Barry Guy and Maya Homburger need little introduction though a proper consideration of their work, together and alone, would probably span several volumes. Barry is one of the foremost double bass players of his generation whose versatile performances range from the baroque to contemporary, composed to improvised, and many stages between. His interests and inspirations are vast. He writes and performs across a variety of media and has led and been part of some of the most significant ensembles in improvised music. It’s difficult to think of another musician who has covered as much ground in such an original, compelling and influential way.
Maya is a baroque violinist who was born and educated in Zurich and moved to England in 1986, playing with a variety of period instrument groups including the English Baroque Soloists and the English Concert. She met Barry in 1988 during an extended tour with the Academy of Ancient Music. During 2000 she took part in the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, John Eliot Gardiner’s epic traversal of almost 200 works that started in Weimar and ended in New York. For many years, she and Barry’s innovative duo recitals with their wide-ranging repertoire have held audiences spellbound. She also runs the Maya label, whose website had a wealth of information concerning Maya, Barry and their myriad ensembles. The label’s most recent release is J. S. Bach Soprano Arias and Swedish Folk Chorales , featuring Maria Keohane and Maya’s period instrument group Camerata Kilkenny which alternates arias from Bach’s cantatas with chorales from the Dalarna region of central Sweden.
They’ve had a hectic schedule of late including concerts by the duo and the Blue Shroud Band, a visit by Barry to the RMC (Rhythmic Music Conservatory) in Copenhagen where he’s visiting professor for the premiere of a new work, recitals of the Bach Arias and Swedish Folk Chorales programme in Ireland and at the end of October several concerts and a workshop in Vilnius. They’re playing with the Blue Shroud Band at the Purcell Room on the Southbank on 16 November as part of the London Jazz Festival, a performance of Barry’s The Blue Shroud which draws inspiration from Picasso’s Guernica. This review from August gives an idea of what to expect, with further articles here. NoBusiness has also just released Concert in Vilnius , a 2017 performance by the legendary Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Paul Lytton trio. An abundance of riches.
My sometimes lengthy questions addressed diverse matters all of which they considered in a thoughtful, illuminating fashion. The interview proceeds with Barry first, then Maya and I’ve provided some links for those who want to follow through.
Barry, to state the obvious, the double bass is a big instrument requiring a very physical engagement. In an interview with Barra Ó Seaghdha a few years ago, you spoke of how your early work with dancers affected your relationship with the instrument:
“The more I rid myself of this idea of a large unwieldy resonating box, the clearer the ideas would become. The holding and articulation of the bow, the ends of the fingertips, creativity, the sound concept – all these things came down to a tiny contact point, a little grain of sand. It’s like black holes, which contain huge amounts of energy to be harnessed.”
I’m intrigued by those grains of sand that are also energy sources.
BG: There are two metaphors here - grain of sand, black holes, and additionally, working with dancers. It reads like a rather rag bag of ideas, but in truth it all really boils down to the moment that energy is released into the creation of sound. All of the foregoing have at different times informed my approach to playing the bass. These days I am mindful of sonority, so any articulation has to be there for a reason rather than a loose conjecture.
The “grain of sand” idea acted as a focus, an energy point where the sound source could be concentrated. It was a way of feeling a sharp feedback from the fingerboard to the fingertip. Actually, this came from some kind of dream sequence where all around me, in an open space, everything coalesced to a fine grain of sand being held between my thumb and first finger of my left hand with a very clear crystalline structure which seemed so logical and clean. Thus, was where the sound started. Following that epiphany, I looked at my left hand in a very different way!
Black holes came next on the agenda - again a concentration of energy, but around an event horizon where information is consumed by such a phenomenon, as if diving into a void with all faculties running hoping for the best outcome. Sometimes when improvising there is a kind of euphoria where the sounds represent a kaleidoscope of possibilities where reality sets in to nudge one to make a decision - all in split seconds of course. Exciting moments.
What about the dancers? Working on stage with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre gave me the chance to observe closely the way the dancers directed their energies to perform spectacularly beautiful movements, and for me the implementation of these moves became totally fascinating - for instance, the lifting of a body where the transference of energy from potential dead weight to soaring, combined the timing of two (or more) people to perfectly coordinate the move as if everything was in a state of lightness and elevation. To find a similar situation when playing the bass seemed to me a worthwhile objective. Energy sources come from whatever seems appropriate for the creation of sound – it’s a matter of direction.
You trained in an architectural practice when you were younger and have retained an interest in the subject – the score for Amphi is in the shape of an amphitheatre and you’ve written about the graphic element in other scores. When it comes to music do you have a visual imagination?
BG: I guess I do have a visual imagination when structuring a composition. Quite often the first shorthand gestures are density marks on paper which remind me of a possible musical gesture long before real pitches are put on manuscript paper. In the case of Amphi which you mention, my first idea was to create an “embrace” of Maya’s baroque violin by the Barry Guy New Orchestra players – this delicate instrument surrounded by some seriously heavyweight improvisers. This “embrace” channelled my thoughts to create textures that were inclusive and mindful of the fragility of the violin, but also a robustness of spirit that could travel outside of the structure. As it happened, whilst thinking about the practicalities of the musical setting, I was immersing myself in the architecture of Alvar Aalto and came across a building of his (the Technical University in Helsinki), that somehow summed up what I wanted to present musically. Aalto’s contemporary take on an amphitheatre (which was inspired by an ancient amphitheatre in Delphi, Greece - a meeting place), gave me a visual image of the score’s layout, which articulated my hopes for the music. Whilst the score might seem somewhat busy with architectural graphics and various scratchy cross hatching, the idea was to present an atmosphere, an ambience, within which the music could flourish. Aalto’s architecture seemed to offer sensitivity to the needs of the students whilst presenting a powerful gesture to the realities of organisation supporting university life.
In Un Coup de Dés a graphic score written for the Hilliard Ensemble (available on A Hilliard Songbook - New Music for Voices (ECM, 1996)) the architecture of Peter Eisenman and Richard Rogers informed the layout of the score in a kind of Möbius loop where Mallarmé's poetry contorts itself as it progresses from the start twisting until the final resolution. The rolling dice faces expose pitch aggregates for the singers to use in an improvisational way, so here is an expression of movement as well as information. What I try to do in my graphic scores is to present the “feel” of the piece as well as the required pitch and articulation areas, so the first decision is to ask myself if a graphic score is appropriate for the project.
In many of your larger works for the LJCO, the New Orchestra and Blue Shroud Band, there’s a combination of freedom and structure, improvised and written passages. Do you consider that larger forces and longer pieces require this and how has your writing for such ensembles changed since your first big piece, Ode back in the early 1970s?
BG: For my way of visualising music for large forces, I prefer to harness the creative spirits of the musicians within a robust architecture that I hope will satisfy all parties. Naturally there have been tensions since improvisation and through-composed music are not easy bedfellows. However, I like to think that each piece releases and refines new ways of dealing with the problems. Also, I wish to seek refinement as an ongoing drive towards simplicity, but in reality, forces of expression and musical realisation often push me into more complex writing – not to make things difficult, more to direct the sound worlds envisaged towards a clear articulation of intent.
For instance, Ode was complex from the point of view of notation. The often rapid changes of written and improvised passages in a space-time notation proved difficult to negotiate for many players. Conceptually, the need to respond to a conductor’s gestures was anathema for many, although the final result was really quite spectacular and indicates what can be achieved when a performance has to be realised. The road to that performance was often treacherous. Now my writing tries to be inclusive in the sense that musical tasks are often given to the players as well as me directing. This frees up the structure and crucially allows me to play the bass!
Are the rewards of composing and improvising complimentary; does one give you a perspective the other doesn’t, or do you think of them as points in a continuum?
BG: Since I enjoy the singular discipline of constructing a piece of music and improvising alone or with colleagues, I view this as a giant work in progress. There is the magic of working together towards an elevated state of communication within the improvised format, but I find the solitary moments at the drawing board offer a kind of peace as well as anticipation. I always have the images of the individual musicians for company when composing.
Poetry and literature have obviously provided you with much inspiration, and the work of Samuel Beckett in particular. You’ve spoken about your Five Fizzles for double bass being a development of Beckett’s simple ideas. On the face of it, his spare prose with its own internal metrical patterns is far removed from your rich elaborations. Guy’s Fizzles are not really a musical equivalent of Beckett’s texts; you appear to see (or hear) the words as a jumping off point. Can you explain how that works?
BG: I agree with your observation concerning Beckett’s spare text and my own elaborations which are often fiery and complex. It’s paradoxical, but there’s the less obvious or even opposite view to music following or paraphrasing the text. Whilst I started with the notion of almost a regime of exercises or disciplines of a minimalist nature, it became more interesting for me to observe the singular intentions and character of each text. This in turn suggested treating each Fizzle as a discreet sound world with specific articulations or colours that would characterise the music. So, you see I have entered the Fizzles world with one approach and emerged with another interpretation. Happily, no one has taken me to task concerning this. The Beckett texts act as a focus, a reason for exploring sound. Incidentally, there is a very fine piece of writing by Brian Lynch, Lighting Out for the Territory: Barry Guy’s Fizzles, in Music & Literature No. 4 discussing this very subject.
You wrote She! in 2014 for cello and tape which I think was inspired by Lisa Dwan’s mesmeric performance of Beckett’s Not I at the Royal Court Theatre in London. I saw her perform it later along with two other Beckett shorts, Footfalls and Rockaby, just before she took the trilogy to New York. What were you trying to do in that piece, and why the cello?
BG: Cellist Kate Ellis’s request for a solo piece with multi-tracking arrived just before I attended a performance of Not I at the Royal Court. I was struck by the musicality and rhythmic impetus of the monologue which quickly suggested an approach to this new composition; but this virtuoso performance by Lisa Dawn was perhaps too fast for an instrumental solution. Returning to my studio I did some homework and found a classic BBC TV. presentation with Billie Whitelaw as Mouth (directed by Tristram Powell) which suggested a way forward. Here was vitality, surprise drama but important for me, rhythm, intensity and a perfect speed of articulation which could be translated into music. Decisions were then made concerning register and articulations that remind us of Mouth’s predisposition for repetition. The narrative ghosts Billie Whitelaw’s exposition with my own take on the music’s contour. The Auditor - who has caused much discussed and somewhat troublesome theatrical problems concerning lighting and movement (and is even omitted from some productions) fulfils in my composition She! an elongated presence to contrast the flow of Mouth’s articulations, with each appearance getting shorter in duration (Beckett’s suggestion for the play).
The pre-recorded material represents the Auditor and diverts the listeners focus, but before the gesture of compassion from the djellaba-clad figure (in the stage play) I requested Kate Ellis to exclaim the words “what?..who?..no!..she!..” as a dramatic grounding and surprise interruption of the musical/linguistic tirade.
I understand you’ve written something for the Kronos quartet based on Beckett’s What is the Word and are also planning to use that poem in a new Blue Shroud Band composition with Savina Yannatou voicing the text.
BG: Yes, What is the Word is a new string quartet that utilises my analysis of the structure of Beckett’s last poem. The text as such does not appear within the quartet, but the words silently hover in the background. However, I plan a version for the Blue Shroud Band referencing this structure, and of course having Savina Yannatou voicing the words, and I may use some additional texts from Irish poet, Kerry Hardie. The quartet was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet as part of their Fifty for the Future project which offers a library of contemporary string quartet music for young ensembles interested in honing their knowledge of new music from around the world. I’m honoured to be one of the fifty chosen composers.
Time Passing… (Maya, 2015) for soprano, baritone, string ensemble and improvising double bass and soprano is one of your most multi-layered works to date. Part of the inspiration came from hearing the cantata Meine Freundin, du bist schön by Johann Christoph Bach at a concert in London by the English Baroque Soloists under John Eliot Gardiner, subsequently released as Welt, Gute Nacht (SDG, 2011). The cantata contains a lengthy and beautiful chaconne – possibly the baroque form capable of the greatest profundity -- in which an intoxicating violin accompaniment (played by Maya) intertwines with the soprano voice. In Time Passing… the penultimate, and longest section is the apex of the work where you set excerpts from Beckett’s prose-poem Ping in English and French, sung, muttered and spoken, but also merge at varying removes the ostinato theme from the J.C. Bach chaconne. There are some ravishing string textures and an obligato nervosa energy in the bass and cellos whose relationship to the words sound, at least to me, like a contemporary equivalent of the cantata’s violin part. This was a bold move by you, but it seems to work incredibly well with the two musical worlds illuminating one another in a totally unexpected and very moving way, transcending both.
There are similar passages of such unity in diversity inThe Blue Shroud, which includes your setting of the sublime Angus Dei from J. S. Bach’s B Minor Mass, that seem to go beyond a mere collage of past and present. How hard has it been to achieve such meaningful correspondences?
BG: The referencing of old music in my compositions I guess reflects my life as a performer. I’ve had the utmost good fortune to play in the ensembles conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (The Monteverdi Orchestra, as it was in the seventies, subsequently the English Baroque Soloists), Christopher Hogwood (Academy of Ancient Music), Roger Norrington (Kent Opera, London Classical Players), Richard Hickox (City of London Sinfonia) and John Lubbock (Orchestra of St Johns) and many others. The music grew on me as each ensemble developed, so it is no surprise that the sounds I’ve encountered have lodged themselves in my musical brain.
Within Time Passing…, a fragment of the chaconne you mention allowed me to express my infatuation with the piece, and in particular the soprano and bass baritone pairing, which was so engaging when I first heard the piece with Maya playing the violin obligato. The “obligato nervosa energy” you observed (starting in the bass) is in fact a small conceit - a hidden reference to Beckett’s Play that runs counter to the Ping narrative. It was never my conscious decision to have it represent a contemporary equivalent of Maya’s violin obligato. The rhythms are based upon the dialogue between the three protagonists, and Beckett’s theatrical note of “Rapid tempo throughout”, so we have Ping and Play counterpointing each other.
In The Blue Shroud, I’ve used fragments from the Mystery Sonatas of H.I.F.Biber as well as J.S. Bach’s Agnus Dei as a way to elevate the listener to a particular aural sensitivity. My task as a composer was to prepare and place these passages in a context that would avoid gratuitous quotations to make the work easier to accept. The three baroque moments are delivered precisely at the point where our feelings need a different focus. It’s no coincidence that in the Homburger/Guy duo, we play several of Biber’s pieces, so I had a clear idea of how well they could exist in The Blue Shroud. Belief and love for the music was important in this setting, but nevertheless I was aware of the risks – particularly in the placing of the Agnus Dei and what could come afterwards. A simple chorale using the words of Kerry Hardie led the way.
One thing that strikes me about your writing for strings in Time Passing…, and other works such as After the Rain (NMC, 1993), is how you open out the sonorities of the instruments. Texture and shape seem to be interdependent, if that makes sense.
BG: Working with the finest string players throughout my career has paid off. I love the sound of a string ensemble perfectly tuned and balanced, so somehow textures and the musical architecture visit my creative writing as friends, allowing me a flexible and colourful palette to travel with.
Would it be fair to say that memory and the passage of time have been a preoccupation in your music of the last decade or so?
BG: Not a preoccupation. It just happens that my love for early music nudges me to certain musical resolutions. In the Kronos string quartet piece, I use fragments from Pelham Humfrey’s verse anthem O Lord My God where my rather busy music is arrested at the boundary/threshold between thoughts. The Humfrey was deeply ingrained in my memory way back when John Eliot Gardiner recorded the piece ( Music of the “Chapels Royal” (Erato, 1980) and I was mesmerised by the beauty of the music, which, what can I say - guided me when looking for a particular sonority and moment of repose in the quartet music. Needless to say, the fragments are treated with special articulations that elevate the music to ethereal regions, which in some ways takes me back to my first encounter.
You’ve written many pieces for Maya on the baroque violin. Are there any specific challenges writing for that instrument, which has gut strings and a lighter bow, a softer, grainier sound, with its own distinctive overtones and articulations when compared to a modern violin?
BG: Well, you have answered your own question really. What I am very aware of when writing for Maya and her baroque violin is the necessity of respecting the instrument. This does not mean avoiding contemporary articulations, more using them with care, and researching what really works for the instrument and bow. The fingerboard is shorter than the modern equivalent and the strings do not respond well to heavy pizzicato. The rewards are an open natural sound, unstressed and clear with quite spectacular colours. Her way of playing has huge expression but avoids the bloated moments of ego playing that we often experience.
You’ve played in piano trios from the outset; in Howard Riley’s trio, then with Marilyn Crispell, Agustí Fernández, Paul Plimley, Jacques Demierre, Katherine Weber, and more recently Simon Nabatov on Luminous (NoBusiness, 2018) and Izumi Kimura on Illuminated Silence (Fundacja Słuchaj!, 2019). What’s the appeal with that formation?
BG: Another fortunate manifestation in my life. The Howard Riley Trio started my love for the piano/ bass/drums format. In those early days I was well aware of the Bill Evans Trio, which seemed to me the most perfect ensemble music. With Howard we were looking for an interplay that had a similar feel but using open improvisation and our own compositions. Here was a ‘classical’ formation with the potential for moving outside of the conventions, although the music of Evans, La Faro and Motian continued to light the way.
My writing for Marilyn and Paul Lytton has always been based on the premise that Marilyn can play melodies beautifully, she always has the ability to take the piano apart when appropriate. A similar situation exists with Agustí Fernández and Ramón López. Agustí has written some amazingly beautiful pieces which haunt me, and of course are thrilling to play.
Speaking of pianists, the recently released Odes and Meditations for Cecil Taylor (Not Two, 2019) draws inspiration from Cecil, Augusti and Marilyn, whose Three Poems for Cecil Taylor are set during the piece. You played in a quartet with Cecil, Evan Parker and Tony Oxley in 1990 ( Nailed (FMP, 2000) with his quintet in Stockholm in 1991 and tentet in Saalfelden in 1992. Cecil said that if he played bass, he’d play like you – what was it like to work with him?
BG: What can I say? – playing with Cecil was a dream come true. Other than the playing aspect, we conversed over many subjects - for instance we talked a lot about dance and the creative arts in general. His knowledge of architecture was also wide ranging. The larger ensemble pieces were somewhat difficult to put together since his method of delivering musical information was a mixture of picking up by ear certain passages, quickly committing them to manuscript paper, often in a cryptic form, remembering structural elements and ensemble registration. Often all of this would be different at the next rehearsal, so frustration was the order of the day. If the methodology was difficult, the final concerts were always a revelation.
That’s a common observation from those who worked in his larger groups, Cecil’s way of mixing things up. Over the last decade or so it’s been common for you to have musicians in the ensembles improvise in rotating formations. I’m thinking of the collections on the Not Two label: the two Mad Dogs sets, Tensegrity (Small Formations) and Intensegrity (the Small Formations). It’s a practice that goes back to the early free jazz festivals and Derek Bailey’s Company weeks. What are the attractions for you?
BG: I suppose my liking for breaking up the large group into small formations (when we are given the opportunity to do so) resides in the fact that all of the players respond to new settings with a corresponding brilliance in the results .It is really astonishing and refreshing to hear so many ways of making music together. After days of rehearsing and refining one of my compositions, the small formations represent a kind of release valve.
You’ve been playing freely improvised music since the earliest days in London – you appear on the Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s Withdrawal (1966-7) (Emanem, 1997). What have been the most significant changes in playing this kind of music since you began?
BG: I guess the word is refinement. Through the years we have developed instrumentally to the point where our chosen instrument is merely the means to communicate with fellow musicians at a very advanced level. I don’t want this to sound pompous, but by the accumulation of experiences we can almost consistently offer a musical narrative that is as convincing as any other sound world. Not that every listener likes it, but that’s another subject. We have learnt to understand when the going gets tricky, and negotiate our way out of a difficult situation. The expansion of our collective awareness to fine musical nuances represents a constant expansion of our abilities to decode musical intentions. The mystery and magic of all this is what drives us.
I think that the whole language of improvisation has become quite flexible, so some of the disciplines that we set ourselves in the SME days are much looser but paradoxically tighter. Perhaps one of the significant changes is the use of electronics in real time performance. Obviously, the hardware and programmes have been refined to a point where a digital based sound world can interact seamlessly with traditional instruments. My parting comment on this manifestation is that often it is too damn loud!! Perhaps this shows my age…
On that subject, you turned 70 in 2017 and Fundacja Słuchaj! released an album of your
birthday celebration performances in Warsaw which I reviewed last year: Blue Horizon. Barry Guy@70 There have been quite a few albums recently. Are you busier now than before, or is it that we’re just hearing more of you?
BG: Yes, there have been quite a few albums released – I guess it’s been the result of live recordings with different ensembles. The diary always seems full with lots of interesting and fulfilling projects, which generally are one- off affairs. The days of being on the road for long periods of time seem to have evaporated, which is no bad thing, and travelling with musical instruments is tiring and frustrating most of the time. I think most musicians are experiencing the same these days. It is perhaps the psychological stress of not really knowing if the instrument will arrive at the destination or in one piece. And there is always the problem with the lack of money to find an efficient route to the concert venue. Now of course, we have to be aware of trying to do less in terms of flying, and this invites speculation about retiring. This is a subject that Maya and I talk about quite a lot, especially as she’s at the coal face working at ways for instance of getting the musicians of the Blue Shroud Band from ten different countries to the same place at near enough the same time. That is stressful. One delay can scupper the whole project which often takes years to arrange. For now - onwards.
I see that next March there’s a three-day celebratory residency in Krakow marking the 50th anniversary of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, with two days of small ensemble concerts followed by a big band concert. Can you say what your plans are for that?
BG: For the final concert in Manghha Hall we plan a first set with the so-called Flow 1 and Flow 2 (first performed in that way in Vienna last year) The second will be Harmos. As for the small ensembles in the Alchemia Club on 6 and 7 March, I’m still working on a musical proposal to involve as many musicians as possible.
Turning to you Maya, in respect of the duo’s performances you’ve spoken about aiming to destabilise the audience by musical stretching. What do you mean by that?
MH: Perhaps “destabilise” is too negative a word. The process which we love and call “musical stretching” is the seamless flow from ancient to new music and vice versa, which sometimes happens in such a subtle way that it takes a moment for the listener to realise that he or she is in another world/century. What’s important is that the content, passion, emotions etc. etc. within the music are not put in boxes labelled “old music”, “new music” or “improvised music”, but come across as an expression of being human and of giving to the audience, regardless of the so-called style. The best compliment I received once for a performance of one of Biber’s Mystery Sonatas is, that it sounded like a modern composition. This means, that we can do the “musical stretching” even within the actual piece and within the particular style and period in history.
What we also love about this way of combining and linking compositions is the actual moment of “destabilising” so to speak and of being in between styles, when the seamless link happens, it enhances each composition in a very special way. For example: when we start Biber’s Carrying of the Cross out of the pianissimo end note of Barry’s improvisation Peace Piece , the mournful beginning of the Mystery Sonata is stronger than ever.
You and Barry have performed as a pair for some years now. Have the concerts evolved?
MH: Yes, we are getting more and more intense in our expression and togetherness which the audiences appreciate very much, and reactions have certainly been extremely positive in recent years.
One of my favourites of your Duo recordings is Star (Ergodos, 2016) featuring three works written for the pair of you by Irish composers. How varied is the music written for the duo by others?
MH: We have to admit, that we don’t play many duos from other composers written for us within our concerts. The project Star for example was more for the actual recording, and the pieces do not fit as well into our programmes as for example do those of György Kurtág. However, we would love to perform them again, possibly in the context of new works by these composers. As for Irish composers: Ben Dwyer has written several pieces which we have performed on special occasions with great joy. His piece “Umbilical” was one of the major challenges for our duo in the last years, but again – only one of the parts fits into our duo programme and is so challenging, that we can’t often manage to find enough time to prepare for it. Right now, we’re preparing for the recording of his quartet What is the Word for actor, guitar, violin and bass and I am also working intensely on his six solo violin pieces, Residua - both works inspired by Beckett. The Buxton Orr composition, one of the first ever written for our duo, has also been silent for many years, for similar reasons. And other pieces by various composers have not been played so often, since they aren’t quite as idiomatic for the baroque violin as we’d hoped.
During the small formations’ improvisations on Intensegrity, recorded at the Alchemia in Krakow, you play pieces such as the closing passacaglia from Biber’s Mystery Sonatas and Bach’s great chaconne from the second Partita. How do you feel they work in that context?
MH: I personally feel that Bach and Biber work extremely well in the context of improvised music concerts. The performances you refer to basically place these baroque pieces into a similar context to what we do within our duo concerts. As in the those performances, we have tried to create meaningful links for these baroque moments, for example: with a piano solo leading into the Bach Chaconne and even more specific: Julius Gabriel who plays right after the Biber Passacaglia, created his saxophone solo based on the four descending notes which form Biber’s Passacaglia theme. We all thought that the link was magical. The audience in the Alchemia, who otherwise listens mainly to improvised music and Jazz, is always very receptive and appreciative of the baroque moments within the programme. Last year, we performed six Biber Mystery Sonatas there interspersed with saxophone solos from Mette Rasmussen, Mats Gustafsson and Torben Snekkestad. It was extremely moving.
How much improvisatory freedom do you get in Barry’s pieces?
MH: Barry is a master of giving me just the right amount of freedom within his compositions. Too much would intimidate me, since I don’t consider myself as an improviser. But, what he manages to do is magical, since he gives me certain material to work with allowing me to grow into improvising moments and extended areas of graphic notation and freedom which are totally inspiring and liberating. He also encourages me to play certain fully notated passages in an improvisational way and to make them work even better by taking certain liberties. All this has of course to be done with great care and respect for the composition.
As you know, we perform three of his solo violin pieces – Celebration , Inachis and Aglais – often as a duo with me reading the fully composed score and Barry improvising. This has led me to a new and wonderfully liberated way of playing these very demanding and technically difficult pieces. I’ve also played with many improvisers, amongst others: Evan Parker, Zlatko Kaučič, Lucas Niggli and Paul Lytton.
To what extent has your approach to the standard repertoire been influenced by your exposure to improvisation? For example, the Mystery Sonatas are written in a very fluid, improvisatory style, full of odd modulations with swift changes in direction. There’s room for ornamentation, but presumably also a lot more while remaining “faithful” to the score.
MH: This can be answered in a very concise way: my playing of all music, including Bach, Biber and also new music by Kurtág, etc. is hugely influenced by the freedom experienced in listening to free improvisation and also being involved in improvising ensembles myself. Two main aspects are very important, playing the music as if it was invented/created on the spot, and to always be as free as possible within the given rhythmic structure. In other words, no phrase is ever played in a totally regular or “normal” way, but always with the ultimate search for rhetoric and agogic expression.
Many thanks, I’m grateful to you both for taking time out from your busy schedule. It’s been fascinating.
‘Breathing Earth’, recorded on the album Ceremony (ECM, 1999):