"Sound in space, really. Energy. I'm communicating musical energy. And I'm very particular about how the energy comes from me through the bass. I got some ideas when I used to play with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre. Working with dancers was fascinating because you can see how they transfer energies through their bodies for different jumps, different lifts. There's such fluency of movement.
"What I try to do is direct the energies through the arms, so the body is kind of light – you don't feel as if you're in contact with the ground or with the bass. You actually try to think upwards, so the energy comes through the arms into the fingers, which for the most part are what articulate the sounds. And if you make your body unaware of being there but be conscious of these intense little lights at the ends of the fingers, then I think you can communicate the energy you want to get out through the notes.
"You have almost – I mean, it's a regularly used phrase – to be at one with the instrument. You have almost to be inside it. People have asked me why I move a lot with the bass and I think it is to do with this dance area. Because if I'm moving with the bass, that's the flow of energy. I can't stand still with it. It is like a partner in a dance.
"I talk about the fingertips, but sometimes I use my neck to stop the strings. That's a new area I'm interested in. You can do contrary motion things, have your neck playing the bottom strings and be plucking the higher strings, which means you can be going in two directions at once. So I have added the neck to my repertory. (Laughs) The communication actually comes through my bodily contact with the bass."
Barry Guy. Born Lewisham, South London, 1947. Began to play music in school military band, later graduating to its offshoot trad group. Then one day a friend played him a Charles Mingus LP. "I thought, Christ, this is the music we should be playing!" At the group's next meeting, during a school lunch break, he floated the suggestion. "They said, no, no, we should be playing Kenny Ball and Acker Bilk. It became quite heated and there was a huge fight, lots of blood, desks all over the place. I kind of nailed my colours to the mast at that point."
A profusion of colours, since he found himself attracted by both contemporary composition and modern jazz. After leaving school, Guy went to work in an architect's office, though continuing with his musical activities in the evenings. Before long, however, he'd abandoned his architectural career to spend his days studying at the Guildhall School of Music and his nights gigging around the capital's jazz haunts, particularly the Little Theatre Club, where the new free jazz being explored by players such as Evan Parker, Paul Rutherford, John Stevens and Trevor Watts "arrested me – I think that was a moment of change".
Guy subsequently established himself as a virtuoso in three very different fields of music. He played total improvisation in small groups such as the Howard Riley Trio, Iskra 1903 and the Evan Parker Trio; he became a solo and chamber ensemble specialist in modern composition, performing pieces by the likes of Hubert Stuppner and Iannis Xenakis; and, in the mid 70s, he became heavily involved in Baroque music and the period-instrument movement, working with conductors such as John Eliot Gardiner, Roger Norrington and Christopher Hogwood, in whose Academy of Ancient Music he was principal bassist from 1978 to 1990. At the same time he continued to pursue his abiding fascination with structure by writing his own 'straight' compositions and by mixing form and freedom in the company of the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra, the improvising big band he founded in 1970 and which today probably enjoys the highest profile of his various musical projects.
The band has been exploring different dialogues between space and structure for more than two decades as Guy sought ways to integrate his "great joy in writing for a big band" with an equally strong love for, and commitment to, free improvisation. Looking back on the LJCO's history, he distinguishes "three eras" of activity, the first beginning with Ode, a large-scale piece Guy wrote in the late 60s "to celebrate the freedom I'd found in music". Specifically designed to include players from all areas of jazz, Ode "wasn't only expressing compositional values, it was also expressing socialist values, if you like. Socialism in the sense of getting people to work together and discover together. I didn't want it to be a one-way conversation."
Ode was also one of the first examples of a new kind of European music. Wanting to create an extended composition that went beyond "the usual devices of jazz", and critical too of American Third Stream pieces that tried to marry older forms of jazz and classical music, Guy found a congruence between "the fantastic strides being made in articulation and instrumental technique" by the free improvisers and the "abstract sound worlds" of contemporary European composers. The challenge was to develop a language compatible to both disciplines. Ode, finally recorded in 1972, was a major step towards meeting that challenge.
The work's success meant that the LJCO became an ongoing concern and Guy started to write new pieces for the band, although almost immediately he faced a clash of interests. "I guess my enthusiasm for compositional structure started to alienate people. There was too much written music, too little improvisation. I realised I was going up the wrong street and decided to open it out. I said, OK guys, if anybody wants to write for the band, start writing! That was how the second era began."
The LJCO's second era occupied much of the 1970s. The band played works by members Howard Riley, Paul Rutherford, Kenny Wheeler and Tony Oxley (whose scores used various types of graphic notation) as well as further contributions from Guy and occasional pieces by 'straight' composers such as Penderecki, Buxton Orr and Bernard Rands. "It was very exciting but it was also very difficult for an audience", recalls Guy, "because I don't think they really knew where they were half the time. We were dealing with anything from graphics to totally abstract pieces. It wasn't jazz in the big band tradition that people knew and liked."
This phase of activity came to a halt around 1978, when Guy's growing involvement with Baroque music left him no time to organise LJCO projects. For a couple of years the band was put on hold.
When you play a solo improvised concert, I say to Barry Guy, where do you start? Do you have specific goals? How much do you plan in advance?
"It depends on how long the concert is going to be and the space and the context in which it takes place. If, say, you're doing two sets of 45 minutes each, then I think you have to be fairly clear about the type of material you're going to present. So I tend to be specific about the areas I might go into, or at least start off from. I might begin with a piece that concentrates on the bow, then move on to pizzicato sounds or one of the more percussive pieces. Just to differentiate the types of sound. Though as soon as you start, the pieces tend not to stay in the same area.
"If I'm doing a shorter set, I probably wouldn't plan anything at all. If I have a 20-minute improvisation, I just start. We often do this in the trio with Evan (Parker) and Paul (Lytton) – as well as playing trio pieces, Evan and I normally take solos. That has a different space and, as such, I probably wouldn't have a particular strategy, I'd let the musical sounds lead me instinctively.
"It's a constant evolutionary process; one idea leads to the next. One also likes to research the possibilities of the tools you're using – the bow, the sticks, pizzicato – to extend the vocabulary of the playing procedures. One always tries to push further forward in terms of the articulation of sonic events. But I like to try and keep it a fairly logical sequence. I'm not terribly interested in just mindlessly beating the instrument. (Laughs) I think it's essential, if you're playing the bass, to bring out as many of the wonderful colours as possible."
Doesn't this get harder the longer you've been playing? After improvising for some 25 years, you can't have many sound areas left to explore.
"The amazing thing is that something different always comes out. You might go into similar areas, there might be qualities that indicate this is from the same part of the brain as a previous improvisation, but there's always a difference because you'll be led in a different direction by the circumstances.
"I try to think of every solo performance as a new beginning. Not that it's possible to come up with a new language each time you go onto the stand, but I do think that every time you play there's a kind of refinement of your language. And I think in solo playing you're dealing with absolutely the innermost qualities of that language. Each articulation, each sonority, is being put under a microscope. I mean, every time I pick up a bow and put it on the strings, there is a sound that has been made millions of times before – the bow crosses the D string, for instance. But each time, if you really listen, the quality is different. There's always a different parameter to it. Maybe there are less hairs on the bow, maybe there's less rosin or more rosin, maybe the string is younger or older, the harmonics speak in a different way. So there's always this changeable quality, which is one of the fascinations of solo playing."
While he was still at music college, Barry Guy's professor arranged for him to play a few concerts with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It proved a traumatic experience. Told off at the first rehearsal "for showing too much enthusiasm", he found the attitudes of the players "totally alien, totally anti-contemporary music" and has never played in a symphony orchestra since. Instead he specialised in chamber works and, already a devotee of Baroque music, found himself intrigued by the burgeoning period-instrument movement.
"Early music has a strong resonance for me. I find it rhythmically intriguing, spiritually uplifting. I find there's a purity in the music, a purity of language, and a great sophistication too, say in Bach's fugues and canons. I find that instantly enjoyable. And I seem to know what to do to play it on the right instruments. It's fun using original instruments and finding out how they worked. Finding the right sort of bow, the right mental attitude to produce that great legacy of sound.”
Guy's own Baroque period lasted until 1990, by which time he felt that "the record companies had taken over" and the whole enterprise of performing and recording on period instruments had become too commercialised. "There were two moments when I thought, what the hell am I doing here"? he declares. One was when, for the second time in a year, he recorded the nine symphonies of Beethoven; first with Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players, then with the Academy of Ancient Music with Christopher Hogwood. The second moment was during the recording of the complete cycle of Haydn's 104 symphonies with the AAM. "It got to the point where we were going straight into the studio with no feeling of preparation – the red light would go on and we'd just play it. I wanted more time, more understanding, but the record company was demanding its mega-projects. Oh, it kept the bank manager happy and helped me to pay the bills for the LJCO – so thank you, Haydn and Beethoven. But there seemed to be his huge discrepancy developing between music-making and recording, the latter was becoming almost a mechanised process. I thought, this is crazy! So I threw it all in."
Though he still plays baroque music in small ensembles led by his partner Maya Homburger the only classical post Guy currently holds is principal bassist with the City of London Sinfonia, a contemporary chamber orchestra with whom he's been associated since the early 70s. As well as playing with the group, he has also written for them, notably 1983's Voyages of the Moon, for double bass and orchestra, and 1992's After the Rain, for string orchestra, a commission to mark the Sinfonia's 21st anniversary.
"Most of the compositions I've written have been commissioned by friends or ensembles I play with or professional acquaintances who know my music and who like to experiment on their instruments. I've never been tempted to sit down and, in the abstract, write an opera or a symphony. I have to have some kind of personal liaison with ... the energies of people, their languages."
In recent years Guy's compositions have included Circular for oboist Robin Canter, Whistle and Flute for flautist Rachel Brown, The Eye of Silence for violinist Rosemary Furniss, The Road to Ruin for the Kronos Quartet and Electric Phoenix and Bird Gong Game, for improvising soloist and chamber ensemble, which is based on a painting by Alan Davie, who commissioned the piece. Current projects include a saxophone quartet for ROVA, a violin-and-tape work for Maya Homburger and a piece for viols, commissioned by the early music group Fretwork as part of the 1995 Purcell Tercentenary celebrations.
The only one of these compositions currently on record is After the Rain, just released as a CD single by NMC. The work draws both on the contemporary languages that Guy has, in part derived from his improvisations and on his love for Baroque music. Like several of his compositions, it was influenced too by Max Ernst, who is one of his favourite painters. (Surrealism, Dadaism, the "minimal theatre" of Samuel Beckett and American Indian poetry are other major inspirations for Guy.)
"I felt certain resonances coming from Max Ernst's painting Europe after the Rain, which I saw at the Tate Gallery's retrospective. When I saw this huge picture ... I heard voices. The painting had these amazing forms. It looked as if it was after a catastrophe, everything looked dead – there were these masses, like bodies, rocks, in large masses – but within the picture you could see life forms beginning to emerge. It conformed to this idea I had that I wanted to write the City of London Sinfonia piece with reference to old Baroque forms. I wanted to write a piece that was sonorous, with these antiphons, long glissandi that slide and diverge, very slow moving blocks of sound."
You seem to keep your composition and your improvisation fairly separate activities, I say to Barry Guy.
"It's part of splitting Barry Guy down the middle! They are different musics. With all of the possibilities available to me when I improvise as a solo bassist, I feel I don't need to exercise those same rights, as it were, in my composition. I found too that expecting players to improvise who are not used to improvising can lead to very disappointing results. So, in general, nothing is left to chance in the straight compositions. Of course, I employ certain extended techniques – circular bowing in After the Rain, for instance – that I use in my improvisations, but I don't want my composition to be like a shop window for my improvisation devices. It's a completely different music and it comes from a different place."
Talking of different disciplines, your composed music is nearly all through-composed, your improvisations are nearly all totally improvised: you don't seem to play any conventional 'jazz' these days.
"I'd say the Evan Parker Trio plays jazz. It's total improvisation but I think it comes directly from the jazz tradition. In the early days I went through a kind of concise history of the music: I started playing New Orleans jazz, went on to swing, to standards, to bebop. Then I heard the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and headed off into free improvisation, but the momentum came initially from playing those earlier jazz styles. As far as I'm concerned, and I think Evan would agree, the Evan Parker Trio plays in a jazz context. A free jazz context, if you like. But it's not abstract improvisation, it has its roots in jazz music, the phraseology, the tensions ... What we've listened to over the years has distilled down into a type of playing that seems appropriate for that musical space. I think Evan's great love for John Coltrane comes out in his music as much as my great love for Charles Mingus. We have such a love for these people that something is bound to filter through."
But you're no longer interested in playing standards of bebop?
"No. I think one of the things I found about the jazz ensemble, about how people interpret standards or bebop tunes, is that there's a kind of normality to it now. You get great soloists, but very often it seems to me there's a tiredness to the format. The idea of a head followed by a sax solo, a trumpet solo, guitar solo, back to the tune again – so many jazz pieces take on this form. It's like a horse race. All the players start off at the line and come in different orders in different tunes, but basically it's the same race going around the same course. This is why I find free improvisation much more interesting – you can go anywhere you like."
The 1980 recording of Guy's Four Pieces for Orchestra (later released on the Stringer LP) marked a new beginning for the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra. But several personnel changes in the early 80s meant that the group's "third era" proper began with Polyhymnia, written by Guy in 1981 but not recorded until six years later. The band line-up on that LP, part of the Zurich Concerts double-album set, is virtually the same as the current personnel: a blend of core members (Marc Charig, Paul Lytton, Evan Parker, Howard Riley, Paul Rutherford and Trevor Watts all played on Ode) with more recent recruits such as Peter McPhail, Barre Phillips and Simon Picard.
With Polyhymnia, Guy ushered in a new focus on structures that "allow the music to breathe and the musicians to find space ... the individual voice to express itself in an uncluttered way". Harmos and Study, both "prolonged examinations of melody", also date from this period, as do Double Trouble and projects with guest-composers Anthony Braxton and George Lewis. The band's 1992 CD, Theoria, had Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer as the featured soloist on a piece written to celebrate her 50th birthday. It's a kind of piano concerto, says Guy, adding the caveat that instead of constantly pitting the pianist against the orchestra en masse, he has Schweizer improvising with a succession of small groups taken from its ranks.
This is a strategy he has refined further in Portraits, the LJCO's latest recording, scheduled for release on the Intakt label before the end of the year. Described by Guy as "musical journey around the personalities of the band", Portraits was very much influenced by an evening of small-group improvisations, entitled 'Subsets and Intrasections', that made up one of the LJCO's Chicago concerts during their autumn 1992 tour of the USA and Canada.
"While we were on the road," explains Guy, "I went around to all the band and asked, who do you want to play with? Would you like to play a solo? How about a duo? Or a quartet? Then I tried to make a balance of the possibilities, to include everybody in different ensembles – duos, trios, quartets – but to do it in such a way that there was a kind of structure to it. So within each of the four sets we played that night, I tried to put in a duo, a group, a solo and a special combination of some sort."
'Subsets and Intrasections' proved such a hit with audience and players alike that Guy decided to try and incorporate the same combinations within Portraits, a piece he was already sketching out in consultation with the band. Portraits is divided into seven main sections, each of which contains a 'portrait' of one, two or three players; but rather than simply feature these players as soloists, Guy asks them to perform in some of the 'Subsets' ensembles – all of these encounters being entirely improvised. "It's my ideal balance", he enthuses, "because inside this large structure, this conglomeration of 17 people, I've placed the freedom of the trios, quartets, solos and duos. That's where the free improvisation comes out, it's like opening windows in a building".
With the LJCO's 25th anniversary due in 1995, there is already talk of special events to mark the occasion – including, perhaps, a new recording of Ode – but nothing has yet been finalised. Meanwhile, Guy is keeping himself busy in many other areas of improvisation. He hopes to continue a recent association with Cecil Taylor – "the guy is a genius piano player, it's a great lesson every time you play with him". He has also become involved with two new trios: one with young Swedish musicians Mats Gustafsson and Raymond Strid, the other with Marilyn Crispell and Gerry Hemingway. A recording by the latter trio is already in the can, as is a quartet session with Evan Parker, Paul Dunmall and Tony Marsh. Both could possible appear next year on Guy's own Maya label, already home to his Arcus duos with Barre Phillips and the Live date from improvising sextet Elsie Jo (with Lytton, Parker, Phillips, Schweizer and Konrad Bauer). First, however, he plans to release a CD of his solo bass improvisations.
This disc, called Fizzles was recorded in "the superb acoustic" of a wooden church in Blumenstein, Switzerland, and presents a wide sampling of the different sound areas Guy explores in his solo improvisations. Invention – the Bird of Infinity and Still are the more melodic, ballad-like pieces; She Took the Sacred Rattle and Used It features sticks and mallets; Five Fizzles for SB and a series of three Rouge works take us through specific areas in a very short space of time"; Hilibili Meets the Brush, a "down-home" tune subverted by Guy's use of brushes, has "a tongue-in-cheek, almost cartoon-like quality". On Afar, Guy took his instrument to the other end of the church to see how that bass would sound from a distance". The opening Free Fall was one of the first pieces he played: "the point at which I felt comfortable with the acoustic, with the bass in those surroundings. It was like the launching pad, a feeling of 'here we go' and I called it Free Fall because of ... just the idea of when you skydive, you jump out of the aeroplane and before you is the whole landscape."
A man is dancing in his soul. As the music sweeps over him, he feels transported, disembodied, as if he is floating – shooting – into space. Tears spring from his eyes. He tries to think, to form a sentence in his mind that describes what is happening, but the words spin away. It's all too much. He dissolves into the music, tears flowing down his cheeks. The joy, the joy.
You've mentioned the spiritual quality of music, I say to Barry Guy. Can you say exactly what you mean by that?
"That's a hard one. I think what I mean is something that I find uplifting, moving, intense – the ability of music to transport us into another space. It's not religiosity, it's more an intangible quality, to do with what it does to my inside".
Does it happen when you're listening and when you're playing?
"Yes. I find it in all the music I enjoy, whether it's playing with Evan Parker or Cecil Taylor or playing Bach. All of those music makers take our minds and bodies to another area of living. Into special emotional moments.
"When I first played Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers, I felt almost disembodied. There are certain things that happen; certain chords, music climaxes, that emotionally transport me. As if ... perhaps it is looking at God, I don't know. But it's not an everyday experience. There's a mystery about why this happens. It's a very deep quality that takes over you whole body and it's a tremendous thrill to be involved in that".
Presumably when you're improvising, it just happens. But I guess Monteverdi was consciously trying to achieve it – the 1610 Vespers don't have affect simply by chance.
"Well ... I'm sure he was trying to make people feel spiritually risen, if you like. There are certain techniques in those great choral works that uplift anybody who is in contact with them. But that's technique. I don't think you can work toward this particular feeling. For me, it's the combination of all the factors that somehow coalesces into a magnificent musical moment. That's what happens in improvisation – some moments you feel like you can go straight through the ceiling because of what's happening in the musical conversation. There is a certain point where it becomes almost unreal – you're taken far beyond the practicality of standing there playing the music. There are certain coincidences of sound and activity that take us into another realm. And whether it's Evan Parker or Monteverdi, you have a completely new experience. You can't really say what it is".
Have you explored any methods to make it happen when you're improvising, or to prolong it once it starts?
"I don't think it can be manufactured. I don't think you have any control over it when it happens. It's like being out in space and meeting a black hole. The types of energies that are flowing there, are of a totally new order. You're taken into the music, into this black hole, almost unconsciously. If it happens, it's fantastic, but I don't think you can recreate it.
"Although, of course, Monteverdi created it already, so every time we play the 1610 Vespers ... I do have almost the same feelings at the same points. But it depends on the performance too, that characteristic is terribly important. I've heard some dreadful versions of the 1610 Vespers that have transported me absolutely nowhere except home on the bus pretty fast. (Laughs) On the other hand I heard John Eliot Gardiner do a performance at Brompton Oratory where I was nearly in tears. It actually destabilised my body. I'm sitting there, a rational human being listening to the music, and there are tears coming out of my eyes. I'm not sad, I'm very happy actually. I think it's to do with joy, spiritual joy, uplifting you to a space that is almost indescribable. But it is joyous, that's the main thing. For me, the joy of music-making is where everything centres."