reviews and articles about Gavin Bryars

(please note we don't keep a complete list of all reviews as there are simply too many!
so this section is renewed from time to time when we are sent a complete text of a review or when a review is to do with a particular event or an album release)

Christopher Fox: “Gavin Bryars - Master of mystery” (2003) (For Musical Times)

Gavin Bryars is sixty this year and his birthday on 16 January generated considerable media attention. It is a mark of his reputation that even BBC Radio 4’s “Front Row”, not usually noted for its coverage of contemporary classical music, included an interview with him. But like most of the birthday tributes the “Front Row” interview concentrated on Bryars’ early work. As he wrote to me, “It would be a relief to talk about recent work after doing any number of  'retrospective' views as a(n almost) sixty year-old and discussing Jesus' Blood and Titanic yet again. I have nothing against these works of course, and as my former manager used to say it's a bit like the Rolling Stones knowing that they will always have to perform “Satisfaction”.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet (1971) and The Sinking of the Titanic (1969) are indeed modern classics but in this article I want to focus on Bryars’ more recent music, particularly that of the last decade. Nevertheless it is important to acknowledge that in a sense each of Bryars’ works, even Jesus' Blood and Titanic, is still current. A Bryars work is never “finished” as that term is normally understood because, rather like an installation artist invited to present an existing work in a new space, Bryars is always prepared to adapt the materials of his work to fit new circumstances. In 1971 Bryars acquired the tape of the tramp’s voice which provides the basis for Jesus’ blood and, by one of those tangential connections which so delight him, first listened to it on a Revox tape recorder which the jazz bass player Dave Holland had left with improvising saxophonist Evan Parker when Holland moved to New York to join the Miles Davis group. Over the following years Bryars gradually evolved the orchestration, which was then recorded for Brian Eno’s Obscure label and released in 1975 on an LP with The Sinking of the Titanic on the other side. That LP effectively fixed the piece for most people but not for Bryars and he returned to the piece in the early 1990s for a CD devoted to a series of versions of the piece, including one in which Tom Waits adds his own descant.

That Bryars is able to return to pieces written many years earlier is testament to a number of features of his oeuvre which make it quite unusual and to which I will return throughout this article. Firstly, his preoccupations as a composer and the aesthetic from which those preoccupations spring have been remarkably consistent throughout his career. Secondly, most of his works have a robustly individual conceptual framework which can seem to exist independently from the musical material involved in any one realisation of that work. This is most notably the case with The sinking of the Titanic: it is quite possible for different realisations to include none of the same music and yet still be performances of the same piece since the identity of the piece lies not in a particular ordering of notes but in the whole constellation of music-related data around the historical event of the Titanic’s fatal voyage. Thirdly, his musical language, particularly in the music written after 1975, has stuck faithfully to the same principles of melodic, rhythmic and (especially important in Bryars’ music) harmonic organisation. It is the mellifluous melancholy of this musical language which has won Bryars his many fans; later I hope to unravel some of the mysterious complexity beneath its smooth exterior.

Bryars is a prolific composer but a composer whose creativity is particularly stimulated by sympathetic musicians. After the early conceptual and/or indeterminate works written between 1968 and 1972 he fell silent until 1975, re-emerging from two years in which “there was nothing that I was able to write that made any sense to me” as an early version of the composer he is today. During the 1970s he produced relatively little music, diverted both by teaching duties at Portsmouth and then Leicester Polytechnics and by the task of preparing the official biography of Lord Berners. Bryars began work on the Berners biography in 1976, eventually abandoning the project in 1983 (Berners’ centenary) when, as he put it, he “had to take the decision to be either a biographer or a composer. (There are people from each side who think I made the wrong decision.)”. In the following two decades demand for his work has grown and his output has grown correspondingly, including scores for dance theatre, and many orchestral, chamber and vocal works. Most substantial of all are three full-length operas: Medea (1982, revised 1984), a version of Euripides’ play made in collaboration with Robert Wilson; Doctor Ox’s experiment (1995-97), based on a short story by Jules Verne; and G (2001), a portrait of Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing process. An attempt to deal with all this work is obviously beyond the scope of this article (and Bryars’ music is in any case well documented on his web-site at; instead I want to focus on just two works, A man in a room, gambling and the first two books of madrigals, part of a larger work-in-progress. Why these two works? In part I have chosen them because they seem to me to be paradigmatic of those features of Bryars’ compositional praxis which I mentioned earlier: stylistic consistency, conceptualisation and note-to-note organisation. They also allow a consideration of Bryars’ use of text, an increasingly predominant feature in his work.

A Man in a Room, Gambling was written in 1992 to a commission from Artangel, the UK-based arts organisation whose commissions have also included Rachel Whiteread’s House and a historical re-enactment of the 1984 Miners’ Strike clash between police and miners at Orgreave in Yorkshire. Artangel paired Bryars with the late Juan MuĖoz (1953-2001) to create a series of ten radio programmes, each exactly five minutes long. Although conceived as a sequence for late night radio programmes to be broadcast over ten or more days (the broadcast premiere was on CBC Radio in Canada), it is typical of Bryars’ attitude to his work that performing versions of A Man in a Room, Gambling have subsequently proliferated. The music was originally scored for string quartet (Bryars regards this version of the work as his String Quartet No. 4) and the music for all ten programmes was recorded in that instrumentation in 1992 by the Balanescu Quartet. A CD of this recording was eventually released in April 2003 on Bryars’ own label (BCGBCD04, distributed in the UK by New Note), but the work initially became better known through a recording of five of the programmes (nos. 4, 8, 3, 9 and 10) on a Point Music CD in a version which expands the instrumentation to include clarinet, guitar, percussion, synthesizer and double bass. It was in this scoring that the Gavin Bryars Ensemble premiered a four-movement version of the piece (programmes 4, 8, 3 and 10) in Amsterdam in 1994. Bryars also sanctions performances of the piece in a six movement version (programmes 2, 3, 6, 8, 4 and 10) and he plans further versions for chamber orchestra with French text and a studio recording of French and German texts for radiophonic use, although he believes that “a French text works less well” the translation almost doubled the number of words in each piece making the location of specific musical injections, which are placed quite precisely in the English text, somewhat arbitrary.

In each programme in the English language version of A man in a room, gambling we hear an instrumental ensemble accompanying the recorded voice of Juan MuĖoz as he explains how to perform a card trick, although he says that while “some people with a high moral stance use the word ‘tricks’ to describe these subtle techniques” we prefer to call them artifices”. MuĖoz’s text (derived in part from probably the most famous book on card trickery ever published, The Expert at the Card Table, which appeared under the pseudonym S. W. Erdnase in 1902) tells us how to shuffle the cards in such a way that certain cards move from the top to the bottom of the pack, how to deal from the bottom of the pack and “how to get rid of the card, or extra cards, you have in your hand”. What makes this collaboration more unusual is that MuĖoz was not a writer or actor but a sculptor, creator of the haunting installation “Double Bind” which inhabited the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in 2001, and as Bryars has said, “the idea of working with a sculptor in a non-visual medium was interesting and challenging, especially when it emerged that what we would be dealing with was the idea of describing actions which themselves involve visual illusions and trickery”.

This series of visual illusions, which we can witness only in our mind’s eye, is presented to us according to a strict formula. The music is at the same tempo throughout, crotchet = 60, and each programme has 75 bars, all of them 4/4. Each programme begins with music and then, after 4 beats/seconds, MuĖoz greets us: “Good evening”. He pauses, while the music plays on, and then goes on to describe the nature of the illusion. At the mid-point of each programme he moves on to specific instructions: “take the pack, shuffle - move the top card out a little with your thumb - did you see, did you see?” Finally, three bars from the end, he closes: “Thank you and good night”. Paradoxically, the repetitive formalisation of the presentation of the illusions makes it harder to pay attention to the nature of the description of the illusion itself. The shape of each little narrative is the same and because they all describe how to perform card tricks the vocabulary of each text is quite similar: “pack”, “shuffle”, “card”, “hand”, finger”. Bryars has said that the programmes were designed for broadcast before the “last news of the evening so that... in Britain at least, [they] would be experienced like our encounters with the Shipping Forecast” As anyone who regularly hears the Shipping Forecast will know, its mantra-like repetitions are so enigmatically encoded that one’s attention very easily slips from content to form, and the same is true of A man in a room. Few of us need to know the conditions in the sea areas around the British Isles and, presumably, few of us will rely on MuĖoz’s instructions for a future career in card-sharping.

This play of attention between sign and signified is quintessential Bryars. In Jesus’ blood the looping of the tramp’s voice and its gradual harmonic enveloping by the ensemble create a situation in which sometimes we think about the recording, sometimes the grain of the man’s voice, sometimes the shape of the melody, sometimes the likely duration of the performance, sometimes the social predicament of the singer himself. It seems to me that the crucial ingredients to make this shifting of attention both possible and interesting are repetition and otherness. In Jesus’ blood the repetition is intrinsic to the form of the piece and there are a number of layers of otherness: the mix of an untrained recorded voice with live concert instruments, the unfamiliarity for most modern listeners of both the musical and religious idiom of the Victorian hymn on which the work is based. In A man in a room the recurrent pattern of the programmes and the consistent tempo provide the security of repetition, while MuĖoz’s idiosyncratic Hispanic English pronunciation adds an extra layer of otherness to the strangeness of the activity being described. Our security is also disturbed by occasional verbal interjections, brief repetitions of individual words by a Japanese speaker, who appears to be an innocent bystander trying to practice the trick as MuĖoz describes it; in the ninth programme MuĖoz claims to have lost his prepared text and the ambience changes so that it seems as if the trick is being performed on the street.

A similar combination of the familiar and the strange informs the music. As always Bryars’ music is triadically-based and each programme begins with a harmony based on C, C sharp or A. Programmes 2, 5 and 7 open with a bare fifth, C sharp and G sharp, programmes 4, 6 and 9 in C minor, while programmes 3 and 8 start out from a rather denser harmony which superimposes D minor on an A minor seventh. But, more remarkably, all the programmes finish on chords of either E major or E minor, with the exception of the third programme which closes on the fifth A-E. There is a comforting reliability about this tonal planning, not too many points of departure and always the same destination, and we travel from start to finish at a reassuringly even pace too, with changes of harmony tending to occur at one or two bar intervals.

Where the music becomes rather more wilfully unpredictable is in Bryars’ unfolding of the harmonic path that we follow through each piece. Example 1 shows the whole of the last programme, which I have annotated with chord names for ease of reference, and, as this makes evident, two principles govern harmonic succession: (1) Adjacent chords share at least one pitch (although this need not always recur in the same register) and/or (2) the interval relationship between the fundamentals of adjacent harmonies is a major or minor third. Of 36 chord changes (not including bars 12 and 13 which function as an interruption of the surrounding D major), 27 follow this latter rule; the other chord changes involve movements either of a perfect fifth (6 instances) or a minor second (3). In this piece there is only one non-conformist change, from A flat minor in bar 70 to A minor in bar 71, and Bryars prepares this with a series of passing notes in the cello. But the music is less regulated than this might suggest and I am yet to discover anything other than Bryars’ fantasy as a principle governing either (1) which, or how many, notes should be shared between adjacent chords, or (2) whether the next chord should be a major or minor third above or below its predecessor. There are rules, but they determine overall consistency, not local order.

The textural development of the music is also based on the permutation of a relatively small set of possibilities. Example 1 shows Bryars’ extensive use of the arpeggiated figuration which is so characteristic of his instrumental writing and, set against this background, his favoured melodic writing, a long line which follows the harmonic contours, embellished with passing notes and with occasional pauses for a suspension. In other parts of A man in a room the arpeggiation is less florid, sometimes harmonies are articulated by sustained or reiterated notes, and programme 4 begins with another Bryars trademark, an extended melody without chordal accompaniment, played in unison by the three upper strings. Beyond these variations, however, the surface of the music has no surprises. Compared to the manic textural invention of so much music from the last 100 years this lack of novelty may seem perverse but it can also be argued that Bryars is being true to the experimentalist dictum of his one-time mentor John Cage in “letting sounds be themselves”. Within this restrained soundworld we can concentrate on the tonal qualities of the instruments and on the virtuosity (understated, but virtuosity nonetheless) of musicians who can play rapid arpeggios in tune or play a unison line with such unanimity that we hear them as a single blended whole. Most importantly of all we are in an aesthetic space where our attention can flow between the many layers, both audible and conceptual, of what is being performed.

A key element of A Man in a Room, Gambling is the text written and spoken by Juan MuĖoz but the use of a narrative voice is unusual in Bryars’ work. The use of text, however, has become an ever more important feature of Bryars’ work and is an obvious consequence of his increased interest in writing for voices. As always with Bryars this is as much a reflection of the musical company he has been keeping as it is of any loss of faith in purely instrumental music; indeed the texture of his vocal music is, apart from the absence of arpeggiated figures, little different from that of his instrumental writing. Elsewhere Bryars has said that he prefers to “write for particular players” The instrumental composition of my own ensemble arises from the fact that these are people with whom I want to work rather than that these are the instruments for which I would like to write”. Thus for many years the clarinet for Bryars has been Roger Heaton and the violin Alexander Balanescu; similarly the soprano voice has been Valdine Anderson, the tenor John Potter and the vocal consort the Hilliard Ensemble. A glance at Bryars’ work-list reveals, however, that his close involvement with a wide range of singers has developed considerably in more recent years.

It was only in 1982, with the opera Medea that Bryars made his first extensive use of voices and the number of his vocal works from the 1980s is only in single figures. Significantly, however, one of those works, Glorious Hill (1988), was Bryars’ first collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble and works both for the Hilliards and for other chamber vocal ensembles have proliferated in the subsequent decade. The most significant example of this proliferation is perhaps the sequence of madrigals and laude on which Bryars is currently engaged. He plans 41 laude: 21 for solo soprano (for the brilliant young Swedish singer Anna Maria Friman), eight for three sopranos (the group Trio Medieval of which Friman is a member) and twelve for soprano and tenor (Friman and John Potter). The madrigal cycle is even more ambitious and will eventually consist of seven books. So far two are complete; the first, written for the Hilliard Ensemble, is made up of thirteen settings of poems by Blake Morrison for various combinations of five male voices (ATTTBar); the second, for the Trio Medieval Sextet [sic!], has fifteen settings of sonnets by Petrarch for three sopranos and three tenors (with additional ad libitum percussion in the last madrigal). The third book sets 17 more Petrarch sonnets in translations by the Irish poet and playwright J. M. Synge (1871-1909) from his collection Some sonnets from “Laura in Death” and is dedicated both to the memory of the poet Robin Skelton (editor of the complete Synge poems) and to John Potter’s group Red Byrd, who will give the world premiere at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

I suggested earlier that each Bryars piece is potentially a work-in-progress, open for alteration, whether by addition, subtraction, or rearrangement. It is a fascinating feature of his work as a whole, however, that while each piece has its own conceptual framework he is also able to transpose elements of one piece into a new framework.  Thus “Se íl sasso ondí Ť chiusa piý questa valle”, the last Petrarch setting of the Second Book of Madrigals, functions perfectly within that collection as the conclusion of an emotional trajectory that begins in joy (“Blessed be the day” where I was struck by the lovely eyes that have bound me”) and descends into bitter longing (“my eyes” are pained” in their great desire for the places of which they are deprived”). But it also exists as a work in its own right, Marconi’s Madrigal, Bryars’ response to a commission from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 2001 to celebrate the centenary of Marconi’s first transatlantic wireless transmission. In this context the metaphorical distance between lover and beloved becomes the physical distance between transmitter and receiver; more pertinently, the “Sí with which the madrigal text begins is articulated musically as the note E flat (Es in German pitch nomenclature) and as a three note rhythm (“Sí is represented in Morse code as three dots). Example 2 shows the beginning of the madrigal in which tenor 3 and soprano 1 (distance expressed notationally too) echo one another as they scan through the first words of all the Petrarch sonnets which begin with the letter ‘s’, finally arriving in unanimity at the beginning of  “Se íl sasso”. Why “Sí? Because that was the Morse code signal which Marconi successfully transmitted from Cornwall to Canada on 12th December 1901.

Choice of texts links the First Book of Madrigals to other works in the Bryars canon. Like all his madrigals so far those of the First Book set love lyrics but unlike those of the later books they are by a contemporary writer, Blake Morrison, Bryars’ collaborator on the operas Doctor Ox’s Experiment and G. Morrison wrote a cycle of poems specifically to be set to music and they are a celebration of coupledom, sometimes domestic in tone (“Please, darling, no more diets”), often gently amorous (“in the shower” we were rinsed clean of everything but desire”), sometimes more fiery (“No one can quench the flame of this ecstasy”). In Bryars’ settings it is perhaps the more comfortably domestic note which is heard most strongly. Tempi range from “moderate” to “very slow” and where there are metronome marks these are all in the range between 62 and 80, so that as example 3 shows, the heat of “ecstasy” is achieved by a striking harmonic progression rather than by rhythmic vigour or florid figuration.

It is difficult for any ensemble vocal setting to have as powerful a sense of individual expression as one for solo voice, even when the voices are as beautifully blended as those of the Hilliard Ensemble, and there is something a little disconcerting in these collective outpourings of male erotic ardour. In the 16th and 17th century the private performance of madrigals could be a vehicle for articulating feelings between members of the group singing the music but since the object of desire in Morrison’s texts is twice identified as a woman this is not an interpretation that can be placed on a performance by the Hilliards in their current line-up (and might well be overwhelming if David James was ever replaced by a female alto!). The combination of male voices singing in close harmony, particularly when the harmonic language is as indebted as Bryars’ to the tonal chromaticism of the late-19th and early 20th century, is for my ears sometimes disconcertingly reminiscent of the cosy world of the Victorian parlour song or of barbers’ shop singing. Nevertheless these madrigals are a welcome addition to the repertoire. Any new work that calls itself a madrigal is inviting comparison with the dazzling musical responses of Gibbons, Weelkes et al to the poetry of their day and comparable successful collaborations between major figures in English contemporary music and literature are all too rare. Morrison and Bryars have produced real “madrigals” that evidently have their roots in that earlier tradition but are also entirely characteristic of their own work, as the sensuously prolonged cadence of the last madrigal demonstrates (see example 4).

As well as the immediately audible links which run through Bryars’ madrigal project - the linguistic connections to the earlier English and Italian traditions, the interplay between contrapuntal and homophonic singing - there is a secret programme too. The planned cycle of seven books is underpinned by the conceit that there should be one book for each day of the week. Madrigals for Book One must be written on Mondays, those for Book Two on Tuesdays, and so on. Each madrigal is written in a single day and the date and place of composition is noted at the foot of the score. In Book One, for example, the first three madrigals were written at the end of 1998, two of them on the same day, December 7th; the next is from August 30th, 1999, and the rest from July and August 2000 (July 17th was the most productive day, yielding three pieces). The sequence of madrigals in each book is that of their order of composition.

Does any of this affect our experience of the music? Probably not, since the music is consistent with everything that a listener familiar with Bryars’ work would expect, and if composers’ working lives have cyclical characteristics they tend to be diurnal or annual, rather than weekly (Philip Glass composes in the morning and orchestrates later in the day, Mahler composed in the summer and conducted for the rest of the year). But the restriction of a single day gives each madrigal a certain intensity since there is a given amount of text that must be set to music. (The demands imposed by this restriction are occasionally reflected in the score. The composition of madrigal 13 of Book Two, begun in Venice on March 19th 2002 and finished later the same day after the composer had returned to England, was evidently disrupted by travel and some revision of the score had to be carried out on the Friday of that same week.) If the audience is let into the secret there is also a shared complicity in Bryars’ grand project, a sense of being part of something out of the ordinary.

The work of one of Bryars’ great heroes, Georges Perec (1936-82) comes to mind. Perec was a member of the Paris-based group of writers, OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or “Workshop of Potential Literature”), and is perhaps best known as the author of the lipogrammatic novel La Disparition (1969) in which the letter E never appears. In 1969 Perec began work on Lieux (Places), which was to consist of descriptions of twelve places in Paris, carried out every year for twelve years, once on the spot and once from memory. Perec abandoned the project in 1975, but a similar project, albeit on a far grander scale and carried out in fiction rather than fact, is undertaken in his most ambitious novel. La Vie Mode d'Emploi - Romans (1978) in which Perec and tells stories about the people who live in an apartment building in Paris. One character, Bartlebooth, spends 10 years learning to paint with watercolours and then travels the world for 20 years painting a series of 500 watercolour seascapes, one every fortnight. Each painting is made into a jigsaw puzzle by another character, Gaspard Winckler, and over the next 20 years Bartlebooth reassembles the images in order, again one every fortnight. On completion each picture is to “be ‘retexturised’ so that it could be removed from its backing, returned to the place where it had been painted - twenty years before and dipped in a detergent solution whence would emerge a clean and unmarked sheet of Whatman paper”. Perec summarises the Bartlebooth project: “Thus no trace would remain of an operation which would have been, throughout a period of fifty years, the sole motivation and unique activity of its author”.

Bryars may admire the arbitrary restraints of Perec’s work but in the years since his self-imposed silence in the early 1970s he has not submitted his own creativity to the Bartleboothian model of existential annihilation. Indeed it is notable that while Bryars often takes conceptual inspiration from shadowy figures (the lost vagrant singer of Jesus’ blood, the card trickster S.W. Erdnase whose true identity is unknown, and a series of mysterious characters from Jules Verne’s fiction including Doctor Ox in the opera Doctor Ox’s Experiment) the fruits of these inspirations, stamped with the Bryars brand, have made a considerable impact in the material world of concert ticket and CD sales. When I asked him for the dates of composition of Doctor Ox’s Experiment he not only gave me the dates but also pointed out that all three of his operas had been cancelled prior to their eventual first performance. Medea should have been premiered in 1982 by the Fenice in Venice but found its first home in Lyon and Paris in 1984; difficulties with Arts Council funding meant that the 1997 English National Opera premiere of Doctor Ox was cancelled and reinstated in their schedule the following year; and the Mainz Opera premiere of G was postponed from 2001 until the following year because of a delay in building work at the Mainz Staatstheater. Bryars is clearly fascinated by the ‘failure’ of these shadowy precursors of each of his operas, “a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of commissioning another one from me” he says, yet the reality is that unlike many other composers’ opera projects these works did find their way onto the stage.

In his book of mid-80s interviews with twenty British composer Paul Griffiths quizzed Bryars (the one wild card in an otherwise unremarkable pack) on the hidden network of ideas which lies beneath the surface of his work. Bryars’ response was that listeners might notice something  ‘odd’ about the music and that’s enough. Then if you want to find out why, you can take it further and find out more about the mystery, just like the detective: but unless you’re curious you won’t do it. That seems to me to be fair. Bryars is both a collector and a master of these mysteries, playing with the ultimate paradox of artistic life that however much of themselves individuals may pour into their creations they nonetheless have little or no control over how these ideas are used or received. In his Guardian article on Lord Berners he praised Berners because “he worked artistically even though he had no need to, a form of artistic purity” and at the beginning of the opera G, perhaps the nearest Bryars has come to a self-portrait (his own e-mail signature is also G), his hero Gutenberg sings, “The year of my birth, the cause of my death, my character and appearance - no-one knows the first thing - but for you, just once, I’ll tell my story”. The prologue ends, “It’s only a version. When it comes to truth no-one knows the first thing.”

(I would like to thank Gavin Bryars, Sally Groves and Rachel Oakley for their help in the preparation of this article.)