British composer and double bassist Barry Guy is sui generis among modern artists. An utter original, Guy is at once an ardent student of early and baroque music and a master improviser across all musical genres, an architect and a Samuel Beckett devotee, who, by age 13, was immersed in the life of a professional musician in southeast London. Guy has served as principal bassist in virtually every major London orchestra as well as Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Orchestra, while regularly collaborating with such renowned musicians as Evan Parker, Mats Gustafsson, Paul Lytton, Agustí Fernández, and Ramón López. Meanwhile, his compositions for large improvisational ensembles as well as chamber and solo works have been performed internationally by some of the world’s finest musicians, and he himself has recorded scores of albums, including several on ECM Records. We now hear from Barry Guy in an extensive, retrospective conversation with composer Benjamin Dwyer about his earliest musical impulses, jamming with Sonny Boy Williamson in the back of a liquor store, studying with legendary Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, collaborating with his wife and musical partner, the Swiss Baroque violinist Maya Homburger, and playing an instrument to the limit of one’s physical capacities.
This interview was conducted live at J.J. Smyth’s, a leading Dublin jazz venue, on November 1, 2006. Additions and amendments were made via e-mail on June 1, 2012. This interview, along with many others by Benjamin Dwyer, will be collected in Different Voices: Irish Music and Music in Ireland, due for publication by Carysfort Press in Fall 2014.
Barry Guy and Maya Homburger are featured artists in Music & Literature no. 4, which includes new interviews with both musicians, tributes and essays on their work by a host of prominent artists—among them, John Eliot Gardiner and Benjamin Dwyer—and a portfolio of Guy's graphic scores. This special issue is available for purchase on our website.
Benjamin Dwyer: Can you give me some idea of your musical upbringing? Were you born into a musical family, and at what stage did you feel that music would be the necessary ingredient in your life?
Barry Guy: I would say that the family was not musical, though Mother played the piano a little. I had a good upbringing in school—they encouraged music. There we had what’s best described as a military band and the guy who wrote the music for it made arrangements of Beethoven and Schubert, Johnny Dankworth and I suppose some Bill Russo, so it was a rather wide musical education. But for me it was all just interesting music—there were no barriers set up, and we just played the music. I started off on trumpet, and then I doubled in clarinet, then went to valve trombone, then to horn, then to euphonium . . .
BD: You were moving down in register all the time.
BG: Yes! And then we had a little trad band. In those days it was Acker Bilk. Chris Barber and Kenny Ball were in the charts for God’s sake, and we were a clone of them, really. So as an aside to the school orchestra and its public events, we had our little jazz band. Other than playing valve trombone, I was allowed to play a one-stringed tea-chest bass. That’s where the bass end of things started up. But then I got fed up playing just one string and thumping away à la Skiffle (that was where the tea-chest bass came from). I persuaded my parents to spend seventy-five pounds to buy me a Czechoslovakian plywood bass. And all I remember was asking the lads: “Now I’ve got four strings . . . which ones do I play?” Most of the time I was walking around with a piece of cardboard under the strings trying to work out which notes were which. As well as the thing at school, we had this rather interesting and, I suppose, fortuitous experience, in that the guitar player in our band, his father owned a liquor store, an off-license, and we used to go and play at the Hot Club of London in Woolwich and quite often the guys who had been playing—who were professional Dixieland players—would come back to the off-license and we were allowed to jam with them. This was one of the best educations I could get. We had Champion Jack Dupree back there. Sonny Boy Williamson popped in once, and so we were playing blues with these famous old masters.
BD: So from early on you were regularly improvising?
BG: Yes, that was about it. With no particular direction except that we were working through Dixieland and our clarinet player also had a great love of Benny Goodman and Sydney Bechet, and that repertoire then came in. I remember there was one very important thing for me. I suppose you could say it changed my life in the sense that I became aware of another area of music, which was not on my radar then. When we were in school, one lunch hour, we were working on some of our Dixie tunes and a friend of mine, Bernhard Living, who later played with the Mike Westbrook Orchestra as a saxophone player, came in with a Charles Mingus album. He put it on the record player and said we should be playing this music, not Dixie. Some of the guys said, “No, we don’t want to play this rubbish,” but I immediately heard this as something very important, so I said, “I want to play this.” The result was a huge fight in the classroom and the record player went over and there were bloody noses! It was really serious and much frowned-upon by our music teacher. He lost the record player . . .
BD: That was your first ideological battle, really.
BG: Absolutely . . . And Charles Mingus won!
BD: So all the time you were at school you were learning the notes in the school orchestra, getting that training, but you were out in the bars at night.
BG: That’s right. We played in working men’s clubs in southeast London. Little jazz clubs, also. We were thirteen, fourteen. We were hardly allowed in the pubs, but that’s what we were doing. We were immersed in the life of being musicians.
BD: So had it become, even at the age of thirteen, a life thing?
BG: Yes, in a way. It was the thing we enjoyed the most. We were in southeast London, which was a highly industrialized area, and our prospects were either to go into the Charlton Athletic Football team or go into the factory. Most of the guys in my class decided they wanted to be a footballer, including me, actually. But in a way the music took over, and I found an interest there, as well as art. We had a good art teacher at the school, and I became very interested in painting. We also had a very good technical drawing teacher, and I got interested in the techniques of presentation and graphics. So my ambition was either to go to art college or go into architecture or something like that. Additionally, our English teacher was inspirational—he was Irish—and introduced us to the work of Samuel Beckett. Important in my later life. In reality, few guys made it into the football club, and career guidance was basic.
BD: But you have in fact played in most of the leading London orchestras, so did you become a professional classical musician or did you go into architecture or art?
BG: I did three years with Caroe and Partners Architects in London, which was mostly to do with restoration architecture. They took me on basically because I could sharpen a pencil! But I also had a convincing portfolio of drawings to offer. We had to do many preparation drawings and paintings for clients, and I particularly enjoyed that aspect of the work. But while I was doing that, I was taking evening classes at Goldsmiths College in composition with Stanley Glasser, a South African composer who was Professor of Music there. And this is where I started to learn about the “other” music—Stockhausen and Boulez. Cage. Xenakis came later, I think . . . Penderecki, as well as a little bit of the classics . . . Beethoven and that. So there was a tug happening already. I was with the architects, I was doing theoretical work at the composition classes, but I was also playing in the chamber orchestra there. I suppose that’s where I started to learn the craft of playing chamber music. I took some other courses privately. Basically, the day was drawing, the evening was music . . . until the crunch point came. I was talking to a bass player, and I said to him that I would really love to play professionally. He said: “The way you play, you could.” I asked what he meant. He said: “Go to one of the music colleges in London.” So I took private lessons with Jim Merrett, who was principal bassist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He was very good. He allowed me to develop in a completely free way. It wasn’t pedantic teaching. It was interesting because when I finally got to the Guildhall, Dave Holland was there, and Chris Lawrence, who is also a great bass player. My time there was almost euphoric—learning so much and discovering new composers.
BD: At what stage did the free improvisation come in? What was that crunch point?
BG: That was an interesting one because when I took evening classes at Goldsmiths College, we were encouraged to write a piece at the end of the first year. The saxophonist Bernhard Living was also in this class. Remember my mentioning him in the Mingus saga? He was one of these guys who knew a lot about the American avant-garde. He knew all about the painters, the dancers . . . Merce Cunningham . . . he knew all about Rauschenberg, he just had a mercurial knowledge about everything, it seemed. I wrote a piece which had saxophone and trumpet cadenzas in it which were meant to be free. Bernhard was supposed to play the sax cadenza, but he decided he wanted to conduct my piece, as it was a bit difficult. So I heard of a guy called Paul Rutherford who was a trombone player. I found him in the local pub and asked him to play in my piece. He introduced me to the saxophonist Trevor Watts. So Paul and Trevor played in the piece, which wasn’t a great work, but it was my first.
About two weeks later I got a call from the drummer John Stevens who invited me to come up to The Little Theatre Club to play with The Spontaneous Music Ensemble. At that time, I was playing a lot of modern jazz and playing with the sax and flute player Bob Downes. I was in the resident rhythm section in Ronnie’s Old Place several nights a week. Then this came along, and I had no idea what lay ahead. It seemed at that moment like an endless tunnel of darkness. I’d no idea where it was going except that everything was free, although there were some compositions. I suppose the music was out of the Ornette Coleman/Eric Dolphy side of things. For me, the discovery of freedom was scary but also exhilarating, and many aspects of my musical life began to come together.
BD: There was too much freedom, in a sense?
BG: At that time, from my new-found perspective, this seemed so. There was a lot of discussion within the group . . . let’s say analysis of pieces after a performance—it was really head-banging—to find out our relationship to each other, to the group . . . There were questions of balance, questions about understanding what we were supposed to be doing . . . This was all new for me, but formative.
BD: It’s interesting that you mentioned this question of balance. If we accept that composition comprises an equal combination of structure and content, in other words, composition is a merging of the abstract material to the archetypal form, how do you feel that these aspects are balanced in your improvisations? Is there a danger that expression has been liberated at the expense of form?
BG: It’s been interesting for me within the sphere of free improvisation to observe that there is a high degree of intellectual and instrumental control. It is very important to be able to immerse yourself in the music and not allow the expressionistic aspects of the will to take over from the perceived balance of the structure. Structure is very important, but on the other hand, you have to allow the music to take you and your fellow travelers to wherever it wants to go, but with degrees of control. I have always advocated a very, very strong technical facility on your instrument before you get involved in this type of music, because my feeling is that you have to allow the freedom of the body to enter into the spirit of the music. The less baggage you have about trying to play ideas, the better it is. If you have a good technique that can allow all the functions of the brain and the body to surface and also at the same time be aware of your fellow musicians. It is this precarious balance of ego and being humble that is important.
BD: When talking of the newly developing free improvisation movements of the sixties, like New Phonic Art, Luciano Berio once described free-improvising musicians as being “fluent in inventing socio-political alibis, but [they] are in most cases quite incapable of evaluating and analysing themselves in relation to any historico-musical perspective . . . Improvisation presents a problem: above all, because there’s no true unanimity of discourse among the participants, only, once in a while, a unanimity of behaviour.”
BG: I know this statement, and I find it pompous to the extreme. Xenakis has said something similar . . . and Boulez. Ferneyhough says it’s an unstable chemistry. Many great composers that we know of have suggested that free improvisation is an unfavorable musical manifestation. I obviously disagree completely. I think that these guys haven’t heard what we have been doing. If you take the Evan Parkers or the Mats Gustafssons and hear the way they have developed their instrumental facility, that is one thing, but what they have also developed at the same time is a complete control of the flow of the music. I don’t think that Berio, Xenakis, or Ferneyhough have really heard any successful improvisation.
BD: So is it that they don’t get out enough, or is it that contemporary composers are very cautious about relinquishing control?
BG: I think both. Most “straight” composers tend to inhabit the pond where their music has settled. To mentally adjust and seek out a genre of musical activity that on the surface is in opposition requires a very special flexibility. It needs dedication and quite a lot of work to search out what may appear to be an alien music. In contrast to this myopic viewpoint, many of my colleagues have a great interest in contemporary music—and indeed, Baroque music. At the end of the day, it’s not so important. It only irritates when the statements by “straight” composers translate into a loss of opportunity for improvised music. At that point, the subject is really about musical politics and influence.
BD: You mentioned Xenakis previously, and I remember when you gave a wonderful performance of Theraps in one of the MUSIC 21 concerts in Dublin. You worked with Xenakis. What was that like?
BG: Well, for me it was one of the most stunning opportunities to find out how a piece works. Obviously, I had some ideas about how to play the piece, but it was very good to actually go over to Paris, knock on his door, and say, “Iannis, can I play the piece to you?” I went there and played the first couple of lines of Theraps, and he shook his head and said, “No, this is impossible. You’re not playing my piece.” So we discussed articulation, what his expectations were . . . At that point, I discovered that there was one fundamental instruction left out of the nomenclature at the beginning of the score that was supposed to inform the player how to articulate the music. This related to the bowing of the glissandi, which was kind of important, since a major part of the work is made up of glissandi. To cut a very long story short, we met three times—twice in Paris and once in London. I was building up the piece, and each time we discussed some of the inherent problems of the work. I practiced hard and formulated my own program note at his invitation, and sent it to him. He declared that I understood the piece perfectly. Later, I had the opportunity to play Theraps to him again, and there followed a letter congratulating me on being his favorite performer of the piece. After all of the work, this represented an important confirmation that I was on the right track. Now, as far as I know, the publishers still use my program note at the beginning of the score. What was interesting for me was to understand the degree of freedom that one was allowed inside the piece. Obviously, it is through-composed, but there are certain things (as I said to him) that are almost impossible to do.
BD: The glissandi in opposite directions . . .
BG: Yes. I said, “I’m having to make some fixes here to get these glissandi to cross over in opposite directions.” What I discovered was that he had looked at the bass from the front. So if you place your thumb and second finger onto the strings facing the fingerboard, you can cross over in step-like motions with a glissando connecting those steps. When you are behind the bass, this is not possible, since you cannot disconnect the hand from the arm to accomplish this feat. I tried wrapping my body around the instrument with my nose almost on the tailpiece so as to have my left arm in front of the fingerboard, but then there was the problem of bowing the strings. There was a rather funny moment in London when both of us were wrapped around the instrument like an octopus trying for a solution to the glissandi problem. Given that Theraps turns up on many solo bass recitals, I guess my concerns have been addressed, or the young bassists have sported another arm. It’s quite possible!
BD: But it’s a piece that combines huge formal complexity with the freedom you would be used to.
BG: Yes, I was naturally attracted to this music because if you go into this piece and do what he says—i.e. exaggerate the dynamics, exaggerate the speed (both directions)—it takes you to the limit of your physical capabilities. When I first started playing it, my arms were shaking after the event. And this is why I thought, “Theraps . . . Now what does this mean? Does it mean therapy?” But I have learned to control the muscular exertions, and if you go for it, it turns from being a piece that is slightly dry and cerebral to being a glorious piece of strength in music and expression. For me, it takes me almost into the territory of improvisation. Iannis wouldn’t accept that of course—improvisation is not on his agenda.
One curious aspect of Theraps is the score, which was written at sounding pitch so in places there were a lot of ledger lines below the stave when the music descended into the lower register.
My facsimile copy of the score wasn’t the easiest to read, so I set about rewriting the music to accord with the normal bass practice of reading the music one octave higher than sounding. About halfway through this process—which took forever—it occurred to me that the various glissandi could be presented to the player in a time/space notation without the myriad quarter tone inflections littering the score. The musical result to my mind would have been the same, so on one of the occasions of meeting Iannis, I proposed my idea with a written-out passage in my notation. Needless to say, a baffled silence ensued. It went down like the proverbial lead balloon. He must have wondered why this hairy, hippy-looking young fellow had the temerity to propose a change of notation to the work of the great master! It was back to the drawing board to continue my labors to complete the score. I still refer to this score today.
BD: Do you think that it’s possible to teach improvisation?
BG: Oh, the big question. Yes and no, it depends. There are a lot of issues here. It depends on the person who wants to learn improvisation, how they want to do it, and what area they want to be in. Improvisation is a huge subject. When somebody rings me up and asks if I can teach improvisation, I say, “No, I can’t teach you improvisation. I can only teach you how to possibly appreciate and develop an attitude, but not the notes to play.” There are exercises that can aid listening, but there is no magic potion to free the mind. For some people, I have suggested leaving behind ingrained regular techniques for instance. Maya [Homburger], my wife, for instance, plays Baroque violin, and we do some improvised passages in some pieces. It took her a while to adjust the intensely rigorous training she had concerning fingering and patterns. Thankfully, this has not upset her playing of Baroque music. In fact, she approaches this music with more freedom of expression and rhetoric. She now improvises very well.
BD: I think the shift from interpretative skill to creative skill is too big a leap for many people.
BG: I think so too. It is a hard call, but in my case I’ve been lucky in that I’ve traveled this very strange route—Baroque music, contemporary music, improvised music. For me, they are all glorious aspects of the world of music, and I’ve been fortunate to have been able to do all of them, and with professional ensembles to boot. But it is essential all the time to keep your mind open . . . Look, listen, hear, follow your instincts, listen to your friends and colleagues—it’s the only way to do it.
BD: You have moved very successfully between composed music, mostly from the Baroque and contemporary periods, and improvised projects. The nineteenth century does not seem to have been a strong attraction. Do you see a connection between the different musics you have performed?
BG: In an almost Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario, whilst being involved in the burgeoning improvised music scene in the late sixties and seventies, I pursued an intense performance and recording career with the historic early music orchestras under the conductors of John Eliot Gardiner (of the then-Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra), Christopher Hogwood (The Academy of Ancient Music), and Roger Norrington (Kent Opera, and later, The London Classical Players). There were also allegiances with other orchestras, such as the Orchestra of St John’s, Smith Square, and the City of London Sinfonia, as well as commercial recording sessions. These heady musical adventures completed an immersion in the cauldron of an intense musical life in London. Of particular interest for me was the exploratory nature of the early music ensembles—finding ways of articulating the music and communicating this to an audience. Although I found myself working in musics hundreds of years apart, the research aspect seemed to work in parallel without conflict.
Additionally, I found myself in the remaining hours of the day composing for various ensembles, including my own London Jazz Composers Orchestra. This all added up to a lifelong scenario of discovery, which has taken me to the most sublime musical moments as well as some best forgotten situations. In recent times—having moved from England to Ireland—I concentrated on compositional projects that included writing for my New Orchestra and Maya, who has been a constant inspiration and support. Her Baroque violin playing has provided me with endless opportunities to compose, and in the process we have expanded our own performance scenario with many of the disciplines coming together. Our Irish friends have given us huge support. Malcolm Proud is Maya’s harpsichord partner, and together they founded Camerata Kilkenny. An extension of this mixed creative environment has been the formation of the Barrow River Arts Festival—three days of music, theatre, visual arts, and poetry that in many ways is a testament to the cross-fertilization of everything that has entered our lives over the years.
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.
Benjamin Dwyer is a composer, guitarist, and researcher. He is an elected member of Aosdána and an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music, London. He is currently Professor of Music and Middlesex University, London.