Barry Guy's experiments in improvised jazz have created a new colour palette for the double bass.
Innovation and tremendous creative energy are synonymous with Barry Guy; internationally renowned for his staggering virtuosity and for the new sound worlds he creates in his distinctive improvised jazz. He has invented a whole range of techniques, from novel pizzicatos to bowing methods. It's all a far cry from his initial occupation working at an architectural practice.
Music played a formative role in Guy's education. It was in military bands at school, exploring repertoire from Schubert to John Dankworth, that Guy discovered the double bass sampling the clarinet, tuba, french horn and trombone en route. From school he attended evening classes in composition with Stanley Glaser at Goldsmiths' College, London. There he explored ideas from the American avant-garde and absorbed the merits of Gothic and Georgian restoration work back at the architects' office.
'Really, everything was bubbling along together,' says Guy, 'but during this period I started studying the double bass with James Edward Merritt, and subsequently studied with him at the Guildhall School of Music. It was an incomplete education outside music college, but once I was inside the four walls I started to fill in the gaps. And I began to understand how contemporary music fitted into the whole spectrum. Until then,' he adds, 'it had been quite disjointed.'
Jazz was always an attraction to Guy, who developed a strong empathy for it at school through the various bands he joined and the records he gleaned.
'From my point of view, jazz represents a freedom of the probing spirit,' explains Guy. 'You feel that just around the corner there's going to be the delight of new and surprise elements. For me it's like an organic music with no additives. It's an incredibly exciting area to work in and this is why jazz has been, and remains the most important part of my life. It's like a language that you create over the years and the whole area, from Bebop to Dixieland, started to join up in a very urgent and energetic way.'
Eventually, Guy adds, it led him into 'free improvisation', far less disseminated than the ubiquitously popular jazz of Duke Ellington or Benny Goodman. But with the air of a missionary, Guy explains what attracts him particularly to this mode of playing.
'It's probably the greatest area of music you can be involved in, because you're composing but also playing, receiving and exchanging ideas at the same time. The business of improvising means you lay bare your soul and being, because you're relating directly with another set of people, and there is an incredible honesty in the language. At once everything is brought into play from the resonance of your body to the accuracy of your ears and the formulation of your technique.'
But like any language, the semantics and parameters change. Mention jazz, and people tend to think of Ellington and Dizzie Gillespie.
'Our style is all and none of these,' counters Guy, 'in that our music-making is not pastiche in the historical sense. But, somewhere in the distance, such classic jazz informs our playing.'
And a similar synthesis forms the background to the London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO), initially founded by Guy in 1970. Now the Artistic Director of the orchestra, he has helped shape the musical evolution of the ensemble. Guy's early music experiments with the group started life within the confines of highly-organised musical argument - sometimes at odds with the idea of improvisation.
'The first piece I wrote for the LJCO was Ode,' Guy explains, ' a work which extended over two hours and sought to celebrate my improvisation work with London players, expressing my gratitude for all the help I'd received. It was a very powerful experiment, even though it was an exceedingly difficult score for many of the players because they were dealing with notation they'd never seen before.
'However, there were problems trying to integrate improvised passages and then switching back to notation. I started integrating more composed music, but eventually this began to alienate people because there wasn't sufficient improvisation. Sometimes it was like juggling the fixed and the free.'
The next phase in the band's musical development came with the performance of scores by members, including Howard Riley's Triptych and Tony Oxley's Alpha. Buxton Orr, Kenny Wheeler and John Stevens have also contributed to the repertoire, while from outside the group Bernard Rands has written a piece. The ensemble has also performed Penderecki's Actions.
'I've always tried to create a community of musicians, where the direction could be determined by the members of the band. We had a desire to break down certain barriers we'd been brought up with. To get these down and open the way forward, we almost had to go too far in a particular direction.'
But Guy's musical horizons stretch beyond the LJCO. He has more that 50 albums to his name, plays in numerous jazz groups and works with musicians such as Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Irene Schweitzer and Paul Rutherford (as in the MAYA label's Elsie Jo album). More recent recordings feature his Evan Parker/Paul Lytton Trio and a duo with Canadian pianist Paul Plimley. Novello publishes his commissioned compositions Look Up was honoured in 1992 with the Royal Philharmonic Society Award for chamber-scale composition. Add to that a commission from the City of London Sinfonia to celebrate its 25th anniversary and his schedule is hectic.
While his jazz experiments were sowing the seeds for what was to become a highly distinctive style, Guy was developing a strong foothold in the world of period performance, playing with the Academy of Ancient Music and the London Classical Players all of which involved up to three sessions a day. Despite their apparent differences, the world of baroque embellishment and informed improvisation - coupled with the notions of spontaneity proved to be a major linking factor between the two disciplines.
'I certainly feel emotionally at home in this kind of music,' Guy enthuses. 'In baroque performance practice there are a lot of improvisatory possibilities, particularly in the violins, gambas and harpsichord parts not to mention the whole area of vocal embellishments.
'As for the bass line, if you're performing a composer like Bach there's something obvious about the harmonic direction and the way you express this. For me, it was a matter of finding bowing techniques and an instrumental style that would lift the music and elevate the bass line. A colleague of mine once likened playing the bass to being a communist and undermining the whole system.'
Guy's fascination with baroque music led to his meeting his partner Maya Homburger a specialist in period performance on the violin. Together they operate the MAYA CD label, established to reflect both their interests in music. In their recording schedule, experimental jazz co-exists with performances of Telemann and Bach. Homburger continues her work with her period performance chamber groups, in which Guy also participates, enabling them to work together as much as possible.
The MAYA label includes some interesting crossover duos: 'We've commissioned Buxton Orr, Giles Swayne and Roger Marsh to write duos for us. I'm using contemporary pitch, whilst Maya is using baroque pitch so there's great possibility for experimentation.'
An ongoing collaboration with London Contemporary Dance has added another dimension to Guy's style.
'I watched the way the dancers produced lifts, whereby the energy is transferred to the right place at the crucial moment through a fluency of motion,' he says. 'And I use this fluency or perpetual motion to achieve a more organic relationship to the bass.
'But the real staging is when I do a theatre-recital with works such as Jacob Druckman's Valentine, Roger Marsh's Time Before or Hubert Stuppner's Ausdrucke: Rondo for a Clown. For the Stuppner,' Guy explains, 'I dress up as a discredited clown and in fact studied general clown-like scenarios, including the way they fall. I tend to build up the theatrical situation more than other players, requesting lighting and props.'
Given the wealth and diversity of his experience, and an architectural background that has given him a strong sense of structure, it's almost inevitable that Guy's playing style should be both sophisticated and eclectic.
'Its amazing how many different areas can inform our musical language. There may be a subconscious reflection of architectural training in my playing. It's really like anything we observe. We can see that a building has perfect proportions or that a painting can thrill, but there are reasons why these things work or make an impact.
'If one takes the time to fathom why they work in different disciplines,' Guy continues, 'it's not beyond the realms of plausibility that our subconscious reverberates with these ideas when playing or composing. I certainly don't like the ghettoisation of concepts, and believe ideas cross-feed each other.'
As well as the strong connection with architecture, Guy's sensitivity to brush strokes and line has a tangible reflection in painting. Here Guy's innovative approach to the bass really comes to the fore, with the development of new sounds as a vehicle to express his ideas. But Guy is insistent that 'it is not a methodology'.
'A lot of these inventions have come through playing situations where you are forced to resolve the need for a sound in order to fit the situation. It might be highly percussive, or the stroke of a hand across the string.
'Alternatively, you could use a stick for striking the string or a cloth there are many possibilities for the end result. For instance, at music college you're taught the orchestral pizzicato. But in jazz the pizzicato is liberated and acquires a resonance and life of its own. For me, however, that's only the beginning of the pizzicato experience; you can create percussive pizzicato by slapping your finger onto the fingerboard, or you can use two hands and take different strings and make a complexity of sounds.
'Alternatively, the left hand thumb can stop a note whilst the other fingers pluck, and of course the same with the right hand. So we're breaking down the boundaries. Similarly with bowing we're all taught how to make a good sound, but you can make other articulations such as wood scraping on strings, change the position of the bow to the bridge and so forth.
'Likewise different weights of bow alter the sound,' Guy adds, 'and I use a variety of beaters and sticks which can strike the strings or be threaded through. It's my little surgeon's table of instruments and extensions, but they all arrive through the necessity of expressing something.'
Bassists are too often numbed to the illusion of their instrument as a large and ungainly cousin of the cello. If there was any doubt as to the capacity for effecting such flexibility and agility on the bass, Guy dispels them.
'My idea is to try and make the bass almost the size of a speck of sand,' he explains, 'and imagine the instrument's size doesn't matter any more, just like a voice. If you hold a grain of sand between the ends of your fingers you can feel the clarity and boundaries of the sand. What I've tried to do is get the energy coming through my fingers. And following from this, I find that improvisation allows me to treat the bass as a voice, instead of an object to be bowed or plucked.'
It is this commitment to allowing his virtuosity to personify his voice that marks him out as a committed disciple of the instrument. Thanks to Barry Guy's pioneering work in the spheres of sonority and improvisation, the bass will hold its own at the forefront of developments in contemporary music.
Double Bassist Number 1 Spring/Summer 1996, reproduced with permission of Orpheus Publications Ltd.
Barry Guy is a leading double bass player and composer whose creative diversity, in the fields of chamber and orchestral performance, solo and vocal duo contemporary recitals, composition, jazz conducting and teaching, is the outcome both of an unusually varied training and a zest for experimentation, underpinned by a dedication to the double bass and the ideal of musical communication.
I visited him at his new home in Cambridgeshire, where he recently moved to avoid the nonstop studio life of a session artist in London, and in order to devote more time to composition, both for contemporary 'serious' music and for his particular love, jazz, especially with improvisations and performances with the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra which he founded 18 years ago and has directed ever since.
Involvement in the 'Historic Performance' movement which until recently formed the main element in his career began early on: 'I played in the first Gardiner Monteverdi Vespers, a thrilling experience'. He plays regularly with Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, (with the chamber ensemble he has recorded the Schubert Octet, praised in The Gramophone, and a forthcoming disc of Beethoven's Septet and Weber's Quintet for 1991, on L'Oiseau Lyre) as well as Norrington and the London Classical Players with often as much as three sessions a day. "I never wanted to be a leader of a section, as it is with later 'authentic' performances, such as Wagner, with 10 basses in a section, and I felt it was time for a change'. Nevertheless, Guy's new routine still involves plenty of historic performance, and he plays with the new Simon Standage ensemble, 'CM90' which was launched last month in Oxford and London. I asked him if there is much difference in 'period' playing for the double bass, especially since so much attention is usually focussed on the balance of violins and woodwind. 'Yes there is. In articulation, bowing the shapes of the bows, and above all the sonority, which means different instruments'. Indeed, Guy has seven of them, all for different styles and periods.
Beneath the low ceilings of the studio in his 13th century thatched cottage Barry Guy's seven double basses stand tall. As is evident, 'there's only one place in which to stand to practice, and when the phone rings, it can be painful!' Lining the walls, alongside bookshelves crammed with modern art and philosophy, recordings, and an electronic studio, is an assortment of seven bows which vary from concave to convex. 'I match the bow to the instrument for the most suitable sound, but, like most bassists, am still searching for "the right bow"'. While we speak, there is a phone call from a string maker. 'There are so many varieties of string types; again it's a question of obtaining the right sound, though of course it varies with the different tensions and proportions of each instrument'.
Guy's valuable collection of seven basses shows a serious concern for the spirit as well as the detail of 'authentic practice'. For early Baroque music up until Haydn he plays a Gasparo da Salo (1560) from the Tarisio collection, and is one of only a handful of instruments still in existence. 'The tension of the strings was far less in the early basses' explains Guy, 'as can be seen by the upright angle of the original neck. There were six strings originally, no bass bar, and a lower bridge and a smaller 'C' which restricts the bowing area.' Guy has a reconstruction by Roger Dawson of Thwaites, which he uses for Baroque music, particularly the North German school. 'The reconstruction is a compromise, with a neck mid-way between early and modern positions. The bridge is between the original low and modern high positions. The lower tension strings give more in the way of a "breathing" timbre.'
The da Salo copy is the instrument used in the recent Hogwood recordings of Haydn Symphonies, of which Vol. 4 has recently appeared; in it is the Horn Signal Symphony which features a double bass solo in the Trio, which, played by Guy, conveys a rhythmic momentum and lightness of articulation quite distinct from a modern bass sonority: 'I use the contemporaneous Viennese five-string tuning, D-A D-F sharp-A (rather than more resonant Baroque D-A-D G - which enhances the sympathetic vibrations or the modern E-A-D-G-) which actually suits the music better, since melodic figurations and scales frequently outline the triadic patterns'. Guy also justifies his use of the da Salo for classical music with the argument that players could have used earlier instruments from an earlier period, but emphasises that it is the sonority which is the main reason.
Consequently, for later classical and early Romantic music, Guy uses a 1740 chamber bass by Pietro Zenato, although at present he is keen to use the da Salo for Mozart, and for later Romantic music he employs a pair of chamber basses from 1840 by Frederick Lott, one of which he also uses for jazz, for which purpose the tuning is transposed up a fourth to A-D-G-C.
It is the novel string effects which link Guy's contrasted activities in 'serious' avant garde music and contemporary jazz. Most striking amongst the new techniques is the sonorous potential opened up by electronic amplification, by means of a transducer on the bridge controlled by a pedal. The pedal allows the player to select and to highlight certain resonances, and thus to evoke a dense and colourful texture. Several factors contribute to this: the use of beaters of varying sizes, and new fingering and pizzicato effects. Guy is particularly attracted to the 'split string' effect, which produces polyphony by sounding both the upper and lower parts of a stopped string. By varying the pitch of the string, the complementary portion varies inversely in pitch. Thus a complex texture, with changing pitches in each string can result in eighth distinct lines, with varying intensities due to the amplification. And by sounding the pitch by means of the left hand articulation, a sequence of chords from two to eight parts is possible. There is also a 'gamelan' timbre produced by soft beaters and pedal, and various 'noise' effects by strumming on the strings and tapping.
Several of these effects were already in use in the early jazz scores, but especially in the work for solo double bass called Statements. Statements II is a 'serious work', hardly ever performed in public, and most often used for study. Only a few people can play it, since students are seldom taught the rapid multi-finger pizzicato technique necessary. Statements 1, 3 and 4 were improvisations for the LJCO and exist only in recordings.
Guy's interest in new techniques was manifest early in his compositional career. The String Quartet no. 3, which won the Radcliffe music award in 1973 and was premiered by Jane Manning and the Allegri, for instance, includes a three page glossary of new notations. Of works for a variety of genres, a larger proportion features the double bass in a significant solo part, for example Eos (1977) premiered in Donaueschingen, Germany, (which was reworked as a ballet in 1977 for the London Contemporary Dance Theatre, for whom Statements II was also reworked in 1972, and for whom Video-Life for bass and tape was composed more recently in 1987) and Voyages of the Moon, composed in 1983 for the City of London Sinfonia.
A particularly remarkable and appealing work is Flagwalk for 14 solo strings composed for the Orchestra of St. John's Smith Square and their conductor John Lubbock in 1975. In the 'Introduction', an ostinato is set up by the solo double bass using soft beaters. The first main section of a three part design ensues, with strict 14 part 'Canonic Variations', in which a rising stepwise minor sixth imitated at closely phased intervals gives rise to an increasingly dense tableau of tonal-modal harmony. 'I have played in string orchestra works like Strauss's Metamorphosen, and Vaughan William's Tallis fantasia, and was working with the vivid sensation of the rich and dense string orchestral textures and sonorities of those works, as well as Tippett's Fantasy on a Theme by Corelli, in mind.' The central section, entitled 'Evolution and Collective', is a stark contrast to the variations in its atonal and freer rhapsodic polyphony leading, after an abridged reprise of the Canon, into the final section and an introduction of the expressive solo 'Song' for double bass solo.
A year earlier, Anna for solo double bass and orchestra (1974) was considered too daring for performance, since the orchestra were required to speak, laugh and move around in the theatrical conclusion, in which the soloist finally plays until all the performers freeze into stasis; it received its long postponed premiere only recently at the RCM in a performance conducted by Edwin Roxburgh with the composer taking the solo part.
Nevertheless the theatrical gesture, as also the interactions of the later works, display the tendency towards dramatic interplay within textures, a predilection which stems from intense experiences of jazz ensembles, and the challenge of combining improvisatory solos within a strict form. An even earlier work, Ode, composed for the LJCO in 1972 and of which three of the seven parts were broadcast by the BBC, showed a similar concern for strict and free elements and jazz group interaction. Ode was composed for a vast orchestra under the tutelage of Buxton Orr at the Guildhall, where Guy studied following his remarkably unusual switch from a career as a professional architect, with the help of evening classes in music at Goldsmiths College. 'Once at the Guildhall, I was playing bass in clubs, such as the Little Theatre Club and Ronnie Scott's (in the late '60s'70s), I got together musicians I know, to play and improvise. The ensemble became the LJCO, which went through several phases: at first the compositions were fairly strict, and increased in complexity in the first decade, with scores similar to Xenakis. But then we became freer, with more solos, greater improvisation, and less notation. Even then I would compose with faces particular players would come to mind as I wrote music I imagined them playing.'
Melody is a major element in the more recent LJCO compositions such as Harmos, which opens boldly with a quotation of a chorale accompanied by noise effects, and proceeds to unfold an expansive melody which is transformed in variations successively presented by different instruments. The chorale returns several times to re-evoke its questioning mood, whilst the climactic variation is reserved for double bass in a concluding cadenza. In Harmos improvisation is restricted to aleatoric solos within the rhapsodic variations, yet Guy is still interested by 'free improvisation'. Several recordings with small jazz ensembles such as the Tony Oxley Group, the Howard Riley Trio, and Evan Parker show a constantly renewing interest in contemporary jazz improvisation. The latest recording (which is due to be released on CD next spring), is a duet with Barre Phillips, a bassist from the LJCO. 'We went to a beautiful Romanesque Church in the South of France, and had three days uninterrupted improvisation; it was amazing. We extracted the best sequences for the recording.' Those extracts show an intuitive sense of form and logical discourse, in which texture and sonority are deployed in highly sophisticated language: a spontaneous soundworld if expressive and rhetorical potency that is quite distinct from notated scores, yet which frequently draws upon and extends known avant garde devices and sonorities.
Clearly the element of dialogue is a primary concern to such improvisations, and to Guy's style in general. On the draughtsman's table in the studio in which we talk is a large manuscript page with notes and crossings out. 'That is part of my latest work a Jazz piece for piano and ensemble for the 50th birthday of Irene Schweitzer, a wonderful Swiss jazz pianist. I aim to give the piano the main part and then build up the texture gradually. Then there is a sort of Tarantella with solos for each instrument in duo with the piano. Recently I gave workshops with LJCO scores to students in Germany Hamburg, Hanover and Frankfurt most of my jazz works are performed abroad in Switzerland and Germany. England is still behind in the contemporary jazz scene, but let's hope that things will change!
Finally, I ask about the electronic keyboard and computer: 'I use electronics a lot, though mainly for working out ideas. This means that a piece can be tested before it is performed, which is very useful. For example, I am composing a work for eight cellos for the St. Martin-in-the-Fields Cello ensemble, a genre which, although there are examples by Boulez and of course Villa-Lobos's Brachianas Brasileiras, is still relatively seldom used for original works. With the music software, I could play some sketches to the ensemble's leader Steve Orton, before the piece was completed.' The piece, which is called Look Up (the title of an American Indian poem), was sponsored by GLA and is to be premiered by the St. Martin-in-the-Field Cello Ensemble at the Wigmore Hall on January 165 1991: 'it is dedicated to the orchestra's former principal bassist Raymond Koster who died last year, inspired by his spiritual radiance and tremendous courage'. Guy's dedication of the work to a fellow double bass player is a characteristic expression of his intensely warm humanity. Above all, Guy's optimistic enthusiasm for the performance, potential and the personality of the double bass itself, underpins the eclectic facets as solo, jazz and orchestral performer, contemporary jazz and avant garde composer, of his challenging musical creativity.
February 1991 The Strad
On the phone from Berne, Switzerland, where he has been rehearsing the London Jazz Composers Orchestra for the previous two days, bassist-composer Barry Guy sounds both exhausted and exhilarated. They are working on his new piece for Swiss pianist Irene Schweizer and a new work by trombonist George Lewis, both of which they will tour and record this month and next. As the interview winds down, he hears the band starting up again, and he's so pleased and proud, he holds the phone receiver out the door so I can hear. Then it's back to work. Guy has many reasons to be tired and happy. He's kept busy as artistic director of the LJCO, as principal bassist with several classical orchestras, including Christopher Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music, and as a new-music soloist playing works by Iannis Xenakis, John Cage, and other contemporary luminaries.
He is also one of the leading European free improvisers. Which will be evident at the Middle East Cafe on Sunday (February 24), when he performs solo and in duet with Boston-area clarinetist David Rothenberg.
Guy joined the nascent English free-improvisation scene in the mid '60s, while studying classical bass and composition. Along with guitarist Derek Bailey, trombonist Paul Rutherford, Saxophonist Evan Parker, pianist Howard Riley, and drummers Tony Oxley and John Stevens, he created an English music, distinct from American jazz.
Like jazz, this new, difficult music relied on improvisation and used uncommon instrumental sounds but that's where the resemblance ended. Without melody or a regular beat, English improvisation is a quicksand bog of sound in constant flux. It can at times be remote and analytical, and like all free-improvisation, it risks aimlessness.
At its best it establishes a continuum through a highly emotive language that conveys anguish, fury, melancholy, and, on occasion, a delicate, alienated beauty. Beneath the agitated, seemingly chaotic surface lies an order, perceived through careful listening and empathy, that prevents the music from slipping into self-absorption and randomness. For all its off-putting textures and knottiness, this stuff is very human. But if Cab Calloway thought bebop was Chinese music, he wouldn't recognize English free music as even originating on this planet.
Guy helped lay down the ground rules and discovered many of the extended techniques that today are coin of the realm among free improvisers. In a typically unpredictable performance, it may seem that a force beyond his control has gripped him. Or he may proceed with the deliberate rigor of chess/Clarity gives way to murk. Short, nervous, birdlike gestures contrast with languorous sunset tones. Subdued mutterings explode into riotous shouting. "Whenever I do a solo performance, I see only an open landscape ahead of me," he says.
Relying much on the moment, it is difficult music to record. Guy's only solo album Statements V-XI (on Derek Bailey's Incus label), is out of print, but he can be heard with improvising ensembles on more that 30 records. Tracks (Incus) features Guy with Parker and drummer Paul Lytton in four exemplary improvisations Incision (SAJ)-duets with Parker and Paintings (FMP), with German bassist Peter Kowald, offer a more intimate look at Guy's artistry.
Right now, Guy is reaching a creative peak. His compositions for the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, who he founded in 1970 and has led every since, knit composed and improvised music. "I thought the great leap forward in improvisational ambitions and techniques could be realized in terms of the score. I thought I could place the improvisational sounds within a contemporary musical score that reflects the players, rather than the score making the players do something. I'm looking for a music that has logic and intensity and expresses everyone's aspirations who plays it."
With the European avant-garde at a cross-roads between an older, but by no means exhausted, generation of atonal improvisers and a younger one more interested in melody and traditional forms, Guy has incorporated both camps into Double Trouble (Intakt), his latest work with the LJCO. From the lost-in-the-woods sound of Henry Lowther's opening flugelhorn solo to the querulous final statement from Evan Parker, a memorable story unfolds. The piece encompasses a caterwauling tenor battle involving Simon Picard and Paul Dunmall, a spacious duet between Trevor Watts on alto sax and Steve Wick on tuba. Guy's sense of drama never deserts him, and the diverse personalities in the band interlock.
"This is not a music that aims for any 'ism,'" he concludes. "We're always on this lovely journey, and the landscape keeps on changing. This is the idea we're responding to those changing landscapes."
(Barry Guy and David Rothenberg appear at the Middle East on Sunday the 24th at 8.30 p.m. Recordings featuring Guy are available through North Country Distributors, Cadence Building, Redwood, New York 13679)
The Boston Phoenix February 22 1991
texts by Barry Guy, Bert Noglik & John Corbett
25 years seems an absurdly long time to keep a band going, but then there have been exceptional attractions in doing so. Two abiding and powerful forces have promoted this continuity: The constantly evolving creativity of the musicians and my desire to research an expanded scenario for the large ensemble.
In those early days I was greatly encouraged by my composition professor Buxton Orr. Such was his interest in my ideas and crucially, his understanding of the impetus behind the musicians' experiments, he eventually directed the orchestra for several years. Also his work as composer, conductor and teacher prepared him for many weary hours coaxing the pieces into life.
"Ode" was my first score written to address the problems of integrating improvised music within a large tableau of symphonic proportions. The first performances produced glowing notices: "remarkable and impressive"; "technically awesome creation"; " a wor k of astonishing brilliance" and so on. There was also a great deal of adverse criticism "lunatic music"; "merciless noise"; "a long way from Satchmo, Benny, Bix and Duke, too long a way". Well yes, it meant to be a long way from those great pioneers, but some folks always miss the point!
At the time of writing "Ode", I was very conscious of possible misunderstandings that could surround such a composition, and in particular I was anxious to make clear that it was not "Third Stream Music" the superimposition of "Jazz" material into a classical ensemble. For me it was important to stress the language similarities, the symbiotic sound worlds of "Free Jazz" and contemporary compositional rationalities. I had in mind two solid foundations on which to build the music "Sound as energy" and "Energy's structure".
As a performer and composer, it seemed to me that the way to integrate the original music of improvising musicians with the composer's idea was to reach into the heart of what each discipline was setting out to achieve and to recognise specific parameters where a meeting point could be negotiated. The process was not so much intellectual more being guided be feelings and searching for the source of our collective creative spirits. The performer in me felt the intense heat and concentrated energy of improvising with colleagues. The process was spiritually awakening, communicating, inventing, learning, healing with a wide open space controlled by a wonderful balance of ego, humility and explosive creativity. Here was sound as energy.
Switching hats to the "composer", the first obvious point is that my body and brain are one and the same as the improviser. However, the parameters under consideration (naturally) take a different focus since musical space is being organised and prescribed according to the hoped for sonic result. "But why bother" is an often heard question "improvisation does not need such regulation". Well of course I agree(d) with that statement, but then a different kind of music would emerge if there was even a minimal ordering of events. Large free groupings in particular are prone to "ideas congestion" on the one hand and tentative negotiation on the other unless of course the ensemble had the luxury of constant rehearsals to understand the territory being investigated. The chances of coincidental simultaneities and co-ordinated movements are rare, so what better than a scenario of free and ordered space. In free jazz and improvised music there have been and no doubt will be, incredible moments where musical strands coalesce to produce a music that no composer can imagine. That is as it should be. These moments are unpredictable and surely not repeatable except for the knowledge that certain chemistries between players can create an energy flow that has always the possibility of transcending the sum of its parts. My second tenet therefore was to recognise these possibilities and juxtapose groupings (and solos) to produce an ebb and flow of musical tension. In other words, the energy suggested structure with the composed music being directly related to the individual musician's personal expression. After 25 years the prospect of writing a new piece still excites me with the same adrenaline flow when I think of the musicians that will join me on the stand to make the music live and breathe.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this short essay, aside from my own pre-occupations with structural aspects of music, the continuity and support of the musicians has been my life line for holding the ensemble together. Whenever the future looked bleak there was always a concert that provided the energy to go onwards.
Personnel changes can be expected over so many years, but importantly there has been a solid core of musicians that have offered their own musical signatures to the orchestra from its inception which has essentially given the LJCO its sound.
These are March Charig, Evan Parker, Trevor Watts, Paul Rutherford, Howard Riley and Paul Lytton. Elton Dean, John Stevens, Tony Oxley and Philipp Wachsmann should also be mentioned as long term collaborators. The very nature of the lives of the individual musicians has meant that each performance had to be a special event, and this boiling cauldron of explosive energy has given me the will to search for new ideas and places to play the music.
This new pressing of "Ode" includes the previously omitted Part VII, so at last the composition can be heard as a whole. Our recording specialist Peter Pfister has worked on the technical problems of bringing the original into the general aural picture. Trevor Watts' passionate solo alone is worth all of the efforts to bring this final part onto disc. Special thanks are due to Derek Bailey at Incus for allowing us to re-release "Ode". Thanks also to Patrik Landolt and Rosmarie A. Meier at Intakt for supporting the orchestra consistently, Maya Homburger our manager for transforming our working opportunities and of course Fabrikjazz, Rote Fabrik (Zurich) and all the supporters who have ensured our survival.
1....with a different musical rhetoric
After listening to it again: Almost a quarter of a century after it was created, "Ode" resembles a manifesto. The momentum of something beginning, the strength of something new, the bursting forth of a vocabulary never before heard in such a form, the onset of a musical language that goes beyond convention, i.e. beyond the standard pieces of Jazz and New Music. Twenty-five years ago it must have flamed up with revolutionary fire. Despite the years that have passed in the meantime, it has lost none of its effect. "Ode" still glows brightly. The late works of writers and composers have been examined again and again. It is about time that the magic of early pieces is given some attention early testimonies, though not yet formally perfect, nevertheless anticipating the characteristics of future works in terms of intention and impetus. This also applies to Barry Guy's "Ode", which was performed by the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, especially in view of the dialectics of spontaneity and form, process and structure. To a certain degree "Ode" contains the full range of possibilities, opening them up without becoming capricious and without paging through a dry catalogue of ways to play the music. In a note to his work, Barry Guy speaks of the musicians' ability to play with a "different musical rhetoric". The title ultimately refers to the choral aspect, to the emphasis, to how the audience is addressed.
2....only the start of something
"Ode" dates back to the beginning of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra. Movements 1,2 and 7 were recorded for BBC in 1970; Movement 4 was recorded in 1971 and Movement 6 for BBC in 1972. On the initiative of the "Musician's Cooperative" the first complete performance of "Ode" was held in London at Ronnie Scott's Club in 1971. It was followed by a presentation at the English Bach Festival in Oxford in 1972. The idea of a composers' orchestra, a large formation equally defined by the concepts of composition or intervention and by the improvised creative genius of the participating musicians, developed an amazing self-impetus through "Ode". It was this energy, which proved to be greater than the arithmetic sum of the participants, that encouraged Barry Guy and the orchestra to drive idea and practice even further. At the end of the cassette on which Movement 7 is recorded the recording of the concert on the Incus label from the Town Hall in Oxford from 22 April 1972 only contains parts 1 to 6 I can hear the voice of the announcer commenting on Barry Guy and his piece "Ode": "It is," he hopes, "just the start of something." Later, Barry Guy spoke of the different phases of the orchestra: of a phase in which the compositions found their origin in the characteristic playing styles of the members, becoming more and more complicated, of a subsequent phase in which a rigid conception and the liberty of improvisation were increasingly balanced etc. "Ode" comes before these phases, marks the hour of birth, the initial phase, bears the seeds of all of the moments to come.
3. We were all steering towards something yet unknown
It is not necessary to reconstruct Barry Guy's biographical background here. A brief reminder should suffice that his path ran from architecture to music, from the study of so-called "classical" and at the same time "older" and "newer" music in addition to Jazz and free improvisation on to a language of music that would be unthinkable without the above-mentioned experiences, but which can no longer be reduced to its sources. John Coltrane left his traces as well as Anton Webern and Alban Berg. Stravinsky and Penderecki, Stockhausen, Boulez, Xenakis have all been named as an influence on Barry Guy. In connection with "Ode" he referred to how fascinated he was by Oliver Messiaen's "Chronochromie", which inspired him to reflect on the construction principles on antique odes. However the title and principle of construction bear at best only an associative relation to the dimensions of Messiaen and certainly only very vaguely to the chorus of Greek tragedies. The music seems to be equally far from the subtitles, which were named for painters and paintings of the surrealistic school: Part 1: "The End" Edgar Ende, 1931; Part 2: "Memory of the Future" Oscar Dominguez, 1939; Part 3: "Exact Sensibility" Oscar Dominguez, 1935; Part 4: "Indefinite Indivisibility" Yves Tanguy, 1942; Part 5: "According to the Laws of Chance" Jean Arp, 1917; Part 6: "Presence of Mind" René Magritte, 1958; Part 7: "Melancholy Departure" Georgio de Chirico, 1916. All of this hardly allows an association with concrete references to pictorialness, but rather indicates contours of a reality not yet seen or heard, at least not in this form. It corresponded with Barry Guy's adventures in the area of musical improvisation be it with Paul Rutherford, Trevor Watts, John Stevens, Tony Oxley, in ensembles with Bob Downes, in groups around Evan Parker, in trio formations with Howard Riley, in the group Iskra 1903 (at first with Barry Guy, Paul Rutherford and Derek Bailey).... The unknown , Derek Bailey once said, cannot be reached with a compass. The atmosphere of the late Sixties and early Seventies, the questioning of social structures and the breaking open of encrusted traditions all seemed to give the musical "Sturm und Drang" processes more drive. Barry Guy wanted to melt his apparently disparate experiences together orchestrally in the medium of music, or , as he once explained, to make the paradox of joining together composition and improvisation productive. There was a further related motive for "Ode": Barry Guy wanted to point out the variety of musical styles that had developed in the English improvising music scene and present them, so to speak, under one roof. The different stylistic onsets proved to be a driving force, at the same time also creating a tension of collective effort that stretched to the breaking point. In a conversation with Rosmarie A. Meier and Patrik Landolt, Barry Guy admitted: "We were all steering towards something yet unknown. We were working towards it together as part of a process. We tried to clarify the details, to tie together the various musical disciplines. It was also about finding forms of a musical discourse in order to be able to coexist with the others. Through destroying the conventional patterns of communication, we wanted to achieve an even more intense communication."
4.....to be able to feel free within the structure
In the liner notes accompanying the recording of "Ode" under the Incus label, Barry Guy complained that the orchestral aspects had remained statistically underdeveloped in relation to the enormous expansion and differentiation of the musical vocabulary through the instrumentalists of improvised music. He is not only referring to the Big Bands of Jazz that were caught in conventional traditions and idioms, but also to the works of New Music. Although it did pay attention to the structural aspects, New Music had largely left the specific individuality of the players unconsidered. What is new is characterised on the one hand by using the language of music developed by modern Europeans and on the other by the creative potential of improvisers in the field of tension between concept and spontaneity. This should not be confused with a third way in the traditional sense of "third stream". Thanks to his studies in composition, Barry Guy was able to organise and structure what he played with his improvising colleagues, forming "Ode" into a manifesto. The orchestral dimension literally cried for a composer if the playing was not to end in endless passages of power or overflowing surfaces of sound. At the same time, the variety of individual voices proved to be a kind of palette that challenged creative fantasy. When he writes for an ensemble or an orchestra with "classical" musicians, Barry Guy once said, he imagines a certain sound that he wants to achieve. For the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, on the other hand, he sees faces. Even in this piece, which is far from Jazz, Barry Guy follows the principle of orchestral thought that was developed during the history of Jazz: Taking into consideration the mentality, the personality, the stylistic characteristics of the soloists. He lets them inspire him without reducing his total concept. He challenges the individual, but does not force them to deny their own characteristics. Ekkehard Jost described the complex working relationship of the orchestra: "put together from the imagination and competent craftsmanship of the composer Guy;the notions that he forms of the musical characters of his partners;and the performances that these then give reacting to the events of his imagination." Very clearly Barry Guy and the participating musicians are no longer interested in provocatively standing out from the encrusted traditions of Jazz and /or New Music, but are more concerned with a principle of construction. The analogy to social structures and processes was in the air. Barry Guy speaks of the composition as a "social framework", for the participating musicians; and he accentuates that he wants to design the score so freely that all of them can actually "feel free within the structure". This was not always the case in later phases of the Orchestra. The solution to the paradox or the insight gained in the process of the dialectic of composition and improvisation, however, can only be thought about and brought about as a process. "Ode" made this problem transparent and at the same time held it up so it could be clearly seen: in the acoustic room, in the cultural landscape, in society.
5. With the composition "Ode" I found a first solution
In this piece density does not necessarily mean tutti. Barry Guy works with the most diverse gradations and overlapping of density and degrees. He introduces "solo groups", which to a certain extent negotiate between the soloist and the orchestra, confronting them with each other as the concertino and the full orchestra do in the concerto grosso. And he uses all these means undogmatically, he combines, complicates and untangles, he also allows stylistic varia from reminders of melodic ballad improvisations to a feeling of strict dodecaphonic playing, from individual and collective bursts of energy to comparatively calm surfaces of sound, from associations with "classical" music to Jazz gestus. The latter however, only appears very occasionally. This is certainly connected with the fact that in this phase Barry Guy and most of the musicians gathered around him were greatly concerned with disassociating themselves from the image and idiom of Jazz. Only in the final movement, Part 7 which is entitled "Coda", did Barry Guy attempt a compromise with Jazz's Big Band traditions. Significantly enough , this part was left out of the Incus production of "Ode". In the liner notes Barry Guy indicated that he was not satisfied with the result, that he had asked too much of the soloists who had otherwise worked themselves so well into the language of the other parts and that several "blunders" had occurred. Nonetheless he regretted, that "Coda", which contained good solo and ensemble passages and had been a success with the audience, had not been documented. Ekkehard Jost quoted a critique by Derek Jewell that appeared on 2 May 1971 in the "Sunday Times" where he stated: "This wonderful ‘Coda' in Guy's piece, in which Bernard Living's revolutionary alto saxophone and a blindingly beautiful bass trio stood in the foreground, was a conclusive plea for the cause of the Jazz avant-garde .....". As Barry Guy had conceived just this part as a compromise, one cannot help but confirm a misunderstanding in the reception of it. However, from a different perspective "Coda" can be considered a part that exactly because of its contradictions does not take a back seat to the others in terms of brisance. Once the disassociation from Jazz had taken place and did not have to be emphasised all the time, the exchange of views between the creative means and the means of expression in Jazz once again became attractive. Although "Ode" is fascinating, especially because of its tonal dimension which, in lack of a different or more succinct expression, could be called "European", Barry Guy was concerned at the same time with the model of structure and with a model of communication: "I was looking for possibilities of combining the contrary moments of freedom and control with each other. With the composition of "Ode" I found a first solution". And so "Ode" is still shining a quarter of a century after its creation similar and yet at the same time also different to "Globe Unity" with the Orchestra around Alexander von Schlippenbach, to "Machine Gun" with Peter Brötzmann's octet, to "European Echoes" with the ensemble around Manfred Schoof, to the recordings with the Jazz Composers' Orchestra around Carla Bley and Mike Mantler. Or, to risk a comparison and carry it further, to John Coltrane's "Ascension" or Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz", to the significant works of Anton Webern or Yannis Xenakis. "Ode", in short, falls in line and out of the frame: a milestone and a manifesto. In the London Jazz Composers Orchestra the music has freed itself from the subaltern mediator. New productive powers were kindled by the attempt to resolve the paradox. Thus, the sound of "Ode" is at the same time highly personal and yet goes beyond the individual, the concrete expression of a phase of uprise, to a certain degree timeless, characterised by systematic intellect and yet full of sensuality.
That the London Jazz Composers Orchestra has survived for a quarter of a century despite unavoidable crises and continues to stride towards the future, that seven of the founding members (Marc Charig, Paul Rutherford, Trevor Watts, Evan Parker, Howard Riley, Paul Lytton and of course Barry Guy himself) are still part of it, underlines the forbearance expressed in the quotation that the whole thing is the start of something.
(Translation: Susan Kaufmann-Guyer)
"....where the composition could coexist alongside the soloists, both in concept and the resultant sound" Barry Guy on LJCO, 1972
When I first heard about the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, the word "composer" stood out like wings on a pig. With a cast that has included Derek Bailey, Tony Oxley, Peter Brötzmann and Peter Kowald, Paul Lytton and Evan Parker, it seemed more like and improvisers' convention than a composers' orchestra. With the benefit of a few years consideration, I have now realised that the moniker has two meanings: 1) the writing kind of composer (like Guy or any of the other player/composers or just plain-composers whose music LJCO has embraced) who directs and manipulates the orchestra with charts; 2) the "instant composer", that is, the free improviser. LJCO is at once a big-band playing a particular style of music by jazz composers and an orchestra built out of improvisers. Recent years have seen Guy make good on the first definition; he has written the ensemble a book of luxuriant scores in an instantly recognisable compositional style, thereby giving the group an audible identity beyond that of its individual members. But the earlier pieces, like the earliest, "Ode", utilised more open-ended and less thematic structures and frames, letting the soloists become the compositions, as much as "coexisting" with them. In its infancy the (now 25-year-old) band seems to me to have emphasised the latter definition: the instant composer. Blurring the line between composition, interpretation and extemporisation, LJCO was, and in many respects still is, a band in which everyone was a composer.
Here we have Barry Guy's first attempt, as he explained at the time, to revitalise the stilted American big-band tradition with the rich new blood of European free music. But I think of LJCO in relation to an ongoing line of large ensemble composer-leaders, not as a total break from them. Some other enterprising soul will have to connect the European compositional dots Xenakis, Ligeti, Penderecki, Takemitsu, Mahler, Monteverdi, Codex, Camerata but I'll take a swing at the group's jazz matrix. Of course, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis thread is hardly continued in LJCO, but we can track back through a lot of jazz history finding points of connection. These are by no means "influences" many aren't even bands or approaches that have especially captured Guy's interest over the years but they constitute a matrix of the very best large-scale creative music ensembles, a context in which we can situate one line of LJCO's activities.
Anthony Braxton Creative Orchestra Music: The last decade of neo-conservativism has seen Braxton exorcised from the jazz tradition despite his tireless investigation of his own roots from Bird to Tristano. Fascinating statement on the state of music a quarter century ago that Guy chose to call his a "jazz" orchestra, when now Braxton's parallel developments for large group integrating Henry Brant, Fletcher Henderson and John Philip Sousa are outside even the "outside" of jazz. I suppose we'll have to wait for the LJCO Lincoln Centre debut ....
Jazz Composer's Orchestra: Michael Mantler's band is a reference not only because of the name (a direct appropriation and gesture of esteem), but in its ability to work bold voices like Cecil Taylor's, Don Cherry's and Roswell Rudd's into his "Communications" without making them lose their personality. A typographical detail might be worth mentioning: before Barry finally decided to drop the apostrophe altogether, as he recently has, LJCO placed it outside the "s", suggesting an inclusive, multiple "composers' orchestra" Mantler retained authorial singularity in his "composer's orchestra".
Globe Unity Orchestra: Four years before "Ode", Alexander von Schlippenbach's first stabs at unifying the globe set an obvious context for LJCO's emergence. The original attempt to bring Europe's free contribution into such massive orchestration, when it started GUO had more musically in common with the LJCO than it did by the time the two bands met for their monumental duel, "Double Trouble". Whenever I get a good blast of Globe Unity, it reminds me of the pure power at the core of LJCO.
Brotherhood Of Breath: Remembered more for their infectious, joy-filled vamp-tunes than their (quite extensive) movement into denser areas of orchestral abstraction, the Brotherhood nevertheless seems an appropriate connection in decoding LJCO's existence and significance in the unfolding of new approaches to big-band. McGregor's cband was capable of the same mixture of sweetness and sting so masterfully manipulated by LJCO.
The Experimental Band: Muhal Richard Abrams led this never-recorded "rehearsal band" for a decade in Chicago, exploring possibilities of scoring for large-scale improvising corps. Indeed, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, AACM, had a requirement for new members at one time that they had to lead a big group through their own material. Abram's later orchestra also bears comparison, especially with Guy's more recent scores.
John Coltrane-Ascension seems an inescapable citation: 11-piece band, 1965, teasing borders of thematic composition and expressionistic, explosive improvisations. Trane retained the jazz-solo format within gargantuan-blow framework, which meant he could incorporate voices (like Freddie Hubbard's) that might seem incongruous or impossible. LJCO too, uses this inclusive logic.
Charles Mingus: How to break up the orchestra into smaller subgroups and treat the orchestra as a space for multiple reconfigurations? Along with his huge impact on Barry as a player, Baron Mingus's approach to writing for the big-band is decisive, and his long, sectional, storytelling pieces set another corner of LJCO's stage.
Sun Ra Arkestra: How did Ra manage to keep musicians with such individual voices and leadership potential as John Gilmore, Marshall Allen and Pat Patrick in Arkestra so long? Nourishing material, gradually changing compositional strategies, and, for the soloists, lots of SPACE. Look back at the members of LJCO on "Ode" who are still there today: Paul Rutherford, Trevor Watts, Evan Parker, Howard Riley, Paul Lytton and Marc Charig. A family that plays together .....
Duke Ellington: The inevitable, overemphasised, but still somehow true party-line on Duke's writing for targeted band members is also true of LJCO. It is the unique vocabularies (often "extended" vocabs, just like the Ellingtonian's were) of the participants in this orchestra that give it its specific sound and that take it on its charted (and uncharted) course. But to say that a composer writes music with particular players in mind is a hazy statement at best, in need of clarification.
Around a table on the day after Nickelsdorf 95, the three-day festival at which LJCO has played twice, once with guest soloist Marilyn Crispell, I sit in casual conversation with Guy, Lytton and pianist Georg Gräwe. Impressed especially by the meeting with Crispell, I express my amazement at Guy's ability to write music that inspires great soloing and strong subgroup improvisation. The discussion meanders in to Jungle Band comparisons. Lytton offers that the idea that Ellington wrote only for certain players is a badly misunderstood cliché, that Duke composed great music regardless of intended player, inspiring for any soloist. Barry concurs. Lytton wonders, what will happen later in the year when Guy's most personalised, detailed depiction of the 17 members of LJCO "Portraits", will be played by a completely different band in Sweden. Guy smiles and raises his eyebrows in joint uncertainty.
It seems to me that this specific breed of big-band composer writes with several things in mind: 1) the instrument and instrumental role (foreseeable and predictable possibilities); 2) the demands of compositional strategy of the particular piece (specific musical context); 3) the player in question (unstable and often unpredictable stylist). Guy has, from "Ode" on, used compositional materials to push the players, to elicit special performances from musicians with special abilities.
A sense of drama, of unfolding or expedition, is integral to Guy's concept and it fits the members of LJCO like a glove. Guy has adamantly explored the twin dialectics of written vs. improvised and arrangement vs. solo, and when a player like Rutherford uses a giant orchestral swell as a diving platform into a solo, anticipating and toying with a string of punch-chords, and finally settling elegantly into a tide pool of clusters that follows, the negotiation of the very relationship between soloist and orchestra belongs to the player, not to the composer whose name is beneath the title. That's a form of radical redistribution of authority freedom, if you want that doesn't go out of style because Ellington used it sixty years ago.
One last thought on writing for improvisers. The way some people talk about Duke's style of writing for his players goes something like this: He knew what they could do, knew their special tricks, their technical innovations, their signature licks, and wrote music with places for them to do their things. A spin through his 1926 version of "East St. Louis Toodle-O" might confirm this Bubber Miley's growling, talking trumpet mutations seem the only possible answer to Ellington's compositional query. But Ellington made a place for exceptional players to play exceptionally; he didn't try to think for them, he featured them. In the same manner. Guy doesn't try to anticipate the extreme liberties that players like Paul Lytton and Alan Tomlinson, for instance, might take during their LJCO solos: far out, on a limb, they know it's their charge not to fall off, to somehow come back to the trunk of the tree.
I've heard a few downtown New Yorkers Elliott Sharp and John Zorn, specifically discuss writing for musicians who they know so well they can predict what they'll do. In fact, I've played structured improvisations designed "with me in mind" and found it strangely constricting. The art of writing for improvisers, in my opinion, lies not in guessing what they'll do or drawing on their gimmicks, but in composing music that inspires them to do something you couldn't imagine. This practice thus requires the humility not to know; it means you have to believe in something unknown, in something as fragile as improvisation. At Nickelsdorf, listening to Paul Dunmall take an emotionally charged, absolutely jubilant, free jazz tenor solo over the orchestra, I'm sure that Barry Guy is one of the most gifted and humble composers of this variety the world has yet known.
One of the most vexed questions which has dogged improvisers has been that of the relationship between improvisation and composition. The arguments and debates have covered ground ranging from ethical and commercial considerations to the philosophical problems raised.
Can it be correct, for instance, that when a jazz soloist takes a 'standard' tune, applies all his creativity to reworking recomposing the themes almost beyond recognition, that the author of the first tune should retain all the credit and royalties as if his composition had just been trotted out dot-for-dot?
And in what ways do the two elements improvisation and composition interact, inhibit or illuminate each other?
Naturally the debate has raged with argument and counter argument; and almost as many resolutions as participants have emerged. Notwithstanding the fact that stances adopted have sometimes seemed to shift with the passage of time.
These and other questions are begged not only by Barry Guy's whole career, which straddles both composed classical music and improvisation, but more centrally by the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra the eighteen-strong improvisers' orchestra founded by Guy where he meets them head on.
'I think, first of all, we're entertaining a paradox by combining improvisation with the written element,' states Guy, 'and it's intriguing for me to see how that paradox works itself out. It's an unstable chemistry in a way, and the catalyst in the experiment is the players. By their approach they can move the whole mass one way or another.
"With the LJCO we try to find a homogeneous language where instrumental facility is matched by a written vocabulary, but without trying to create "Third Stream" music. Recently we've also been working completely without scores, for example during some concerts in Angers last year, and recently in London, and the results were really very good.'
Thus, unlike Fred Frith, who has kept his improvised and composed work separate, having come to the conclusion that improvisation worked best in isolation, Guy is actively mating the two in the framework of the LJCO.
Guy established the LJCO in the early Seventies. 'We talked about it in Berlin in 1969. A lot of diverse people were playing together, and it was such a good time that I thought I'd like to write a composition which would include everyone and express those things. So I decided to put it together."
Thus 'Ode' and the LJCO were born, to represent and embody the musical climate and scene he found about him.
It was a scene into which he had pitched himself headlong, and which he subsequently helped to shape. It was not one into which he had grown, like to many of his contemporaries. In fact, it was not until relatively late that he had taken up the bass at all.
When he left school Guy combined work in an architect's office with learning the bass and attending composition classes at Goldsmith's College. He was also playing Benny Goodman numbers in working men's clubs and later, bebop in Dave Holdsworth's Sextet. Graduation to the nascent improvised music scene followed quite promptly. A composition Guy had written featuring trombone took him to Paul Rutherford, and through him Guy met Trevor Watts and John Stevens and received an invitation to join them at the Little Theatre Club.
At the Little Theatre Club Guy joined the SME (the Spontaneous Music Ensemble), and when Ronnie Scott's Club moved to Frith Street he began work there too in the resident rhythm sections.
In his own words, 'I seemed to spend my whole time commuting backwards and forwards between the Little Theatre Club and Ronnie Scott's.'
Guy enrolled as a member of Amalgam (with Watts and Rutherford when all three left SME), Howard Riley's various trios, began a long association with Tony Oxley and was a regular participant in Bob Downes' ensembles, including those provided music for the London Contemporary Dance Theatre.
At the Stockwell Plough sessions, Guy was reunited with John Stevens; here fresh impetus was given to one particular sub-group from the Musicians' Co-op, an organisation in which Guy had also been involved. It also made manifest a music which has, despite the spare transparency of his early work with SME and subsequently at times with both Iskra 1903 and the Parker Quintet, become integrally associated with Guy's playing. It is one charged with urgency and noteworthy for the density of material.
'I started playing very late,' Guy explains, 'and there was a great urgency to learn and catch up. This urgency was characterised in the people I associated with, and I've tended to work with these people ever since. I find my greatest spontaneity and creative sense manifests itself with people who work at that sort of speed.'
During the late Sixties Guy spent four years studying at he Guildhall School of Music.
'I didn't know much about classical music at all before I studies there,' he comments, 'my introduction to classical music had been Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and Penderecki's "Threnody To The Victims Of Hiroshima". So I was working backwards through classical music and discovering as I went. Then, about the time I left Guildhall, there were quite a few small chamber orchestras starting up. It was a very optimistic time. I ended up as principal bass with about four of them, tearing from one to the next!'
Generally Guy regards his work in the 'classical' and 'improvised music' spheres as two separate areas of activity. Two different worlds, in fact, revolving around his bass at the centre; two worlds with different languages and different challenges, yet both concerned on a personal level with investigations and communication. But in the LJCO he draws on compositional elements of the classical tradition and attempts to combine them with the expressive power and organic strength of improvisation.
'With the LJCO I'm interested in composition, not in a dictatorial way, but as a "social framework" for the players. But in writing for classical orchestras, or string quartets, I take another line. They expect the composer to be responsible for all the music that emerges, so I don't include improvisation any more, although I did at one time. I do try to express spontaneity within that written music, although I'm definitely not trying to "write improvisation".
When I'm writing for a classical group or orchestra I have a particular sound I'm aiming for, but with the LJCO I see faces. For instance, for the tune I used as a coda for "Polyhymnia" at the Place concert; I sat at the piano, heard the way Trevor (Watts) plays a ballad and just wrote it.
'In the old days I used to use tone rows and things like that, but now a realise that in a way it's superfluous with the LJCO. It's actually to do with areas and textures we understand better intuitively.'
However, an understanding of the role of composed structures within the context of the LJCO was not something of which Guy was automatically aware. In fact he is still exploring their use, although he has learned from experience.
'"Ode" was the first piece, and it covered a lot of areas and directions. That was an experiment for me as much as for everybody else to see the response to different structures. Since I was enormously impressed with how everybody dealt with them I very enthusiastically thought, "Let's carry on with that".
The scores got more and more complex and I gradually became aware of people getting more and more frustrated. I wasn't immediately aware of this because I knew the music quite intimately and I was also fairly adept at going from score to improvisation and back again, but I got wind of a gradual feeling that "this is impossible", and that was reflected in people leaving, of course.
'You learn all the time ... if you make a score too simple then sometimes the musicians don't like it because, in a way, you're relying on improvising musicians to make or complete your score, one that might have very little thought behind it. But if you go to the other extreme, and make it very complex, then people feel hemmed in and don't feel that there's enough room left to improvise at all. That has a rather stilting effect. So what I'm trying to do is to liberate the score in such a way that the guys can actually feel free within the structure, and add their contributions.
'After "Ode" I moved away from writing tunes and concentrated more on writing textures. In a way these were a reflection of the direction in which our improvising was moving anyway, with its density and complexity. I was hearing a lot of that and started incorporating it into the scores trying to provide and reflect the material of and for the improvisation. It's a paradoxical mixture.
'Four or five years ago I cut the band down so that it contained all improvisers, I simplified the scores and gave a lot of responsibility to individual players to control sections and instigate movements. I think that by working in this way quite a good feeling began to emerge "We're doing this as a group".
"Then, last year at the Angers Festival I eventually said, "Let's do a group improvisation". And it was marvellous. That collective spirit of working together transferred itself into a completely open situation. People listened to the sonorities and timbres of the whole band; everyone entered into the improvisation and was very controlled (which isn't to say that they were timid).'
Speaking generally of large ensemble free improvisation and the LJCO's position relative to that, Guy continued: 'With large group improvisation there's often a lack of responsibility by some members. Either through just dropping out, being lazy or apathetic, or by being thoroughly brutal and virtually destroying it, saying "well, it's my spot now", and forcing space for it regardless.
'What's happening now with the LJCO has far more understanding of large group improvisation and of other members' contributions. I wouldn't be interested in the LJCO as just a vehicle for soloists, and all the indications are that there's a group commitment to improvisation which is very different to that.'
Guy is not the only musician composing for the LJCO; Tony Oxley, Howard Riley, Kenny Wheeler and John Stevens have all provided scores (in Oxley's case a graphic score). Buxton Orr wrote a piece during his time as a conductor. But outside of the LJCO structure only Bernard Rands has composed for them, although they have also performed Penderecki's 'Actions'.
Guy was anxious to expand this circle by commissioning, initially, George Lewis and Anthony Braxton to compose works; both have written for large orchestras and have performed alongside members of the LJCO, but an application for funds from the Arts Council to enable these commissions to go ahead was turned down.
Similarly, Guy has also always been keen to spread the weight of authority and responsibility within the orchestra; a parallel development to that of spreading the compositional load and encouraging a musical egalitarianism through his composed structures.
"I've always aimed to create a community of musicians,' he states, 'where the direction could be determined by the members of the band. I've always tried to avoid the things of Barry Guy's LJCO, because I've always considered myself to be just one of the musicians.
'In the early days I think there was always a certain amount of flippancy. The LJCO was regarded as a curious animal to come and make music in. But I realised that it would involve a very long-term effort on everybody's part. I don't see it as a one or two year project. I also wanted the band to work often enough for these changes to manifest themselves in a very strong way, where people would say, "We don't want to do that we want to do this". That's hard when you haven't got many gigs.
'It's as much a social structure as a musical body; because of that the music is often particularly fine. Especially the last two gigs we've had they've been triumphs for hard work and musical resolve.
Barry Guy's current commitments continue to straddle the areas of classical and improvised music, including a duo with Jane Manning, work with the West Square Electronic Music Ensemble, Capricorn, John Harle's Berliner Band, the Orchestra of St. John's Smith Square, the Academy of Ancient Music and the City of London Sinfonia (for whom he recently wrote a bass concerto).
He continues to work with Paul Rutherford and Phil Wachsmann in Iskra 1903, in Evan Parker's trio and quartet with Paul Lytton and Kenny Wheeler (or Mark Charig), in the Supersession quartet with Eddie Prevost, Evan Parker and Keith Rowe and is interested in exploring a trio with Evan Parker and Jamie Muir.
But he remains most passionate about that body in which the two elements of composed and improvised music coalesce the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra.
I would hate to lose it now; I think the LJCO has tremendous possibilities, there's tremendous potential, and all the guys want something magical to happen. We get good results, we get powerful results sometimes (I would say often now) but there is another hurdle. What's over it, I don't know. But I do know that once we're over here it's going to be absolutely extraordinary.'
There can be little doubt that given sufficient support and playing opportunities the LJCO is capable of achieving those extraordinary musical results of which Guy speaks. The indicators are there: a gripping short-notice concert recently at the Place in London, and the wonderful heaving, organic recordings just released under the title Stringer by FMP/SAJ. They have already acquired for themselves a unique voice favourable comparable with those of the Globe Unity Orchestra and Bley-Mantler's JCO in the States (and latterly Bley's touring orchestras), managing to achieve this with only a fraction of the support offered to either.
The final word must belong to Guy: 'The improvised music scene is a more vital force than anything else I know in terms of Western contemporary music. And the LJCO, and its area of activity, is actually as important as that of the London Sinfonietta in terms of dealing with large-scale composition.'
Composer and bandleader Barry Guy, on tour this month, is a key figure in contemporary improvised music. Will Montgomery discussed his often controversial achievements, including his latest work, Portraits.
"Running a big band is probably mind-blowingly stupid!" laughs Barry Guy at the end of our conversation. Indeed, to some, the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra, the 17-piece group he founded in 1970, is more than a foolhardy enterprise, it's artistically flawed. Guy's been attacked both for producing musical chaos and, on the other hand, for imposing the strait-jacket of a score on his improvisers. neither position does justice to the overwhelming power and emotional energy of the band at full-stretch. For Guy, the opportunity the orchestra presents for exploring the relationship between formal organisation and spontaneity within a large scale setting is something uniquely exciting.
As he says, "I see both sides as completely valid. it just so happens that I have a great love for structure and, in the best improvisations, you hear structure anyway. For me, improvisation is not a random procedure, it's a progression of understandings, musical understandings. I think it's terribly important over a period of time to reassess these moments until we come out with a different music. I've probably got over the idea of scores being problematic in the sense that I think I'm beginning to find the way of making them more organic with the music.
"I've had the most marvellous good fortune to play with some of the most wonderful players around: Evan Parker, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Irene Schweitzer and Paul Rutherford ... It doesn't matter whether you are Afro-American or white European, essentially what happens in the best music is that you have a kind of logic of construction and direction".
Guy's affection for structure manifested itself in his original career in architecture, though he eventually gave it up to study at the Guildhall. From there he went on to work with various chamber ensembles and orchestras, including Christopher Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music, with which he spent 13 years. He's also achieved success in the field of contemporary music, both with his own prize-winning compositions and with his renditions of pieces by composers like Cage and Xenakis. However his abiding love has been free improvisation. It's a field in which he's been a key figure since the movement's beginning in the late 60s and early 70s, when he started playing with musicians like Trevor Watts, Paul Rutherford, Tony Oxley, Evan Parker and Derek Bailey. Many of the musical alliances he established have now continued into the present London Jazz Composers' Orchestra. Its recent work combines improvisation as challenging as anything produced in the early 70s, with beautifully-scored ensemble sections reminiscent of Mingus or Ellington. Guy refuses the contention that his use of tradition is, in some way, a retreat from the uncompromising stance of earlier years. "I don't see it as necessarily backtracking at all. I think those early periods of experimentation and abstraction were all part and parcel of the need and the desire to break through certain barriers that we'd been brought up with. To get those down and open the way forward we almost had to go too far in a particular direction".
It amounts to a far more lively use of the past than many of today's young post-bop, pastiche vendors. Yet, as is obvious from the name of his band (echoing Michael Mantler's Jazz Composers' Orchestra), Guy unlike some of the European free school, doesn't feel a need to distance himself from 'jazz'. "In terms of playing jazz I think I couldn't describe playing with Evan Parker and Paul Lytton or Phil Wachsmann and Paul Rutherford, as anything other than improvisation. But is has so many relationships to what I consider jazz-playing. It depends on where you want to root jazz. if you define jazz as being a music that is confined within chord sequences and regular bar structures, then we're not playing jazz. But for me, jazz is a world of creative music and improvisation, which broadly encompasses Afro-American traditions as well as European traditions".
The piece Guy is currently touring with, Portraits, is a kind of celebration of the musicians who form his orchestra, many of whom are bandleaders in their own right, and as such it has a similar objective to Ode (a piece he composed for LJCO in 1972). For it, he felt he had to find a new way of integrating the players' improvising capabilities and the score. "I've tried to do it so that everybody plays in a grouping of their choice and also as a soloist against the whole orchestra ... What I tried to do was build up this huge structure where people keep on reappearing at different points. So, although you think you've seen the last of somebody, they might turn up later in other groupings".
Guy has cut down on other relatively remunerative commitments to concentrate on compositional and improvisational work and running the band. Funding is scarce - so much so that he recently had to sell a valuable old double bass to buy 17 air tickets for a LJCO tour of the US. His disgust at the current political climate may drive him to live abroad, though this most exacting and uplifting of jazz orchestras wouldn't itself be threatened. One suspects that the extraordinary two decades of musical relationships it enframes will be sustained for a good time to come.
"For me, the reason for doing it is that in front of me I have 17 friends. This is what the music is about, it's a kind of love for all those people and the hard work that they've put in, and their tremendous energy, creativity, and commitment. That's where the music comes from".
The 25th Anniversary of the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra
When confronted with the jazz orchestra, the dogmatist has always floundered in the shallow waters of definition. Where does the written start and the improvised end? It was a problem best solved by the like of Duke Ellington and Gil Evans but it still left an area of doubt in the mind of the theorist. By its very existence, the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra compounded the problem. Here was a large aggregation committed to free improvisation and yet marshalled under an orchestral banner.
It was formed in 1970 by bassist Barry Guy and from the inception included the wildest spirits from the European free music scene. As a principle, Guy 'tried to harness the freedom of the music, within structures that had a meaningful, cohesive direction... something like juggling the fixed and the free'. Charles Mingus was very much an early inspiration, although the first work for the orchestra, Ode (1), completed in 1970, paid tribute to the spirit of the American without adopting details of this music. It was purely Guy's examination of the relationship between free soloing and notated music and it enjoyed its debut at Ronnie Scott's in 1971 as part of the Musician's Collective Festival.
It was an undoubted success, and the recorded version had in cornetist Marc Charig, Guy, drummer Paul Lytton, saxophonists Evan Parker and Trevor Watts, pianist Howard Riley and trombonist Paul Rutherford seven players who have remained with the group to the present day. Unfortunately, encouraged by this success and by the possibilities available to such an orchestra, Guy misread the situation and, by his own admission, directed the works that followed on an increasingly academic route. He ushered the band toward greater organisation, embracing atonality and putting more emphasis on the tone row than many of his sidemen were prepared to accept. Reaction from these improvising players was not slow in coming and Buxton Orr, the conductor at the time, had difficulty in keeping the project afloat.
Guy, himself a virtuoso instrumentalist and playing member of the band, was able to appreciate the problem and he instigated a change in direction, one in keeping with the feelings and aspirations of his fellow bandsmen. He was helped in the next phase of the band's life, most especially by the provision of 'compositions' by the likes of Riley (Triptych), Rutherford (Sacre Bleu Spring Song) and percussionist Tony Oxley (Alpha). These mid seventies pieces were not so much compositions as frames that implies aspects of these players' small group performances.
Guy secreted these episodes in his compositional patterns and this fact
was strongly reflected in the next phase of the band's history,
probably starting in earnest with Four Pieces for Jazz Orchestra (2) recorded
by the BBC in 1980. It showed greater flexibility in all departments.
Part One was essentially mobile, while Part Two, with Kenny Wheeler, superb
in his trumpet part, was positively formal. Part Three, with its ferocious
reeds sandwiching the gentle fluency of Melvin Poore's tuba and
Tony Coe's clarinet, traded in contrasts, while Part Four, with
Oxley's percussion build-up and fine trombone interludes, was the
A more formal collaboration, with Anthony Braxton assuming the director's baton, was presented at the Taktlos Festival in 1988 (3). It was enough to show that, faced with 'pulse track structures' and other aspects of Braxton's unique music, the band could accommodate tighter controls. In this event, they did so with style, although it was the quality of the soloing from the reeds of Simon Picard and Parker and the trombones of Rutherford, Radu Malfatti and Alan Tomlinson that capped a brilliant exercise.
In 1984, the first performance of Harmos took place in London to confirm how effectively Guy could realise a structure through melodic elements. As the 1989 recording (4) shows, the solo and duo sections, with their emphasis on melody, provide both impetus and direction. Guy fashions apt orchestral cushioning but demands that each soloist becomes an organic part of his work in a way that is the antithesis of the jam session, with its solo sequences based on joyful but often egotistical satisfaction for the individuals involved.
1989 saw an Ellington/Basie type tie up between the LJCO and the Globe Unity Orchestra in Cologne. Appropriately, Guy wrote Double Trouble to commemorate the event and recorded the piece with LJCO (alone) for Intakt (5). As a performance it further endorsed the soloist's importance. Like Harmos, it had sequences with solo, duo and trio emphasis but, even more than that work, it had brilliantly scored collectives that actually sound ad-lib. With his daunting team of soloists, the talented Guy seemed determined to combine the concept of show-cased individual(s) with an orchestral relationship in which a solo line appears to grow from the ensemble. The fact that the converse was sometimes true only strengthened the music and showed what a constantly evolving process it was.
Riley was heavily featured in Double Trouble (5) and a fellow pianist, Irene Schweizer, graced the 1991 Theoria (6). That work was actually a commissioned composition to honour the German pianist's fiftieth birthday and, recorded in Zurich, it turned out to be a major triumph. The dedicatee's flowing virtuosity was ideally suited to the musical stance of the LJCO, as Guy successfully integrated her piano lines into the 'combo cameos' as well as making her a vital component in the full orchestral panoply.
At the time of writing, their most recent release is the impressive Portraits (7). Recorded in 1993, it typifies all that has gone before; the quality of the solos and group sequences remains impeccable and Guy smoothes their path with orchestra textures to suit each individual case. It was issued at the end of 1994 and a review appears in this issue. It is a fitting monument to an ostensibly British group that has been together for 25 years. During that time, there have been periods of inactivity but the musicians involved have been fiercely loyal and have make themselves available whenever possible. The band's reputation worldwide is abundant and Guy says that the future looks promising and that he plans for guest directors, ensemble collaborations and new works that will continue to add colour to an already impressive musical palette.
It seems impossible that you are here in Vancouver playing with an orchestra of this kind so far away from England. It must be very difficult to organise the movement of such an orchestra to Canada, because that can hardly be done inside of Canada. I'm curious how you could make this happen.
There were a lot of circumstantial things that came together, to make this work. The first thing in this tour was the invitation to go to Victoriaville. This is the starting point. Last year when I visited Victoriaville to play a solo concert we talked about the possibility of bringing the orchestra over. The only way we could bring the orchestra over was to enlist the support of the British Council. To enlist the support of the British Council one has to really work on a much grander scale. They are very supportive in some singular concerts, but they prefer us to do more concerts. Especially if they are going to spend the money to get us across the Atlantic, and have us make an appearance in Canada. Ideally the idea would be to capitalise on the initial plan and expand it. So I suppose on the occasion of my visit to Victoriaville last year I started talking to Ken Pickering. We had a kind of joke, I said "Ken it would be really nice since we're coming to Victoriaville, wouldn't it be lovely to come to Vancouver?". At the same time as we were having this conversation he said, "Well, one thing I've always wanted was the original album of Ode", (live recording from English Bach Festival, Oxford. 22nd April 1972. Released on INCUS 6/7) "Well" I said, "I can probably find you a copy of that." And he said "That's going to cost me a lot of money, isn't it?" So I said "It may cost you a lot of money, but you will have the real orchestra then." So I offered him a copy of Ode for an invitation to Vancouver. One day we got a call from Ken and he said "We'll try to make you happy."
Then the big problem was that Vancouver, is quite a long way from Victoriaville. What do we do with seventeen people on the road, all hanging out, we can't afford that. So we tried to fill in between, and to do that we got various people to investigate the possibilities of other concerts here in Canada. And also we made enquiries into the United States. We came up with not very much. Except John Corbett in Chicago. He didn't normally do this sort of thing, but he worked his butt off. That's the way it is. Since we were here, it seemed to be a good idea to do, instead of just one concert, two concerts and possibly some small group concerts as well; to have an expanded scenario rather than a reduced one. In that way we make it sensible for seventeen people travelling that far. It means the listeners get a fairly broad aspect of my writing and the guys playing. And they get to hear small free improvising groups. I hope that's the start of something else. Because there's quite a few appearances of the guys in fairly short concerts, it would be very nice that some of these groups would be able to come under their own names, at different times.
It occurred to me at the rehearsal, that in the orchestra were a handful of the most important British improvisers who created the whole process of new British improvised music in the latter half of the sixties. There was Paul Rutherford, Trevor Watts, Evan Parker, Paul Lytton, Howard Riley, you, Barre Philips, all to do with that period of music. They are all independently very creative artists on their own, so does the orchestra exist because of that time when you all became friends, and it simply grew and grew.
I would say that is precisely it. I think we have to acknowledge that within the orchestra almost everybody has their own projects. They have their own ideas, their own direction, their own sound, their own desires musically. However, because of that particular time in the late sixties, seventies, when the music was, in a way, formulating, we all became firm friends and we have this tremendous respect for each other. Let's say that the London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO) was a manifestation of that period. It gave us another kind of meeting place. And, dare I say, I do see it as a social institution.
In the early days we had quite a few concerts, and then because of financial considerations, because of my own working situation, there were various problems, we did less concerts, but when we did get together it was always a great thrill. In fact most of the time people were catching up on the local news in the profession. In a way it was a great opportunity to bring together friends that didn't always work together. I've been working with Evan ever since those days of he Little Theatre Club, I've been working with Paul, with Howard Riley. These days I don't play with Howard Riley because he has different ideas of what he wants to promote. So it is wonderful to work again with Howard in the orchestra. Actually he's done every single concert right from the very beginning. I think the point of this is that this special energy, this special input, this special kind of music making, is characterised in this ensemble. So whilst everybody has an individual voice, they have enough time to come along and say - yes we can exercise our particular voices within this context. It is terribly important to have these friends, these important musicians around, and I'm very pleased to have them in the band. I'm glad they haven't run away. Some people have been and gone. Trevor Watts was there early on, he went off for a while to do some things and came back again. It's not an on the road band, it's a project band anyway. I like to have the idea of a series of projects which are ongoing pieces that grow slowly to become more and more spacious to allow the musicians to develop. So instead of just going on the road and just playing everything night after night after night, what we have to do is actually work in periods which are financially and artistically acceptable. And then make an intense study of the pieces an intense musical experience. Then we can go off and do our different things. Then I try to mobilise everybody again, as and when the situation seems appropriate.
The first orchestra covered a very very wide area of music, so I tried through my own compositional methods, to narrow this down a bit, and actually became more and more abstract. Whilst we were experimenting with the improvised music side in the early seventies, of refining the language, I was trying to refine another language which was the compositional side. What I was doing, to a certain extent, was alienating some of the musicians. Derek Bailey left a little while after that because he found it almost unacceptable to deal with the rigours of this very difficult music. It was very detailed. So I began to understand that I was probably going up a slightly wrong path. But very often you have to do this to discover the other way. What I did was to invite the musicians to compose pieces. Let's see their approach. So Tony Oxley, Paul Rutherford, Howard Riley and Kenny Wheeler wrote pieces. We had a couple of straight works as well. We played a work by Krzystof Penderecki, which was actually written for the Globe Unity Orchestra. We played a composition by our then director, Buxton Orr, and also a piece by a composer friend of mine, Bernard Rands, who actually teaches in Boston now. So there were these various approaches from the very rigorous side of composing through to the graphic side of Tony Oxley. It was quite a wide palette we were dealing with. Also it gave everybody a slightly different focus, it meant that the composers had to see it from the other side as well. Then it went a little bit quiet. From 1977 through 1980 we did nothing. It also reflects that I was busy on the road doing some other things. Some straight music. But in 1980 I wrote a piece called Four Pieces For Orchestra, that's when Peter Brötzmann and Peter Kowald were in the band. This, in a way, signalled another direction. I directed it. I wanted to try another way to run the band, to put more responsibility onto the players. Rather than just having somebody conducting I wanted some freedom within the sections and freedom with the way the sections were organised. So that meant that some of the players had to take on the role of some of the directing. That was the new direction. Basically the history of LJCO is in three parts. The first part was ODE, the second phase was when all the guys wrote pieces for the orchestra, and the third was when I decided to take the helm again. Because I had a clearer idea of what I wanted to do, it actually became fairly obvious which direction to go. And I had learnt a lot as well. Four pieces for Orchestra, Polyhymnia, Harmos, Double Trouble and Theoria. So we're up to date really.ß
In the period when the orchestra is beginning it seems that there is Globe Unity, Mike Westbrook, The Brotherhood of Breath, all existing in a short period of time. Why was there such a need for orchestras? After all they were difficult to organise and not economically viable.
I don't know, it's very interesting I never thought about that, but you're right, there were quite a few powerful souls. I think orchestras begin because of the initiative of certain people. I enjoyed the writing of large structures I enjoyed the big band sound. Although I wanted to do something about it under my own terms. I think Westbrook did the same and JCOA with Mike Mantler, they had a certain direction they wanted to examine. So I think all of these things tend to be the idea of singular people. I think it's coincidence, but also it's the cohesion of people, the way the people come together at a certain time in history. Very often out of a group of people you will get some nut case like me who will say let's do something as a celebration for us all. Everybody had the same idea, the Brotherhood of Breath, Westbrook's team, when you find this great rising spirit, this great energy, sometimes you just have to get in there and find a way of reacting to it.
There could be some debate in certain circles as to whether or not this is a jazz orchestra. I wonder why you would think it was.
Well let's go onto the other side. I think we can definitely say it's not a straight orchestra. Now why is it not a straight orchestra? It's not a straight orchestra because we're using improvising musicians, all of whom grew up in the jazz tradition. At one time I had a few so called straight musicians in the band, in the first period when the pieces were getting very difficult, but that was a mistake, it didn't work at all, texturally it was quite interesting, but intellectually it was very unsatisfying. There was no meeting point really. If you define jazz as being time playing and harmonic sequence playing then o.k. you could say the LJCO is not playing jazz. Although we do play some time things and some sequences. One of the things I was interested in breaking away from, was the regular structures of eight, twelve and sixteen bars, the song form. Recurring harmonic sequences, recurring rhythmic sequences. The important thing is, that we are researching a much wider area of musical language, based upon the jazz tradition. Integrating the researches and the march forward to technical invention, a fantastic movement from the individual musicians where the instruments have technically flowered. It can't be straight music, what else can it be if we are using jazz musicians, so it has to be called a jazz orchestra.
Was the American big band history an influence on you?
Charles Mingus was very influential. I think he was one of the guys that started to break down the barriers and actually took risks. Took tremendous risks. Really taking the idea of a large ensemble to new areas. From that side I realised it could be done within the jazz ensemble, the big band. From the other side what I found influential, listening to extended straight music pieces, or even symphonies, which I had to do at music college anyway. The question I ask myself is - Why should one deny oneself the opportunity of dealing with the large concept, because it's jazz. Why can't we integrate different sonorities, different time changes, different areas which actually reflect the musicians. Why can't we do that, why should we just run through a series of chord changes and a series of solos strung one after the other, when there is no need to do that. Mingus started to break all that down even in his small ensembles. The wonderful time changes he got into, the way he could slip from one area to another and created these marvellous moods. One of my ideas was to get a sonorous and vibrant sound out of the ensemble and if there was ever an inspiration for that, it was Mingus. The way he made his whole ensemble sing, and he had that freedom, that was certainly very influential. Yes.
You play other styles of music, in chamber music groups and classical orchestra, other than jazz and improvised music?
I used to. In the last few years I have decided to pull out of that area of the music. I haven't completely pulled out, I still do one chamber orchestra and some early music ensembles, but very little now. The reason for that is, as time was marching on, I was constantly on the road or in the studio playing Beethoven and Mozart and Haydn with these various ensembles, and I realised that I was losing time. Not only in terms of looking after the orchestra, not only in terms of composing, but also denying myself playing with small ensembles. One day Evan (Parker) said we're going to lose you if you don't think about this seriously. That was a good moment to say - Hey. Every time they got concerts in Europe I would be on a tour of the States, then I would come back to work in the studio doing all the Beethoven symphonies, or something. So there was very little time in which to do projects. I decided, virtually overnight, to knock the whole lot on the head, and say thank you very much, now it's time to start reconsidering the direction. I've moved out of London to get away from the attraction of the studios. The idea was to focus on a particular area of music that is most important. That is improvisation, the orchestra and composition, solo playing, small groups.
Considering how popular the young gentlemen in suits from the Southern United States have become, and how that has become the new standard for jazz, is it more difficult, in England, to play improvised music now than it was in the sixties?
It has tightened up. There is a preoccupation with bebop music again, there is nothing wrong with that, but the big problem is there seems to be a cut off point for appreciation, their minds have closed up. The doors have closed. On the other hand, because we've been around a little bit longer playing this music, if there is an opportunity where a festival wants some freer aspects, we tend to get asked. So in one sense the whole thing has closed down, on the other hand because we've stuck to it, some people are saying that we must know what we are doing. We still manage to continue a reasonable healthy existence. But it's much harder, there's no doubt about it. Even for something like the Evan Parker trio (Barry & Paul Lytton) it's very difficult to try to get a series of concerts to make a tour. Improvised music or freer music is seen as lunatics music again. It's gone back to where it started from.
Politically and economically, there's no doubt, that in this last decade, it's been ruinous for the arts. Certainly in England the Thatcher government was promoting the idea that there should be no such thing as governmental help through arts councils and arts bodies. She was promoting the idea that if you want to get some kind of subsidy you would have to get sponsorship directly from the big companies. The big companies of course are as conservative as hell, they're only worried about their image, they're only worried about where the money is going to come from for their share holders and to support their directors. The last thing that enters their minds is that they are going to put some money into an operation like ours, because it's the totally wrong image. On the other hand they can put it into an opera company or a ballet company which is part of the national institution, the fabric of society. It has the right resonances within the society in which they move. We don't move within that society, so what Thatcher did, and the various corporate business sides of Britain, and the world probably, was to take away the consciousness for the new arts. I'm not just talking about music but also painting, writing, dance, to redirect the peoples consciousness into this almost bleak scenario of finance and self survival.
It turns out that it's not only Britain, but the Canadian prime minister and the American president did exactly the same thing. So obviously it's a whole concept of this modern commercial world. Is there a generation of players coming from the music that you have invented? This amazing music.
I get the impression that some people have been influenced by some of us, many people acknowledge that Evan has been a great influence. If we are called the first generation, then the so called second generation in a way wanted to do the complete opposite to what we were doing. One of the aspects of the first generation was to work up on a very high technical plain, to get a refinement of language and technique. So the technique was established and therefore you could make your statement without having to worry about struggling with your instrument. So in fact the instrument became part of the self. The way you spoke was with a great amount of fluency, without the instrument getting in the way. To a certain extent, and this is a vast generalisation, the next generation were not interested in our type of technical perfection, it was much more of a grass roots level. Anyone could pick up almost any instrument, it was as if they wanted to take it out into the street and give instruments out to everybody. Unrefined. Needless to say because there were some great people involved in it some great music came out of it. They are very brilliant guys, intellectually they're great. It was just a different philosophy, a different way of approaching the music. The first generation came through the rigours of jazz, learning from people like Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Coltrane, Mingus, All those fantastically great Americans. I think there as a need to become familiar with that language, and because it was so highly defined, you had to develop your own. You had virtually to go along the same road for a while before the change. A lot of the younger generation never went back to there, but started from their own space, from a different philosophy completely. Which is fine. I don't see why everybody should go back to playing bebop. You don't have to go back to dixieland so you can play bebop.
The English jazz element of that generation has gone back to the tradition just like the American suits, playing this conventional imitation music.
I think that coincided with the height of Thatcherism and the corporate mentality. Because suddenly everybody wanted managers. I was reading articles in magazines saying my manager is going to do this for me. I remember one player in England, when asked what he wanted out of life, saying that first of all he was going to get his VAT number, which means he was expecting to earn a certain amount per year, and then a wife, and then a house, and have some kids, and I'm going to make a lot of great albums. The only thing I didn't hear, was about music making. Where is the music coming into this. It was only to do with business. And this was the whole mentality of the eighties, the whole thing was rushing headlong into business schemes and product.
One of the things about the LJCO, and this music, is that it has kept a fairly low profile because a lot of people don't like it. It's been very carefully considered, the way the music develops, how the language develops. It's something to do with the dialect as well. We all have a different way of speaking but we can all understand each other. You live in Canada you have a different accent to what I have, but we understand each other in terms of the music. It's quite important to realise that some things actually take a long time to come to fruition. Whereas a lot of the eighties so called culture was very very quick turning. It was actually at the mercy of the media. Things would come up one day and virtually be extinguished a couple of years later. The idea of the short memory, the quick turn over product. Everybody was being encouraged to come up with this yearly product. To keep on changing. It was very unfashionable to have a long term project.
Childrens toys. They change every season. It's not teddy bears, Lego or building blocks anymore. Every season there are new fashions, even for children.
It titillates for a while, then it's out the window. I remember the kids toys that we had like Meccano, at least you were encouraged to look into things, to build things, to understand how something could be more than instantaneous. You research into how you can get your Meccano to be one day a crane and the next day to be a tractor. It actually exercises the mind to be thinking in the future, thinking a little bit long term, thinking about how you could construct things in a very interesting way. I despair at video games, at that mentality, because again it's the idea of the computer providing a short term success. You win your game, then you go up to another level and win another game, but this gratification is terribly short term. It doesn't actually take you on to thinking about the wider context of things. One of the horrible things about computer games, to my mind, is it's so singular. It doesn't encourage you to communicate with your fellow human beings. Which is another one of the spin offs from the politics and the corporate mentality. It seems to have wiped out the idea that we can work together on a direction, to get on with each other as human beings. This is why I value so much, these associations with the LJCO, because it's not for the want of just hanging on to old things, it's actually the best way that I can see of expressing a type of society. A society where humans beings get on with each other instead of greedily trying to get ahead of each other. We want to work together in a humane way. I try to write music that expresses that.
Bill Smith (Coda)