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Hitting the Strings– Graph

Into the dark with Jekyll & Hyde – Nick Kimberley


Hitting the Strings

Graph talks to Barry Guy and Maya Homburger

The one who has been developing the musical and technical possibilities of the double-bass for several decades. The one who played in various early music groups and the one who has composed in a contemporary idiom for groups like Fretwork or the Hilliard Ensemble. There's the one who has just brought out an unusual, deeply meditative CD called 'Ceremony' in collaboration with the outstanding baroque violinist Maya Homburger. Then there's the one in the long-standing jazz trio with Evan Parker and Paul Lytton, and who has also played with Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon, Marilyn Crispell, Mats Gustafsson and in numerous other formations and combinations. This is not to forget the one who leads and composes for the startlingly energetic London Jazz Composers Orchestra, nor indeed the one who has written many works for chamber orchestras, chamber groups and solo players.

A selection of these Barry Guys was interviewed by Barra O Seaghda. After a time they were joined by Maya Homburger to discuss the couple's current and future projects. They are currently based in a house near Thomastown in Kilkenny while conversion work continues on their own future residence.

Maya Homburger brings analytical clarity and intense commitment to her music as well as her other activities. Her recording with Malcolm Proud of the Bach Sonatas for violin and harpsichord is among the works she and Barry Guy have issued on their own Maya Recordings label.

Graph: You said once that you could imagine the cumbersome double bass as tiny as a grain of sand – a mind-boggling notion. Could you unboggle it?

BG: The double bass is seen as an unwieldy instrument, generally expected to thump along below the other instruments. A long time ago when I was at music college, there was a point when problems to do with its size and how to get around it and the articulations needed to make it sound were facing me. I found that playing improvised music gradually helped me to get over those barriers, some of them caused by learning the instrument from manuals. The other thing that affected me was playing with dancers – the London Contemporary Dance Theatre – on stage. It seemed to me that they could do almost impossible things. I could see the preparation for a movement, the muscles working. It had to do with the rhythm of preparation and accomplishment. The energy was all channelled into the very moment of creation.

These two things gradually came together to make me aware that the playing of the double bass was no longer something to be negotiated. The instrument didn't exist- it was a voice only, a communicator. The more I rid myself of this idea of a large unwieldy resonating box, the clearer the ideas would become. The holding and articulation of the bow, the ends of the fingertips, creativity, the sound concept – all these things finally came down to a tiny contact point, a little grain of sand. It's like black holes, which contain huge amounts of energy to be harnessed.

Graph: You employ all kinds of techniques in your playing, including the use of sticks, mallets, brushes and other objects. The effect can be quite theatrical. Are you aware of that or is it a side-issue?

BG: It is a side-issue, but on the other hand performance is performance. I've been involved in quite a lot of theatrical work, which I enjoyed very much. In 'Valentine', a piece originally written by Jacob Druckman for the Joffrey Ballet, I dressed up in a red leotard and looked sexually rather ambiguous, with lipstick and slicked-back hair. The piece had a new dimension on the concert stage. So I'm aware of the possibilities of theatre. In reality, one has to apply a certain complex technique to pull sounds out of the instrument. You're so conscious of the function of these things – they're not just add-ons.

All of this started about twenty years ago when I was playing with a drummer friend, Tony Oxley – who was apt to throw a stick at you if he didn't like what you were playing. On this occasion, he simply let it go by mistake. I saw it flying through the air, caught it and immediately hit the strings and various other bits of the instrument with it. That was my first acquisition for what I call my surgeon's kit.

Graph: I've seen you play with the sax-player Evan Parker. There was a striking contrast between you. Though his music can be incredibly gripping, his physical presence is in-turned, almost still. You're beside him –

BG: Yes, like one of those things you see in the backs of cars nodding and jogging around ... Evan's way of playing is concentrated in the lungs and fingers and tongue-articulations. To respond to your implied question of whether to move or not to move, I find I need to keep the body in motion so that energies can be precisely tuned to the situation. It's like a kestrel hovering and quivering until the sudden dive to land on the prey – the sound in my case.

Graph: As a composer, you work with your own LJCO (London Jazz Composers Orchestra) and with contemporary ensembles or orchestras. Have these always run in parallel and how do the differences work out?

BG: There was a time up to 1992 when the two areas were completely independent. If I was writing for string quartet or orchestra, there was one way of working. If I was working with improvising soloists, the music was cut around the people. That said, even with straight ensembles, I like to have full knowledge of the chemistry of the group. Organisationally or compositionally, there were strategies that could work for either area.

Since '92, a way of using graphics has crept into some of my scores, and also the idea of concentrating the musical language on one page or two at most.

This all started with my love for painting. I was commissioned by the Scottish painter Alan Davie, who is also a jazz player, to write a piece that would be one of a series of events for a big retrospective he was having in Glasgow. He wanted a piece for himself as soloist, on piano, plus ensemble – but straight, not Evan Parker and the usual suspects. And he didn't wish to read music, either. After digging deep into the possibilities, it occurred to me that, as he used a lot of sign language and ethnic symbols in his paintings, we could set up a series of these with their own hierarchy, from the notated through to the non-notated or suggested. I could set up about thirty possibilities that could be injected into his music as he played. But how could I get all this onto one page? Under each sign, I could have systems to be presented to the players – solos, layers, polyphonies ... So along with flash-cards that suggested a type of music to be negotiated, I would have a modifier, using my five fingers to guide the players to the musical subdivisions, from totally written music through to complete freedom.

That piece was called 'Bird Gong Game', after a series of Bird Gong paintings. All kinds of things have grown out of that. It's changed my composing life – I've become very interested in the way graphics and the presentation of scores affect the music.

Graph: You've played with people like Parker and Paul Lytton for decades now. Is that about trust, or reinforcing each other's creativity?

BG: It's both. By being together such a long time, you encourage unity and moving forward to explore ideas and musical refinements. Once you've got your partners, you never have failure really, just varying degrees of euphoria.

Even if there are doubts about the progression of the music, which is very rare, you know how to get yourself out of a hole if you take a wrong turn.

Playing with new partners, you can have some miraculous moments but also some dreadfully difficult negotiations. That's also to do with the way people listen. I've played with some people with no social graces – you're on the stand listening to someone hogging the whole space.

Graph: There's a phrase somewhere about playing the silences. Watching you with Parker, I see players listening as intently as they play.

BG: Of course we listen for every parameter of the ongoing music, reading the implications and strategies – silences as well as pitches. It's an incredibly wonderful process of music-making.

Graph: Regarding improvisation, do you know at the moment of playing that what you're producing will stand up to repeated listening or will be worth issuing as a recording?

BG: There's a sense of knowledge, of the way the voices have come together. You know when it's right. If I'm playing with Crispell and Hemingway, or with the Parker trio, and we're not using any written music, what you're listening to is the signatures of three people, three voices coming together. and the moment when that comes right is the most intense, enriching experience.

Graph: In the title piece of Sensology, you and the pianist Paul Plimley start very intensely and then a beautiful slow space opens up. And Bill Dixon played very slow on Vade Mecum. In general, though, is there a tendency for improvised music to go for high speeds, or does it depend on the musicians?

BG: It's very much to do with the musicians. I happen to work with a lot of high-speed musicians. With Bill Dixon, quite often he was slow and William Parker, Tony Oxley and I were fast – rattling away down below while Bill would be rhapsodising above us.

With Evan Parker, we both work really fast. I suppose the music has its own momentum, built up over many years of communication and understanding. We hear all the details as they're happening. It's not just the ears. The body, if you like, is like a huge receptor, so you feel the energies as much as hearing them. So sometimes the intention is there before the note and you don't even know about it. It's not a matter of playing and wondering what to do next.

I've often thought, though, that even when it's fast, there's a sense in which it can also be slow. Think of different strata of activity. I sometimes think of these great arcs of movement. If you swing your arm around for the big arc; then if you swing your arm just from the elbow to your fingertips, it's a smaller arc; while if you bend your hand from the wrist you've got something smaller again. What's happening at the end of a finger might be one of your fastest phrases, but all sitting on top of the huge dimension. It's not just a matter of speed going horizontally, there are implications for the whole structure. It's got to have an architecture.

Graph: Is there a political dimension to improvised music for you? I'm thinking of the way you work with a community of artists and the idea of being untrammelled ...

BG: I think there is a political dimension. There is a sense of community, of collective dynamism. Interestingly enough, it's got to do with the individual as well as the collective, because to make these advances the individual has to work hard for the needs of all. I like this music because it breaks the rules. This music in some ways irritates the status quo and questions are always being asked. On the other hand, because we've been at this so long, we've become the new establishment, whether we like it or not. But this music was never really wanted anyway. The irritation is still there, but now we're seen as the last of the dinosaurs ... The closed mind is a sad and dangerous thing.

Graph: I see there's now a Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. How do you find working in that area?

BG: I like it. The interesting thing with that ensemble is that it's all real time. In the old days, to a great extent, electronics had to be predetermined, with lots of studio manipulation. Now everything is so sophisticated and there's a new generation of brains behind them – thinking about music rather than just the technical process – so we're all working together to the same end: synthesising the acoustic and the electronic. It's an intriguing process because it has a lot of the functions of normal improvisation but there's a treatment person at the end of the line, and you're not always sure how you're going to come out. You know what you've just played, but what you hear might be completely fragmented or turned upside-down.

Graph: You have to get to know the program almost as you'd get to know another player ...

BG: Yes, you have to know what it's capable of. Obviously the programs are infinite, but in the EPEAE we discuss what we're going to do, the relative densities for instance. That's necessary because the machines can set up huge arrays of sounds and articulations. If that gets out of control, you lose what you set out to accomplish. So we might discuss elongated notes or cut-offs or different envelope-shapes. I find it very exciting.

Graph: Moving to another subject entirely – what place does Xenakis have in your musical life? You play one of his pieces at least.

BG: I've been a great admirer of Xenakis for years. I like his methods, his association with architecture – because architecture is my pet subject in a way, and I've got more books about architecture than about music. I like the way he's found of expressing music through mathematics and architecture. If you take it as he intends it, it can be revelatory. It's a very special way of composing, not to everyone's taste but very exciting. It's highly sophisticated but raw at the same time. I like that polarity.

He wrote a piece for double bass called 'Theraps'. I'd never heard anybody play it. We had a correspondence for six months or so. I met up with him after I'd been learning it for a while and played the piece for him. He thought I was joking. Then we had a rational discussion of the techniques he'd deployed in the notation. Basically, I'd taken a wrong approach. I suggested there were ways he could have expressed the music in a fundamentally clearer way, but he took no notice of that. Anyway, he sent me packing and said to come back in six months.

Then I gave a performance that he attended and he came up to me afterwards and said, 'You make the best performance of my piece ever.' When I asked for a programme note, he told me to write one myself. So then I worked hard to to understand the piece's structure and what I was getting out of it. When I sent it to him, he used it as a preface to the score. It's a fine piece of music – quite a headache, and a finger-buster, but once you've taken it on board it's a joy to play.

Graph: There are other composers whose sense of architecture appeals to you.

BG: Monteverdi is one of my all-time favourites. I find that man's sense of architecture, structure and sonority extraordinary. Remember, I spent three years working in an architect's office, not knowing very much about music. When I gave up all that and went to music college, I had no idea there was so much beautiful music in the world. I arrived at it in a strange way – not starting by learning about Mozart and Beethoven but coming from jazz, improvised music, Xenakis, Stravinsky, Penderecki, and John Cage and the 1950s American avant-garde. But to get down to seriously studying Beethoven, and then going back and discovering Gabrieli, Monteverdi and all these other wonderful early composers, and then of course travelling the other way... – it's been a wonderful journey.

[ Maya Homburger joined in at this point ]

Graph: You've just brought out an ECM CD together. When you met, I suppose early and contemporary music were completely separate areas for you?

BG: We met eleven years ago when we were both in the Academy of Ancient Music. What's been happening over the years has been that Maya, as well as pursuing her own career as a soloist and chamber-musician, has been managing my life as well – organising for the LJCO and other activities.

Graph: Did it come as a surprise to you, Maya, to find yourself both involved in contemporary music and running things?

MH: Well, before, I'd even had a prejudice against it, after some things I'd been involved in in Switzerland. But I got totally hooked on Barry's music, the LJCO and his own compositions. It had far more appeal than some so-called straight contemporary music because there was far more freedom in it, it was more idiomatic and player-oriented. It became a kind of mission to promote it.

Graph: In the music you play together, are you evolving towards improvisation?

MH: I'm still not at all a free improviser, as Barry and Evan are. It's like a language they speak and it would take me years to learn it. However, Barry has given me a lot of material but lets me handle it in a very free way. So that has freed me up a lot and ultimately will probably lead me to improvise fully. Listening to improvisers has changed my approach to baroque as well. And with Barry's music, I play it almost as if I were inventing it.

BG: The early instruments have totally different colours which I love as a composer. They're more like voices, actually.

MH: And you play them like voices. If you really go down that avenue, you play them rhetorically – which suits contemporary music as well. In a lot of contemporary music, I don't find they're searching for that rhetoric. They're playing the notes and following the instructions of the composer, who can never write out all the rhetorical or spoken aspects of the music. That's where baroque and contemporary fully meet.

BG: I have to find a way of documenting this music, a notation, that makes sense. Not over-writing – you have to trust the musicians. In our duo, I'm freer, but I can give myself some shorthand. And because Maya understands how the music is meant to go, I can write for her in quite a free way and she will come up with interesting solutions.

MH: Especially in tempo, in tempo variations, and different uses of rubato and accelerando, it becomes freer and freer, and we allow ourselves to go slightly out of sync.

It's very exciting and good for the audience as well because you can never settle back, you're constantly surprised. You could never notate it exactly. Obviously someone like Ferneyhough tries to notate this kind of thing. But we arrive at a similar result in rehearsals or concerts – out of the joy and excitement of music rather than trying to work out the time mathematically.

BG: To use a phrase of Maya's, we have musical stretching in our duos. We like to make our concerts refreshing and to give people an interesting journey.

MH: I call it musical stretching because literally the different musics hit the body in different areas and what I don't like is when people settle back for a bit of Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons' or familiar repertoire or a modern concert, and everything hits them at a specific emotional or body level. What we like to do is, as with the tempo, to destabilise things slightly. I might even finish a piece of Biber and Barry comes in with an improvisation and the last two notes overlap, and the body goes, Oh, where's this going to affect me now? People might not know for three pieces in a row where it's going next. I find it energises rather than just entertains.

Graph: Talking of journeys, how did you end up here in Kilkenny?

MH: Malcolm Proud visited us in England and was very enthusiastic about Barry's music, which he'd never heard before. When Malcolm told Susan Proud about it, she invited Barry on trust to come and give a solo recital in St Canice's in 1992. The response was very good. It was a revelation to us. We met lovely people and fell in love with the place. Of course, it was during Arts Week ...

Graph: You didn't realise what it would be like in January.

BG: Yes, a variable feast of weather here – but it wasn't only the occasion of Arts Week thrilled us. We decided to bring the big band over to rehearse and the whole arrangement went really well.

MH: And the concert, too. People came from Galway and Belfast ... So we did more and more projects in Ireland after that and we were getting more and more dispirited about living in England, from a cultural point of view ...

BG: And from a political point of view as well.

MH: Now that we've come over, we're finding that some things are not at all better while others are. It was a bit of a shock, for example, to find out what needs to be done from an ecological point of view.

Graph: Will the fact that you're here pull more musicians towards Ireland?

BG: We hope so. Marilyn Crispell and Evan Parker have been here ...

MH: And Mats Gustafsson and Raymond Strid came to the Sligo Contemporary Music festival and that was a revelation to some people. We don't mind if it's a small number, so long as it really captures the audience's imagination. On the negative side, we've had some shocks regarding the contemporary scene.

BG: I thought things were looking up when After the Rain was to be played by the NSO. But when I went to the rehearsal, things were so bad that I couldn't bring myself to go to the performance. There were so many things to correct in the rhythm, pitching, musicality ...

It's a shame because it's all about rehearsal time. It was getting only an hour and a quarter or so, and even after doing several performances with the City of London Symphonia (who knew the piece inside out) we would always give it three hours. It does a dis-service to contemporary music to play pieces like this badly. If you're going to win the hearts and minds of people, you've got to present the music at its best.

MH: It's quite widespread. Before people have done the work on themselves to become quality instrumentalists, they adopt this horrible professional attitude and do things on the quick.

Graph: Have you got any projects currently?

MH: Well, we'd like to start our own festival, which – surprise! – would involve early and contemporary music. This year I've managed to put together a series of four concerts at Kilmainham – with the Hilliard, my trio, trio plus tenor and harp, and Evan Parker and Maggie Nicols ... We'll call it Now and Then. We'd also like to have people over here, with a kind of house premiere and then a series of concerts around the country. It could involve recording, or become the basis for the festival. But it takes a lot of work – sponsorship, the Arts Council ...

Graph: It takes time for people to believe you're committed.

MH: What's difficult with funding is that there seems to be this government rule where you're only told about your funding in that year. It makes booking really difficult, or a big risk. I suppose that could be changed – it's really about ease of accounting.

We'll be doing more tours in this country in the future. We hope to be able to form a Kilkenny-based group, too. We have Malcolm Proud, Siobhan Armstrong, John Elwes, Sarah Cunningham is not too far ...

Funnily enough, the fact that we're living here has been an added attraction with promoters abroad and with interviewers ... They tend to think it's very romantic and creative to be here.

BG: We've certainly made a lot of friends of artists and writers and musicians. It's a great feeling to be part of a community like that, whereas when we lived in England we didn't really feel part of anything, other than being professional musicians. It means our social life has picked up – a mixture of joys and headaches.

Into the dark with Jekyll & Hyde

Composer Barry Guy and his wife make music that defies categorisation

The first law of Contemporary Music states: composers compose, improvisers improvise, and never the twain shall meet. As for musicians, those who perform from scores have a horror of improvisation, while who’s who improvise can’t see the point of writing it all down. A few though, reject that division of labour, and Barry Guy is one of them. As an improvising performer he plays double bass solo, in duos, trios and quartets, or as part of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra which he founded in 1970, and for which he provides jazz compositions. Meanwhile, as a classical composer he has had his music performed by Pierre Boulez, the Kronos Quartet and the baroque viol consort Fretwork.

For most of his career Guy has kept the two worlds apart, but recently his classical compositions have incorporated a measure of the improviser’s freedom. “Compositionally I have lived a Jekyll and Hyde existence”, he says. “On one side I had my jazz compositions, where improvisation is my lifeline to a purity of musical thought, and flexibility and interpretative creativity would be inherent in the scores. Within the straight tradition I was more exact, putting into the score every single dynamic, every tempo change, probably providing much more information than was necessary. What has happened over the last 10 years is a gradual rationalisation of what needs to be in the score to bring out the best interpretation: a simplicity of presentation engenders a more creative approach from so-called “straight” musicians. I like them to add something. I’m not writing down improvisations, but I appreciate that you can build in more freedom for the players.”

What that freedom requires is absolute trust between composer and performer, and for that reason, Guy suggests, “I enjoy working with musicians that I know, not only personally, but in the manner of their playing, being able to speak to them as performers about what we’re trying to pull out of the music, without musical politics or matters of finance coming into it. In those circumstances, writing music becomes like making a suit: you fit the piece around the personality.”

Who better then, to write music for than his partner, the violinist Maya Homburger? The two met 10 years ago playing in Christopher Hogwood’s Academy of Ancient Music, an orchestra that pioneered the use of original “period” instruments in performances of ancient music, from Bach to Beethoven. And, as a new CD of Guy’s music shows, that adds an extra dimension: she plays a baroque violin, so Guy’s new music is written for an old instrument, sometimes twinned with his own double bass. What emerges is a unique amalgam of two sound-worlds.

“The modern double bass makes available a lot of colours”, says Guy. “What’s interesting is to feed those colours into the darkness, if you like, of the baroque violin. The sheer beauty of Maya’s violin has led my music into more melodic areas. It’s been a sharp learning curve for me, but since we’re in the same household, I can go into the next room and say, ‘what do you think of this?’ while I’m putting the dustbin out.”

Homburger herself is keenly aware of how the music fits her and her instrument: “It’s a beautiful 1740 Italian violin by Antonio dalla Costa, from Treviso. Most good Italian violins have been altered so that they can be used as ‘modern’ violins, but this one has never been tampered with. When Barry writes for me, he has in mind the precise colours of this instrument which are often dark. The strings on a baroque violin are at such a low tension that you get more overtones, and there is a tremendous difference between the upper and the lower strings. You can float the bow, which is very light, across the strings, so I like to work with lightweight sounds, with bow speed rather than bow pressure. If you play Barry’s pieces on a modern instrument, you can look for similar sounds, but some of them you simply won’t get.”

“One of Barry’s qualities as an improviser is the range of colours he gets, colours nobody would expect from a double bass, and he has managed to find a way for me to make some of those sounds on my instrument. That in turn has allowed me to become braver in my performances of baroque music. I don’t have to strive for totally manicured sound, I take more risks. Sounds and colours that might not be totally ‘scholarly’ have become part of my music making.”

When Homburger and Guy perform together, the programme always includes baroque music alongside Guy’s work, whether played from score or improvised. For Guy, it’s a natural symbiosis: “Quite often in concert, I follow on without a break after Maya has played, say one of Telemann’s Fantasies. Her last note will be my starting point, and what I play becomes a reflection on the atmosphere that she has left in the air. It works especially well in a church, where the resonance of Telemann may be going off into the distance as I pick up the lead.”

Homburger adds: “ One part of the audience may be thinking, ‘improvisation is difficult to listen to’, while the other half thinks ‘Telemann’s hard work’, but if you play with intensity, emotion and clear diction, the event becomes about human beings communicating, and that’s what we want to achieve.”

Nick Kimberley, Independent 11 February 1999