1 May 2009

In conjunction with the production company Forma, the Gavin Bryars Ensemble has developed plans for performances of The Sinking of the Titanic in several locations. These will include some of the principle cities and locations in the Titanic's history - Belfast, London, Cork, New York - as well as others, such as Paris, Prague and Helksinki.

The performance is based on the live performance and recording for Touch made by Gavin Bryars with improvising turntablist Philip Jeck, such as the one at the Roundhouse London in May 2009 (as there, Gavin Bryars's children join the ernsemble as an additional string ensemble).There are visual elements - film, projections - some of which were tried out in the version made in Philadelphia for Peregrine Arts with Ridge Theatre and film maker Bill Morrison and artist Laurie Olinder.

Further information from David Metcalf (dm@forma.org.uk)

3 November 2008

Anáil Dé - The Breath of God is based on settings of Old Irish spiritual texts dating from the 8th to the 16th century. It is a project involving a collaboration between Gavin Bryars and the Irish singer Iarla O'Lionáird, arguably the finest Irish singer of his generation, who, while working within the tradition of sean-nós, has also produced acclaimed work that fuses this tradition with contemporary music.

Gavin Bryars and Iarla O'Lionáird met in 2004 when Iarla sang a thirty-minute programme of unaccompanied song before the Gavin Bryars Ensemble's Irish debut concert in Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin, a concert that included the premiere of his Eight Irish Madrigals (settings of John Millington Synge's Petrarch translations). Iarla asked Gavin if he would write an accompaniment to one of these songs, a 16th century lament Tuirimh Mhic Fhinin Dhuibh, for a forthcoming album Invisible Fields. Gavin arranged it for a five-part consort of viols - and a new version of this piece is included in Anáil Dé..

Iarla and Gavin have selected a number of texts, which are sung in an early form of Gaelic, chiefly from a collection of poetry called Lón Anama ("food for the soul"). In addition Iarla also sings some sean-nós works, and there are instrumental pieces for the ensemble of five players (Gavin Bryars,  Leo Abrahams and members of the Crash Ensemble).

There are eleven new settings of old texts, plus Tuirihm.., and some of these were performed at the initial concert in the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), Dublin in November 2008, further pieces were added for concerts in Waterford and Limerick and the entire cycle was completed in the spring of 2011 and was recorded for future CD release n GB Records.

Anáil Dé was commissioned by Lyric FM and Note Productions. All enquiries should be addressed to Gary Sheehan at Note (gary@note.ie).

The pieces:

Anáil Dé I (The breath of God)
Cros Christ (Christ's Cross)
Tórramat do nóebaingil (Mat thy holy angels tend)
Memorarae (Remember)
Mo–chean do theacht, a sgadáin (Welcome is your arrival, oh herring)
Toil ind Ríg (The will of God)
Tiurihm Mhic Fhinin Dhuibh (The black-haired lady's lament..)
Adram in Coimdid (Let us adore the Lord)
Is mebul dom imrádud (Shame to my thoughts)
Laethanta na seachtaine (The days of the week)
Rop tu mo baile (Be thou my vision)
Congair in uissi (The lark sings)
Anáil Dé II

Additional pieces (instrumental)

Lauda Dolçe I (solo cello, guitar, bass)
Lauda Dolçe II (solo viola, cello, guitar, bass)
Lauda Dolçe III (solo cello, guitar, bass)
Lauda: The Flower of Friendship (viola, cello, guitar, bass)

Additional pieces (vocal)

Sean Nos song I
Sean Nos song II

initial concert in the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), Dublin
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1 November 2007

Mercy and Grand is something that Opera North approached me about some time ago as Dominic Gray, Director of Opera North projects, and Jim Holmes, then Head of Music at Opera North (who had conducted my second opera Doctor Ox's Experiment) were interested in doing something related to the work of Tom Waits. Nothing happened for a while and we did Nothing like the Sun in the meantime. In the autumn of 2007 we started work. Initially it was a one-off project based around the songs and music of Tom Waits (in fact, Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, as everything is co-written since 1984). Dominic was keen that this should be a 'project'; that we should be exploring the music, rather than being a tribute band. We thought about influences or resonances between Waits and other musics - music that is somewhere inside the Waits musical universe somehow. It involved treating Tom as a composer and putting him alongside other material - a couple of Kurt Weill pieces, Grainger's Shallow Brown, Nino Rota's 8 1/2, as well as some folk or traditional music - but not as a replica of his own band or imitating his singing. The singer, for example, is female and English - Jess Walker, a versatile mezzo-soprano who has worked with Opera North on Weill or Sondheim as well as more conventional opera. The seven piece band (including Jess) is:

Joe Townsend, violin (who doubles on Transylvanian "trumpet-violin");
Gavin Bryars, bass (plus harmonium);
Jim Holmes on piano, harmonium, as well as quite remarkable blues harmonica;
Martin Green or Karen Street, accordion
Simon Allen, percussion (including musical saw);
Dai Pritchard (formerly of Loose Tubes), clarinets, saxophones
James Woodrow (member of my ensemble), electric guitar.

We went through various material, basically by just trying things out. Several pieces were put together collectively by the band.  I did most of the arranging, Jim doing most of the non-Waits compositions, and Joe concentrated on the folk and traditional pieces. We gave a one-off public performance in Leeds in November 2007 as a way of testing the results. In the autumn of 2008 we took it further, refining the programme, dropping some pieces and adding others, and toured the North of England (West Yorkshire Playhouse Leeds, Lowry Salford, Sage Gateshead, York University, Djanogly Nottingham) as well as playing a shorter version in Milan.

Throughout the whole process I was in constant touch with Tom and Kathleen, who gave the project their unreserved blessing. A recording from the last two live performances in Leeds is being put together as a possible CD release.

Mercy and Grand


Simon Allen (percussion)
Gavin Bryars (bass/harmonium)
Jim Holmes (piano/harmonium/mouth organ)
Dai Pritchard (tenor sax/clarinets/flute)
Karen Street (accordion)
Joe Townsend (violin)
Jess Walker (voice)
James Woodrow (guitars)

Running order (arranged by the band unless specified)

Gypsy Tango (arr. Townsend)
Little Drop of Poison
Ballad of Sexual Dependency (Kurt Weil arr. Holmes)
Poor Edward (arr. Holmes)
Alice (arr. Bryars)
Whistle Down the Wind (arr. Bryars)
A Little Rain (arr. Bryars)
Eight and a Half  (Nino Rota arr. Carla Bley/Bryars)
Innocent When You Dream (arr. Bryars)
Johnsburg, Illinois


La Partida (arr. Townsend)
What Keeps Mankind Alive? (Kurt Weill arr. Holmes)
Georgia Lee  (arr. Bryars)
Broken Bicycles
Circus Theme
Train Song (arr. Bryars)
Pull Down Lads (arr. Townsend)
Barbary Allan
The Briar and the Rose (arr. Bryars)
Lullaby (arr. Bryars)

All Songs Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan except Ballad of Sexual Dependency, What Keeps Mankind Alive? (Brecht/Weill), Gypsy Tango (Townsend), Eight and a Half (Bley), La Partida, Pull Down Lads, Barbary Allan (trad).

Contact Dominic Gray, director of Opera North Projects and the instigator of the project, for all technical and financial information (Dominic.Gray@operanorth.co.uk).

one-off public performance in Leeds in November 2007
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24 February 2007

This is a co-production between Opera North Projects and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) but is administered by Opera North. As part of the RSC's festival in 2006 they had the complete works of Shakespeare over a yearlong season, and I was asked to do a programme of settings of the sonnets and was, in addition, curator for the project. For this we devised a structure in which I wrote about an hour's material for the second half of the performance, setting eight sonnets, and for the first half I was able to commission different composers, chiefly from outside the world of "classical" music. All used the same resources - my two singers soprano Anna Maria Friman (also sings

with Trio Mediaeval) and tenor John Potter (formerly with the Hilliard Ensemble), plus an eight-piece group modelled on my own ensemble (2 violas, cello, bass; piano; bass clarinet/clarinet; guitar/electric guitar; percussion, including cimbalom).

The composers for the first half were:
American singer Natalie Merchant,
Rumanian violinist/composer Alexander Balanescu,
Irish singer/actor Gavin Friday,
electronica composer Mira Calix,
and the Mercury Award winning Antony Hegarty (with Nico Muhly).

Each piece in the first part is preceded by a reading of the sonnet by a Shakespearean actor, while the spoken versions of the sonnets, in my settings are integrated I to the music. As Gavin Friday performed the speaking part in my settings, he also sang his own piece in part one; otherwise John and Anna did all. In the first part each of the sonnets was preceded by a spoken version, given by a Shakespearean actor, which is an option for performance - Gavin, on the other hand, read mine within the structure of the music rather than separately.

During the last ten years, I have been drawn more and more to music modelled on structures from early music, especially madrigals and laude. My first book of madrigals, written for the Hilliard, sets commissioned poems by my operatic collaborator Blake Morrison. For the second I turned to Petrarch, in Italian – to the Laura sonnets in the Rime Sparse – and stayed with him for the third book (in remarkable Irish prose translations by J M Synge) as well as the fourth (setting the longer sestina form). I have since embarked on choral settings of Edwin Morgan’s “Sonnets for Scotland”, starting with Silva Caledonia for the Estonian National Male Choir.

So to turn to the Shakespeare sonnets feels like a natural progression. Unlike Petrarch, of course, the sonnets do not constitute the main body of his work. But they are a rich and complex set of poems that interconnect and cross-refer in endlessly fascinating ways. In choosing the eight that I eventually set I consciously avoided those that are essentially love poems. I developed, rather, a sequence of the more abstract sonnets, those which focus on ideas of time, poetry and sometimes love – but above all in relation to concepts of impermanence and mortality, inevitably pervaded with melancholy. Four of the settings are duets, for soprano and tenor, and each singer has two solos. Two of the sonnets contain specific musical references: number 128 to the act of playing the virginals, number 102 to the song of the nightingale; and two, numbers 128 and 146, have instrumental postludes. Each musical setting is preceded by a spoken version of the sonnet, but spoken precisely within the music and leading directly into the sung version. At the end of the last sonnet, sonnet 64, the spoken voice and the two singers come together, recalling fragments from the text – like the last readable inscriptions on a faded monument.

My settings are dedicated to the memory of the Scottish poet George Bruce.

A CD recording of the entire project is under discussion.

Part One (c.35’) (each may be preceded by reading of sonnet)

Natalie Merchant Sonnet 73
Alexander Balancescu Sonnet 43
Mira Calix Sonnet 130
Gavin Friday Sonnet 40
Antony Hegarty/Nico Muhly Sonnet 27

Part Two (c.60’)

Gavin Bryars: Nothing like the Sun
Sonnet 60, Sonnet 123, Sonnet 128, Sonnet 94, Sonnet 102, Sonnet 146, Sonnet 55, Sonnet 64

Performers (11, excluding Shakespearean actor for readings in part 1):

Anna Maria Friman, soprano; John Potter, tenor; Gavin Friday, speaking voice, part 2/ singer part 1;
Morgan Goff and Nick Barr, violas; Nick Cooper, cello; Gavin Bryars, double bass;
Roger Heaton, clarinet/ bass clarinet; James Woodrow, electric and acoustic guitars; Christopher Bradley, percussion (includes cimbalom); James Holmes, piano/ music director

Contact Dominic Gray, director of Opera North Projects and the instigator of the project, for all technical and financial information (Dominic.Gray@operanorth.co.uk).

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For late May in each of the last few years, and for each year to come as far as I can tell, I have written an arrangement of a popular song for Andrew Burashko's Art of Time Ensemble "Songbooks" project. So far these have been:

Leonard Cohen: Hey, that's no way to say goodbye

Leonard Cohen: A singer must die

Leonard Cohen: Song of Bernadette

George Harrison: Something

Trad.: Wayfaring stranger


Gregory Hoskins and band


Steven Page


Sarah Slean