Graphic Scores

Barry Guy

Excerpt from Bird Gong Game                                                                                               ©Barry Guy

A French translation of this essay was originally published in l’art du jazz (2011; Éditions du Félin).

Since 1992 I have, as part of my compositional output, been involved with graphic scores of one sort or another, although way back in 1968 I recall putting a piece together entitled Dada Requiem at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London where my musical studies took place. Basically it was an excuse to be a bad boy and a (successful) chance to utilize different departments within the college to wrap up the audience and professors in paper as part of a multifaceted performance/happening. It was instructive for me if not for them. The score consisted of one page of theatre plans plus choreographic moves and musical events which in a way presaged my subsequent graphic activities. Twenty three years later a new initiative was born with the encouragement of Scottish painter/musician Alan Davie.

From those early days my musical activities tended to be well defined – improvisation, historic performance practice, contemporary music (solo and ensemble) and composition. The first and last of these areas came together as an entity (mainly) in the scores written for the London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO) and latter for the Barry Guy New Orchestra (BGNO). These scores were characterized by my utilizing the creative improvisational voice within defined (and sometimes not so defined) structures that allowed freedom as well as finite through-composed sonorities. The important element was that improvising musicians formed the ensemble and gave it its specific sound.

Simple graphic representations of sound areas informed the players of sonic expectations, but I also used more conventional symbols which continuously changed over the years in an attempt to refine not only the clarity of intention but also the ease with which they could be interpreted. From the first days when the LJCO battled heroically to decode Ode (1970-72), which used mainly time-space notation plus a conductor (my composition professor Buxton Orr), through to today – Radio Rondo (2008) for the LJCO and BGNO pits a piano soloist against a distinctly reductive (although at times still complex) ensemble score – the prime objective has been to integrate free improvisation (provided by improvisers) with composition. In contrast to this area of activity, my compositional desires followed a more conventional route where through-composed music for interpreters such as orchestras, chamber ensembles and soloists avoided any semblance of improvisatory procedures.


Bird Gong Game

Excerpt from Bird Gong Game                                                                                               ©Barry Guy

In 1991, when the artist/musician Alan Davie requested a piece that would involve him as a solo pianist without a written part (i.e. freely improvising) performing with a “straight” classically trained ensemble, my immediate reaction was that this scenario might represent an unstable chemistry. The piece was destined to be part of a concert to conclude a major retrospective of Davie’s work at the McLellan Galleries in Glasgow. Since my previous meeting with Alan Davie in an improvising context was fifteen years before, I had no idea how he would play the piano. First thoughts related to ensemble management where wide musical parameters had to be accessed quickly with the choices being conveyed to the players in an efficient manner.

Clearly, a through-composed score would not suffice, so I pursued the idea of a single page of music that offered a tapestry of tight formations through to total flexibility via a series of “hierarchies” that could be modified during the performance by means of hand signals and flash cards according to the perceived progress of the piano soloist. This set-up would form a three-way conversation – soloist, director and ensemble in a flexible scenario of give and take.

The title of this graphic score refers to one of the series of Alan’s paintings called Bird Gong, executed during 1973. My chosen painting was Bird Gong No.12, and I perceived the piece to be a kind of game, a juggling of elements always in flux and instantly changeable, at times matching the soloist or offering new strategies at appropriate points during the performance. Flash cards shown to the performers consist of various symbols which are derived from Alan Davie’s painting, so in a way I deconstructed Davie’s sign language to offer aural equivalents of his work – purely subjective of course.

The important aspect for me was finding a way of formulating a performance method that would be sufficiently flexible so as to allow all participants a musical landscape that was colorful and reflective of their combined talents without recourse to over complicated matrixes of possibilities and probabilities. In other words, I was searching for a solution that would bring together two quite specific and often opposing musical disciplines that would complement each other and even enhance the various characteristics that define their differences.

The flash cards symbols which appear on the score and parts are as follows:

Tutti; with six possibilities ranging from through-composed sections to single gestures. The flash card plus the selected module number (shown by finger signs) identifies the musical area.

Solo; three woodwind solos can exist by themselves or as a foil to the improvising soloist, or if so desired be used together as a group. The music is flexible in the sense that the individual players are presented with two kinds of material – legato and staccato, with three fragments under each heading that can be assembled in a spontaneous way during the performance.

Mobile; this is a matrix of mainly graphic suggestions where four players (percussion, flute, oboe, clarinet) select various options, traversing the material in either horizontal, vertical or diagonal directions.

Tam Tam; this symbol sits centrally in the score which designates its importance within the piece – a midway semi-improvisational explosion of percussive activity engaging the soloist in an active exchange of material. This section is introduced and terminated by the trumpet.

Sustained; as the title suggests, this refers to sustained material with five options from very quiet to very loud. The material differs considerably in tessatura between the five possibilities.

Wild Card; this invites the player(s) to assess the soloist’s playing manner and improvise freely with or against the prevailing musical gestures.

Maybe; a kind of joke. Should my bass be on hand, “may be” I could join in with the performance, but in practice I have only ever managed this once with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja as the improvising soloist.

Since the premiere of Bird Gong Game in 1992, the piece has been performed numerous times with a wide variety of improvising soloists including a.o. Evan Parker (soprano saxophone), Maggie Nicols (voice), Mats Gustafsson (baritone saxophone), Ivo Nilsson (trombone), Georg Grawe (piano), Agustí Fernández (piano) and Peter Van Bergen (tenor saxophone and contrabass clarinet).

This lengthy exposition is here to explain the methodology not only of Bird Gong Game but also of subsequent scores although each project was fashioned according to the ensemble or soloists’ brief, and source material has been derived from texts and architecture as well as paintings.


Graphic Scores after Bird Gong Game

Excerpt from Witch Gong Game ll/l0                                                                                        ©Barry Guy

Once the musical parameters are established, I take a great deal of care and time not only to show the necessary musical strategies, but also to graphically give some representation of the project’s background. For instance in Witch Gong Game II/10 (1993) written for the New Orchestras Workshop Vancouver, the positioning of the various modules over a black void, suggested the fragility of co-operative ventures where individuals working for the collective might, in certain circumstances, destabilize the infrastructure with implosion as the end result.

Excerpt from Un Coup de Dès                                                                                                ©Barry Guy

In Un Coup de Dès for the Hilliard Ensemble, the frozen motion of a turning dice exposing faces of pitches to be sung were laid out according to an extrapolation of a möbius loop idea for a high rise crystalline building by U.S. architect Peter Eisenman (destined for Berlin but unbuilt). Another inspiration for the final layout was the Japanese project (Tomiguya Exhibition Space) by the English architectural practice Richard Rogers partnership (also unbuilt) which featured in its design various movable modules within the structure all held up by what appeared to be a huge tower crane. In this instance I was entranced by the idea of a structural finality that was fixed but also flexible. After several research drawings the layout was completed, showing a practical routing for the vocalists but also representing the general musical direction. It starts and ends with similar material and vocal color but contorts like the möbius loop, reflecting the architectonic pyrotechnics of the Richard Rogers project.

Excerpt from Ceremony                                                                                                       ©Barry Guy

In Ceremony written for the baroque violinist Maya Homburger, her request for a meditational as well as virtuosic piece, led me to choose a Navajo Indian chant as the starting point. I first discovered the text in an exhibition by the artist Cornelia von Mengershausen. It accompanied an installation of a spiral floor sculpture with ever changing textures (sand, leaves, stones, moss, etc.) which the visitor was invited to experience by walking over it with bare feet. The walking idea was incorporated into the score and the layout was formulated to suggest a constantly evolving landscape terminating in a final “processional” of quietness and contemplation.

Since Bird Gong Game, I created over twenty more scores with various degrees of freedom and improvisation. Each score has found its own resolution according to the extant parameters and within these I have worked towards expressing a solid musical argument as well as presenting aspects of the background in a graphic way. But the overriding principal has been, to present the material in a concise, clear and practical way for the musicians.

Developing these graphic scores has in a way fulfilled schoolboy ambitions to be an artist and has utilized my skills, gained later whilst working for an architectural practice in my formative years. Combining these creative impulses with music has given me immense pleasure, opening up an internal narrative about the relationship between the aural and visual and deepened the inventive process itself.

[For more information about limited edition screen prints of Bird Gong Game and WGGll/l0, consult:]

© Barry Guy 2012

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