Dios los cría y ellos se juntan: “God makes them and they find each other.” This is what comes to my mind whenever I think of Barry Guy and Maya Homburger. Now, I know that my Spanish friends will protest, arguing that this old adage is used to describe those characters who live on the other side of the fence, who, shall we say, profit through illicit activity or live on the margins of “civilized” society. But there is something about Homburger and Guy that places them on the other side of the fence—as cross-genre musicians they transgress carefully protected precincts of musical activity: Guy, the improviser, is equally comfortable in Baroque performance; Homburger, the Baroque music specialist, is an exceptional improviser. And there is certainly something that feels illicit in their live performances; when they play, flick knives are drawn. As the devil in Mann’s Doctor Faustus reminds us, the artist is the brother of the felon and the madman. But my real point here is that as individuals these musicians are remarkable; when they play together something even more extraordinary and unique happens. Dios los cría…
I have heard Guy perform in many different capacities and groupings, and am slowly beginning to understand what might be described as his “signature” as a musician. Extraordinarily, each time I hear him, it’s like the first, because his improvisations always take you somewhere new. I distinctly remember first hearing Guy about fifteen years ago in St. Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny town. He came out with his bass and a tray of bows, sticks, mallets, and something that looked remarkably like a toilet brush. The moment the bow touched the strings, something magical occurred. It’s very difficult to describe the effect his playing had on me. This was the first time I heard sounds being created alchemically, as it were, in front of my eyes and ears; music that slashed at you, took your breath away, modulated suddenly from vicious stabs to tender caresses. There was an incredibly exhilarating physicality, in a true sense a “bodying forth” to this music-making. Gestures of color, line and harmony were spontaneously interwoven and in constant flux, but never incoherent. Everything seemed to be in the right place, and yet this was being formed, performed, enacted straight out of Guy’s physical and musical consciousness; the moment of composition, execution, and hearing was instantaneous.
Despite the difference in genre, Homburger’s interpretations of Baroque music have quite the same effect. Yes, the music is largely notated, the melodic and harmonic trajectories set, but Homburger’s total understanding of performance style and her astounding technical prowess give her a freedom of expression that matches the seeming impulsiveness of Guy’s improvisations. Debates about performance practice are still divisive. It’s hard to deny the interpretative validity of some renowned performers who play Bach and Handel in pretty much the same way they play Schumann. Richter does bring a certain dark majesty to Bach (his Fugue no. 4 in C-sharp minor, from the Preludes and Fugues, for example). But in Homburger’s hands, we are brought very close to the true spirit of Baroque music. She utterly understands the rhetoric at the core of this music. So when you hear her perform one of Biber’s Mystery Sonatas, for example, you are not only fully aware of her ability to musically characterize specific ideas and symbols relating to the subject matter of the music, you are deeply implicated in, and affected by, her rhetorical delivery. This is what makes her performances of Baroque music so special: like Guy’s improvisations, they are alchemical experiments. The listener is brought into an intimate, coterminous relationship with the music—an experience that can be both exhilarating and vulnerable.
To read Benjamin Dwyer's entire tribute, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 4 . . .