How do you compose? At a piano?
Yes and no. My compositions start their lives with reflections upon paintings, architecture and of course musical possibilities. So, before I really use the keyboard I normally accumulate various sketches that indicate (possibly) movement, energy, pitch areas and outline structures. The keyboard is used later in the process to confirm pitch relationships, note rows and other procedures that help during the composing process. If I ever wrote a piece based only upon my keyboard expertise, the composition would be destined for the trash can.
What about when you compose for the baroque violin are there particular characteristics that you consider when you compose for that instrument?
The characteristics I hear, relate to the intense and extremely varied colours emanating from an instrument in original baroque condition with a construction that allows the violin to resonate—with an overall lower tension caused by a straight neck and therefore lower bridge and also open gut strings. What comes over to my ears is a beautifully free sound with overtones resonating without “power playing” the violin. Composing music for this instrument has always presented me with a dilemma. The fact is that there is so much stunning extant music written for the baroque violin which begs the question—who needs more? Anyway, living with baroque violinist Maya Homburger has enabled me to gain confidence in approaching the subject of new music for this glorious instrument.
How would those compositions differ if they were composed for a modern violin?
As it happens, the compositions I have written for the baroque violin can also be played on modern set-ups. There is a limit to how high one can write for instance, since the fingerboard of the original instrument is shorter than its modern counterpart. Also, I avoid percussive and pizzicato articulations because they would quickly detune the open gut strings. For the modern instrument I would use all of the above.
You’ve used Beckett’s writing for pieces which, unlike your Mallarmé composition, don’t include any of his words. I’m thinking here of Fizzles, which you play alone on double bass?
I’m a constant reader of Samuel Beckett and I find new discoveries every time I encounter his texts. Concerning Fizzles: Beckett wrote eight texts between 1960 and 1976, seven of which were written in French (under the title Foirades) and one—”Still”—in English. Each “Fizzle” is a short compressed outburst—literary chamber music of great power and beauty. It occurred to me that these “outbursts” could form the basis for little improvisations, each dedicated to particular bass colours and articulations. I have variously performed them in sets of 3, 5, or 7 according to the programme at hand. I find them to be a motivator for precise thinking and musical rhetoric.
To read the entire interview with Barry Guy, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 4 . . .