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Gavin Bryars at 80

Black and white photo of Gavin Bryars playing the double bass and James Woodrow on the guitar

If any composer deserves a label of ‘visionary’, it’s surely Gavin Bryars. 

Visionary in his seamless melding of jazz, minimalism and experimental ideas; or in his embrace of gentle melancholy, even sentimentality; or in daring to speak softly, and with unwavering elegance. Most visionary for many listeners, however, is Bryars’s ability to evoke some of the profoundest emotions, often using the simplest of musical means.

He has drawn from a rich heritage of British experimentalism, periods working with John Cage and Cornelius Cardew, years of performances as a jazz bassist, and eclectic passions for visual art and dance, neglected composers (think Grainger, Sorabji, Busoni), surrealism and linguistic games, all melded together in works that are sometimes tender, sometimes poignant, always exquisitely crafted. To celebrate Bryars’s 80th birthday, tonight’s concert brings together several of his smaller pieces from recent decades, alongside what must surely count as one of the most iconic British works created since the Second World War.

We begin with a small ensemble version of Bryars’s very first piece for solo piano, written as recently as 2010. Ramble on Cortona is a ramble of a kind imagined by one of Bryars’s most cherished composers. Australian-born maverick Percy Grainger used the term to describe what others might call a ‘paraphrase’ or even a ‘fantasia’, a freewheeling rethink of music that already exists. In Bryars’s case, that music comes from several of his own vocal laude, setting texts from 12th-century manuscripts found in Cortona, Italy. The piece opens with hymn-like harmonies, before moving through several contrasting sections, each exploring a different keyboard texture. A distinctive rising-scale idea serves to bring several of them to a gently luminous close.

Doctor Ox’s Experiment was Bryars’s second opera, premiered by English National Opera in 1998, and based on a novella by Jules Verne, adapted into a libretto by poet Blake Morrison. The mysterious Doctor and his sidekick Ygène carry out an experiment on the inhabitants of a sleepy Flemish village, injecting gas into the atmosphere so that the villagers’ lives speed increasingly out of control. Among the unwitting victims are young lovers Frantz and Suzel, and their name-alike rivals Fritz and Suzanne. Bryars brought together five duets from the opera in today’s revised concert work. In the first, the lovers sing that their respective romances should not be hurried, while the second represents the opera’s emotional heart, a devoted declaration of love between Frantz and Suzel. After the release of gas, however, Fritz has replaced Frantz in Suzel’s affections in Bryars’s third duet, while the fourth is a version of the mezzo-soprano aria that follows an apocalyptic explosion. The fifth duet forms the opera’s epilogue: Suzel wonders if her lover Frantz’s feelings will ever be the same, while Ygène calls to Ox from afar. Coincidentally, tonight’s concert falls precisely on the 50th anniversary of The Hilliard Ensemble’s first concert and this revised version is dedicated to David James who sang in that concert and in the opera.

Bryars wrote tonight’s next piece, After Handel’s Vesper, in 1995 for British-based harpsichordist Maggie Cole. If a piece by Handel called Vesper draws a blank, don’t worry: it’s an oratorio, but an entirely fictitious one, imagined by proto-surrealist writer Raymond Roussel in his 1910 novel Impressions d’Afrique, and created (as one of Roussel’s characters recounts) by the blind composer touching sprigs of holly as he descends a stairway. A memory of Roussel’s fantastical creation led Bryars to explore 17th- and 18th-century keyboard music, which he reimagines through effusive Frescobaldi-style improvisations and monolithic Bachian power in this brief and playful work.

Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet is one of Bryars’s profoundest but also simplest pieces, and its backstory has become the stuff of musical legend. Working with film maker Alan Power on a documentary about London rough sleepers in 1971, Bryars was left with a 26-second clip of an unknown homeless man singing a fragment of an equally mysterious song (neither have ever been identified). The tiny sliver of music captured the composer’s imagination: while across the Atlantic Steve Reich was transforming similar found material into driving minimalist workouts in pieces such as Come Out, Bryars created what he calls ‘a gradually evolving orchestral accompaniment that respected the tramp’s nobility and simple faith’, one that expands and grows imperceptibly richer on every repetition. The hypnotic, entrancing result becomes virtually a musical symbol of spiritual yearning, one that also links together the half-century-old recorded voice and the live musicians of 2023 in comradeship and compassion.

In Bryars’s own words, the closing Epilogue from Wonderlawn is ‘a long, extended melody, a kind of lullaby: very, very simple’. It’s also one of his most simply beautiful creations, an expanded version of the original Epilogue from his 1994 full-evening dance score Wonderlawn, a collaboration with choreographer Laurie Booth. A hushed introduction sets out the piece’s reflective harmonic world, with strings echoing the electric guitar’s harmonies, before the viola’s long, arching melody brings the concert to a contemplative close.

© David Kettle

Programme and performers

Gavin Bryars Ramble on Cortona
Duets from Doctor Ox’s Experiment

After Handel’s Vesper
Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet
Epilogue from Wonderlawn

Gavin Bryars Ensemble
David Wordsworth
Sarah Gabriel soprano
David James countertenor
Mahan Esfahani harpsichord
Addison Chamber Choir


Artist biographies

Audience in the hall

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