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)

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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)