Blue Rendezvous à la Turk
[Rossini's Il Turco in Italia, Los Angeles Opera]
Knock, Akhnaten, At Heaven's Door
[Philip Glass's Akhnaten, Long Beach Opera]

A Ramble on Gavin Bryars

Solway firth

On any given day over the past five years or so, if asked to name my favorite living composer, there is every likelihood that my answer would be: Gavin Bryars.  That being the case, it is a surprise to me that I have never written about him here before, apart from a single reference in connection with the late Merce Cunningham.  Time to remedy that omission, says I.  

  • This post can also be taken as a long-delayed response to the question posed by A.C. Douglas back in late 2009: "OK, Who the Hell is Gavin Bryars?"  I've known the answer for a good long while, but never written it down.

The impetus or excuse for my finally posting on Bryars is a newly released collection built around the premiere of his Piano Concerto -The Solway Canal in the company of two other pieces that turn out to be the entirety of Bryars' work for solo piano.  Released through Naxos, the recording features Ralph van Raat at the piano with, for the concerto, the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic and Capella Amsterdam under the direction of Otto Tausk.  I will return to Mr. van Raat in due time below.


Gavin Bryars emerged in the early 1970's, with avant-garde credentials to burn.  His preferred personal instrument is the double bass, and for a time he moved in the heady jazz circles around guitarist Derek Bailey.  On the more classical side of the musical ledger, he put in time working with John Cage in New York before connecting with Cornelius Cardew back in London.  In his own right as a composer, Bryars drew notice when the initial release on Brian Eno's (short-lived but important) Obscure label consisted of what remain (largely via later versions) two of his best known works: The Sinking of the Titanic and Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet.  In retrospect, Bryars' involvement in the ten Obscure discs is arguably second only to Eno's own: Bryars' compositions appear on four of them, and he conducts or plays on at least two more.  He is credited as co-arranger, with Eno, of the three deconstructed versions of Pachelbel's Canon in D that form Side 2 of Discreet Music, the first recording by Eno in the now-inescapable "ambient" music style.

As the Obscure work suggests, 1970s-era Gavin Bryars was a composer working in the non-linear, frequently non-tonal, systems-driven or minimalist style of the day.  The Sinking of the Titanic, in its original form, was more of a sound environment than a "composition" in the traditional sense: ship's bells, engine noises and recorded interviews with Titanic survivors fade in and out as a chamber ensemble plays distorted versions of the hymn tune ("Autumn") reportedly played by the ship's orchestra as the vessel went down.  From those indeterminate, abstracted elements, Titanic emerges as a surprisingly emotional, elegiac work.  Bryars has revisited and retooled it on several occasions for differing sorts of ensembles: the ship itself having been located and explored since the original version, he has characterized the piece now in part as the sound of the orchestra reemerging from its resting place below.  The Sinking of the Titanic can run an hour or more in length, but my personal favorite is the compact 15 minute version Bryars devised in 1985 for the Smith Quartet.  Via the rather over-large player below, you can listen to a live recording of a 2008 Titanic performance by the Wordless Music Orchestra, under the direction of Brad Lubman: 


Gavin Bryars' post-1970s music abandons most of the trappings of the stereotypical avant-garde and has moved into a more solidly neotraditional/postromantic realm, embracing tonality and even melody, albeit with a sufficient quantity of edgy bits and "wrong" notes to mark the work as contemporary.  One of the standard tropes of speculative fiction is the existence of infinite parallel universes, some of which are exactly the same as our own in every way but one: for example, a universe in which redheaded people have blue eyes and only blue eyes, or in which dogs purr and cats chirp, but which in every other way is the same as what we know. Gavin Bryars' music comes from one of those nearby parallel worlds, sounding perhaps like something we have heard before until, on closer inspection, it is revealed as something slightly removed from our experience.

There is a pervasive slightly melancholy tone throughout Bryars' music.  Album covers for collections of his work seem to favor cold weather and misty Hebridean distances.  His is a northern muse, at home in the chill and the damp.

When Ezra Pound dictated to the Moderns that they should "make it new," he did not have in mind only the creation of "new" work in modes never seen or heard before.  He also encouraged, particularly in his own work, a sort of aesthetic archaeology by which older forms, such as the songs of the troveurs, were brought into the contemporary light and seen as if for the first time.  The project of Gavin Bryars is on those same lines: he very consciously engages in an ongoing dialog with music history and traditions, whether by picking the lint of ages from potentially outworn materials and placing them before the listener afresh—as in his ongoing exploration of madrigals and medieval laude songs or his In Nomine (after Purcell), in which Purcell's gorgeous 6-Part In Nomine is folded origami-like in upon itself—or by cross-referencing seemingly unrelated streams of musical thought—By the Vaar, an "extended adagio" for double bass and orchestra, includes a segment of improvisation and was written for jazz bassist Charlie Haden, and the object of homage in the double piano piece My First Homage is Bill Evans.  


Although his music tends to the relentlessly serious, there is a place in it for humor and the absurdity of odd juxtapositions, as in his deliciously odd collaboration with the late Spanish artist Juan Muñoz on A Man in a Room, Gambling .  The piece consists of ten five-minute segments, originally intended to be broadcast on the radio at odd hours of the night.  In each segment Muñoz, as our host, teaches a new skill in the handling of playing cards, specifically how to manipulate the cards to the "gambler's" advantage by dealing from the bottom, secreting extra cards for himself, and so on; how to cheat, to put it bluntly.  Each lesson is accompanied by music for a five-piece string ensemble.  The music is earnest, even somber, seemingly unrelated to the sordid little tips being offered up by the host. Listening to the "broadcasts" is disorienting, as attention shifts back and forth between the two parallel performances, not wanting to miss the "good parts" of either and trying, largely in vain, to reconcile the two.  In 2008, the Tate Modern presented a Juan Muñoz retrospective including performances of A Man in a Room by the composer and members of the Gavin Bryars Ensemble, and included this video preview of the piece: 


Now, then: To return to the ostensible catalyst of this post, let's consider the new Ralph van Raat piano disk.  As mentioned above, this disc collects the entirety of Bryars' compositions for solo pianist.  He has written for piano previously, but those works have generally called for more than one piano or more than one pianist, or both.  (Two pianos, eight hands?  Try Out of Zaleski's Gazebo, a very witty piece combining churning minimalist patterns with recurring and unexpected intrusions of a theme drawn from Percy Grainger.  There is video of a performance here, marred somewhat by muddy sound quality.) So, at this writing, the Bryars solo piano works are three in number: a Piano Concerto, subtitled The Solway Canal after one of the two poems whose texts are incorporated in it; a new solo piano piece, Ramble on Cortona, written for van Raat in conjunction with the composition of the concerto; and a piano revision of a 1995 piece originally written for harpsichord, After Handel's Vesper.

Solway canal cover
The centerpiece here is obviously the concerto, which received its premiere in February, 2010.  The work was commissioned in part by the Borletti-Buitoni Trust, which produced this precursor video at the time of the commission in 2006:

Four years later, in an essay following the premiere, van Raat writes:

I think the Piano Concerto by Gavin Bryars takes on a unique place in piano concerto literature.  First of all, because it has a rather uncommon orchestration of piano solo, orchestra and choir.  Second, because the piano takes on a role which is quite radical: virtuosity is not anymore defined by playing as many notes as possible, but by another element which I think is, at times, overlooked by musicians and composers: that of complete 'control' over the instrument.  Control, in my opinion, not only means being able to control technically difficult passages, but also means being able to play just a few notes as one wishes, i.e. with the right colour, tone, intention and dynamics.  I think the concerto is challenging, because one cannot hide himself or herself in technical display.  Here it comes down to playing relatively few notes in such a way, that they start to mean something, and that they move people. Gavin asks for an intrinsic way of music making, which is averse from musical acrobatics. Especially nowadays, in which very flashy television and radio make many people used to needing just very short attention spans, this piece forms an interesting counterpart, which we generally are not used to anymore.

And that sums it up nicely.  The Solway Canal is not a flashy showpiece for the soloist, spattering runs and crescendos round the hall, but an extended collaboration between soloist and ensemble, with long, organic lines of thought twining through and about it.  The piece is not explicitly programmatic, but it has been rightly compared to watching a passing, shifting landscape or perhaps to slowly walking the length of a scenic panorama.  As van Raat notes, the scoring is not only for orchestra and piano, but also for a male chorus.  (Bryars has written frequently for chorus, and similarly incorporates one into his Double Bass Concerto, subtitled "A Farewell to St. Petersburg.")  The chorus, at three junctures in the single-movement work, sings texts drawn from two sonnets—"The Solway Canal" and "A Place of Many Waters"—by the late Scottish poet, Edwin Morgan (d. August, 2010), and it is perhaps those stern and watery vistas that are best evoked by this music.  Throughout its darkly thoughtful progress this is a Piano Concerto that holds attention moment to moment with a sense that we cannot anticipate what will come next, other than to know with confidence that it will charm and satisfy.

  • Bryars has posted the texts of Morgan's sonnets on his exemplary website, but that site seems to be undergoing maintenance at this writing, rendering those pages temporarily unavailable except in their cached version.
  • Here, with the chorus in play, is a segment from the premiere performance recorded at Muziekgebouw Amsterdam (courtesy Borletti-Buitoni Trust).Ralph van Raat - Bryars Piano Concerto - Premiere (excerpt)
  • Those with the skills to do so can examine portions of the score here.

With no orchestra or chorus to flesh them out, the two solo piano pieces included here make room for a bit more ostentation and flourish, but still marked by a laudable degree of restraint.  

As mentioned above, After Handel's Vesper was originally written for harpsichord.  It is "after" Handel in both the temporal sense and the sense of operating under the earlier composer's influence. Intriguingly, Bryars' notes on the piece reveal that the "Vesper" on which it is modeled is a fictional one, referred to in a novel by Raymond Roussel, in which Handel composes it "by a curious set of chance operations involving sprigs of holly and coloured ribbons." Bryars did not use chance operations in the composition of his piece, but consistent with period practice he has left the performer room to improvise ornamentation as he or she is moved to do so.

Percy Grainger coined "ramble" as his term for variations on an existing theme, and Gavin Bryars adopts it for his Ramble on Cortona.  The title refers to the Cortona manuscript [Il Laudario di Cortona], a 13th century collection of laude, a form of unaccompanied song usually on a sacred subject.  Bryars has been setting selections from the manuscript for a variety of vocal and instrumental combinations in recent years, and is apparently bent on eventually setting all of the fifty-odd laude it contains.  For his "Ramble," he selected a handful of themes from earlier vocal settings, transferred them to the piano and set about working variations upon them.  The result is the equivalent of examining a fine gem through a series of lenses, fresh facets emerging with each new refraction.

If I wanted to pick just one Gavin Bryars recording as an entry point for someone not already partial to Bryars' music, it would likely be the CBC Radio Orchestra performances collected on I Have Heard It Said That a Spirit Enters, which—not nearly so portentous as its title suggests—gives a slightly better sense of Bryars' full range and which includes his revelatory meditation on the so-called Porazzi Fragment of Wagner.  That being said, this new Solway Canal collection has much to recommend it as a starting point as well, and will certainly provide ample satisfaction for those of us already converted to the astringently seductive pleasures Gavin Bryars' music has to offer.


Bonus Video 1: The Greek premiere of the original harpsichord version of After Handel's Vesper.


Bonus Video 2: The premiere of Bryars' otherwise unrecorded recorder sextet, A Family Likeness.  Bryars is the only major contemporary composer I know of who takes the oft-dismissed recorder seriously as an instrument.  A recorder features as well in Bryars' fascinating little piece Sub Rosa, which has been recorded by the Italian ensemble Sentieri Selvaggi.


Top Photo: Port Carlisle and Solway Firth, with the entrance to the old canal to Carlisle, © Copyright Nigel Homer and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence, via



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