The following interview was conducted for the occasion of Music & Literature No. 4, which includes some 80 pages of new interviews, graphic scores, poems, appreciations, and other writings on and by the musical duo Maya Homburger and Barry Guy.

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 set part of Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de Dés” for The Hilliard Ensemble. Was there a particular way in which that text began to suggest the form that the composition should take?

Formulation of “Un Coup de Dés” took many turns before the final presentation. These turns visited architectural projects as well as an assessment of Mallarmé’s poem. Serendipity played a large part in the final result. In my studio I have a considerable library of architectural and literary books as well as science and politics. There are also paintings and sculptures. Let’s say that the combined knowledge that emanates from these articles sends out guiding signals - there is always an energy that is undisclosed but tangible. In the case of “Un Coup de Dés” I happened to be reading a chapter in the book Pierre Boulez: A Symposium concerning the convergence of two poetic systems (by Célestin Deliège) which discussed the conjunction between Boulez and Mallarmé. This chapter persuaded me to pull out a rather ancient copy of Mallarmé poems. And within this book I found an instant interest in “Un Coup de Dés” which was graphically fascinating in that the text was liberally scattered in upper and lower case lettering across the pages. As a feast for the eyes as well as the intellect, I began to question why this particular lay out and what was the significance of the upper and lower case words. It then occurred to me that, if I collected together the upper case words as presented in the English translation, I would have a compressed text that could be used to provide the Hilliard piece with a narrative of its own. So, we have:




CONSTELLATION – Every Thought gives off a Dice Throw. 




CONSTELLATION – Toute Pensée émet un Coup de Dès.

The last concluding lower case sentence of the poem seemed to be indicative of the process I was going through, so I added this to the upper case text. 

Without fully realizing it at the time, the presentation of the typography unconsciously suggested an open graphic score with the final layout being influenced by two architectural projects that happened to be on my desk at the time. These were by the architects Peter Eisenmann and Richard Rogers. On considering the piece for the Hilliards, I was persuaded to examine the idea of modules that could be flexed, fragmented and layered. This architectural metaphor suggested a graphic representation and took me on a journey through Rogers’ Tomigaya Exhibition Space (Tokyo) where modules and floors would operate like an adjustable shelving system to Eisenmann’s Max Reinhardt Haus (Berlin) project, which manipulated the infinite three dimensional Möbius strip to arrive at a series of topological surfaces forming the prismatic character of the building.

So, by pairing the ideas of the Möbius loop and movable modules it was just a short hop to that of dice faces moving through space to reveal pitch areas and text influenced by Rogers’ and Eisenmann’s presentation drawings. Incidentally, neither project was realised. You may ask what the purpose was for a graphic score instead of a more traditional presentation. Firstly of course as I have outlined, the poems layout was influential in forming an initial approach. However, there was another aspect that was important. In some ways a graphic score was set as a challenge for myself and the ensemble. From my end, I thought that a flexible scenario would be enticing for the Hilliards but also specific enough not to scare them away. For the ensemble the challenge was to create an almost theatrical approach to the music through gestures that define musical moments but also to negotiate quasi improvisational passages. This met with a mixed reception to start with, but through confidence and familiarity with the material it developed into a kind of music theatre. Just what I had hoped for. They could have rejected the whole piece outright, but they didn’t, which was gratifying and showed their tenacity in solving an unusual format for them.

You’ve also used Beckett’s writing for pieces which, unlike the 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. 

What are the main differences in the way you approach a fully scored composition as against a piece for musicians/ improvisers such as those in the London Jazz Composers Orchestra or the Barry Guy New Orchestra? 

The obvious and main difference of course is the inclusion of improvisation (in the LJCO/BGNO for instance ) in scores that are structured around musicians capable of improvising in a meaningful way as against ensembles that do not have improvisation as part of their overall objective. I try to keep the two areas within parameters that make sense for the players. Clearly, there is no point in offering a classical symphony orchestra an open improvised section. The result would be chaos and very unsatisfactory for all parties. However, there are moments where one can relax the regime to entice classically trained players to invest in some loose free passages with clearly defined instructions. It all depends on the desired sonic result and as always what the players can negotiate with confidence. My big band scores also need special considerations. 

The London Jazz Composers Orchestra has usually eighteen musicians with multiples of similar instruments (3 trumpets and 3 trombones, for instance . The Barry Guy New Orchestra by contrast has eleven players and singular brass. Each ensemble poses logistical problems concerning the marshaling of the musical structure and the presentation of the musicians in a creative landscape whilst dealing with the practical side of convincing orchestration. For example, if I use the single trumpet in the BGNO as a soloist, I have to consider the appropriate orchestration to support that instrument without it being part of the ensemble. In the LJCO, the trumpet soloist can be in place whilst the other two can be voiced and blended to give support and power. I tend to think of the LJCO as my symphony orchestra, whilst the BGNO is my chamber ensemble. The common denominator however is the desire to present every player in a creative environment that is supportive and challenging. 

The Saxophonist Evan Parker, with whom you have worked for over forty years, has long argued that there should be no categorical distinction made between improvisation and composition; that improvisation is composition in real time. Do you agree or disagree with his way of evaluating improvisation? 

It goes without saying that both processes (composition and improvisation ) end up with sonic results that at times can sound remarkably similar, but also totally dissimilar. As always it comes down to the practitioners. I tend to think of them both as “MUSIC” but sadly the very words themselves have taken on a currency where one is valued (because of its long historical development) and the other undervalued because of its more recent emergence in the musical landscape. The word “improvisation,” whether we like it or not, still comes with the baggage of Jazz/ Afro-American music and the perception that it is played by people with no real musical discipline. It gets even more complicated when European musicians fly the flag for mprovisation since devotees of Afro-American music often deny the possibility that (mainly) white folks can possibly play improvised music correctly. 

But within fully improvised music as it has developed in the past forty or so years, the technical abilities of musicians has increased to a level which allows them to form music—in the moment—which is as complex and coherent as any composition by, let’s say, a Darmstadt composer. 

Within improvised music there are practitioners like Evan Parker who have applied themselves totally to the formation of a musical language that is as highly developed as any compositional process. In fact, so elevated are the senses that the real time exposition of the music brings into play aspects that could be considered several degrees higher in the hierarchy of artistic achievement. 

Putting aside solo playing for a moment, seasoned groups of improvisers often, uncannily, judge the duration of a piece to the second when required. The fact that the music is being shared by the musicians suggests a particularly advanced awareness of social, structural and temporal exchanges in real time. The singular composer generally works from a different perspective, allowing for adjustments and certainly viewing the performer(s) (usually) as interpreters. Improvisers have to make split second decisions concerning the delivery of sound into space assessing its relevance to the space and process immediately the consequences of the delivery and where it has to go next whilst assessing their colleagues contribution. I would say that these aspects suggest a high degree of sophistication easily equalling that of the composer. 

There is one other aspect that springs from the above, and that resides in the physical involvement of playing an instrument—realizing appropriate sounds with colleagues and forming the whole experience into something logical for the listener. The act of creating music on the spot is thrilling emotionally as well as intellectually satisfying. It seems to me that many composers have a problem of entertaining the idea that musicians can make informed decisions. 

What is of course evident is that improvised music will generally sound different from composed music (although as I said earlier, there are moments of similarity) because of making instant decisions and of course the music will be different each time—total anathema for the composer. I have accumulated various statements from well known composers—here are some comments from Luciano Berio: 

The real problem of improvisation as compared to written composition is that improvisation segments musical space in a different cruder way. The improviser is rather like someone who, while observing the animal world, apes for instance, only manages to sort out gorillas from chimpanzees whereas when you write music down, it’s like managing to segment that world with great finesse, distinguishing all its possible species and subspecies including, of course, King Kong and Tarzan’s stepmother. Improvisation—doesn’t belong in a public place such as a concert hall. 

…whenever I have heard improvisation in the concert hall—I have always felt slightly uncomfortable, as if I’d walked through the wrong door and was obliged to watch some fine people, perhaps a little mad—doing something very private that concerned nobody but themselves…

…improvisation—it’s just that nothing ever happens, even by chance, on the level of musical thought.

At the time of reading this for the first time I pencilled in the column of the book “offensive!” It came as some surprise to me that composers could be quite so dismissive of improvisation and came over as rather pompous. 

A more problematic aspect of this question has to do with the creative content of a piece. To give you an idea of how we as improvisers/composers try to be fair I can cite a few cases which work for our community of musicians but not for the collecting agencies. 

If we as the Parker/Guy/Lytton trio perform or record (or both), we register a three way split for any royalties since we are all freely participating and improvising as a collective. If I compose a piece for my London Jazz Composers Orchestra (which includes a lot of creative improvised responses to my written music) I register the piece as my composition. If Evan proposes a flow chart of music or a structure that has as its basis improvisation, but with clear instructions, he will similarly register this as his composition even if there is a minimum amount of fixed pitch material. I find no problem with this – he has conceptualised the overall music and fixed events on paper. Intellectual copyright to my mind is appropriate and presumably such a piece would be considered as a registered composition. There is an acceptance between musicians that whoever does the hard graft of structuring the music has the copyright unless other arrangements are made between the various parties. 

The problem arises when there is no score or hard copy evidence of musical activity. Here we are up against an ingrained musical apartheid by the bodies that collect royalties—they are basically hard-wired to treat improvisation as non music. We have a long way to go before there will be any change in this attitude. One final point to be aware of however is the fact that by notifying the collecting agency in your particular country of recorded material (i.e. CDs/broadcasts) then the agencies will accept this as “fixed” and payments will be made accordingly. What set Evan off in making a stand for improvisation as composition, was his problem of playing solo improvisations in premises that paid the performing right levy but received none of the royalties that would, for instance, be paid for “songs.” There was also the need for Evan (and indeed many other improvising musicians) to elevate the creative self to the same level accorded to composition. Rightly so too. From our early work in the burgeoning creative jazz scene, many of us have been labelled with the epithet—“Free Jazzers.” We seem, in some peoples eyes as being a subset of the Jazz/ Afro-American strain of music that is stuck in a time warp. Despite massive changes in our language over the years, the refinements seem to have been overlooked in many circles. Perhaps my irritation is irrelevant, but sometimes one gets a little agitated when a lazy observer writes “free jazzman Barry Guy composed a piece, etc.,” as if to imply the fact that he has actually managed to get his brain in gear to think of something beyond his basic discipline.

Do you ever compose music when you haven’t been commissioned to do so? 

I compose because I find the process of writing for particular players or ensembles invigorating. The cycle of ideas from an initial dialogue, through practical requirements to the final trajectory is an exciting one, and if a commission fee is proposed, this allows me to buy time to speculate with some freedom on the project. It is the human element that is important for me so I may compose a piece without a commission fee if the situation is attractive enough. 

Speculative composing hoping that someone might pick up the music has never really been on my agenda.

Are there instrumental combinations you would like to compose for? Have you ever written a string quartet, for example? 

All combinations of instruments are of interest to me—they set my creative juices working. An important proviso for me is the necessity to accumulate information about the musicians I am writing for. I have written three string quartets so far and I enjoy the medium. 

Are conductors necessary? 

Yes and no! It depends upon the project, the size of ensemble and the complexity of the score. Many smaller ensembles dispense with a conductor and certainly, various baroque music projects I’ve been involved in have operated without such a person. My improvised/composed projects usually have me directing from the bass, so I try to hand out certain tasks for the players to coordinate passages when I am busy playing. 

Is there a male/female sensibility in music? 

“Sensibility: openness to emotional impressions, sensitivity to sensory stimuli.” It seems to me that all human beings can possess a sensibility in music. We are often told that females are more emotional and males less so in daily life which may be so, but in music the challenge for us all is to discover the inner qualities and intentions of the subject. 

Does it matter whether or not a lot of people hear, or appreciate, your music? 

Naturally, it is gratifying to receive feedback for ones musical efforts and that can come from a singular person or a crowd. Either way, if that feedback is positive, then it is some kind of affirmation that communication has been made. I guess we only have one life to express our potential, so being lazy in our intentions should not be an option. It is sad to observe however, that immensely talented and committed musicians often pass through life without acknowledgment. In this respect, the music/media business has often played a negative role. 

Your scores have a highly visual quality. What elements or information, beyond the indicated notes, are you attempting to include or suggest in those scores? 

I imagine you are referring to my graphic scores which do indeed possess a highly visual language. So what’s the point of this? Primarily these scores venture to present all of the necessary material for performance on ( usually ) one page and are structured around the desires of the players and my observations of their situation as a performing ensemble. An example of this can be seen in “Witch Gong Game II/10.” This was written for the New Orchestra Workshop in Vancouver, Canada. The NOW orchestra was a cooperative and in the process of formulating ideas for a piece I gathered information about each individuals musical preferences, music reading and improvisational abilities. This information began to suggest a way of presenting the material to the ensemble. I recognised that there was a potential for this cooperative body to develop internal tensions derived from ambition, work load, personality etc. In “Witch Gong Gang II/10,” I hint at this by the placement of musical modules that hover over a black void in the centre of the score apparently in a state of equilibrium but in fact barely supporting each other. A potential implosion into the void is possible. 

The music is directed via flash cards by the director, but there are veto moments available to certain players to change the course of the music according to certain rules. This idea features in many of my graphic scores as a way to offer an extra initiative to the musicians. It is a risky strategy, but I like the excitement of the potential outcome. 

My other scores are more conventional in the sense that they are through-composed, but even some of these offer graphic resolutions in part. As usual it depends upon the ensemble. 

Do you think of your music as expressing something specific? Is that possible? 

Each piece I write is an expression of ideas concerning the subject matter and as I have said before the musicians that perform the piece are central to the realisation—they represent the lens that opens to capture the picture. My composing technique might be called intuitive in the sense that I do not really have established systems or techniques acting as a skeleton for fleshing out the music. Each piece feels like re-inventing the wheel. The best I can offer is from the perspective of a performing musician with past experiences accumulating to allow my ideas to manifest themselves in a clear and direct way. This does not imply naivety or simplicity—on the contrary, there’s some fiendishly difficult music to negotiate for the players. I love science, physics, and mathematical conundrums, but they rarely find their way into my scores. There are times when I would wish for more fluency in assessing other numerical mediums when I’m structuring a composition. 

After The Rain strikes me as a piece full of yearning. Am I right, wrong or both? 

After the Rain has that quality—yes. As ever there were multiple reasons behind the work. Early music, an exhibition of Max Ernst and the loss of a friend conspired together to drive the composition. The piece was commissioned in 1992 by Richard Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia to mark their twentieth anniversary. I was playing principle bass in the orchestra and it was my desire to give the orchestra a piece of music that was appropriate to their particular style of playing that was strong but also reflective. The piece is basically a series of slow movements punctuated by an active refrain that elongates as the work progresses. The final form was decided following a visit to the Tate Gallery in London to view the 1991 exhibition Max Ernst: a retrospective. Here I had the good fortune to see his painting “Europe After the Rain.” The canvas portrays four large masses of tortuous baroque-like remains as if left after some unfathomable catastrophe. Within these formations there are half hidden images, frozen but observing, and by implication suggestive of new life ready to emerge from the ruins. 

My interest in polyphony as practized in Renaissance music guided me when considering the palette of colours appropriate to the musical expression—for instance there is a Chorale, two Antiphons, a Chanson, a Canon and a Motet. The loss of inspirational skipper and yachtsman George Debenham instilled in me an emotional mix of loss and strength in equal amounts. All of these events informed the composition of After the Rain. 

Can music change anything? 

As musicians we hope our concerts will in some small way touch the audience—even, as I said before, if only one person connects, that is adequate reward for our work. As it happens we have received on many occasions an expression of a life changing moment for the listener, so to answer your question my answer would be yes, but don’t count on it! We try to instill the idea of listening to each other—sadly a trait that is becoming increasingly absent in today’s world. Any musical moment that encourages positive reflection can only be helpful. 

On days when you are fed up with being a musician and composer (if there are such days!) what do you wish you were instead?

I don’t think I have ever been fed up with being a musician, however the difficulties of travelling with a double bass around the world leaves me psychologically exhausted at times. At these moments I sometimes ponder how life would have been if I had stuck to architecture. I so much enjoy anything to do with building and the creative minds that invent structures that visually excite us—realizing of course that the path to some of the exquisite inventions is long and often tedious. In the best work the scale and interaction with human beings is palpable. The architect Tadao Ando has said: “I hope to make environments that will give people a refreshing new perception of things, and put them in touch again with the rhythms of the natural world.” I like that statement for its straight forward objective. Maya Homburger and myself have at least realized one building in our lives so we know the feeling of leaving a structure behind that interfaces with humanity. Every year I imagine a new building to commemorate Maya’s birthday which occurs just before Christmas. This building is modeled over a couple of days and gives me the chance to invent and think three dimensionally. It represents a useful adjunct to my musical activities and also indulges me in hand craft—something that I loved as a kid—the making of model planes for instance. It’s not so far from creating a musical score in fact. 

Have critics any purpose? Has a critic ever said something which was both very critical and very useful? 

I guess so. It depends upon their approach to the subject at hand. If a critic decides that he or she despises your music then there’s very little constructive value in what is said post event. As it happens Maya is one of my sharpest critics and I respect her views which are very useful and often uncover a potential miscalculation. 

This is positive criticism. I have observed some really awful writing designed to offend, so in these cases I would say the critic has no purpose. It’s not cut and dried—as always it is down to the personality, their past life and their ability to be constructive and fair. Here’s a little story that is indicative of a critic that served no purpose. 

There was a writer and ex-pianist Peter Stadlen who wrote for the Daily Telegraph in England. His main interest was the music of the second Viennese school—Webern, Berg, Schoenberg and the musical manifestations that came later. On hearing an album of Iskra 1903 (Free Improvisation 1974 Deutsche Grammophon) he telephoned me (a rare enough occurrence in itself) to request a score of the music. I informed him that there was no score, just free improvisation as the album cover said. This fact was unacceptable to him since, as he opined, three musicians could not possibly formulate such music without a score. 

I reiterated the fact and he became quite agitated, finally terminating the call in an abrupt manner. He was quite taken with the music but found it conceptually impossible to accept that the music could be generated without a composer—missing the obvious fact that we were in some way all composers! The review that followed basically trashed our efforts as undisciplined, without structure etc etc. Here was a critic that was locked into his own narrow ideas of how contemporary music should be produced. I would say he was redundant in this case.

Do you ever listen to your recordings? I am curious, in particular, about how you feel now about recordings of your improvised playing from the 1970s when you were a member of Iskra 1903, Howard Riley Trio etc. Are you pleased by what you achieved back then? 

Not really. I check the releases as they appear, but I rarely listen for pleasure. Occasionally there arises a moment to check some historical fact concerning some music that a journalist might wish to have some clarification, otherwise I have an ample shelf full of releases that stay silent. 

Checking recent releases and re-issues of music recorded in the early years give me a momentary snapshot of what we were up to and by and large these fleeting moments confirm musical coherence, which of course is pleasing. We have as far I can hear, refined our abilities subsequently and of course recording techniques have improved, capturing the fine nuances that are inherent in the music. 

Barry Guy is an innovative bass player and composer whose creative diversity extends to the fields of jazz improvisation, chamber and orchestral performance, and solo recitals. He is founder and Artistic Director of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra and the Barry Guy New Orchestra.

Declan O'Driscoll has written about music for a number of publication including the Irish Times, Dublin Review of Books, and The Journal of Music in Ireland.

Banner image: The Barry Guy New Orchestra, © Intakt