Pop: Into the dark with Jekyll & Hyde

Composer Barry Guy and his wife make music that defies categorisation. They like to discuss work while putting out the bins.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE FIRST Law of Contemporary Music states: composers compose, improvisers improvise, and never the twain shall meet. As for musicians, those who perform from scores have a horror of improvisation, while those who improvise can't see the point of writing it all down. A few, though, reject that division of labour, and Barry Guy is one of them. As an improvising performer he plays double bass solo, in duos, trios and quartets, or as part of the London Jazz Composer Orchestra, which he founded in 1970, and for which he provides jazz compositions. Meanwhile, as a classical composer he has had his music performed by Pierre Boulez, the Kronos Quartet and the baroque viol consort Fretwork.

For most of his career Guy has kept the two worlds apart, but recently his classical compositions have incorporated a measure of the improviser's freedom. "Compositionally I've lived a Jekyll and Hyde existence," he says. "On one side I had my jazz compositions, where improvisation is my lifeline to a purity of musical thought, and flexibility and interpretative creativity would be inherent in the scores. Within the straight tradition I was more exact, putting into the score every single dynamic, every tempo change, probably providing much more information than was necessary.

"What has happened over the last 10 years is a gradual rationalisation of what needs to be in the score to bring out the best interpretation: a simplicity of presentation engenders a more creative approach from so- called `straight' musicians. I like them to add something. I'm not writing down improvisations, but I appreciate that you can build in more freedom for the players."

What that freedom requires is absolute trust between composer and performer, and for that reason, Guy suggests, "I enjoy working with musicians that I know, not only personally, but in the manner of their playing, being able to speak to them as performers about what we're trying to pull out of the music, without musical politics or matters of finance coming into it. In those circumstances, writing music becomes like making a suit: you fit the piece around the personality".

Who better, then, to write music for than his partner, the violinist Maya Homburger? The two met 10 years ago playing in Christopher Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music, an orchestra that pioneered the use of original, `period' instruments in performances of ancient music, from Bach to Beethoven. And, as a new CD of Guy's music shows, that adds an extra dimension: she plays a baroque violin, so Guy's new music is written for an old instrument, sometimes twinned with his own double bass. What emerges is a unique amalgam of two sound-worlds.

"The modern double bass makes available a lot of colours," says Guy. "What's interesting is to feed those colours into the darkness, if you like, of the baroque violin. The sheer beauty of Maya's violin has led my music into more melodic areas. It's been a sharp learning curve for me, but since we're in the same household, I can go into the next room and say, `What do you think of this?' while I'm putting the dustbin out."

Homburger herself is keenly aware of how the music fits her, and her instrument: "It's a beautiful 1740 Italian violin by Antonio dalla Costa, from Treviso. Most good Italian violins have been altered so that they can be used as a `modern' violin, but this one has never been tampered with. People have an image of baroque violins sounding aggressive, slightly piercing or nasal, but when Barry writes for me, he has in mind the precise colours of this instrument, which are often dark. The strings on a baroque violin are at such a low tension that you get more overtones, and there's a tremendous difference between the upper and lower strings. You can float the bow, which is very light, across the strings, so I like to work with lightweight sounds, with bow speed rather than bow pressure. If you play Barry's pieces on a modern instrument, you can look for similar sounds, but some of them you simply won't get.

"One of Barry's qualities as an improviser is the range of colours he gets, colours nobody would expect from a double bass, and he has managed to find a way for me to make some of those sounds on my instrument. That in turn has allowed me to become braver in my performances of baroque music. I don't have to strive for a totally manicured sound, I take more risks. Sounds and colours that might not be totally `scholarly' have become part of my music-making."

When Homburger and Guy perform together, the programme always includes baroque music alongside Guy's work, whether played from score or improvised. For Guy, it's a natural symbiosis: "Quite often in concert, I follow on without a break after Maya has played, say, one of Telemann's Fantasies. Her last note will be my starting-point, and what I play becomes a reflection on the atmosphere that she has left in the air. It works especially well in a church, where the resonances of Telemann may be going off into the distance as I pick up her lead."

Homburger adds: "One part of the audience may be thinking, `Improvisation is difficult to listen to', while the other half thinks, `Telemann's hard work'; but if you play with intensity, emotion and clear diction, the event becomes about human beings communicating, and that's what we want to achieve."

Barry Guy's `Celebration' performed by Maya Homburger is available on ECM CD 1643