Barry Guy: Endgame (JAPO 60028)


Barry Guy

Barry Guy bass
Howard Riley piano
John Stevens drums, cornet
Trevor Watts alto and soprano saxophones
Recorded April 1979 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Steve Lake and Manfred Eicher

Bassist Barry Guy has always lurked in some of ECM’s most unexpected corners, and on this JAPO release from 1979 he joins pianist Howard Riley, drummer John Stevens, and saxophonist Trevor Watts for five freely improvised tracks of understated pandemonium. The titles of said tracks confuse more than they clarify, because the music speaks so well for itself. “The Y?” is a bubbling broth that gradually thickens into stew. Each musician seems to play in his own space, feeling out the dynamics of the scene before populating it with movements. Watts’s altoism is the boldest color of this spectrum, diving through his bandmates’ hoops with the ease of a dolphin. This leaves Guy to navigate Riley’s punctuations with strange tenderness, and Stevens to fill the void with his brilliant sputtering.

The sub-terrain to the former’s mountains, “Remember To Remember” opens low and dark in Guy’s strings. Watts carves a stark alphabet into Riley’s chaotic palimpsest, leaving Stevens to flounder on shore. There is a dynamic of searching here that, if not apparent already, should by now hit the listener like a eureka moment, as the group’s modus operandi becomes clear as day: this is not free improvisation but improvised freedom. With this realization as our compass, we leap over every pin and needle into “Du Doo.” Guy again provides the anchor, which is meant to maintain as much as obliterate stasis. His heart is in the details. Stevens brushes the frame until it turns to dust, while Watts wanders joyfully in these ashen ruins as if they were newly built. The detailed finish shows just how sensitive this quartet can be.

“Maze,” in spite of its title, is the most linear track on the album. Its surface-level overlap only thinly veils a continuity that sustains a full 13 minutes’ worth of depth-soundings. At the core of it all is the relationship between Guy and Watts, who, like photographers taking pictures of the same scene but from different angles, share complementary foci. On the other side of the coin is the final track, “In Relationship To The Circumstance…” Its gestural fabric is rendered opaque by the illusion of space between instruments. The sparseness is dark matter made audible. Watts plays the roll of bait and the others fish hooked to its line, flailing for one last song.

Like Barre Phillips, Guy is a bassist who avoids pigeonholes like the plague, but with an art that is ultimately healing. This is one of his many effective prescriptions.

Back cover

Maya Homburger/Barry Guy: Ceremony (ECM New Series 1643)


Maya Homburger
Barry Guy

Maya Homburger baroque violin
Barry Guy double-bass
Recorded April and July 1997, Propstei St. Gerold and Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Peter Laenger and Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

By definition, the concept of “ceremony” is rooted in an abiding adherence to formality, regularity, and gesture. As the title of this equivocal recording, it bends to a different set of rules. The quill that writes them belongs in the alternating grips of Baroque violinist Maya Homburger, making her New Series debut, and bassist Barry Guy. Dipping into the ink well of Heinrich Franz Biber, the inestimable duo scratches its captivating deconstructions in a jagged improvisational script. Yet it is in between the lines where the real ceremony takes place.

Annunciation chalks the Praeludium of Biber’s Mystery Sonata No. 1 (“The Annunciation”) as the denominator by which Guy’s compositional numerators come to be defined. Its signals are grand and highly detailed, each evocative of an era relived through its instruments. Stepping out of this door, we walk into Celebration, a free-spirited violin solo distilled from a wealth of motivic information. Looking up into the Immeasurable Sky, we enter a gangly dream in which the progress of travel is meted out slowly at the hands of an unseen guide. Dancing turns into language, and language turns into art: the cartographer’s aspirations brought to light in sound. And when at last the Ceremony commences, it paints a lush fantasy that never quite sets its feet upon solid ground. Throughout its nearly 17-minute duration, the magic of multitracking allows Homburger to work her fractal spell. Perfect fifths are drawn out into a fine mesh to catch the dizzying agitations that follow. Forged by well-tempered strings, each intention is magnified by its situatedness in the dying echo of the last. We then find ourselves Still. Counterpart to the Celebration, this piece for bass alone circumscribes the ceremony with pensive cleansings before Breathing Earth takes the last movement of the Biber sonata and works it into a similar transfiguration of elements.

The Baroque passages glimmer like reflections of some hidden genius, exposing the dedication poured into a craft before it is opened to scrutiny. The sensitivity of their denouement is what really captivates throughout this fine disc, and in it we can always find a burnished string onto which we might place our own tattered bow of appreciation.

Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: Toward the Margins (ECM New Series 1612)


Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble
Toward the Margins

Evan Parker soprano saxophone
Barry Guy double-bass
Paul Lytton percussion, live-electronics
Philipp Wachsmann violin, viola, live electronics, sound processing
Walter Prati live electronics, sound processing
Marco Vecchi live electronics, sound processing
Recorded May 1996, Gateway Studios, Surrey
Engineer: Steve Lowe
Produced by Steve Lake

What’s given:
If ECM had a musical attic, it would sound like Toward the Margins. Not to imply that the Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble’s debut is filled with unwanted or forgotten things, but that it exists toward the margins of a human life, its shed skins stacked like boxes above our heads, waiting for a breath to blow the dust away. Parker has been with ECM almost since the beginning, having first appeared on The Music Improvisation Company and subsequently on Gavin Bryars’s After the Requiem, among others. An abiding interest in electronics as an improvisational medium led him to the present project, which draws from disparate disciplines bonded by an infatigable spirit of sound production.

What’s taken away:
Grating strings first clear out the rafters, shafting like light from behind a broken cloud. Parker’s soprano scratches gently at their back. Grumblings and sampled ether flutter and churn, tripping down sand-covered stairs like a creature covered with feet, so that it is always standing no matter how it lands. Compartmentalized echoes share their cubicles with shallow utterances of deeper assignments. Barry Guy’s double bass ties its strings into a tangle of self-awareness as Parker trembles within his own computer-augmented aftershocks. Like a flock of geese in overdrive, he burns in the upper atmosphere before he dares dream of land. Melody is but an afterthought to the sputtering multitudes, caught in the welcoming stare of an unwanted stranger. The overall sound is subdued yet robust. It inhabits the crawlspace of our dreams. The haunting final track lingers in our bones, long after the silence comes, animating a body whose only fear is cogency.

What’s left behind:
Parker is the rare musician who treats improvisation as composition—not so much an offering to the aleatoric gods as a vocabulary articulating its real-time derivations. His saxophonic work is high but far from mighty. He listens more than he plays, as the musicians faithfully tune themselves to a radio signal only they can hear. Washes of precipitation and other climatic changes stipple these aural landscapes, leaving Andy Goldsworthy-like rain shadows in their wake. Sometimes he rolls through rough detours, kicking up sparks and gravel; other times he hovers like an appraising insect, every note a kaleidoscopic cell unfolded into the whole of its vision. As the title makes unabashedly clear, this is an asymptotic experience with nowhere to hide but our ears, and there it burrows, hibernating until the next thaw.

Barry Guy: Folio (ECM New Series 1931)


Barry Guy

Maya Homburger baroque violin
Muriel Cantoreggi violin
Barry Guy double-bass
Münchener Kammerorchester
Christoph Poppen conductor
Recorded February 2005, Himmelfahrtskirche, München
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Over the years, ECM New Series listeners will have variously encountered Barry Guy as composer, performer, and improviser. In Folio, we get to experience all three. I have always found his improvisatory role to be the most compelling, for it stirs my heart with communicative possibilities. And so, in the spirit of living in the moment, I share this review verbatim, as I dictated it while listening:

“Barry Guy is very much concerned with the internal, the biological nature of music. The seemingly sourceless energy it evokes through human contact enables us to question our own energy: whether it is divinely given or naturally ordained. While his epic explorations of thematic material by Diego Ortiz betray a more honed compositional reach, Guy still inhales the oxygen of indeterminacy. This music functions very much like memory: when one focuses on one memory, others try to creep in, sometimes courting unwanted associations, secrets we would rather not acknowledge…. Even at its most dynamic moments, this music is all about gentility and caution—not as a sign of fear…but as a way of life, a philosophy. The improvised ‘commentaries’ peppered throughout add a rich sense of bulk to the album’s presence…but one shouldn’t think they are any less substantial, for they wouldn’t be what they are without their source texts. They give the musicians a crisp field in which to ponder the emotional implications of what they have just played…to share those feelings with the listener rather than covet them unceremoniously. The ‘Folio’ pieces are richer in orchestral texture. They tap into a broader sensibility of the music’s own potential while also burying the possible egotism of the solo artist…in a lush balance of restraint and emotional surrender. Guy uses gimmicks briefly and wisely, and is never afraid to stutter. This is music that never edits itself. The commentaries are immediate responses. They do not simply act as arbitrary filler material, but rather speak to the lingering effects…grasping on to those effects before they fade out of sight and out of mind. And so, I think this is why Track 13 is called ‘Memory,’ for what is commentary but solidified memory shared with others…? And similarly, what is a review but a memory…a conscious chronicling of an experience that can never be recaptured, but only inadequately preserved in one person’s thought. For rather than a simple memory, I should like to share a record of my experience. This track also speaks to me in the same way we often search through our memories for an originating thought. Oftentimes, especially as we are going to sleep, we let our minds wander, only to backtrack, looking for that one sound or image or word or impression that launched our mental exploration…and this is perhaps what we stumble into in ‘Ortiz II,’ which in some way charts the frustration of our psychological imperfections, while also exploiting those imperfections to audible effect. This is an altogether intriguing album, which is always greater than the some of its parts, as it allows for the listener’s own reflection and for the compositional nature of personality to run amok, or slumber as it may, in pockets of empty space.”

A Hilliard Songbook (ECM New Series 1614/15)


The Hilliard Ensemble
A Hilliard Songbook: New Music For Voices

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Barry Guy double-bass
Recorded March/April 1995, March 1996 at Boxgrove Priory, Chichester
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Those who approach this album like I did—that is, only after listening to the Hilliard Ensemble’s many early music recordings—may be in for a surprise. Whether that surprise is a pleasant one or not may depend on the listener’s openness to new sounds. The opening convulsion that is Barry Guy’s aphasic Un coup de dés would seem to foreshadow a bumpy ride. Its whirlwind of extended double bass techniques and choral acrobatics leaves us hard pressed to find our bearings. The score, Guy tells us, encourages improvisation and even the modification of what has already been written. Using a section from a Mellarmé poem, which likens the process of thought to a mere dice-throw, the piece works its way into our ears like a dwarfing star. It is abstract, agitated, and unsettling, yet full of gracious detail we cannot help but enjoy. The Hilliards demonstrate that they can execute a piece of such technical difficulty and “modern” sensibility with as much fluidity as they approach their more familiar repertoire—at least insofar as their recordings are concerned, for they have always been known for juxtaposing contemporary works with those of bygone ages in their live performances. And then we get the short and sweet Only, the earliest published composition of Morton Feldman. In less time than it takes to microwave a frozen dinner, we are utterly transported by Feldman’s visceral melodic rendering of a Rilke sonnet, brought to its fullest fruition through the angelic voice of Rogers Covey-Crump. It is a folk song for its own sake, a funereal hymn for the living. This sets off a spate of shorter pieces by Ivan Moody and Piers Hellawell. Moody’s viscous miniatures live up to the composer’s name, taking us through a range of emotional colors. Endechas y Canciones sets Arabic-Spanish poetry from the 15th and 16th centuries. The second of these, “Endechas a la muerte de Guillén Peraza,” is a dirge from the Canary Islands that pulls at the heartstrings with a pace slow and focused, like moderated speech. The Hilliard Songbook by Hellawell, on the other hand, is a whimsical journey through A Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning by Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), the celebrated Elizabethan portraitist. This is the centerpiece of the album, both in title and in song. The treatise’s idiosyncratic descriptions of color inspired the composer to recreate those very colors with voices. Regulating the piece is a refrain taken up each time by one member of the ensemble: “True beautie of each perfect cullor in his full perfection in perfect hard bodies and very transparent.” Through this many-hued ode we are given valuable insight into not only the Hilliards’ vocal art, but also into the visual mind of their namesake.

Of the longer pieces represented here, Paul Robinson’s Incantation is textually the broadest. The words are adopted from Byron’s poem of the same name—what Robinson calls a “vitriolic curse”—through which the composer sought to foreground the Hilliards’ sonority over the work being performed. As the music marks its slow path through a rather morbid text, we feel the voices blend into a single destination. Kullervo’s Message, by Estonian composer Veljo Tormis, recounts a dramatic episode from The Kalevala, Finland’s nineteenth-century national epic. From a line of skillfully harmonized textual lifts, Tormis hangs a series of messages by which the eponymous tragic hero is informed of the deaths of his loved ones, even as he prepares to exact his revenge upon those whose ridicule led him to such self-destructive fervor. Tormis’s melodic and programmatic colors are ideally suited to their source material, moving with the virtuosity of a master storyteller. Scottish composer James MacMillan offers his own epic statement in the form of …here in hiding…, a deceptively simple mesh of the poem “Adoro te devote” by St. Thomas Aquinas in both its Latin and English forms.

The remaining pieces comprise a flavorful mixture of words and musical ideas. Two exemplary statements from Arvo Pärt, And One Of The Pharisees… and the splendid vocal version of Summa, make fine company of Elizabeth Liddle’s Whale Rant, which takes its cues from Moby-Dick, and works its music like clock hands, with one arm counting the hours while another traces a faster, larger circle. The second hand becomes invisible, implied only in the vocal gestures of the sensitive performance, and is forever lost in the ocean of its source. Joanne Metcalf’s Music For The Star Of The Sea, is a thinly veiled meditation on the words “O ave maris stella” (“O hail star of the sea”) that extends the possibility of a single utterance into a vast Marian fabric. Sharpe Thorne by John Casken paints an image of Christ impaled, while Michael’s Finnissy’s Stabant autem iuxta crucem praises the one who bore him. And in Canticum Canticorum Ivan Moody again dazzles with this setting of verses from the Song of Songs and its loving incorporation of Byzantine chant.

Those wishing to hear the range of the Hilliards’ technical prowess will want to check out this collection for sure. This humble quartet sings with such clear articulation of phrase that one accepts every note like the nourishing morsel it is. While the music is for the most part contemplative and lovely, never ceasing to fascinate even at its least accessible moments, much of it feels spun from the same thread. The pieces by Ivan Moody stand out here as being the most well thought out and textually aligned, while the Hellawell, Tormis, and Guy enchant with their distinctive flair. That being said, it seems a shame to think that cultures outside a Eurocentric Judeo-Christian context should be shunted here. Considering that nearly all of these pieces were written for the Hilliard Ensemble, and that some of their composers were involved in the Hilliard Summer School led by the ensemble in residency, a narrow scope is perhaps understandable. Geographical limitations aside, the traveling instinct is still there in the Hilliards’ adventurous spirit, captured in every flawless phrase, in every committed performance that continues to issue from their very throats.