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Barry Guy: Striving For Absolute Spontaneity

Maxim Micheliov By

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AAJ: Please tell us about freedom in free music. As a composer, what do you think about striving for absolute spontaneity?

BG: I am a composer and an improviser that can operate with the most rigorous written music and the totally free context. Being creative is my main objective, and being aware of one's colleagues active in the art of playing music is a priority. Hopefully, spontaneity will result from a lot of performing and a discipline behind the endeavors. Absolute spontaneity? I can only say that we must always be ready to react.

AAJ: Can "non-idiomatic improvisation"—proposed by Derek Bailey—still be called music?

BG: I have never understood "non-idiomatic music" as proposed by Derek Bailey. One definition of idiomatic is "characteristic of a particular language," and as far as I can understand it, improvisers are involved in a language, a communication. There are, of course, different dialects, not all compatible, but nevertheless there exists a potential for understanding. An idiom is a form of expression peculiar to a language, person or group of people, so to think that successful music can be made by abandoning the core principles seems to me somewhat dilettantish.

Derek's phrase has been often quoted as a revolutionary principle. In fact, I think it was thrown in to the improvising arena as a taunt to musicians who abided by a set of principles that included continuity and self-development in their individual practices. The phrase also, to my mind, represented a contradiction, since Derek himself continued to develop quite systematically his playing methods. Idiomatic, even...

AAJ: Composed or written music is often perceived as an antidote to free improvisation. While there are doubts whether that is correct, what is your opinion on the following: can performing/interpreting somebody's music be compared with making it on the fly, in terms of the required amount of creativity and enjoyment?

BG: I personally enjoy the challenge of interpreting music— different disciplines are called for. Naturally, the creative aspect represents a smaller percentage of the overall commitment, but other factors compensate— not least the reward of getting inside a composer's music.

AAJ: The ability to improvise has seemingly become a creativity standard for any modern musician. Is domination of improvisation some sort of cultural trend or real necessity in the genesis of European and American culture?

BG: The ability to create music through improvisation represents a kind of liberation of thought and action. Paul Lytton has often taught aspects of improvisation to business people who are very often locked into a methodology. Discipline is also important, so I hope that improvisation—and it can come in many forms—will establish itself within the consciousness of all stratum of culture and society.

AAJ: What tendencies, in your opinion, sound the most promising?

BG: I really cannot read the future. Only hope is a currency that can be circulated, and musical survival is at the mercy of many contingencies. As I said earlier, the young voices will represent a continuum, but it may be different from what we have been involved in. It's a short answer here.

AAJ: What do you think about jazz in XXI? Is jazz "dead"?

BG: 21st century jazz? Many of the old guard are still active, and there are musicians out in the world that possess great technique and imagination. We can hope (I say this word again) that there is a continuity of ambition and realization to keep the momentum going. It is for sure that the popular media will not help in disseminating the music. Many times the "jazz is dead" mantra has been pronounced. We uttered the same words many years ago, and it will be reiterated many more times. It's a kind of protection to justify a new direction. It is in one way correct but in another way not so. The diversity of improvised music will be the key to the future, but it may not fall under the classification of "jazz." But then again, some music will.

AAJ: Can we expect great developments in modern classical music?

BG: I am not really in a position to comment upon this, since my knowledge is limited as to the latest manifestations in modern music. I read of names that occupy journalists' and critics' faculties, but maybe my own busy musical life has kept me a little distant from the latest trends. I am sure, however, that there are exciting things happening out there.

AAJ: How did you meet Mats Gustafsson?

BG: That was solo in '92 in Stockholm. I think that's the answer you need, and the rest is history.

Barry Guy and Mats Gustafsson
From left: Mats Gustafsson, Barry Guy

AAJ: Your musical backgrounds and personalities seem very different, but you achieve perfect harmony and understanding. How does it work? How does a spontaneous acquaintance develop into a long-term work relationship?

BG: We both love good music in general and performing in particular. We seem to possess the same energy levels, which feeds our curiosity and excitement of creating a musical dialogue.

AAJ: Please tell us about your collaboration with Lithuanian musicians.

BG: It is always interesting to meet a new group of musicians. On the occasion of my meeting with Lithuanian musicians, it was pleasurable to note that the language of improvisation resides powerfully in many parts of the world. Our collaboration had all of the attributes of informed and creative musicians. Listening to the recording of our collaboration reaffirms why we so enjoy being part of this world music.

AAJ: Did you have any expectations coming to play in Vilnius, and were they met?

BG: Mats Gustafsson informed me prior to my visit that I would enjoy the project. He was correct, and needless to say, the hospitality and support was impressive. The Lithuanian musicians were friendly, aware and creative—a really fine combination.

AAJ: What are your plans for the near future, and do they include creating more orchestral music and further experiments in this direction?

BG: Plans are many and cover a wide area of music. Currently I am rewriting "Radio Rondo" for the Barry Guy New Orchestra—the piece, of course, was composed for Irene Schweizer and the LJCO. Also for the BGNO, I will write a piece that features Maya Hamburger with the guys: a tricky balancing act matching the fragile baroque violin with heavyweight saxophones, brass and percussion—fascinating, nonetheless.

For our duo, I will compose a series of seven pieces that will be generated out of the work of New York artist Elana Gutmann, with the first performance slated for February 2010. We will then record a new duo album. Also in 2010, there will be two unusual projects—one for the Vancouver Festival, a collaboration with animator Michel Gagné, and improvising musicians will be premiered. Also I have been commissioned to provide a set of musical interventions into the opera "Dido and Aeneas" by Henry Purcell, using improvising and baroque musicians. That's quite a lot to be getting on with.

Selected Discography

Diatribes and Barry Guy, Multitude (Cave12, 2010)

Savina Yannatou/Barry Guy, Attikos (Maya Recordings, 2010)

Ken Vandermark/Barry Guy/Mark Sanders, Fox Fire (Maya Recordings, 2009)

Barry Guy/Mats Gustafsson, Sinners, Rather Than Saints (NoBusiness Records, 2009)

Barry Guy/London Jazz Composers Orchestra/Irène Schweizer, Radio Rondo/Schaffhausen Concert (Intakt Records, 2009)

Agustí Fernández/Barry Guy, Some Other Place (Maya Recordings, 2009)

Barry Guy/Marilyn Crispell/Paul Lytton, Phases Of The Night (Intakt Records, 2008)

Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra with Barry Guy, Falkirk (FMR Records, 2007)

Evan Parker/George Lewis/Barry Guy/Paul Lytton, Hook, Drift & Shuffle (PSI (UK), 2007)

Jacques Demierre/Barry Guy/Lucas Niggli, Brainforest (Intakt Records, 2006)

Evan Parker/Barry Guy/Paul Lytton/Philipp Wachsmann/Joel Ryan, Free Zone Appleby 2004 (PSI (UK), 2005)

Barry Guy/London Jazz Composers Orchestra, Study II/Stringer (Intakt Records, 2005)

Maya Homburger/Barry Guy/Pierre Favre, Dakryon (Maya Recordings, 2005)

Barry Guy/Marilyn Crispell/Paul Lytton, Ithaca (Intakt Records, 2004)

Barry Guy/Evan Parker, Birds And Blades (Intakt Records, 2003)

Tri-Dim + Jim O'Rourke and Barry Guy, 2 of 2 (Sofa 2002)

Barry Guy/London Jazz Composers Orchestra, Three Pieces (Intakt Records, 1997)

Mats Gustafsson/Barry Guy, Frogging (Maya Recordings, 1997)

Barry Guy/Paul Plimley, Sensology (Maya Recordings, 1997)

Evan Parker/Paul Dunmall/Barry Guy/Tony Levin, Birmingham Concert (Rare Music, 1996)

Mats Gustafsson/Barry Guy/Paul Lovens, Mouth Eating Trees And Related Activities (Okka Disk, 1996)

Marilyn Crispell/Barry Guy/Gerry Hemingway, Cascades (Music And Arts Programs Of America, Inc. 1995)

Evan Parker/Barry Guy, Obliquities (Maya Recordings, 1995)

Barry Guy/London Jazz Composers Orchestra, Portraits (Intakt Records, 1994)

Barry Guy And the Now Orchestra, Study, Witch Gong Game (Maya Recordings, 1994)

Barry Guy solo, Fizzles (Maya Recordings, 1993)

Barry Guy & London Jazz Composers Orchestra with Irène Schweizer, Theoria (Intakt Records, 1992)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Courtesy of Barry Guy

Page 2: "Nasca Lines," excerpt by Alan Jones

All Other Photos: Dmitrij Matvejev
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