Barry Guy

The composer and double bassist Barry Guy is the kind of musician I would love to have been. In a career which began in London in the late 1960s, Barry has defied conventional type-casting and made his mark in the worlds of jazz, early music and avant-garde concert music.  When the Vortex Jazz Club open their Intakt Festival on April 16th 2017 with a concert to celebrate Barry’s 70th birthday, he will play all night himself, with jazz legends like Evan Parker and Howard Riley; but he will also play a set with his wife Maya Homburger, a baroque violinist.  They will play music of the 9th century, and play Biber, as well as improvising on music by Kurtag and a piece by Barry.

As an improviser Barry is second to none. He may be the most innovative double bass player of all time – still.  I first met him in 1971, introduced to him by my composition teacher Bernard Rands.  I knew very little about the current jazz scene at the time.  Like Barry I had dabbled with the traditional jazz of Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball as a teenager, but then I had moved on to other things.  Barry, though, never stopped improvising with jazz musicians.  When he moved on to other things, it was not a departure but a broadening, and by 1970 he already had a foot in several camps.  Heavily involved in the free jazz scene, and setting up the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, he was also mingling with the London new music crowd and the developing early music movement.  I probably met him first at the SPNM summer ‘Composers Weekend’ at Goldsmiths College.  Barry had studied composition there with Stanley Glasser, but at that weekend there was a mind blowing collection of new wave composers – Sal Martirano (USA), David Bedford, David Lumsdaine, Roger Smalley, Bernard Rands – and musicians including Jane Manning, John Tilbury and Barry.   In an impromptu late night drinking session in a student kitchen, Barry picked up the bass and improvised.  I have never forgotten it. The speed and ferocity of attack, the use of the bow and drumsticks to ‘prepare’ the strings (while playing), the guitar foot pedal which amplified super-high harmonics, the solid and sonorous pizzicato like a deep, giant sitar…… I had never heard a double bass sound like that, and never have since, except when listening to Barry.

Bernard Rands and Barry got on extremely well.  They shared an interest in virtuosity, both in music and in drinking.  I was fortunate enough to be allowed to join their sessions, in various South London pubs, but also in Barry’s tiny upstairs bedroom in his mother’s house in Blackheath, where Barry went through every aspect of his innovative technical repertoire so that Bernard could understand them and devise ways to notate them.  Bernard used to stay with my family in Kentish Town when he was in London, and it was on my mother’s kitchen table that Bernard wrote the score – in one night – for Memo 1.   This was the first of Bernard’s series of pieces for solo instrument called Memo.  Memo 1  uses the foot pedal so that amplification can be triggered and varied during performance; it uses pizzicato above the left hand and behind the bridge; it asks the performer to join frenzied bursts of pizzicato with muttered vocalisation – in short it uses a catalogue of techniques already devised and used by Barry – and it formalizes them into a carefully structured piece which emerges from the depths of the acoustic bass before opening into a reverberant amplified soundscape with sonorous pizzicato and flurries of harmonics, and building to a wild and virtuosic climax which includes Barry’s trade-mark glissando chords in opposing directions (simultaneously).  Memo 1 remains a masterpiece, in my view, and I have often used it in teaching composition for a number of reasons.  Memo 1 demonstrates clarity of structure, and how a simple harmonic foundation (the open strings of the instrument) can be built upon through gradual pitch expansion and then contrasted with non-harmonic gestural activity and randomness. But of most interest to students, usually, is the issue of notation.  Memo 1 is beautifully and ingeniously notated, using a system close to that used by Berio in pieces like Sequenza III for female voice.  A traditional five-line staff is alternated with staffs of three lines, where only approximate pitch is indicated.  A graphic line above the staff indicates relative bow position, and a line below describes the movement of the foot pedal controlling the relative level of amplification.   Rhythm is proportionally notated too, so that the piece demands from the performer a high degree of interpretation and even improvisation. In this way the score captures a precise musical narrative while capitalizing on the creative contribution of the performer through the controlled freedom it offers.

One of the issues which Memo 1 often throws up is the one of ownership.  For some reason, if you introduce the notion that Barry is an improviser into a conversation about Memo 1, students are concerned that Barry is part owner of Bernard’s piece.  This idea is never voiced in a discussion of Sequenza III, where I have not heard it suggested that Cathy Berberian was a co-author.  Even in Visage where the vocal part is entirely created from Cathy’s improvisation, concerns about Cathy’s uncredited involvement are not raised.  Why then in this Bernard/Barry collaboration?

I also use Barry’s own music in my teaching – and sometimes in the same class as Memo 1.   I like to play students one or two pieces from the album Fizzles – short pieces for solo bass which are responses to Samuel Beckett’s short prose pieces of the same name.  They use the full range of Guy techniques – the high energy and extreme sounds which characterize his jazz playing and which are found in Memo1.  The Fizzles are always popular.  And then I ask the question: what do you think the score for these pieces looks like?  The ensuing discussion usually takes care of the rest of the session.  Some imagine a score which looks like those of Brian Ferneyhough: detailed and complex.  Others are convinced that the pieces are entirely improvised and will be played differently on each occasion. I am able to say, truthfully, that I don’t know the answer to the question.  We discuss the other options.  For example: since Barry is both the composer and the performer, is it possible that the pieces are improvised, but with certain predetermined features, so that every performance comes across as the same piece?  Or could it be that the pieces are, like Memo1, notated but with significant areas left open to interpretation?  Is there any reason why the pieces could not be played the same in every performance even though there is no score? If the composer is the performer, and the piece is memorized, what need is there for a score?  The final question is: why does it matter whether there is a score or not?  Should it matter?

The prime function of a score is to convey information.  For certain kinds of music it’s a necessity; for electronic music, and for freely improvised music it’s an irrelevance. But it can also be a commodity, a way of generating further performances (and income).  And once upon a time, not so very long ago, it could be an art-work.  For Barry Guy it still can be that, because he still produces his scores by hand, and his background in art and architecture often leads him to produce scores which are more pleasing to the eye than they strictly need to be.  In fact some of his scores are art-works.

One piece, in particular, combines the three themes of this article perfectly.  Bird Gong Game(1991) for soloist and ensemble is one of those pieces where the experience begins as soon as the score is seen; google it and see what I mean. The huge pages of the score are full of visual interest and a sense of playfulness.  They are designed to be admired as art-works.  At the same time, they contain a lot of detailed musical information, conventionally and unconventionally notated, though in a way which requires attention to the ‘rules of the game’ before performance can begin.  The general rules invite creative decisions from the ensemble and conductor.  But there is one rule which goes well beyond this partly open, composed musical work:  the soloist (any instrument) should improvise their part, and should not rehearse with the ensemble until the day of the concert.  The original soloist was the late Alan Davie, an artist and pianist, whose series of paintings called ‘Bird Gong’ gave the piece its title and also influenced the visual elements.  Barry has described how this piece came about, and how it led to further graphic scores, in a 2012 article for the online journal ‘Point of Departure’, a fascinating article which is well worth reading.

I have always been full of admiration for Barry, and never more so than now.  He continues to plough his own furrow with remarkable energy, always faithful to his musical tastes and equally faithful to his friends with whom he continues to play and for whom he continues to write.  His Time Passing, premiered at the 2013 Huddersfield Festival, is an hour long work for soprano, bass baritone, improvising vocalist, improvising double bass and string ensemble.  The score is immense and immaculate.  It perfectly brings together different stylistic elements of which he has total mastery, setting texts from Beckett (again), with the Irish poet Kerry Hardie and the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan.  It’s exciting music, by turns lyrical and textural.  One cannot pick out influences, though there must be so many there – it is pure Barry Guy.

Barry’s 70th birthday is April 22nd, and where will he be? On stage again, of course, midway through a three day festival in Ireland (the wonderful Barrow River Arts Festival in Borris, County Carlow) which he and Maya have organised for several years now).  He will be playing with his ‘Beyond Trio’, a relatively new band, with two Swiss musicians 25 years his junior (Jürg Wickihalder and Lucas Niggli).  He will also play with the amazing singer Savina Yannatou, a programme mixing pieces by Barry and Savina – half composed, half improvised – with arrangements of traditional Greek music.  The walls of the ballroom at Borris House will hold an exhibition of paintings by Irish artists. The baroque ensemble Camerata Kilkenny will play Bach and Swedish folk songs.  Barry Mc Govern will read Samuel Beckett.  It will be a joyous three days, perfectly reflecting Barry’s all-embracing creative identity.









One response to “Barry Guy”

  1. Trevor Barre Avatar

    I am just starting to write a biography of Barry, at his request. If you have any info/advice that you think may be of use, I would be grateful.

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