a portrait


a portrait | 2003

Universal Philips 473 296-2

A double CD for release on Gavin's 60th birthday (January 16th 2003) which pulls together a number of works recorded on Point, Philips and Decca over the last twelve years.

Much of the Point/Phillips/ Decca catalogue has disappeared and now only Jesusπ Blood Never Failed Me Yet and The Sinking of the Titanic remain. The existence of the CBC album, and the emergence of GB Records helped form the rationale for selecting the above tracks. So, although the Charlie Haden version of By the Vaar is out of print, there will be the new Gavin Bryars version on CBC. Although the studio recording of Cadman Requiem is deleted, the live performance is available on GB Records. Although the Point recording of A Man in a Room, Gambling is out of print, the full set of ten is available on GB Records...


Tracks:

CD I
1. Cello Concerto (Farewell to Philosophy) (Julian Lloyd Webber and ECO)
2. One Last Bar, Then Joe Can Sing (for percussion ensemble) (Nexus)
3. Les Fiançailles (Gavin Bryars Ensemble)
4. Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet – Single (with Tom Waits)
Total 74'
CD II
1. The Green Ray (John Harle and Bournemouth Sinfonietta)
2. Adnan Songbook (Valdine Anderson and Gavin Bryars Ensemble)
3. Titanic Lament (Gavin Bryars Ensemble, featuring Roger Heaton)
4. The North Shore (Gavin Bryars Ensemble, featuring Bill Hawkes)
5. Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (Single remix) (with Tom Waits)
Total 69'

Play Tracks:

  1. Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (excerpt)

  2. Song VI (excerpt)

  3. The Sinking of the Titanic (excerpt)


Note : Cello Concerto (1995)

Cello Concerto (1995)

(Farewell to Philosophy)

I have a great fondness for the lower string instruments: I am a bass- player; my mother is a cellist, as are both my daughters; my own ensemble includes two violas, a cello and a bass, and for the instrumentation of my opera Medea I omit the entire violin section from the orchestra. As I have written a number of works for solo instrument or voice with orchestra I welcomed the opportunity to write a concerto for cello and orchestra and especially one which focuses particularly on the instruments lyrical qualities. Although the piece is in one continuous movement, and the soloist is playing almost without a break, it nevertheless falls into distinct sections which are recognisable by a shift of tempo as well as by a change in the music's character. One of the early ideas Julian Lloyd Webber and I discussed was that it might form a companion piece to one of the Haydn concertos. Given my friendship with some members of the English Chamber Orchestra and my awareness of their repertoire, this suggested a number of particular musical references. The subtitle to the work, for example, combines the subtitles of two idiosyncratic Haydn symphonies and I allude to them in different ways but chiefly through orchestration: for The Philosopher by including a section in the concerto where the orchestration resembles that of the symphony's first movement (pairs of English and French horns, muted violins and unmuted lower strings); for The Farewell, by the progressive reduction in the orchestration towards the end. Indeed, apart from the orchestral tutti in the last few bars, the last pages of the score are virtually for string quartet. The subtitle also refers to my own background as a philosophy graduate...

The piece was commissioned by Philips Classics for Julian Lloyd Webber and is dedicated to him.

Gavin Bryars.

Note : One Last Bar Then Joe Can Sing (1994)

One Last Bar Then Joe Can Sing (1994)

Commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain for the virtuoso percussion quintet Nexus, this piece is a reflection on aspects of percussion history, both personal and musical.

The members of Nexus are my friends (I played in the Steve Reich Ensemble along with Russ Hartenberger, for example, in 1972 - the year after Nexus was formed) and I have known their playing as an ensemble for almost 20 years.

The piece exploits not only the tremendous virtuosity of Nexus but rather more their wonderful musicality and subtlety. The piece starts from the last bar at the end of the first part of my first opera Medea, a very short coda for a quintet of untuned percussion instruments. In my new piece, however, this one apparently innocuous bar is progressively fragmented until it is taken over, little by little, by the addition of tuned percussion instruments.

Eventually two metal tuned instruments (crotales and songbells) play aria-like material with bows, occasionally joined by the xylophone, and accompanied by marimba and xylophone ostinati.

The piece ends with a coda in which phrases are passed from bowed vibraphone to bowed crotales to bowed songbells, supported by tremolos on two marimbas.

The rare 3-octave songbells which Nexus owns is one of the great American instrument maker J. C. Deagan's particularly fine instruments and the piece is effectively a kind of homage to Deagan - the Stradivarius of the tuned percussion family. Deagan was a close collaborator with Percy Grainger in the development of tuned percussion music between the wars and I have always admired Grainger's imaginative and audacious use of percussion. The family of keyboard percussion is, for me, as important a group as, say, the string family and equally capable of expressive playing. Indeed in Medea not only does the orchestra have no violins (the strings are from violas downwards) but the percussion section replaces, in effect, the more conventionally important first violins and my knowledge of the music of Nexus was a major factor in this decision.

Gavin Bryars.

Note : Les Fiançailles

Les Fiançailles

A sketch for Les Fiançailles ("engagement") was written in 1983 for a scene in Robert Wilson's CIVIL WarS, in which a Japanese bride delivers two texts: one in French announcing a forthcoming aristocratic marriage; the other an old text in Japanese announcing the link between the Sun and the Imperial throne.

When I gave a concert in the Secession Hall in Vienna, I developed the piece further to incorporate the special quality of the Viennese string players who played with me, making a concert work for string quintet, two pianos (8 hands) and percussion. In musical terms this related to the Secession Hall's important role in Viennese music, in particular to its connection with early Schönberg and Mahler, and the writing for the high strings, for example, consciously evoked chamber music of the period.

When work resumed on CIVIL WarS in 1984, in addition to the original piece being used for the bride's aria, this extended concert work appeared during a slow motion sequence where, at a particular point in the music, the actress Delphine Seyrig was to read quietly a letter written by Marie Curie to Pierre, her dead husband. The instrumentation has now been simplified to string quintet, solo piano and percussion.

Gavin Bryars.

Note : Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet

Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet

In 1971, when I lived in London, I was working with a friend, Alan Power, on a film about people living rough in the area around Elephant and Castle and Waterloo Station. In the course of being filmed, some people broke into drunken song - sometimes bits of opera, sometimes sentimental ballads - and one, who in fact did not drink, sang a religious song "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet". This was not ultimately used in the film and I was given all the unused sections of tape, including this one.

When I played it at home, I found that his singing was in tune with my piano, and I improvised a simple accompaniment. I noticed, too, that the first section of the song - 13 bars in length - formed an effective loop which repeated in a slightly unpredictable way. I took the tape loop to Leicester, where I was working in the Fine Art Department, and copied the loop onto a continuous reel of tape, thinking about perhaps adding an orchestrated accompaniment to this. The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping.

I was puzzled until I realised that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man's singing. This convinced me of the emotional power of the music and of the possibilities offered by adding a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the tramp's nobility and simple faith. Although he died before he could hear what I had done with his singing, the piece remains as an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism.

The piece was originally recorded on Brian Eno's Obscure label in 1975 and a substantially revised and extended version for Point Records in 1993. The version which is played by my ensemble was specially created in 1993 to coincided with this last recording.

Gavin Bryars.

Here is a link to a Russian translation of the article and a short story inspired by the piece and written by one of Gavin's fans (also in Russian).

Note : The Green Ray

The Green Ray

(for soprano saxophone and orchestra)

The piece is dedicated to John Harle and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, who commissioned it with funds made available by South West Arts.

It makes use of the saxophone's ability to play long expressive melodic passages, and was written too, having seen the Sinfonietta perform, with some of its individual players in mind. Although played without a break, the piece does fall into a number of recognisable sections delineated by a change of tempo, or by a substantial shift of texture. For example, shortly before the end, there is a passage where the saxophone is accompanied by 21 solo strings - the entire string section playing divisi - followed by a coda, which contains simultaneous "laments" (for saxophone, cor anglais, French horn, and solo violin).

The Green Ray is the title of a romantic novel by Jules Verne, set in the West of Scotland, in which a peculiar atmospheric phenomenon plays the key part. A "green ray" is seen at sunset in certain latitudes, and in certain coastal conditions, just as the sun touches the horizon and, for a brief moment, the orange sun emits a green ray of light. In the Verne story the simultaneous sighting of the ray will seal a couple's love, and the attempts of a young man to do this are constantly frustrated (by sudden clouds, by a yacht passing along the horizon, and so on).

This part of Western Scotland is also the place where certain piping traditions originated. Male pipers practised in one cave on the seashore, females in another ( the "piper's cave" and the "pigeon's cave"). As they played their laments at twilight a triangulation, similar to that in the Verne story (male-ray-female) may well have occurred without the knowledge of the innocent participants, hence the sequence of simultaneous laments in the coda.

On one occasion I witnessed the green ray in Southern California. I was returning along the coast after having climbed up Mt.Tecate, on the top of which is a house, now empty, where Evans-Wentz translated The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Gavin Bryars.

Note : Adnan Songbook (1996)

Adnan Songbook (1996)

The songs in the Adnan Songbook set a group of eight Love Poems by the Lebanese writer Etel Adnan.

Etel left Beirut many years ago and now lives and works in California and Paris.
I collaborated with her on Robert Wilson's large scale operatic project, the CIVIL WarS in 1984, and one aria from that opera to words by Etel, "La Reine de la Mer", forms part of my cantata Effarene. We worked together, with a number of other performers and designers, in the isolated setting of the Monastery of La Sainte Baume in the mountains above Marseilles in a bitterly cold winter.

The first of the poems to be set was the fifth one which was written for Mary Wiegold and the Composers Ensemble in 1992. The first and second, sung by Sarah Leonard, were written in 1995, commissioned by the BBC for the 'Songbook' series as part of their 'Fairest Isle' season. The remainder were commissioned by the Almeida and written in 1996 for performance by Valdine Anderson with my ensemble and she gave the first complete performance in July 1996.

The instrumentation is a restrained one using only 6 players but with a combination of instrumental sonorities that characterise my ensemble: 2 violas, cello, double bass, electric guitar (doubling acoustic guitar) and bass clarinet (doubling clarinet). The vocal part, being for a high lyric soprano, was written for Valdine and in all cases the music is written with my own performers in mind. The bass-clarinet, for example, has long been one of my favourite instruments and I enjoy the possibility of its extreme ranges. With the electric guitar I generally prefer it to be played without attack, allowing sustained chords or melodic lines to complement those of the strings, and this grainy combination of electric guitar and low strings was one which I first used with Bill Frisell in After the Requiem (1990). The formation of the strings here provides in effect a kind of string quartet, transposed substantially downwards. For the last three songs the bass-clarinet moves to B flat clarinet, and the electric guitar changes to the classical acoustic instrument.

There are many cross-references between the songs, as there are between the poems, and three of them are extended by instrumental epilogues - viola for numbers 2 and 8, clarinet for number 6. The first two songs are played together without a break.

The Adnan Songbook is dedicated to my friends Jane Quinn and Martin Duignan.

Gavin Bryars.

Note : Adnan Songbook

Adnan Songbook

Text

I
I had a gypsy
with Indian Silver
all over her body

She had a
navel like the morning star
and eyes
like the meadows
of the sierras

She was a deer
and a trail
leading to an archetypal lake

One day the sun shone on her hair
and the forest caught fire
only the car broke down
by the curve of the road

And we slept on a hospital bed to rise again
like the Indian Rainbow

II
The sun came in
The pain went out
a window on the lone mountain

I
became
a tree decrucified
rendered
to
its roots.

2000 years of suffering redeemed
in a woman's two-days' flight
from paradise to paradise
we went with no mule
nor train
but with our hands and our eyes.

Note : The North Shore (1993)

The North Shore (1993)

This piece, originally for viola and piano, was written for Bill Hawkes and Nic Hodges to play at the opening of an exhibition of the work of James Hugonin* in Edinburgh. It has been subsequently expanded both in duration and instrumentation to give the present work for solo viola, strings and harp (or piano).

Through working with Bill Hawkes, and earlier with Alexander Balanescu, I have become more and more interested in the viola both in ensemble and as a solo instrument. Indeed I was originally to write a work for voice and viola for the exhibition but due to the unavailability of the singer I wrote this instrumental piece instead, retaining nevertheless the original intention of connecting the piece with a specific geographical region. I particularly like the relationship between the abstraction of Hugonin's paintings and the location where they are painted - the North East of England.

Having already written a number of vocal pieces that use Northumbrian texts (by Caedmon) I decided however to move a little further down the coast, to Whitby where I had spent summers as a child and particularly to the cliffs by St Hilda's Abbey. The North Shore, therefore, takes this austere location as its inspiration - the same as the descriptive narrative used for the vocal piece I subsequently wrote based on Bram Stoker's Dracula (From Mina Harker's Journal). It represents a kind of response to the "Idea of North" found in the work of Glenn Gould, as well as a reflection on the obsession of Jules Verne's Captain Hatteras who, in his final madness, would walk only towards the north.

The piece is dedicated to Debbie Mason.

Gavin Bryars.

* See Gavin Bryars' article about James Hugonin

Note : The Sinking of the Titanic (1969- )

The Sinking of the Titanic (1969- )

This piece originated in a sketch written for an exhibition in support of beleaguered art students at Portsmouth in 1969.

Working as I was in an art college environment I was interested to see what might be the musical equivalent of a work of conceptual art. It was not until 1972 that I made a performing version of the piece for part of an evening of my work at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.

During the next three years I performed the piece several times, including an American performance directed by John Adams in San Francisco, and in 1975 I made a recorded version for the first of the ten records produced for Brian Eno's Obscure label.

That recording formed the basis for most subsequent performances until I re-recorded the piece 'live' at the Printemps de Bourges festival in 1990 when the availability of an extraordinary space - the town's disused water tower dating from the Napoleonic period - and the rediscovery of the wreck by Dr. Ballard made me think again about the music. In any case the piece has always been an open one, being based on data about the disaster but taking account of any new information that came to hand after the initial writing.

All the materials used in the piece are derived from research and speculations about the sinking of the "unsinkable" luxury liner. On April 14th 1912 the Titanic struck an iceberg at 11.40 PM in the North Atlantic and sank at 2.20 AM on April 15th. Of the 2201 people on board only 711 were to reach their intended destination, New York. The initial starting point for the piece was the reported fact of the band having played a hymn tune in the final moments of the ship's sinking. A number of other features of the disaster which generate musical or sounding performance material, or which 'take the mind to other regions', are also included. The final hymn played during those last 5 minutes of the ship's life is identified in an account by Harold Bride, the junior wireless operator, in an interview for the New York Times of April 19th 1912

"...from aft came the tunes of the band..... The ship was gradually turning on her nose - just like a duck that goes down for a dive. I had only one thing on my mind - to get away from the suction. The band was still playing. I guess all of the band went down. They were playing "Autumn" then. I swam with all my might. I suppose I was 150 feet away when the Titanic, on her nose, with her afterquarter sticking straight up in the air, began to settle slowly.... The way the band kept playing was a noble thing. I heard it first while we were still working wireless, when there was a ragtime tune for us, and the last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebelt on, it was still on deck playing "Autumn". How they ever did it I cannot imagine."

This Episcopal hymn, then, becomes a basic element of the music and is subject to a variety of treatments. Bride did not hear the band stop playing and it would appear that the musicians continued to play even as the water enveloped them. My initial speculations centred, therefore, on what happens to music as it is played in water. On a purely physical level, of course, it simply stops since the strings would fail to produce much of a sound (it was a string sextet that played at the end, since the two pianists with the band had no instruments available on the Boat Deck). On a poetic level, however, the music, once generated in water, would continue to reverberate for long periods of time in the more sound-efficient medium of water and the music would descend with the ship to the ocean bed and remain there, repeating over and over until the ship returns to the surface and the sounds re-emerge. The rediscovery of the ship by Taurus International at 1.04 on September 1st 1985 renders this a possibility. This hymn tune forms a base over which other material is superimposed. This includes fragments of interviews with survivors, sequences of Morse signals played on woodblocks, other arrangements of the hymn, other possible tunes for the hymn on other instruments, references to the different bagpipe players on the ship (one Irish, one Scottish), miscellaneous sound effects relating to descriptions given by survivors of the sound of the iceberg's impact, and so on.

In addition, this new recording includes two different ensembles of children: one of girls, the other of boys (the presence of children on the ship adds greater poignancy to the disaster, especially when one looks at the statistics relating to survivors). One is a string ensemble made up of my two daughters, on cellos, with two of their friends on viola and cello, all of whom have been students of the London Suzuki Group. The other is a fine choir from Suffolk - the Wenhaston Boys Choir - which I encountered through my bass-maker Michael Hart and whose son sang with them for many years.

One of the features of the Bourges recording was the extraordinary acoustic space in which we played. The band were in the basement of the round (disused) water tower, the audience heard the music through Chris Ekers' sound system on the ground floor, and the empty top floor was used as an enormous reverberation chamber. The present recording adds the sound of other ambience spaces to this, including that of the swimming bath in Brussels where the piece was performed 'live' on a raft in 1990. Although I conceived the piece many years ago I continue to enjoy finding new ways of looking at the material in it and welcome opportunities like the present recording to look at it afresh.

Gavin Bryars.