paul Rutherford, Howard Riley and Tony Oxley delivered contributions. The orchestra also played a piece by conductor Orr, whilst in the repertoire of that period there was also a piece which Penderecki had written for the Globe Unity Orchestra. That repertoire offered a broad spectrum of complete, written scores, through the looser ones from Rutherford to the more graphic ones of Tony Oxley. Furthermore, the "orchestra's composers" saw the business from the other side.

The decision to drop the conductor marked the third phase of the orchestra. According to Guy an orchestra with a conductor causes you to write for an orchestra with a conductor, and he wanted to get away from that. He advocated a looser approach, in which a few directions are sufficient and the musicians are responsible for taking initiative. He was very aware that a working method of that sort could not be achieved in a few years, but the construction of the orchestra has barely changed in the last ten years, so that everybody knows what they can expect from each other. There are still meticulously notated passages. That's how he, for example, will work out riffs, but in contrast to the orchestra's first period, the result heard is more supple, more natural."

AAJ: Please tell us about balance between composition and improvisation in your music, particularly for bigger ensembles. Do you think there can exist an ideal ratio between the two approaches?

BG: I work hard at imagining how improvisation and composition can coexist together. I try to reinvent the wheel when a new piece is envisaged, since all circumstances are different. So there is no immediate solution nor any ideal ratio or balance that can be replicated. Every large ensemble piece poses new problems—not unlike designing a house for a client. I take on board the various parameters and doggedly work away, until a sense of structure emerges that best reflects the aspirations of the ensemble. The musicians come first.

AAJ: What other orchestras work in the same genre as LJCO?

BG: Every large ensemble is guided by its players and composers. I have my own methods, which will be different from others. So it is difficult to speak about the same genre except to say that any searching orchestra will have similar objectives, and that is to provide a platform for the improvisers' art.

AAJ: Large jazz orchestras seem to be a rare phenomenon these days. Is it mainly because of economic factors?

BG: Economic factors obviously play an important role in the continuity of any large ensemble. The big band era, as such, is long past, but it has in fact been quite heartening that musicians have got together and continue to do so to research and perform large group music. Concerts are infrequent, but most countries possess a few lively spirits that allow the medium to survive. The technical facility of many young players and their awareness of musical genres has been gratifying. There is a future for improvised music in the large ensemble, I think.

Barry Guy with Lithuanian Musicians
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