Schweben - Ay, But Can Ye?

Schweben - Ay, But Can Ye?

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directed by Barry Guy

Important for this composition commissioned by the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra from Barry Guy, is the unity of composed and improvised passages, the concern for the capabilities and strengths of individual players, the way in which small groups are part of the larger structures. Based on “Ay, but can ye?” a Russian poem translated into Scots by Edwin Morgan and using images of Wassily Kandinsky, this mostly graphically notated score is a musical adventure for the players as well as the listeners.

Other than providing the text for the vocalist(s) “Ay, but can ye ?” it proposed an interesting play on words with the German “Schweben” (To Float). The graphic controls the overall musical movement, but also asks some players to float inside and outside the boundaries and begs the question “but can ye?” - a question we often ask ourselves in daily life.


An old hand at adapting program music for a large ensemble of improvisers is bassist Barry Guy, who has directed the London Jazz Composers Orchestra since 1970. Schweben - Ay But Can Ye? Maya Records MCD 1201 is particularly noteworthy since Guy’s composition for the 22-piece Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra (GIO) links a Wassily Kandinksy painting to a poem by his Soviet contemporary Vladimir Mayakovsky and that verse’s translation into Scots dialect by Edwin Morgan (1920-2010), Scotland’s national poet. No academic exercise, Guy’s suite melds dissonant timbres of Scots phraseology with polyphonic gyrations from solo, group or dual instrumental combinations.

Variants of the poem are heard at intervals during the nearly 48-minute performance, but since most words, phrases and sentences are swallowed or strained from the throats of Nicola MacDonald and Aileen Campbell, birth near the River Clyde would seem to necessary for full understanding of the meaning – an impression confirmed by an earlier track where Morgan reads the poem. With verbal comprehension ruptured, attention moves to the vocalists’ tessitura, which includes bel canto warbling and lyrical scene-setting. Meantime GIO members’ virtuosity is given full reign, including harsh rasgueado from the harpist, angled friction from the violinists and bassists, wide-bore brass snorts, slurping and stabbing reed lines, staccato flute rasps and broadly emphasized piano glissandi. The earliest variation concludes with a warm interlocking of voice syllables and tutti orchestral quivers. This imaginative balance continues throughout subsequent sequences as stentorian rhythms from dual percussionists and quivers from the layered background arrangement pull back at junctures for emotional vocalese or descriptive drama from trombone blats, crashing cymbals or crisp accelerating saxophone vamps from Raymond Macdonald and John Burgess. Finally the sonic hegemony reaches a writhing crescendo where the reeds’ whistled and angled split tones, each more jagged and atonal than the previous one, make common cause with the verbal jabberwocky. Overall the evenly distributed orchestral passages plus heartfelt individual solos illuminate the poem(s) plus painting more than the vocalists’ garbled phrases. A fascinating coda has Morgan discussing Mayakovsky’s influence on his poetics.
(Ken Waxman July 2013)

Some more, Mr. Nice Guy! - Freistil Magazin

Barry Guy, auch so eine Lichtgestalt der Gründergeneration der Bewegung frei improvisierender MusikerInnen in England, bekleidet die Funktion eines herausragenden Konzeptualisten, Anregers, Leiters improvisierender Großensembles. Und das schon seit über vier Dekaden. Guy, ebenso exzellenter Bassist, hat einen wegweisenden organischen Ansatz zur Zusammenführung von notierter Musik und freier Improvisation ausgetüftelt. Beide musikalischen Schöpfungsakte finden in seinen Stücken eine anregende, engvernetzte Balance.

Ein weiteres überzeugendes Beispiel liefert er in dem Werk schweben – ay, but can ye? (Maya Recordings), das er für das Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, mit dem ihn eine über zehnjährige Zusammenarbeit verbindet, konzipiert hat. Ein komplexes, abstraktes Werk, für das ihm ein Bild von Kandinsky mit dem Titel Schweben, nach einem Gedicht des russischen Poeten Wladimir Majakowski in der Übersetzung des schottischen Dichters Edwin Morgan als Inspirationen diente. Die beiden Literaten haben den Realsozialismus theoretisch aufgearbeitet und revolutionäre Perspektiven entwickelt. Mit kompromisslosen Realklängen, die er in vertrackten vorgegebenen Schüttungen und in Echtzeitereignissen erklingen lässt, setzt Guy seine Klangwelt in Bezug zu den Inspirationsquellen. Das 22-köpfige Orchester und seine Gäste arbeiten mit unbändigem Engagement und Hingabe an der Umsetzung des fünfzigminütigen Klangtraktates. Fein verästelte Kontemplation ist ebenso Teil des „Schwebezustandes“ wie entfesselte Entladungen, die aufgrund der eloquenten Strukturbauten Guys nie außer Rand und Band geraten und sich fokussiert auffächern. Schweben – yes, they can! (June 2014 Hannes Schweiger)

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The Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra commission for Schweben required something that could adapt to personnel changes and be realisable without Guy or any musical director being present. Guy can fulfil such a briefing: he has done much to explore methods of achieving fruitful accommodations between structure and freedom, between the vision of the composer and the aspirations of the improviser. The score includes graphics, 13 paintings by Kandinsky and the titular poem ‘Could You?’ by Mayakovsky (translated into Scots by poet Edwin Morgan), as well as ‘vetoes’, spontaneous interventions that can be activated in performances.
It’s not difficult to envisage parallels between this adrenalin-provoking performance and Mayakovsky’s service to (and conflicts with) the Soviet state. The music ranges from whole orchestra tsunamis of sound to muttering dialogues among small groupings via cathartically passionate episodes dominated by a spotlighted player. Stunning.
(Barry Witherden)

The Glasgow Improvisers' Orchestra is celebrating its 10th birthday, with gigs at Glasgow's CCA running until 1 December. That rare beast, an all-improv group with coherence, the GIO have often invited leading improviser-composers to give the occasional nudge to their collective tiller - in this case, improv/contemporary-classical original Barry Guy, whose 47- minute piece is bookended by the spoken words of the late Glasgow poet Edwin Morgan, reading and discussing Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Mayakovsky, and the painter Kandinsky, both influenced Guy in the conception of this open-structured venture. After Morgan's eloquent reading of Ay, But Can Ye? (his own translation of the radical Mayakovsky's Could You?), the music develops through flute swirls coloured by muted brass, Derek Baileyesque free-improv guitar strummings against background murmurs of conversation, sax outbursts suggestive of Albert Ayler and Evan Parker, soft sounds like twittering birds or rubbed glass, and winds up on the spoken question of the title. It's dramatic, fierce, spooky, fascinating and sometimes very melodic, though it's not for those unmoved or unnerved by the angularities, discontinuities and dissonances of some contemporary-classical music and improv.
(John Fordham)

The Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra
By Jim Gilchrist 
Published on Thursday 22 November 2012

But you
Wi denty thrapple
Can ye wheeple
Nocturnes frae a rone-pipe flute?

So asks the late Edwin Morgan, in his translation from the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. And in its latest recording, the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra responds to his cryptic challenge, though on instrumental forces rather more substantial than a rone pipe, and wheepling’s not the least of it.
The new album’s enigmatic-sounding title, Schweben – Ay, but can ye? refers to the two major points of inspiration for the orchestra’s guest composer, double bassist Barry Guy’s monumental exercise in (relatively) free improvisation, Morgan’s rhetorical translation from the Mayakovsky poem, Ay, but can ye? and a painting by Kandinsky, Schweben, which means “floating”. The album will be launched at the end of this month during the fifth GIO Fest, the orchestra’s annual celebration of free improvisation at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts, and also marks the tenth anniversary of the band, lauded by Radio 3 as “one of the world’s best large improvising ensembles”.
The 47-minute piece, which swells from tentative flutings to a near-symphonic massiveness, is bookended by a frail-sounding Morgan, recorded before his death in 2010, firstly reading his translation, lastly discussing Mayakovsky and his influence on his own work. The Kandinsky painting becomes the “architecture” of Guy’s composition, with the “score” effectively what Guy describes as a “control graphic”, built around Kandinsky’s imagery.
The 22 musicians involved include such GIO core members as guitarist George Burt and saxophonist Raymond MacDonald, as well as names well known about the broader jazz scene and beyond – reedsman John Burgess, drummer Stuart brown, harpist Catriona McKay – and Guy’s wife, Maya Homburger, a baroque violinist.
Guy “conducts” by holding up cards which take the musicians in and out of the structure – a football referee comes to mind, while certain players, who add a further unpredictability to the music’s evolution, are known as “floaters”, reflecting Kandinsky’s title.
Welcome to the sometimes bewildering world of free improvisation. It’s best appreciated in live performance, says one of GIO’s founder members, Raymond MacDonald, who is also professor of psychology and music improvisation at Edinburgh University, and who is anticipating the GIO Fest with considerable excitement. “Particularly when you experience it live, the drama of the unfolding improvisation can make it very accessible. You have, say, 15 musicians walking on stage and they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
To the uninitiated, such an exercise can sound like spectacular sonic mayhem. MacDonald is keen to demystify it, particularly through the forthcoming festival, which features some giants of the international free-improv scene, with whom the Glasgow orchestra has developed close collaborative links – Evan Parker, for example, who’ll be duetting with another distinguished guest, trombonist George Lewis. Other guests include vocalist Maggie Nicols, the Shetland Improvisers orchestra, the Alex von Schlippenbach Trio and a new commission from Jim O’Rourke – better known as a musician with the leftfield rock band Sonic Youth (his “score” is written on a deck of Japanese playing cards).
There will be further settings of Morgan poems, read by actor Tam Dean Burn in a new piece by George Burt, Three Envelopes for Edwin, plus Sonic Bothy, a project for players with special needs run by bassist Una McGlone.
MacDonald describes the ten years of the orchestra’s existence as “a really exciting journey for us”. But also, he adds, the decade “has seen a considerable shift in attitudes to free improvisation. When we started up, talking about what we did felt a little like trying to explain some kind of anti-social activity,” he laughs.
“Of course, there is still a lot of discussion round the aesthetics of improvisation, but I think the landscape of contemporary music has changed. Free improvisation is no longer something that has to be justified.”