The Architectural Analogy: The Structure and Composition Possibilities of Inscape Tableaux “Like a Salvation Army Band, But Much Nicer” An Interview with Barry Guy (Part II)

Tampere, Finland – Nov 3, 2001

Words & Photography © Laurence Svirchev


In 2001, I interviewed Barry Guy about Inscape – Tableaux (Intakt CD 066), the composition he had just presented at the Tampere, Finland Jazz Happening. The interview was as long and complex as the music. It contained insights into Guy’s respect for other musicans, particularly Marilyn Crispell, as well as some examination of Guy’s own musical history. Since I was not willling to condense and simplify Guy’s insights, I could not find a publisher at the time and recently discovered it in my data-base. First Publication 2008

Barry Guy New Orchestra Inscape – Tableaux

Barry Guy, Marilyn Crispell, Evan Parker, Mats Gustafsson, Hans Koch, Johannes Bauer, Herb Robertson, Per Åke Holmlander, Paul Lytton, Raymond Strid.

Svirchev: Please tell me about the Inscape – Tableaux structure of the trio section between you, Marilyn Crispell, and Paul Lytton.

Guy: The piece is called Odyssey. Actually it was a bass solo I wrote for a friend, the Irish painter George Vaughan. One of his paintings was called Odyssey. I played in front of the painting for an exhibition opening. I wrote this simple tune mostly based on harmonics. Then came the opportunity to make a recording for Intakt with Marilyn Crispell, Paul Lytton and myself. We did a version of Harmos, Double Trouble (mainly selecting little bits out of it) and Odyssey. Then Odyssey jumped ship to become a trio piece. Marilyn Crispell gently articulates single notes behind the melody which are indicative of the strings on which my harmonics are played. So if I play a top C-string, the first note is a C, she also plays a C. I play the D on the G-string but she plays the G, the open string. So we add this kind of very light lace-work, then we go into the improvisation and then back into the tune again. It’s a conventional song form, something I don’t usually do. But then in Inscape – Tableaux itself it takes on another form because then the tune is harmonized like a chorale. After we have done all our playing, the introduction, the tune, improvisation where I mainly solo over it, then the tune is articulated throughout the whole band like a Salvation Army Band but much nicer. It is a beautiful moment of elation.

One of the important things about this piece is this actually brings you down to a moment of calmness and introspection. Odysseyis a functional pivot piece. It arrests the whole movement of the first part and gently puts you on the ground and then –wow- it is off to the big graphic piece where we split the band down the middle. Mats Gustaffson conducts one half of the band and I conduct the other in a kind of gestural situation and ambiguous moment. He had vetoes. He can take some of my players out and I can take some of his players out. But before that happens there is a big explosion of energy. I particularly used Mats there because he is used to that with his own Nu Ensemble. It seemed appropriate to give him some responsibility.

But before that the whole idea of the piece comes down to this quiet moment of the chorale. Actually it is not so quiet anymore because they play it quite loudly. It is a beautiful moment because they take you on a journey and deliver you to a very wonderful place. Evan takes it out on a little cadenza and then we are off to a new direction. So Odyssey has this ability not only to present Marilyn Crispell in such a beautiful situation, in a place where we have so much space to make music. It was important to use this tune as a vehicle to provide us with an open lace-work. It is like a spider’s web, glistening as you look at it in the morning light, complex but simple, glistening from these little droplets.

Svirchev: What gives Odyssey its delicacy and emotional quality?

Guy: One of the reasons Marilyn Crispell is in the band is that she has the ears, the technique, and the touch to be able to go between the most powerful moments of pianistic ability where every articulation, every-everything to do with her whole body and energy is into the piano and out comes out as a kind of orchestra of sound. I am always amazed she can pull so much sound out of the piano. But because she has such a fantastic technique, she can go down to the finest qualities of delicacy. She can articulate one note and it represents an entire world. What I found in playing trio with her is where she puts these notes. Even in the most complex of musics she somehow voices the piano so the bass can move in the spaces she has left, even if we are playing very fast.

It is a very special quality of a pianist to be able to do that. Sometimes you can be playing very fast and with great excitement with a pianist but you can’t find any space. and you are just trucking along-side of the activity. Marilyn somehow leaves little gaps – I don’t know how it is done – but she seems to allow the moment for the bass to slip into space that has been vacated.

Because of the way she works her harmonic movements or shapes the music, it as if she says, “this is the moment, take it.” If you have your ears open you will know where it is. And most of the times, it is the right note as well (whatever that means: there seems to a correct note for that moment, it doesn’t sound like a wrong note). It is very interesting how she can move from absolute spare, beautiful, hanging chords, notes gestures, to the most complex pianistic activity and still leave space for everyone to function. ForOdyssey, the fragility of the music is very important and she understands that completely.

Svirchev: You can play with great velocity, acceleration and deceleration. How did you develop these aspects of articulation?

Guy: I think history has done that. It is a mixture of technical ability mixed with need. The technical ability came through my musical education. I had to play a lot of contemporary music that demanded changes and traversing large distances on the bass in order to execute some of the ideas of the composers. While I was studying these modern pieces, I was also playing with people like Evan Parker, Paul Rutherford, Howard Riley, Trevor Watts, Tony Oxley. We were pushing each other to find ways of articulating the gradually expanding language and how we worked together. Very often you were not thinking of yourself as a bassist, but as an instrumentalist, of how you reacted with each other. You would find that each instrument was pushing the others into new areas. Not only was your technique of listening to each other improving but also your technical facility on the instrument had to go beyond the bounds of what is considered normal.

There are standard ways of playing the double bass, like the arco-orchestral way, the standard jazz way of time playing. The extensions from Gary Peacock, Scott LaFaro, Eddie Gomez that took the instrument pizzicato-wise into completely new areas. The freedoms of Orsted-Pederson are extraordinary. As our music developed and we became adept at decoding musical activity, things became not only faster, but lighter, and clearer. Now I just have this fastish technique on the instrument, not necessarily just to be fast, but the ability to enter into scenario that is presented. It is also interesting that when you are playing you might think everything is going very fast, but there is also a kind of slowness to it.

If you have ever seen the Corbusier Golden Section ideas, the proportions, or the Fibonacci Series where you get these gradually accreting numerical sequences, you can imagine that within the very large arches there are subsidiary arches, down to the smallest arches. You might think the increments are incredibly fast and small but the overall thing is a huge arch. So you can in a way jump from different levels, from the largest arch down to the smallest, from the fastest to the very slow. So sometimes when you are playing very fast you are actually thinking very slow. It is not on a single level you are appreciating the music, it is on different levels.

If you take Georgian architecture, you will notice the bigger rooms were all downstairs. As you go up the building, the hierarchy changes, rooms start to get smaller and smaller, the ceilings lower and lower. You have the grand entrance and the parlors downstairs and as you go to the top I suppose you got to the servants’ room.

In some ways there is this layering in the free improvisations. You can actually respond and refer to different speeds as you are going through the big arch. You can sub-divide things. It is an understanding inside the body. It is how we understand the movement of music. People always ask, “Are you playing fast all the time?” But it is not a matter of playing fast all the time. It is a matter of how you play fast and what you do with it. Within playing fast you can conceptualize playing slowly. In a way, that is the essence of the music. Because we are playing fast, you almost can’t pre-think it. As Evan sometimes say, “Did you do that first, or did I?” It is almost as if you are pre-hearing the events.

One of Maya’s favorite subjects, and I have some sympathy for it, is the subject of osteo-phonic hearing, or hearing through the bones and the body. If you are receptive to hearing through the ears, you would be mistaken to think it is the only way you hear. As animals, we hear through different senses. Your bones have availability of transmission of sound through the body. Imagine your body as a scanner and all the information hitting the body is being processed by the brain. The information going in through the ears is a big part of it, but all this information is being taken in somehow. Some things are happening in improvised music which you could never write down. You could not even think about it before it happened. You can be playing along, for example, and the whole thing stops [snaps his fingers] at the right moment, just like that. Because that is the end of the piece. But nobody looked at each other, nobody necessarily prescribed there had to be a particular way of finishing the piece, it just goes along and all your senses lead all of us to that particular moment.

I worked onstage with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre for many years. I had to, by necessity, understand what the dancers were up to because I was just the sloppy old bass player. I actually went to classes with the dancers and got involved with finding out what they do in preparation for their art form. So I became quite an athletic person because I had to feel good about being on stage with them. I went to their body control studio to find out about how muscles work, about posture, about everything to do with preparation for dance.

I like to think of the bass not as an obstacle because of its size. I like to think of it as an object which is incredibly small. I picked up a lot from the dancers about transferring of energy to the point where you need it, allowing the sound to come out without necessarily appreciating the mass of geographic movement needed. When dancers make a lift, they don’t do it without knowing where the muscles are going to work at a particular time. If you see one dancer pick another up, there is a moment of preparation and then the flow of physical energy is at its maximum.

I think you can do this in the music as well. When I have to make a particular articulation on the bass, it is like guiding the fingers. What happens to the ends of those fingers meeting the board –this comes from a dream sequence- is this feeling of a grain of sand or crystal between your thumb and one of the fingers. You can feel every sharp corner of this crystal. Within this dream I have a feeling of crystal with all planes and all surfaces exposed, at the same time as being in a room filled with marshmallow that is pushing on your system. This is the kind of music coming in. The reality of all that is coming through your system at the points where the crystal is evident. And that is the sound.

This combination of energy movement and sound definition all somehow came together at a certain point in my life. That is when the bass in a way became non-problematic as a big instrument. The idea was to get it as small and insignificant as possible so the only thing to worry about is making the music.

The only reality about the bass is that when you are not playing is that you have to cart the thing around and persuade airlines it is a nice thing to put inside their hold.

Svirchev: Can you tell me about your work with Maya Homburger?

Guy: Since I got together with Maya, not only has there been a qualitative change in my playing. When you marry a violin player, you learn they have a particular way of approaching the instrument which is quite important. They are highly disciplined. Particularly to do with tuning and how the violin is played in tune. Maya can pick out some inconsistencies in my playing when I am practicing. In one way they can irritate the shit out of me, because I think I’m doing it right, but if I open my ears in my practicing procedure, it has forced me to concentrate on areas of my playing that I can get lazy with. We’re out on the road playing and we practice as much as we think we need and sometimes you have to have a different focus. She has been very good at putting me in my place.

When she is playing the solos of Bach and Weber, you have to play them right. There is no reason why I should get away with anything. I have had to, at times, reassess some basic things, for example playing long notes, working on some bits of the Bach cello suites, which is always a good thing for tuning. She always says to me that “when you have played the Bach cello suites, I can hear that in your improvised music, that your control of the bow, control of the sound is heightened.”

Of course, having a duo together playing various musics which I write for us, and having increasingly more people write for us is an interesting discipline, for it is a mixture of the exact –and I play a lot of improvisation- interestingly enough, that has rubbed off on Maya’s playing. She can play the Bach and Weber pieces with much more freedom now and we are getting to the point where we are actually doing some joint improvisations. Recently we did a concert with a two or three minute improvisation as an encore. She has been around this music for a long time now. She came when we were first rehearsing Harmos back in 1989. She has followed this music and the players right from the beginning, managed the Barry Guy New Orchestra, and most of our musical life as it happens. So it is an amazing thing to be within the ears and disciplines of a practicing violinist. Good for me, made me practice more, made me focus more on certain aspects of the bass where I may have become a bit lazy.

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