a column by
Barry Guy Francesca Pfeffer©2008
It is two days after Barry Guy directed London Jazz Composers Orchestra for the first time in ten years to open the 19th edition of the Schaffhauser Jazzfestival, and the bassist-composer is tying up the gig’s last loose ends on a bright May morning. New airline restrictions limiting musicians to one carry-on instrument forced 11th hour saxophones rentals, leaving Guy with horns to return. Luckily, Guy and his partner, the Baroque violinist Maya Homburger, now live in Switzerland, reducing the task to a run into nearby Zürich. It’s a small item on the list, compared to the myriad logistical challenges of bringing together 17 musicians from all over Europe and even the US for a super-compressed three days of rehearsal, recording and the concert in the formal, yet intimate Stadttheater. And, relative to real crises – like discovering 24 hours out from the concert that the eminent audio engineer recording the performance for Swiss Radio broadcast and presumably for later release on CD is mixing over two dozen closely placed mics live to two-track blind – the rental return is literally a drive through the countryside for Guy.
However, it is an ordinary chore that speaks to larger issues. Despite the inroads composer-improvisers like Guy have made in terms of grant funding, and support from presenters and labels, large-scale projects like LJCO remain largely DIY. Infrastructure rarely extends beyond the composer-director; mindful of this, Guy is always quick to credit Homburger’s administrative acumen for the continuation of projects like his New Orchestra. Even though he is as fit and energetic as many folks half his age, Guy nevertheless is 61, and most of the remaining early members of LJCO have a few years on him: this is when it should be getting easier. Instead, the international air travel system, on which such projects rely, is becoming more expensive, restrictive and generally dysfunctional by the day. The struggle for funding has flipped, ironically; particularly in the UK, where Guy and his contemporaries won a pitched battle for legitimacy with the bureaucracy more than thirty years ago, funding agencies’ infatuation with the new now works against them. The booming success of jazz education has resulted in a flooded, fee-depressing labor market, which only the most dedicated presenters resist exploiting.
Regardless, Guy is rightfully in full breach-charging mode: He has resuscitated LJCO and premiered the festival-commissioned “Radio Rondo” to a sustained standing ovation from an audience that reportedly tends to be a bit cool. A concerto for guest soloist, pianist Irène Schweizer, “Radio Rondo” compares well to previous LJCO high watermarks like “Harmos,” the other piece performed at Schaffhausen, in terms of Guy’s long-term project of creating chain reactions between composed and improvised elements. However, “Radio Rondo” is different from his prior LJCO works in this regard: Just as Guy sought to transfer the large sound of LJCO to New Orchestra, “Radio Rondo” emphasizes the flexibility and agility he honed in the smaller ensemble to LJCO. Furthermore, Guy took an additional step towards composer-performer collaboration in having Schweizer open the evening with an unaccompanied solo, which served as a prelude to “Radio Rondo.”
Though Guy retained the form’s traditional utility as a soloist’s showcase on “Radio Rondo,” he expanded the scope of the rondo’s back and forth to feature Schweizer in several sub-groupings – a pummeling quintet passage with Guy, bassist Barre Phillips, and drummers Paul Lytton and Lucas Niggli raised an already high voltage level – as well as encounters with the full force of the 17-piece contingent. In the latter, Guy cued single-note stabs, flurried textures and a host of other impromptu events from parts of the orchestra, spiking the power of the notated materials. For all of the piece’s intensity, Guy slipped in beautiful passages like the plaintive melody stated by tenor saxophonist Simon Picard well into the piece, and the magisterial theme that set up the piece’s final tutti blast. Still, idiomatic ensembles play a less central role in “Radio Rondo” than in “Harmos.” Although it has numerous spaces for small group improvisations – the exchange between tenor saxophonist Evan Parker and long-time trio mates Guy and Lytton had the crowd-rousing impact of the all-star combo feature in a ‘40s big band show – this early ‘90s chestnut hinges on a refreshingly broad theme, eliciting searing solos from saxophonists Trevor Watts and Peter McPhail
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Bill Shoemaker: So, it’s been awhile since you last got the band together.
Barry Guy: Awhile, indeed. Our last concert was at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1998, where we played “Harmos” as our final piece. I would say that’s probably the best performance we ever gave of the piece. This was not surprising since we had played the piece several times since 1987, and each time the piece got freer as the orchestra got tighter. It was such a wonderful performance that I was almost persuaded to continue. I didn’t go into that performance thinking it would be the last. Afterwards, back at home, I thought, “When can we do this again?” But, the finances of doing it were imposing, to say the least. I thought I’d wait a year and see if anybody – anybody – would ask for a performance. I thought that the performance was so good that a festival in Europe would ask us to play. But, not one word. And, we were doing other things and developing the idea that became the New Orchestra. That was a lengthy process in itself. It took me about six months to formulate an orchestration. It was conceptually difficult to jump from a big formation to a mid-sized formation, and retain some of the sounds I was after. Then I had the idea of using three trios as the axis of activities: the trio with Marilyn Crispell and Paul Lytton; the trio with Mats Gustafsson and Raymond Strid, and Parker-Guy-Lytton. I worked out who had worked with who over the years, and everyone had played with Johannes Bauer and Hans Koch. Per Åke Holmlander had come in for the last performance of the LJCO, and I thought was he was a super tuba player, so he was in the band. And Herb Robertson, who is an incredible trumpeter. Then I started writing for the band and found a sound for it; in some ways, a sound almost as big as LJCO’s. All of the musicians had a big sound of their own, and it gave the music a really intense energy.
And, then a year passed and another year passed, and people began to ask, “What happened to the LJCO?” “Well, nothing really,” I would say. And, then ten years passed. It’s ridiculous. So, I’m approaching my 60th birthday and Maya (Homburger) said, “I would love to hear ‘Harmos’ again. Do you think you can get the band together?” There were a couple of possibilities, but the same financial problems arose, and the British Council was not funding any music projects. It looked dim until Schaffhausen stepped in with a commission to write “Radio Rondo” and then Maya did fantastic work to persuade two – or was it three? –foundations to give grants for the project. It was just like before -- you had to have all of this fall into place to give a concert. It’s the nature of the beast. But, it was worth it to get all of these guys together.
Shoemaker: “Radio Rondo” is not the first piece you have written for Irène Schweizer.
Guy: Right; “Theoria” was the first. With this piece, basically, what I thought I would do was structure a piece that featured her heavily, that was like a piano concerto; but unlike “Theoria,” which had a lot of music for her to read as well as to improvise – I think she took six months for her to work on it – I went to the other extreme on this one and gave her very little material. I wanted her personal invention to work in the piece. I listened to some of her solo recordings and tried to introduce into the score some of the types of articulations that would be familiar to her. It wouldn’t be a big jump in terms of conceptual materials. I wanted her to feel comfortable within the structure of the piece, and have her coming and going with different groupings of the orchestra, and really have her invent in these groupings. The score was negotiable in the sense that during rehearsals I would ask her if she wanted to play at certain points. But, there were other points that I needed her to play – they were her moments. I was interested in keeping a continuum of piano colors, so how this finally took shape was sorted in the rehearsals.
The idea that led me to call the piece “Radio Rondo” was that the guys in the band had been circulating around the world doing their music since 1998, and their music was out there in the airwaves, though not necessarily literally being played on the radio. It is an image of the continuum of this music. What I wanted to do, metaphorically, was to turn on the radio at night in 2001 and … 2001? What am I talking about? I mean 2008 …
Shoemaker: A lot of us would like it to be 2001.
Guy: Absolutely. But, the idea was that I turned on the radio and there they were, as if it never ended. In fact, when I started the piece, it literally started from a zero point as if you go to your radio, turn it on and they’re there, as if it never stopped. But, once I finished the piece, I added a preface to it with all these glissandi, bass drums, and wild saxophones. So that was like opening the window and letting them in, and then I turned on the radio. Similarly, the end of the piece has this very sharp cut-off as if you just turned off the radio.
It’s very interesting that now, since I’ve done these pieces with the guys and Irène, I’ve got the bug again. It’s like building. In 1996, ’97 and ’98, we built a house in Ireland and it was such an amazing experience, a mixture of feeling suicidal one moment and euphoric the next, as the roof starts to blow off or the builders screw up something. You get the bug about the idea of making something and it may take 2½ years of working with builders to put this thing up, and there are so many things – from the design and the money to getting things as simple as nails and concrete – but you have this bug and that’s what sustains you. And now with this project in Schaffhausen, I’ve got the bug again with this band.
Shoemaker: I thought you expanded the traditional idea of rondo in this piece. There was the back and forth between Irène and the band that was within the conventional parameters, but then there were passages when you have several musicians playing together – it seemed like Irène was always in the midst of those – and then you would cue the others for these single-note blasts and such, so the back and forth really took on some new dimensions – back and forth between soft and loud, notes and textures, and others I couldn’t quite grasp because the piece moved so fast.
Guy: My idea of the rondo theme was the turning on of the radio, this shape that went from zero to fortissimo. This ramp-up appears throughout the piece, mainly forte though a couple of quieter versions of it appear towards the end of the piece. The idea is that this keeps on coming back to give some structural continuity, a foundation on which I could build other things – different ensembles, different colors and textures. Originally, I had a device that I’ve used quite a lot in these LJCO pieces, to set up different groupings with a soloist and prepare the way for a trio or a quintet to play, and give them a certain type of material to work with in that space. I tried to do this with Irène in this piece, clearing the air at certain points to leave her out in the clear with three or four guys. At the beginning, there are two piano trios. We had two bass players and two drummers, so I thought it would be interesting to contrast two approaches, and then put everyone together as a sort of double trio. Using these alternating colors would gradually build up new material. Let’s say that the intervening material between these two trios was a particular type of activity from the saxophones and fluteophone, a color that appears throughout the piece. There’s also the idea of the “stab,” where the whole orchestra hits a note and follows my cue, and I can make it a short burst or create a rhythmic unit. So, I built in all of this to reflect how she plays. But, we modified some of these things in rehearsal. The guys came up with a lot of decent suggestions about how the textures could be developed. I’m not a composer who hangs onto every note. I enjoy interventions from other musicians. If they have a better idea, great. At one point, I think it was Evan (Parker) and Trevor (Watts) suggested that the saxophones not play since the whole band was playing the same thing. They suggested that just the brass do it. With just the brass playing this material, there was a lightness that wasn’t there before. Per Åke made a similarly good suggestion at another point. These suggestions are usually about pruning. They hear it in a different way. I hear it when I’m at the drawing board, imaging the piece and going through all the possibilities for the structures. Sometimes, in reality, you have to do other things. They were very positive, very helpful.
Shoemaker: It begs the question: When is one of your pieces finished, complete?
Guy: We can say that “Harmos” is complete in the sense that we don’t talk about those types of details anymore. Having said that, there were some things did come up during the rehearsal that we talked about for about ten minutes. And, a few things changed because Lucas Niggli had come into the band. I wanted to give him a feature because he’s such a great player, and I modified some of the groupings so that he could play a little more. What was a duet between Paul Rutherford and Barre Phillips became on this occasion a duet with Connie Bauer, and I decided to add drums to that. There’s always a certain amount of adjustments you can make with each performance. But, the piece is formally complete now. I need to make a good score of it. I’ve been talking about doing it for a few years now. We had a project in mind to publish the “Harmos” score with good parts. Since 1987, I’ve been working with what I call a short score that I have in front of me. I can hardly read it, it’s so worn out, but I know the piece well enough to get by. I would really like to make a really nice copy, because I’ve done this piece with student bands and it works well. It’s amazing to bring out the freedom in young players. Most players get a lot out of it, because it’s a different type of material in terms of big band pieces that they are exposed to – Count Basie, Duke Ellington; that sort of score. To watch them find a new way of responding to a score is very interesting, and the feedback is very gratifying. I’m very please that this piece can jump ship from the LJCO to young performers. I’ve done a couple of the other scores as well. I did “Portraits” in Finland and parts of it in Mannheim. It was a thing I never thought I would do, to take these pieces which were written for specific players with specific sounds and approaches to improvisation and find the right young person to play each part. It’s amazing that there are young players who have absorbed what the guys in LJCO have done, to find a young saxophonist who works with circular breathing the way Evan does.
Shoemaker: I think that’s really significant, that the improvisational vocabularies of you and your colleagues have matriculated and taken root as something one now learns along with older styles of jazz.
Guy: It says something about aging, perhaps. I was always reluctant to work with young ensembles because I was waiting for the big failure. But, the young people I’ve worked with now have an incredible background in instrumental technique and they’ve done a lot of listening to a wide variety of music. They’re not stuck in any one thing. That mirrors what I have done. I’ve immersed myself in Baroque music practice through to contemporary music, and through to improvisation. I can now see in some of these young people a version of myself, even in terms of intensity of wanting to know. In that respect, I have been so surprised at these big band projects at places like the Paris Conservatoire. I was really worried about it coming off as too academic, but the performance was mind-blowing. We did “Witch Gong Game,” which is the piece I direct with cards. So, I have a confidence now about this type of project.
Shoemaker: Is “Radio Rondo” a continuation of previously considered issues or problems in the main, or does it set out new issues or problems that you are contending with as a composer, enough so to say that it demarcates a new period of your work?
Guy: I have to say it’s a continuation. I have a particular sound in my head and a particular way of negotiating with a large ensemble, and that’s reflected in the piece and that’s what forms the continuity with the earlier pieces. However, what I tried to do in “Radio Rondo” was, because of the time constraints – we only had two days to rehearse both the new piece and “Harmos” – I had to discipline myself and not be too fancy in the orchestration and in the notation, because I knew the guys had to almost instantly decode the piece. The method I used in this piece was not to give too many written pitches with difficult articulations. So, in all of the stop-start material, there are no pitches given, but the contours are given – the particular attack. Even though I’m conducting the stop-start material, there is an element of chance there. If everybody chooses the same note, I’m screwed. But, the odds were in my favor, and I’m happy – relieved – that it went well. A lot of times, working out these pieces has to do with figuring out the probabilities of what may occur, and scoring the piece appropriately. In the middle section, where we have all of these hanging chords, is all notated. There’s a loose time section where what I call cascades; they’re all written out. But, I wrote it in such a way that people could get a handle on it very quickly. I was mindful of the circumstances in which we were going to have to put the piece together. It’s also why I decided to give very little written material to Irène, because I wanted to almost open the door and just let her improvise with the band, and I would lead them through the structure and you just improvise. That was kind of the idea that I had with “Bird Gong Game,” a piece for five instruments: oboe, flute, trumpet, clarinet and an improvising soloist. The idea was that the soloist never hears the music before the day of the concert. It’s another piece that I conduct with flash cards, so I can adjust the ensemble’s activities to whatever the soloist is doing. So, it is kind of a three-way exchange – soloist, conductor and ensemble – with the materials ranging from the absolute written to what I call a wild card, which means the player has to take on the soloist’s material and react. That idea jumped ship into “Radio Rondo,” but there are clear points where this can occur. I made specific notations in Irène’s part – a crescendo here that leads into the next section; light material here; heavy material there. She felt that she didn’t want to play in the big written section because she so enjoyed listening to the chords. My original intent was not fulfilled there, but in the end I thought she was right. Her backing off there was actually a good idea. So, the two days were much more about pruning things than putting things in.
Shoemaker: Another part of the piece that I found interesting is how you introduced this melody towards the end, with Simon Picard stating it by himself with very sparse accompaniment. Over the years, your pieces have always contained a movement – sometimes large, sometimes small – of what can be considered more romantic or ballad-like. In “Harmos,” it has grandeur. Here, you slip it in and it was very effective.
Guy: That was something that changed in rehearsal. That moment was originally a quintet with Simon, Henry (Lowther), Connie, Lucas and Irène. I had a lot of material – stabs and dense improvisations – coming from the orchestra, and I built up this quintet with Irène coming in last. After a final gesture by the orchestra, the quintet is out there in space. There was too much space. Henry was on one side of the band, Simon was near me, Connie was on the other side of the band, Lucas was near the piano, and Irène was the furthest away and couldn’t hear them. We had five simultaneous improvisations. So, at first, I decided to cut it down to a duo between Irène and Johannes Bauer, but then changed my mind and had Simon play with Irène since he was close to her. Now, Simon’s playing has changed a lot over the years, and he now seems to be intensely involved with melody and the slow line. So, at rehearsal, he started playing these slow notes which changed with Irène’s playing, and it was great. So, we got into a more melodic area than I had originally planned just by leaving him alone. It turned out to be a very beautiful moment. Usually, I have saxophones blasting away and engaging in really fast activities, so this was completely different. You’re right in your observation about the introduction of melodic elements in the so-called loose time section and the hanging chords section. A device I use is to bring in the long saxophone melody with a very heavy harmonic basis from trombones and tuba, and these counterpoint lines going on. I love doing that, sitting at the piano and working out these melodies, and I like dropping these moments into a piece after I have had all of this more abstract material. It’s a type of material that they play very well and which really has its beginnings back in the time of “Ode.” It’s a matter of working the things you enjoy into the score, and things that are effective with the band. The guys are good at loosely following a line. Even though I was conducting, I just put down the harmonic changes on the last section. Pete (McPhail) led the saxophone section on the line itself, which is written in a loose way. There’s no point in my writing it as you would in a symphony. That would be really boring. With Pete leading the saxophone section, there’s a quality that I enjoy.
Shoemaker: That seems to be a role for Pete that’s evolved over the years.
Guy: Yeah. He’s good at it and he doesn’t mind doing it. Trevor’s done it as well. Trevor takes that first theme in “Harmos” and I tell you I was in tears. When he started that melody, it was so nostalgic, but powerful. I wrote that melody with Trevor in mind. I heard the way he would play it when I wrote it. Trevor’s sound has doubled since I last played with him. He’s gotten more passionate and he’s got this amazing ability to soar over the band. His alto sound is quite unique. I got so excited about that I proposed to him that we do an album together, a trio. I might even use the “Harmos” theme. That’s another nice thing to come out of this occasion. On thing that I thought was amusing was the people who came up afterwards and said it was so good to see old guys play so well, since we do have a few younger guys in the band like Mats and Lucas. While it is true that most of us are now in our late fifties and sixties – Barre is 72 – I think the passion is still there, all of the energy is still there. There’s a quality to it, now; I don’t know if “maturity” does it justice, but there is a maturity and a way of working which is kinder. In the early days of the LJCO, everyone had an agenda. Everyone was a bandleader wanting to leave their mark. That’s changed. As I was saying to the sponsors of the festival before the concert – and I don’t know how this went down with the bank people – this orchestra is socialism in action in the sense that have humanity, we have support, we have sharing, we have humility and we have strength. I probably threw in a few other things, as well. Combined, in a group working together, supporting each other collectively, moving towards this goal – I think this is a great lesson for anybody. You can say this happens in a symphony orchestra, but the difference is that instead of the maestro conducting the score and the musicians reading and interpreting the notes, we have the freedom of individual expression.
Shoemaker: Really, it’s apples and oranges comparing a musician in a symphony orchestra to one of the members of LJCO, because the expectations are so different. It is incumbent upon each musician in LJCO to cross the line at some point in the performance from being merely interpretative to being creative, which touches upon the three-way exchange concept you mentioned before. If Evan or Mats or anyone else only read the score and gave rote responses to your various cues – if at some point they don’t stand up and take it upstairs, so to speak – the piece is going to suffer. It breaks the chain of responses between you and the orchestra and the soloists.
Guy: And it would have an impact on how they would respond to each other. It’s an amazing chemistry in this band, but it is complex and dependent upon so many things to bring about what I’m really interested in: the metamorphosis of composition through to improvisation, and vice versa. I’ve always been interested in the procedures of making this a seamless interchange between the two. It’s critical to have players who can respond to the variables this approach – this thesis about composition and improvisation – creates in real time. Composition and improvisation are often seen as being polar opposites, but everything in my background promoted the idea that they weren’t, that you could bring them together in dynamic ways.
Shoemaker: I think the polar opposites model is fed by this idea that composition is considered to be intrinsically specific and mindful, while improvisation is nebulous and impulsive. You scramble those eggs, in that the score is very specific about processes, but it doesn’t dictate the results.
Guy: That’s the joy of it. There’s always the chance of the procedure leading to something new. By building in this flexibility, there’s the hope that something new will come out of it, providing that the players can make something of it. I have various quotes from composers that I’ve found over the years – Xenakis, Berio and others – concerning their interest in improvisation, and the issue of players improvising in their pieces. To a man, they all say it’s unstable chemistry to allow a player improvising within the context of a composition. That’s the mindset of the composer who wants dictatorial control over the proceedings. It’s interesting to look at a Boulez score or a Berio score because there are activities that are loose, which would suggest that they would have a great interest in improvisation. But, Boulez for one, has absolutely no time whatsoever for improvised content. I’ve set out to prove them wrong. Granted, it’s a different type of music. I don’t work with number theory, for example. On the other hand, I do work with sound structural principles. You have to build up ideas about why pieces work. When I was playing the great works of Beethoven and Monteverdi, I always took a keen interest in trying to understand why these pieces work. Of course, Beethoven was working with some known principles about symphonic composition and symphonic development, but then he turned those principles on their heads sometimes. Xenakis is interesting. I worked with him on “Theraps.” But, everything is done with mathematics. All of the pieces are formulated by mathematical procedures. But, if you play them in a certain way, throwing yourself into it, it almost sounds like an improvisation. His piece for double bass is an incredible piece. You can make it sound like tea time music. That’s how it came out when I first started to play it. He used to put his head in his hands and say, “No, no, no.” I thought I had sold it, but then I realized that there were some other techniques that needed to be applied to the piece. So, I went back and spent six months on it, went back to Paris and played it for him again. I was relieved that it was met with his approval. It was finding the key to unlock the piece, discovering his intentions that aren’t explicit in the score. He then followed up with a letter and said I should change the dynamic markings to my taste, change the speeds. So, even though he had this grid-like music, he said you can be flexible in playing the piece. So, if you take a piece to its logical end, and get into the composer’s thinking, then you can add a dimension to it.
Shoemaker: Do you give out the keys to your pieces or do you let musicians find the right one on their own?
Guy: I prefer that they find their way through these doors. The discovery is the skeleton key. Ultimately, it is about unlocking potential about thinking about the piece. Telling them how or when to improvise doesn’t put them into a new room, but the process at the very least prompts questions, and those questions lead to solutions. Whether it is the LJCO or a student ensemble, if I have one person say that their thinking about the piece changed in the process, I feel like I have done my job. What I can’t do is definitively explain why things are there in the piece. I do have a rationale for having three things going on at once, but if you are looking for freedom and surprise, then you have to let the musicians do the work. I think that’s an important part of composing.