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Version for 13 solo basses
First performance Gary Karr and members of the Karr Kamp
Conductor Gavin Bryars
Basses Loaded, Philip T Young Hall, University of Victoria
July 2007

Note : The Porazzi Fragment (1999)

The Porazzi Fragment (1999)

for 21 solo strings

Commissioned by the Primavera Orchestra, and designed for the orchestra's string formation (11 violins, 4 violas, 4 celli and 2 basses), this piece for strings alone originates in an enigmatic, and unpublished, 13 bar musical theme by Wagner which appears to have been started during the period  when he was composing the second act of Tristan und Isolde, but only finished shortly after the completion of Parsifal in Palermo. At this time Wagner was staying in the palace of Prince Gangi - in the Piazza dei Porazzi - in order to escape the noise outside his hotel the Grand Hotel des Palmes - the same hotel in which Raymond Roussel committed suicide in 1933.

The first 8 bars, of which the eighth was crossed out, date from 1858-9. Yet it was only on March 2nd 1882, in Palermo, that Cosima witnessed his completion of the melody. The crossing out of bar eight and the remaining bars are all written in the same violet ink which he used for the full score of Parsifal. It is also almost certain that this was the music that he was reported to have been playing on the piano the night before he died in February 1883 at the Palazzo Vendramin Calergi in Venice, now the municipal casino and which, as Cosima's diary notes, represents his "last musical thoughts".

The original Wagner music emerges eventually towards the end of the piece - rather in the manner in which the funeral march from Beethoven's 'Eroica' Symphony emerges at the end of Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen (also for solo strings)

Dedicated to my wife, Anya

Gavin Bryars

Duration: c. 14’
Dedication: my wife Anya
Instrumentation: 21 solo strings (11 violins, 4 violas, 4 celli, 2 basses)
First Performance: Primavera Orchestra, directed by Paul Manley, Canterbury December 1st 1999

Radio Play by Gavin Bryars and Blake Morrison, loosely based on the Jules Verne short story "Master Ray Sharp and Miss Me Flat", produced by Judith Kampfner

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Note : #1

The Radio Play

The original story Master Ray Sharp and Miss E Flat is set in the 19th century in a remote Swiss village but this new version is transposed to the present day, and to a location in a remote Scottish island. 

In Verne's Swiss village there is a church taht had an organist who was known far and wide. As the organist gets old and deaf he stops playing and the church organ falls silent. One day, organ music is heard from the church and it transpires that a mysterious Hungarian organist/composer has arrived in the village. We eventually learn that he wishes to develop a new organ registration, the "voix d'enfants". He visits the village school and explains to the assembled children that each child has his or her own note which is peculiar to them and when they sing that note, there is a special resonance in their bones. He gets the children to sing, and makes a note of which pitch is peculiar to them.

There are two children who appear to sing the same note - one boy sings D sharp, and a girl sings E flat. However, he explains, that while these notes appear to be the same, they are arrived at from different directions in the harmonic cycle of fifths. Instead of getting back to the original note when you go round the cycle, there is a slight difference so that E flat and D sharp are not quite the same  - the difference is the "Pythagorean comma"...

The radio play reworks the story and includes music for organ and for children's choir. The music was recorded at Oakham School with the Jerwoods Choir, conducted by Peter Davis, with organist Thomas Chatterton






Instrumentation: 1 or 2 prepared pianos.
Duration: c.25 minutes
Published in EMC Keyboard Anthology.
First performance: Purcell Room, London, 9 October 197O

Instrumentation: Indeterminate (possible materials include stereo tapes, string ensemble, percussion, low brass, brass quartet, bass clarinet, cassette tapes of speech, keyboard, 35 mm slides, visible sound effects, music box).
Duration: versions of 25’, 35’, or 1 hour (plus)
Published in Soundings 9 (USA).First performance: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 1972

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 and during the next three years I performed the piece several times. In 1975 I made a recorded version for the first of the ten records produced for Brian Eno's Obscure label. In 1990 I re-recorded the piece 'live' at the Printemps de Bourges festival 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. This version forms the basis for the 1994 recording on Point.

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 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 was identified in an account by Harold Bride, the junior wireless operator

"...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...  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...  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 the principle element of the music and is subject to a variety of treatments and it forms a base over which other material is superimposed. 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 to look at it afresh.

Duration: 15'
Dedication: "to the cellists in my life"
Instrumentation: cello and piano
First performance: Sophie Harris, cello; Kathryn Page, piano
Michael Tippett Centre, Bath March 1995

Note : The South Downs (1995 revised 2003)

The South Downs (1995 revised 2003)

Of all musical instruments the lower strings are probably my favourites. Indeed they are in my family: I am a bass player, my two daughters are cellists and hearing my mother's cello practice is the earliest sound I recall as a child. In my own ensemble the strings are predominantly low - viola, cello and bass. This piece is the fourth in a series for solo instrument and accompaniment (piano and/or orchestra) in which each one has a title with a personal geographical connotation. The first, The Green Ray, for soprano saxophone, relates to western coasts (Scotland, North America); the second, The North Shore, for viola, refers to facing north from St. Hilda's Abbey at Whitby;  the third, for bass oboe, called The East Coast, alludes both to the east coast of Yorkshire and to the Bay of Fundy in Canada.

Those pieces, facing in opposite directions as it were, are in effect mirror images of each other, though coloured by the character of their implied location. Thus the bass oboe concerto is a cooler and more bleak version of The Green Ray, both being for reed instruments. With the two string pieces The North Shore's implied austerity is balanced by the cello piece's warmth. The area of the South Downs in question is, in fact, that around Birling Gap in Sussex, a location that means a great deal to me. The original verison of this piece was for cello and piano but this new version was specially written for my ensemble and is for solo cello, bass clarinet, electric guitar and double bass.

Instrumentation: 1 player, 2 guitars (or multiples of this)
Published in EMC Rhythmic Anthology
First performance: Studio recording Incus Records (Derek Bailey guitars).
First live performance: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, December 1972 (Derek Bailey/ John Tilbury, 2 players 4 guitars).

Ded. Steve Reich at 70
Text: George Bruce
Duration c. 20'
Four voices (S, A T Bar), string quartet, optional improvising turntablist
First performance: Theatre of Voices, dir Paul Hillier, Kronos Quartet, Philip Jeck
Barbican Theatre, November 2006

Note : The Stones of the Arch (2006)

The Stones of the Arch (2006)

for four voices and string quartet

This piece for two quartets - one of voices, one of strings - was commissioned by the Barbican Centre for its festival celebrating Steve Reich's 70th birthday. The instrumentation came about because of the practical concern to use players who were already involved in the festival (who also happened to be known to me personally). The choice of text however, as for any vocal work, was most critical. I decided not to use the Old Testament, which might have been a more obvious source - although I have set various Psalms, lines from Proverbs and parts of Genesis. Instead I chose two poems by the Scottish poet George Bruce, whose work I discovered when setting sonnets by Edwin Morgan.  Here the second poem, The Stones of the Arch written in 2000 when the poet was approaching his ninetieth birthday, is a "reconsideration" of the first, A Gateway to the Sea, from fifty years earlier. It was George Bruce's idea of working on something from the past by creating something new, rather than re-write or edit, that I found particularly attractive, especially as the poems are so different.

In the music I also sought to avoid any direct reference to Steve's work, although there are a couple of figures in the cello that could be seen as allusive, and the piece clearly does involve some repetition. I preferred to acknowledge, rather, the fact that neither Steve nor I are constrained by our past work but, at the same time, are inevitably conditioned by it to some extent. The two poems make up the two parts of the piece, which is played without a break.

There is an optional part for a solo improviser working ideally with simple live electronics. My choice for the first performance was Philip Jeck, who works with  vinyl records on old gramophone turntables and with whom I had worked on a performance of The Sinking of the Titanic in Venice. The improvisation starts before the score proper and overlaps the opening section up to the first vocal entry. Thereafter he is free to play at any time but is more prominent in the interlude between the two poems, and at the end.

The piece is dedicated to Steve Reich.

© Gavin Bryars

Note : A Gateway to the Sea (1)

A Gateway to the Sea (1)

At the East Port, St Andrews

Pause stranger at the porch: nothing beyond

This framing arch of stone, but scattered rocks

And sea and these on the low beach

Original to the cataclysm and the dark.


Once one man bent to the stone, another

Dropped the measuring line, a third and fourth

Together lifted and positioned the dressed stone

Making wall and arch; yet others

Settled the iron doors on squawking hinge

To shut without the querulous seas and men.

Order and virtue and love (they say)

Dwelt in the town - but that was long ago.

Then the stranger at the gate, the merchants,

Missioners, the blind beggar with the dog,

The miscellaneous vendors (duly inspected)

Were welcome within the wall that held from sight

The water's brawl. All that was long ago.

Now the iron doors are down to dust,

But the stumps of hinge remain. The arch

Opens to the element - the stones dented

And stained to green and purple and rust.


Pigeons settle on the top. Stranger,

On this winter afternoon pause at the porch,

For the dark land beyond stretches

To the unapproachable element; bright

As night falls and with the allurement of peace,

Concealing under the bland feature, possession.

Not all the agitations of the world

Articulate the ultimate question as do these waters

Confining the memorable and the forgotten;

Relics, records, furtive occasions - Caesar's politics

And he who was drunk last night:

Rings, diamants, snuff boxes, warships,

Also the less worthy garments of worthy men.


Prefer then this handled stone, now ruined

While the sea mists wind about the arch.

The afternoon dwindles, night concludes,

The stone is damp unyielding to the touch,

But crumbling in the strain and stress

Of the years: the years winding about the arch,

Settling in the holes and crevices, moulding.

The dressed stone. Once one man bent to it,

Another dropped the measuring line, a third

And fourth positioned to make wall and arch

Theirs. Pause stranger at this small town's edge -

The European sun knew those streets

O Jesu parvule; Christus Victus, Christus Victor,

The bells singing from their towers, the waters

Whispering to the waters, the air tolling

To the air - the faith, the faith, the faith.


All this was long ago. The lights

Are out, the town is sunk in sleep.

The boats rocking at the pier,

The vague winds beat about the streets -

Choir and altar and chancel are gone.

Under the touch the guardian stone remains

Holding memory, reproving desire, securing hope

In the stop of water, in the lull of night

Before dawn kindles a new day.


Note : The Stones of the Arch

The Stones of the Arch

A reconsideration of the poem 'A Gateway to the Sea' (1950)


Once, I thought, once these stones are named,

cut, dressed given their place, one upon one

to form the arch of grey sandstone (now sable)

that they had entered into a compact with man -

they were on our side, accomplices in our order

accepting the verdict of human history,

as if they never were what once they had been,

nor would return to that incomprehensible no-time,

whose time we cannot tell or keep, nor measure

by the pulse. It is pretence to count light years.

Without consciousness they make no light,

no sound in their passage. Words cannot reach them.

Whose Word is theirs? What logic do they promulgate?

When all the words are burst and the silver stars

are stones and the stones dissolve to dust,

as is our dissolution, and we have no time to keep

and the knowledge to which we should aspire,

abdicating the self, is that we know nothing.

The stone face of this arch deceives.

It does not belong to us. It belongs

to the wildness of the air and water,

to that other where there is no word for love.

Let us then unlabel these stones.

Let the sea swallow them.

Let them be with that other universe

where no time is kept.

In the transparent moment of unknowing

will we be entered by the other,

or will the other receive us?

George Bruce

Text: Edwin Morgan
Duration: c. 6'
Male Choir
First performance Estonia Symphony Hall, Tallinn January 30 2008
Estonian National Male Choir, conductor Kaspars Putnins

Note : The Summons

The Summons

The year was ending, and the land lay still.

Despite our countdown, we were loath to go,

kept padding along the ridge, the broad glow

of the city beneath us, and the hill

swirling with a little mist. Stars were right,

plans, power; only now this unforeseen

reluctance, like a slate we could not clean

of characters, yet could not read, or write

our answers on, or smash, or take with us.

Not a hedgehog stirred. We sighed, climbed in, locked.

If it was love we felt, would it not keep,

and travel where we travelled? Without fuss

we lifted off, but as we checked and talked

a far horn grew to break that people's sleep.


Edwin Morgan (from Sonnets from Scotland)

Strings (solo violin, 4 violas, 4 celli, 2 basses)
Duration c. 27'
For the ballet by David Dawson
First performance: National Ballet Flanders, Antwerp, January 12 2010
Conductor, Benjamin Pope

Note : The Third Light(2010)

The Third Light(2010)

Production Photo: Royal Ballet of Flanders

Choreographer: David Dawson