A Momentous Bassoon
By Adolf Alzuphar
Joy Guidry, in their own words, is “optimistic, real with themselves, a loving person, loves to make people laugh, and adventurous.” To listen to Joy’s music is to wade into the humor, severity, honesty, empathy, and elegance of these words and of their voice.
The name Joy is etymologically from the French Joie, which came from the Latin Gaudium. The Greek word for it was Chara, which, like Gaudium and Joie, translated to “a deep assurance and gladness that ignites a heart.” In other words, Guidry was named to become the musician they are today.
They were first a saxophonist, but they grew to disdain the competitive all-state saxophone culture in Houston, Texas, where they grew up. During a period of doubt, Guidry heard Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. These pieces persuaded Guidry to try the bassoon. “It always looked funny to me, but I like goofy things like that,” they tell me with a voice made for singing.
“The bassoon is a very interesting medium. It can have such a full sound, but also feel very hollow. I feel like I can fill all of myself up inside this instrument. It sings so well. I can express myself with this instrument in many different genres,” Guidry says.
Compositions that allow the bassoon to break out of its shell, such as Francois Poulenc’s Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano, or Camille Saint-Saens’s Sonata for Bassoon and Piano, are rare. It’s one thing to allow the bassoon the place of an oboe, but it’s a whole other thing to make it central to a performance or composition.
The instrument, at the end of the day, is a versatile woodwind. A bassoonist knows this and knows the instrument in ways that most do not. “It feels connected to nature. It’s literally from a tree. In the ‘20’s, they used to tell you when buying a Bassoon, go pick out your tree,” Guidry says.
For classical Bassoon, Guidry loves playing the music of the Romantic era most, but has an encyclopedic understanding of the classical tradition. “I love playing Brahms. Tchaikovsky. The Nut Cracker,” they say. Though not only a classical bassoonist, it’s the classical bassoon that led them to attend the Peabody Conservatory and the Mannes School of Music.
Winning the 2021 Berlin Prize for Young Artists came two years after their diploma from Mannes. The Berlin Prize gave them a new sense of confidence, and though it was stressful, it culminated in a night of ovations. It was the very night that Beyonce’s “Break My Soul” (you won’t / break my soul.. ) added resonance to Guidry’s victory.
As a composer, Guidry has evolved an education in the classical tradition, a love of storytelling, an interest in Alice Coltrane, hymns, and serious self-reflection into uniquely elegant, philosophical, and experimental music.
Alice Coltrane is “a palate cleanser” because of her sound, her range of emotions, and her harmonies. Alice on the harp. Alice on the piano. Alice’s calm music with Pharoah Sanders. Alice’s transcription of “My Favorite Things,” especially the middle of it. Alice has even corrected Guidry’s speech, reminding them to say Coltrane is to refer to John—but wasn’t Alice also Coltrane?
Alice inspired Guidry to also do their own thing, to “bring the colors that bassoon brings to different kinds of ensembles.” The music Guidry composes roots itself first in Guidry, the person, whose family is from southwest Louisiana. They would wake up on Saturday mornings and listen to Anita Baker and Kirk Franklin. They were a family of different denominations, cousins included, but they would all go to midnight mass together.
A new philosophy of gospel music, born out of reflection and experience, fuels Guidry. Gospel. To Guidry, doesn’t have to be a religious thing. It’s something that you stand behind—a manifesto. It’s associated with Christianity, but it is the coming together of a message through music.
For their first album Radical Acceptance, their gospel, Guidry had a profound story to tell and wanted audiences to hear a story that might be relatable. A story they stood behind.
“Inner child” is one of the album’s many highlights and is based on John Coltrane’s “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” particularly in the way that Coltrane uses children’s hymns in the piece. For "Inner Child," Jesse Cox, Guidry’s drummer on Radical Acceptance, experiments with the church drums of “Down in the Valley,” a traditional hymn that Guidry’s grandmother still sings to her grandchildren.
The album ends with “Grace” to allude to the music that Joy has been composing since beginning work on the record. The harmonies in “Grace” are the same as in the honestly titled “Just because I have a Dick Doesn’t Mean I am a Man,” the album’s first track. Though “Grace” is full of dissonance, it is a resolution of what’s presented in the first track.
“There will always be dissonance in my life. I live in San Diego now, near the ocean, and look out the window at a beautiful skyline, but I’ll always have things to deal with. Bipolar disorder is difficult, there is nothing romantic about it. I have a beautiful community around me, family, and medication to where I can still live a life that makes me happy,” Guidry says.
Guidry read bell hooks as they made Radical Acceptance. André Leon Talley’s book Chiffon Trenches was also inspirational to them. The struggles, grief, but also gossip in the book brought forth the message that it’s important to fully live one’s life despite what we may be submerged in or emerging from. Glitch Feminism, a cyberfeminist manifesto that talks about digital selfdom, was also an important book to Guidry, given how they embrace social media such as TikTok. “I like learning in real-time,” Guidry says.
Their relationship with Jesus as a queer and trans person, and how happy they are, is the subject of their next album. Matthew 6:25 is at its foundation. Meeting new communities, especially on Instagram, is also central to the new album. In other words—falling in love with self and others. The new album includes a gospel choir, inspired by Alice Coltrane’s use of gospel choir, which will only help to amplify Guidry’s own gospel and bring magnitude to their music.
Guidry begs us to question both the musicality of the human heart and the musicality of the human mind. Is there a natural musicality to every human heart or mind? How does one arrive or come to value and display it? Do they come about through honesty and the courage to assume the consequences of one’s honesty?
“I’m just existing, making music with an instrument that means something to me,” Guidry says. It is music rooted in both a hardwon musical capacity as an instrumentalist and an honesty, of a truthful Joy, the voice of an earth blossom in the sun.
About Adolf Alzuphar
Adolf Alzuphar is a music critic. He also contributes to The Brooklyn Rail, and to the LA Review of Books.