a column by
Stuart Broomer

Blue Shroud Orchestra                                                                                              ©2014 Žiga Koritnik

It might have been 25 years ago. I hadn’t followed the music closely for some time. I was watching the local news on the Toronto CBC outlet, in effect the state broadcaster, when the culture commentator came on, a kind of snide, quasi-ironic hipster who reported on concerts, gallery openings and clubs. I watched with interest as he went to the Music Gallery, Toronto’s enduring home for outside music, to review a solo bass concert by Barry Guy. I’m slightly embarrassed to say the name was new to me, but there was a breathtaking combination of sounds erupting from the bass in a way that I hadn’t previously heard. The commentator acknowledged the obvious virtuosity of Guy’s performance and then said something as memorable as the bass playing, concluding to the effect that: You really have to ask yourself if musicians should be allowed to perform music that’s this self-indulgent. I suppose since then I may have thought of Barry Guy as a kind of antithesis to the insanity of the state, but a trip to Krakow Jazz Autumn in the late fall of 2014 introduced me to Guy’s own extended meditation on the relations between art and politics, music and history.

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The final week of Jazz Autumn is regularly built around a large ensemble that can break up into multiple smaller units. In recent years it’s featured Mats Gustafsson’s Nu Orchestra and Ken Vandermark’s Resonance Ensemble. The Barry Guy New Orchestra (BGNO) appeared there in 2010 and 2012 (its small groups are documented on the five-CD Mad Dogs and the four-CD Mad Dogs on the Loose respectively [Not Two]: Jazz Autumn’s Marek Winiarski is as remarkable a record producer as he is a festival director) and Guy appeared again in November 2014 leading the Blue Shroud Orchestra, a 14-piece band constructed to play his piece The Blue Shroud, a 75-minute work inspired by Picasso’s Guernica. It’s a work of tremendous significance, not only for the history that it commemorates and examines, but for Guy’s methodology, literally constructing both a piece and an orchestra that could play it, the piece drawing on his own vast musical experience, the orchestra drawing from a wealth of associations.

Guy’s virtuoso skills as a bassist have been applied with real passion to free improvisation and to period instrument performance of baroque music; he has long sought ways as a composer to construct large works for large ensembles – first with the London Jazz Composers Orchestra and since 2000 with the more portable BGNO – that integrated free improvisation with multiple methodologies including graphic scores. All of those impulses come together in fresh ways in The Blue Shroud.

Guy’s own programme note describes the work’s inception:

“It was historian Simon Schama’s analysis of Picasso’s painting in his TV series The Power of Art that drew me into the world of Guernica and the resonances that have accompanied its history. Not that I needed reminding, but it triggered off thoughts about 20th/21st century abominations that have occurred under the umbrella of power, domination and obfuscation. Here was a painting that had a message that I needed to access. What seemed certain to me: a piece of music could be written reflecting the actualities of the subject matter, one that would indicate the power of the human spirit to withstand the oppression of tyrants.”

If Picasso’s painting is iconic, its restless energy seems to enter time as well as record it, both in the viewer’s experience and its own history, evident in the temporal lines that Guy would use to weave together his work:

“There are three strands that informed my writing of The Blue Shroud: the bombing in 1937 of the Basque city of Guernica by German Condor Legion pilots at the invitation of Franco, the painting by Pablo Picasso that arose following the event, and in more recent times (2003) a blue drape that was hung over a tapestry reproduction of the Guernica painting in the United Nations building before U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered his case for invading Iraq to TV viewers and the world in general. Incontestably, the Guernica image of death, panic and mayhem would have sent a far too literal message about the horrors of war to the receivers of Powell’s statement. In an act of extreme cowardice, it was deemed necessary to sanitize the presentation, so the tapestry was covered with a blue drape by US staff and media personal prior to the broadcast.”

If anything, that extended narrative adds to Guernica’s power and its immediate application to our time, that blue shroud everything from a nice decorator touch to a burial shroud for both a painting’s protest and the victims of war.

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Guy’s score begins in writing over photocopies of Guernica reproductions from books (a rare painting that could transmit its power even in newspaper reproductions). He divides the image into nine characters. Irish poet Kerry Hardie will compose stanzas to go with each of these figures (the bull, the warrior, a wailing woman, a blinded bird, the blade-pierced horse, the single bulb of torture, the light-bearer, another woman, a helpless figure) as well as a final verse, an elegy to pure spirit that marks transcendence:

I am joy, a weightless lark,
I rise like the spirit releasing.
I am in sunlight, wind and doubtful weather.
I crouch in a cat’s paw of grass.

Guy writes melodies and matches instrumental voices, often having improvisation crossing over scored parts. UN Resolution 1441, the censure of Iraq that would pave the way for the US invasion, becomes an essential vocal text. Originally drafted at a meeting in the Azores by four heads of state – US president George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Spanish Premier Jose Maria Asnar Portuguese Prime Minister José Manuel Durão Barroso – the text in four languages (including two versions of English) will become material for recitation and improvisation.

The Blue Shroud is a collaboration with history as well as contemporaries, with Picasso certainly, but other pieces of music enter: the “Agnus Dei” from Bach’s Mass in B Minor and parts of H. I. F. Biber’s ninth and tenth Mystery Sonatas – that’s the Christian mystery not the general kind. These are emblems of compassion, grace amidst horror.

The Orchestra’s Assembly

There’s a recent essay on the music of Barry Guy and Maya Homburger by Irish composer and guitarist (and orchestra member) Benjamin Dwyer in which he refers to their musical process as “alchemical” (“Dios los cría ...”; Music & Literature No. 4, p. 109-113 [the journal contains an 80-page segment devoted to Homburger and Guy’s work]). While Dwyer later exchanges the term for the Spanish “duende,” with its specific sense of risk, “alchemical” retains its appeal, even (especially) for a work as Spanish as The Blue Shroud. The group’s coming together in a venue called Alchemia can only heighten the metaphor.

Seeing a little of the process of The Blue Shroud’s realization, and discussing the work with Barry, I struggle to put its components, its steps in order. Part of the alchemy is in the transformative interaction of composition and improvisation, a continuous exchange among conception, score and execution.

As we talk about it, moments emerge, but there’s something quite extraordinary in the way that the piece and its orchestra are a simultaneous, even singular creation. While he mentions in his program note that he needed musicians “able to co-exist in the worlds of improvisation as well as baroque music,” the ultimate piece requires higher and higher degrees of specialization that seem inspired by his musicians’ particular skills.

The Blue Shroud orchestra may be as much a composition as The Blue Shroud itself. It’s a group assembled out of a complex web of associations in multiple existing partnerships across its 14-member personnel. It’s a reflection of the unique breadth of Guy’s experience as a musician as well as his openness as a composer. Constructing the group Guy was conscious of employing both existing dialogues while creating new ones. There emerged a dense series of lines, breaking up and expanding connections in a network. The Blue Shroud emerges very distinctly from Barry and Maya’s shared musical experience, both with Maya’s performance of Barry’s modern music and their extensive shared experience in authentic period performance of baroque music, highlighted by her recordings of Bach and Biber.

When Guy’s New Orchestra debuted in 2000, every name was familiar to those with a developed interested in contemporary improvised music. When I saw the personnel of The Blue Shroud, I recognized only about half. Among them, Agustí Fernández and Peter Evans immediately stood out. I’d heard them as a duo and they’re both members with Guy of the Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble; both have appeared as guests with the Parker-Guy-Lytton trio, Fernández shares a duo with Guy and a trio as well, with Ramón López, one of the Blue Shroud Orchestra’s two drummers. Guy has worked extensively with the other drummer, Lucas Niggli, since moving to Switzerland, including another piano trio with Jacques Demierre.

But the baroque connections of Guy and Maya Homburger are just as evident. Like Homburger, violist Fanny Paccoud and reed player Michael Niesemann are members of John Eliot Gardiner’s English Baroque Soloists. Another musician with strong period music connections is Michel Godard, a tubaist and master of the medieval serpent, the tuba’s snake-like ancestor with a brass mouthpiece and side holes like a reed instrument, which he teaches at the National Conservatory in Paris.

It’s here that the connections start to reveal their multiplicity. Like Guy, Godard is equally interested in jazz (he works regularly with Niggli and Pierre Dørge, among others) and has fused the two musics in his Monteverdi: A Trace of Grace project, which includes bassist Steve Swallow and Fanny Paccoud. Michael Niesemann is a virtuoso of the oboe and its slightly lower-pitched ancestor, the oboe d’amore. Many of his recordings have been with Musica Antiqua Köln, but he’s also an alto saxophonist who has the free improvising skills to have played in Guy’s BGNO.

The Danish saxophonist Torben Snekkestad has played in duo with Guy (documented on Slip Slide and Collide [Maya, 2012]) and like Niesemann would have no trouble convincing a listener that free jazz is his specialty, but he also plays soprano saxophone and arranges with the Copenhagen Saxophone Quartet, a classical quartet that has played works by Iannis Xenakis and recorded CDs of Italian baroque music with Snekkestad’s arrangements of Corelli and Scarlatti. Snekkestad has fashioned a reed/brass hybrid, attaching a saxophone mouthpiece to a trumpet to create a wild, braying primordial sound, an odd complement to the gently decorous sound of Godard’s serpent, an opposite construction.

The Swedish tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Per “Texas” Johansson (heard to fine effect with Mats Äleklint’s quartet) and the young baritone and soprano player Julius Gabriel (a student of Niesemann who plays with The Dorf) complete a saxophone quartet that can actually play like a vibrato-free classical ensemble or use their higher pitched doubles to create gorgeous textures for Guy’s most lyrical melodies.

The literal voice of The Blue Shroud is Savina Yannatou, a singer of tremendous expressive range with whom Guy has performed in duet, ranging from traditional music to free improvisation. A live recording from the Bimhuis includes a performance of Guy’s “The Ancients,” the kind of graceful melody which figures so tellingly in The Blue Shroud (on Attikos, Maya, 2010).

There is a tradition that the best jazz composers (Ellington, Mingus) have written to the voices and talents of the specific musicians available to them. In The Blue Shroud, Guy may have taken this idea to new levels of complexity.

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B. Dwyer, M. Homburger, F. Paccoud, T. Snekkestad + M. Nieseman                    ©2015 Krzysztof Penarski

On the Thursday afternoon, November 20th, I’m privileged to attend the third day of rehearsal which will end with the first run-through of the complete work. The orchestra is spread throughout Alchemia, the tiny basement heart of Jazz Autumna, chairs pushed out of the way to accommodate the group. This is the third day that the band has gone through their regimen: gather to rehearse from ten to six, pack up the equipment to retreat to the tiny bandstand, play three sets a night of free improvisations in wildly varied sub-groups from 8 to 11, then start again the next morning rehearsing The Blue Shroud. They have gathered from Ireland, Greece, Spain, France, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and America, and despite the webs of association, some are meeting for the first time. The day and night processes are essentially linked. During the day they build the work from Guy’s score; each night, in some twenty different improvising ensembles, they get to interact with one another’s musical personalities at the granular level, an essential element for The Blue Shroud’s eventual performance.

The next night they’ll debut the work on a larger stage in Krakow Radio’s concert hall. Now in Alchemia, Barry Guy is pressed against a brick wall, turning score pages, conducting, playing bass. On his right are Lucas Niggli and Ramón López with their two expanded drum kits (Niggli has suspended stacks of cymbals, tuned and bowed); in front of Guy are the four reeds and the two brass. Sheltered within the circle is Savina Yannatou, both the voice and the text of Guy’s conception. The tiny elevated stage to Guy’s left at the end of the room holds all the string players: the grand piano, violin, viola and guitar.

It’s a revelation to watch Guy’s compositional and conducting style in action, working out a host of holds (pauses, fermatas, silences, sustains), adding and subtracting ensemble voices in a give-and-take with the other musicians. He openly asks for input, questioning the musicians about what they’re hearing, welcoming their responses and accommodating change, dropping an ensemble in favor of a single voice, removing a bar here and there or adding an improvising soloist to enrich a texture, all of this arising in the build-up to a first run-through just a day before the debut, and accomplished with a patience and spirit of openness that would be wonderful to behold with a week of rehearsal left to him. The shaping of transitions is a key part of the dialogue, as if only the performer can summon the requisite nuance. The written parts aren’t just being matched with improvisation in the work: the fundamental process of organizing the work for performance takes on elements of improvisation. (It’s with a sense of joy and bemused wonder that in a quiet moment Ramón López points out to me the presence of a Biber Sonata in his score).

When the group breaks for lunch there are stragglers still at work, Barry and Maya of course, Maya a critical element, the coordinator of logistics, all the elements in this vast network. There are Michael Niesemann and Fanny Paccoud, concerned about one of the segment endings, Agustí Fernández is there and Ben Dwyer as well, Agustí who acts as secondary conductor for one of the most lyric segments, Ben who has written so revealingly of working with Barry and Maya on a composition of his own. Maya, Fanny and Michael share that membership in John Eliot Gardiner’s English Baroque Soloists, and it’s clearly a rare precision, an intimacy with nuance and a special fellowship that they bring to this, that wonderful compact with 400 years of musical history, its lines of connection growing stronger all the time.

What can I recall best of all of this? The great curve of the work – it’s power and terrors, the sweep of the orchestra, the power of certain improvisers – Fernández and Evans especially – to transform individually the collective shapes of history and orchestra that Guy’s score will plumb. Above all there’s the extraordinary lyric beauty of Guy’s setting of Kerry Hardie’s “I am in Sunlight” as sung by Savina Yannatou, coming after the polyglot horrors of Resolution 1441.

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Savina Yannatou + Barry Guy                                                                             ©2015 Krzysztof Penarski

The Blue Shroud is both composing into and through history. It invokes the history of art, both its symbolic potential and its possibilities for social meaning through the figure of Guernica, a work that in both the long-term history of fine art and the immediately political. It invokes, too, profound threads of musical history, from the rich beauty of Baroque melody to the mathematical egalitarianism of Viennese serialism to the play of mystery in free improvisation, which is not simply the most recent development but a hinge through which these materials are connected. It is a writing through history in which its sense of engagement renders all its materials (musical, visual, social, political) immediate, available and malleable, be it Biber and the oboe d’amore, the sonic and the pictorial, the silent scream of Guernica’s bull, the circle in which Guy’s adventures in the most distant and recent musical worlds come together in a singular discourse.

Guy’s visioning of Guernica includes a depth of Spanish music that is more than mere decoration. It reverberates with and extends the special relationship that jazz has developed with Spain, what Jelly Roll Morton called “the Spanish tinge,” and touches on the transmutation of Afro-Cuban sources in Latin dance, all the way to Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ Sketches of Spain with its trumpet transmutation of Joaquín Rodrigo ‘s concerto for guitar, Mingus’s Tijuana Moods with its wild fusion of war cry and mariachi, and most tellingly here, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra and its fondness for folk songs of the revolution in the band itself, the two Spanish musicians have each recorded national repertoire: López’ thrilling Songs of the Spanish Civil War (Leo, 2000) and Fernández’ beautiful El laberint de la memòria (Mbari, 2011), improvisations based on Spanish music of the 20th century. López is a master of flamenco drumming, while Benjamin Dwyer, a former resident of Spain, has set poems by the civil war poet Federico García Lorca and brings an essential element. The splashing percussive highs of Fernández and Dwyer, the latter’s attacks magnified by the brightness of his guitar, create a hybrid of classical and flamenco elements, the brightness of which can penetrate the ensemble.

The Blue Shroud is a work of tremendous complexity in which every component influences everything else – Guy’s composition and the segments of compositions by H.I.F. Biber (1644-1704) and J.S. Bach (Agnus Dei from the B Minor Mass) – some feeding the improvisations, some acting as ultimate touchstones in the piece, the improvisations in turn influencing the way we hear Biber, Bach and Guy the composer, for whom the improvisations are an essential component making the totality both an immediate and a collective creation in which historical artists collaborate with contemporary ones. Biber and Bach aren’t appropriated, they’re invoked and embraced. The work seems to engage history/suffering through emblems: the comfort and ordered and majestic beauty of Biber’s Crucifixion Sonata (Number 10) and, more transcendentally still, Bach turning lamentation into a beauty that Guy can call “heartbreaking,” the Agnus Dei, “Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.”

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The Blue Shroud is a continuous stream of new textures that point to the complex relationship of art to the representation of pain, suffering and sheer incomprehensible horror: it distracts as it lends solace, somehow creating balance and distance with which to appreciate the immediacy of experience. The Blue Shroud becomes a kind of coeval of Picasso’s painting, its large musical “canvas” stretching through Picasso’s own evolution, including the fractured plane of collage and the omni-perspective of cubism (suggesting even the panopticon of Jeremy Bentham’s speculative prison system). The polysemy of the work extends from its mixed musical languages to its literally mixed languages, as Yannatou works through Kerry Hardie’s poems and the languages of Resolution 1441, extending them into chanting, singing, crying and speaking in tongues, an authentic language of the wounded spirit.

The baroque music achieves a special quality here. If the period instrument movement has restored early music to its authentic sounds and pitches, here it travels a step further, as it’s situated firmly in the present. We are invited to hear in a way that is genuinely multiple, each element speaking authentically anew.

To see more Blue Shroud Orchestra photos, visit: www.zigakoritnik.com

Stuart Broomer©2015

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