Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Gavin Bryars 2004


Composer Gavin Bryars talks to Trish Murphy about his music prior to the concert by the Gavin Bryars Ensemble at Christ Church Cathedral on Saturday 15 May

Although he’s just turned 60, composer Gavin Bryars, widely regarded as one of the key icons of European modern music, is definitely not content to rest on his laurels. As well as a programme of some of his most recent work, his forthcoming concert at Christ Church Cathedral, at which the Gavin Bryars Ensemble make their Irish debut, includes the world premieres of  new work in his ‘8 Irish Madrigals Series’, based on the writings of JM Synge. “I wouldn’t have written these at the time, had it not been for this concert in Dublin”, he comments, adding with typical good humour, “It makes me feel very responsible about the work, and nervous as well – I mean taking Irish literature back to Dublin is a sort of dodgy thing.”  But guardians of the Synge legacy shouldn’t worry; Bryars comes across as a composer of the utmost integrity. Taking part in this concert are tenor John Potter, late of the Hilliard Ensemble, and Swedish soprano Anna Maria Friman, both frequent collaborators with Bryars, alongside the Gavin Bryars Ensemble, whom he describes as “a group of people I’ve worked with in various ways, some of them for more than 20 years; it’s people I’ve actually chosen to work with as performers, rather than those particular instruments; it’s their musical character that I love, so that has essentially formed the nature of the ensemble. Obviously I write things for lots of other groups, but if I’m working by choice I prefer to work with these friends who happen to be really superb musicians.”

Yorkshire-born Bryars started his musical career as a jazz bassist, working in the early ‘60s with the likes of Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley, and he performed at the Vancouver Jazz Festival as recently as 2002. It might seem like a long way from jazz to madrigals, a combination he agrees is “not very common”, but the way Bryars tells it, there has been a certain logic to that particular progression. “I started out doing all sorts of things, but eventually worked as a professional jazz and improvising player, and then moved into composition, and in a way I sort of learnt about composition by composing. I wrote my first opera really knowing little about opera, but found myself writing an almost five hour opera for the Opera of Paris and Lyon, and it was a very fast learning curve. By working with particular people I find I learn a lot from that, and I think any composer worth his salt has to be humble enough to accept that most performers know a darn site more about their instrument or their voice than you ever will. I just happen to have fallen into the company of a lot of early music singers, partly through writing operas, partly through working with them as specialist people, but a lot of early music people are interested in new music. That combination is a really interesting one, because you find that most early music people are very intelligent, they have to deal with sources which are very sketchy, very questionable often, so they have to bring a lot of invention and creativity and musical intelligence to working out just how they perform these rather sketchy manuscripts. If they bring that same kind of commitment and intelligence to a new piece then you get a level of collaboration which is unlike what you’d get with a more routine player.”

Given his close contact with early music people, does he also have an interest in early music? “Oh I do, I’ve always liked early music but I didn’t know it terribly well as a specialist subject, and got to know more once I started writing madrigals – I felt obliged to really know the repertoire. If you get to know more about Monteverdi and Gesualdo and all those people, and about the way they approached setting text, then you’re a little bit further down the line, and I have for most of the madrigals tended to use rather classic texts. In fact the madrigals that we’ll be doing in Ireland, the ‘Irish Madrigals’, are John Millington Synge’s translations of Petrarch which he did at the end of his life. This is a very special thing which I’ve done specifically for Dublin, because I thought it would be great to bring these back. He wrote it at the end of his life, while he was writing ‘Deirdre of the Sorrows’, it has this wonderful climate of melancholy and I thought, well if I’m going to do it anywhere, I should do it in Dublin first.”

Much of Bryar’s recent work has been for voices, something that will be reflected in his Dublin concert. “Writing for voices is something I’ve become more and more committed to. I’ve done three operas, and in doing that I got to know the different characters of voices. One has a general concept of the soprano or the bass or the tenor, but you realise that you’ve got some thirty or forty different varieties of each, there’s different kinds of timbres and different ways people approach sound, and you realise that voice is not a general concept it’s a very specific thing, and each person has a kind of unique sound; and the voice is of course probably the most personal form of musical utterance. You can’t hold a voice at arms length like you can a violin – it’s you, and if you’re having an off night that happens to the voice. Whereas I worked as a jazz bass player for many years, and as a bassist if I was feeling a bit rough I could still get through the night.”

For someone who has a huge catalogue of recorded work, live performance remains the most important element of Bryar’s music. “For me that’s what the essence of music is, it is essentially a live and rather social event. You’re dealing with a number of very real interactions in real time between people who are working together on stage, and people who are listening and there’s a kind of very dynamic process going on. In a sense recording is something of a second best. I’ve always avoided as far as I could working in film because it seems to me that there you freeze the music in one particular  form and it’s stuck forever. I’d much rather work in live ballet or opera where at least there’s that kind of frisson, that on a given night things might get out of gear or whatever, you can adjust things, someone will take something a different way one night and you’ll learn something. But if it’s frozen in one way then it’s stuck forever, there’s a danger of being too hooked on to the recording. At the same time I have been committed to making recordings because I’m well aware I can’t perform everywhere.”

The question regarding his favourite instrument is met with a chuckle and a somewhat unexpected reply: “Well, I have my least favourite instruments – the instruments I like least are the oboe and the bass guitar, I hate them. It’s almost pathological, so I try and avoid those if I can.” And what have those unfortunate instruments done to deserve such dislike? “The bass guitar probably because I was a jazz bassist, and I found that the bass guitar started to take over the jazz bass in the ‘60s. It’s sound has no soul, it has no kind of resonance, it’s a kind of entirely artificial hybrid, and I think it’s better for it to be burnt, frankly. The oboe I always find a rather kind of squawky mingey sort of instrument, there’s something about the sound of the oboe that I’ve never enjoyed, but the bass clarinet is one of my favourite instruments. Low strings, violas downwards, I really love, I think the combination of viola, cello, bass is my favourite sound.”

Despite his preference for the more mellow instruments, his music does have quite a bite, but it also has an underlying meditative quality that is at times irresistible. “I do naturally prefer music which is more reflective, and moves to a pace which is the listener’s pace, so there is a sense in which the listener can follow the unfolding of ideas rather more straightforwardly than if the ideas are flying about and you’ve got to go back and listen to it a thousand times. For example I always preferred playing jazz ballads, the slow pieces to the fast ones, because the choice of notes is so critical. If you’re playing very fast, you play a thousand notes and maybe 40 of them are not so good, whereas if you’re playing really slow, one wrong note is a nightmare. Things are either right or wrong, and at a slow pace that’s more exaggerated. There is a sense too in which a more reflective approach to contemporary music has become more prevalent in the last 20 years, with the music of Arvo Part and so on. People become aware that contemporary music doesn’t have to be fast, disjunctive, abrasive; it can take other directions. And not all I do is like that, for example if I’m writing an opera, then clearly there’s things in the dramaturgy which demand exaggeration, high pace, aggression – and I do that, but my general tendency is towards a more reflective music. Maybe it’s my temperament; maybe it’s old age creeping up. It’s always been there actually, so maybe I was born old!”

©TrishM 2014

Akram Khan 2002

Trish Murphy talks to Akram Khan, who performs at Project on Saturday 18 and Sunday 19May as part of International Dance Festival Ireland.

The Outstanding Newcomer to Dance Award 2000 from both the Critics Circle and Time Out Live; nominations for a Best Choreography Award by the Dance Critics Circle for 2001, and for a South Bank Dance Show Award for 2002 – Akram Khan is definitely the toast of the UK dance scene. But it doesn’t seem to have gone to his head; in fact he’s quite modest about his success. “It’s nice but it means very little to me. It’s not important, because people win awards, people don’t win awards –  it doesn’t matter, it’s what their work says. And for me it’s great, I go through it and I say, yes, thank you very much, and I’d like to thank this person and that person, but at the end of the day it doesn’t enhance my work. What enhances my work is what I learn, and the mistakes I make, so for me it’s not such a crucial element. For me what matters is if I’m happy with the work, or if I’m moving forward all the time, then it’s a good thing.”

His dance, which has garnered rave reviews – ‘fiercely intelligent dance’ from the Glasgow Herald; ‘mental and physical brilliance’, from the Daily Telegraph; ‘a phenomenon’, from the London Evening Standard; ‘a truly astonishing fusion of talents’, from The Observer – is rooted in the ancient Indian tradition of Kathak, a discipline he started training in at the tender age of eight. Brought up in south London, of Bangladeshi parents, it was his mother’s insistence that he have an understanding of his cultural inheritance that introduced him to the north Indian classical dance form Kathak. “It’s a story telling dance form, but I’m looking more at the abstract elements, the language of movement, and the sense of energy that is given out from Kathak. The direction of energy and technique is something I’m investigating, and also the musical element that Kathak encompasses – it encompasses north Indian music in a very strong way, particularly the complex rhythmical patterns.”

Despite these complex structures, it’s not a stylised form of dance. “It’s extremely mathematical and geometrical, but it’s not formal when you present it. The technical aspect when you’re going through training is really,” – and he repeats it for emphasis, “really, really precise, so precise it’s unbelievable. But when you present it, it’s exactly the opposite, because you let go of the technique. The technique isn’t the important aspect, it’s about the dancer and the dance. And we speak a lot on stage, we talk to the audience. It’s nearly like a lecture dance, very informal in that way. A large part of Kathak is improvised, and sometimes I don’t prepare anything.” Mind you, his approach to Kathak is probably quite different to what might be experienced in India, partly because of his cross-cultural upbringing – “I lived two lives really, which most of the Asian people do who are born and brought up in this country” – but also because of his contemporary dance studies, initially at de Montfort University and subsequently at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds.

There has been much talk about the way Khan has brought about a fusion of two very different dance forms, the traditional and the contemporary, but he doesn’t see it that way. “When I present purely Kathak, then I present Kathak, but in my own way. When it comes to my contemporary work, I wouldn’t call it necessarily a fusion, but I would say my contemporary work is informed by my Kathak training and by the Indian tradition. So in a way I’m not looking at fusion. For me what’s happened is, because I’ve been trained in Indian classical dance for so many years, and then many years down the line I decided to study contemporary dance at university, the body started getting confused, and started making decisions of its own. And my Indian classical dance teacher would say hold on, this is not purely Kathak any more; and my contemporary dance teacher would say this is definitely not contemporary dance. This kind of aesthetic, and the body making decisions of itself, was something that fascinated me, so I started improvising and creating material. So whenever I do contemporary, I will move in a very Indian classical dance way. Even though it’s the same movement executed, it is a completely different aesthetic and energy – so many different things about it.”

Dublin audiences will get a chance to see Khan’s exhilarating contemporary work including ‘Rush’, his first group piece, a trio inspired by paragliders in freefall, based, he explains, around nine and a half beats, the Indian time cycle. ‘Rush’ is performed alongside two solos, ‘Fix’ and ‘Loose in Flight’. There’s also a film version of ‘Loose in Flight’, a five minute low-budget piece they did for Channel 4. “It’s quite interesting seeing it on film, and then live, so we decided to keep that in.” The live version features a tabla player who is going to improvise on those famous nine and a half beats. “It’s nice for someone to demonstrate the intricacies of it.”

Khan has collaborated with a number of composers, among them Kevin Volans and Nitin Sawheny, who has written the music for ‘Fix’. How important is the composer to his work? “Crucial, because in Kathak the music does not exist without the dance, the dance does not exist without the music. In contemporary it’s slightly different, because silence can play a big role. But the relationship between the composer and the choreographer is extremely crucial, especially when we deal with such intricate rhythms - we rely on that music, and in a way they rely on the dance, so it’s an integral part.” He explains that he’s not interested in presenting Indian music or dance as such, and is quite scathing about some of his colleagues. “Artists from an Indian background or Indian training misunderstand or misinterpret what contemporary dance is about, but their version for me is very na├»ve”, and he goes on to cite the bizarre, if exaggerated notion of an Indian classical dance piece with Beethoven music. “The misconception is that in classical dance the boundaries are extremely clear, whereas in contemporary dance there are no boundaries; there are boundaries, but they’re a little cloudier. People from the Indian dance background that I’ve come across kind of feel that you can do anything, but you can’t; there are very strong boundaries, you just can’t see them.”

Not surprisingly, his work has been generating a lot of interest around Europe and in the US – as we speak, he’s in Germany in the middle of a very successful European tour. “What’s interesting for me with ‘Rush’ and ‘Loose in Flight’, everywhere we go so far, people always get shocked, because it’s like seeing movement in a very different way. Because in Europe what’s happening is there’s a lot of dance theatre, a real interest in multi-art collaboration, so actually dance is getting left behind in a way. In a place like France, which is so conceptual-based, or Belgium, suddenly they’re seeing movement again, but not in the same way. So the critics are being very, very positive towards dance itself.” Nevertheless, he seems slightly bemused and even a little put out by the hype surrounding his new piece ‘Kaash’ which premieres at the South Bank in a couple of weeks time. “Film stars are coming to see it – I don’t know where they heard about it; I mean they don’t even know me, I don’t even know them – this was even before I made the work!” It makes for a lot of pressure, and a lot of expectations, so he’s quite happy to be heading for Dublin. “Nobody knows me there, which is great!”

©TrishM 2014

Steve Reich 2006


Trish Murphy talks to Steve Reich, the featured composer in this year’s RTE Living Music Festival.

This year’s RTE Living Music Festival, which runs from Friday 17 to Sunday 19 February at the National Concert Hall, Project Arts Centre and the O’Reilly Theatre, focuses on the brilliant American composer Steve Reich, one of the world’s most influential and creative musical thinkers, and a cultural icon of the 20th centruy. Reich, who celebrates his 70th birthday this year, will be in Dublin for the festival, and his generous participation include’s a public interview with Radio One’s John Kelly and a composition seminar with a limited number of tickets for the public. Other highlights include an 11 hour marathon of six different concerts on Saturday 18, and a return visit by Reich specialists Ensemble Modern, who will perfom his sublime ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ and his most recently recorded work ‘You Are (Variations)’. Other works being performed include ‘City Life’ featuring the Crash Ensemble; ‘Three Movements” featuring the RTE NSO; ‘Triple Quartet’ and ‘Different Trains’ featuring the RTE Vanbrugh Quartet; and ‘Proverb’ featuring the National Chamber Choir. The festival also presents music by other leading contemporary composers including Louis Andriessen, Philip Glass, Arvo Part, John Adams and Morton Feldman.

Festival audiences will get to hear a huge selection of Reich's music, some 18 pieces in total, from his earliest work 'It's Gonna Rain', a piece for tape written in 1965, right up to 2004's 'You Are (Variations)' for voices and chamber orchestra. His music spans so many genres and his influence has been so wide-reaching that there is sure to be a fascinating mix of people attending the concerts. Is he surprised that his music has had, and continues to have such a broad appeal? "Well, I'm delighted. My success hasn't been overnight, it's been very very gradual, I think it's just gotten better as the years have passed. Each year seems to get better than the previous one, which is a wonderful thing. So I'm grateful and I'm delighted, but the surprise has been slow in coming."

Reich’s music can be exhilarating and energising, as in ‘ Violin Phase’ or ‘The Desert Music; or hypnotic and mesmerising, as in ‘Four Organs’; and sometimes it is both, as in ‘Music for 18 Musicians’. What determines the overall effect – is it the instrumentation, or does he have a preconceived idea before he starts? “When I’m writing a piece of music, it’s just me and the room, and starting at the beginning I have to figure out what instruments I’m writing for. I don’t write for orchestra for the last 20 years. I don’t really write for standard [groupings] like string quartet. When I work for string quartet I multiply them and have more than one. So I basically have to set up the instrumentation for each piece, and that says a lot about the piece right then and there. Are there any voices and if there are what are they singing? Then the text has to come. Once it is worked out, that text will have a whole lot of perspective on what the emotional thrust of the music will be, because the text demands that, it has demanded it of composers since we were living in caves. And I’m not different from anybody else in that respect, except I’m living now and I have a different set of influences and I represent a different generation. So of course the music’s going to come out differently.”

Reich’s choice of text has been quite varied, from the poems of William Carlos Williams, to Hebrew psalms, the words of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein or the taped voices of ‘Different Trains’. He doesn’t see it as particularly necessary that those words should be decipherable. “If you’ve heard Bob Dylan, most of the time you wouldn’t know what he was singing, If you’ve heard even Messiah you’d know they’re singing ‘Hallelujah’, the rest of the text you’d have to go and look at the libretto. I think basically what happens with music where text is involved, you hear somebody singing something, and maybe you can make out a few words and maybe you can’t. but if the music grabs you, if the music magnetises you, then you go and say hey, what are they singing? Then you go to the record jacket or what have you, and you see oh, they’re singing that. And then that tends to make the music still more interesting because you know what they’re singing about. And you judge it in two ways: a) just how it sounds; and b) how it sounds vis a vis the meaning. So it’s kind of like an added treat. But most of the time when people are singing you don’t know what they’re saying.” And he adds, “Of course in ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ they aren’t saying anything, they’re going boop boop boop, they’re scat singing like Ella Fitzgerald.” But in pieces like ‘Tehillim’, ‘The Desert Music’, ‘You Are Variations’, ‘Proverb’, ‘The Cave’: “It’s the music that comes first always and then on the whole if you’re interested you’ll go further. If you don’t care about the music, you don’t care what they’re saying.”

His vocal music in particular seems to have a very strong link with a much earlier sound – the achingly beautiful a capella opening section of ‘Proverb’ could almost be a piece of vocal polyphony from Renaissance times – creating at times a clarity rather than a density of sound. “Exactly. I’ve learnt more personally from music from 1750 and back, from let’s say  the 11th century to 1750, that’s where I’ve really learnt most of my techniques, and from Debussy onwards. But the middle period, which everyone thinks is the classical music period, basically has nothing to do with my music. I never listen to Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, it doesn’t exist in my musical life. For me I listen to Bach, I listen to Stravinsky, I listen to Bartok, I listen to John Coltrane. That’s where I’ve learnt my lessons from. And of course the kind of singers that I work with are people who in fact do sing Renaissance and Medieval music, and who also do commercials and scat singing and are at ease with a  microphone.”

So does he write differently for voice? “Absolutely. All music has to have some good melodic content, I’ve found as I get older”, he adds with a touch of irony, “a very simple but profound truth. When I’m writing a vocal piece, and I am right now, I’m writing a piece called ‘Daniel Variations’ which will be premiered in the Barbican in London in October and then comes to Carnegie Hall; it’s basically using texts from the book of Daniel from the Bible and some of the last words of the reporter Daniel Pearl who was murdered by Islamic fanatics in Khazikstan in 2002. So obviously the meaning of those words, as well as their sound and rhythm is going to have a very strong effect on the piece, as the psalm did in Hebrew in ‘Tehillim’, as William Carlos Williams did in ‘Desert Music’, as the interviews of the Israelis, Palestinians and Americans did in ‘The Cave’; as the voices in ‘Different Trains’ literally dictate, because there it’s the recording of the speaking voices and the melody of our speech and the melody of our singing that literally determine the melodic, and therefore to a large degree the harmonic content of ‘Different Trains’, which is one of the best pieces I ever did.”

Reich’s music tends to be built around a strong sense of pulse. In ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ he refers to that pulse as being the length of a breath, a wonderfully organic concept. “Well in that particular piece it certainly is. There’s two kinds of rhythm in ‘Music for 18 Musicians’. One kind is just a regular metric playing of percussion instruments to a steady pulse. The other kind is enunciating that pulse to the full breath of a bass clarinet or a singer, and that of course is measured by your breath, so that’s more like waves washing up on a shore, it’s more irregular, its longer.” Does that mean the piece will be different every time it’s performed? “Well to some extent, absolutely. How long those breaths are is in the score determined by ‘free’, in the sense of which one is counting on normal human beings taking a full breath, and of course that varies.”

Much of his earlier work is based around the concept of phasing, where two or more tracks of the same phrase are played first in unison and then increasingly out of synch, a technique that Reich discovered by chance when two tape recorders he was using happened to be playing at slightly different speeds. Might his music have taken a different direction if that happy accident hadn’t happened? “Well, let’s put it this way. If you’re poking around in a certain neck of the woods, something’s going to happen. If you’re listening to African drumming, if you’re listening to Balinese music, if you’re listening to John Coltrane, and all that stuff is hitting you, something’s got to go – it was in the air! All these things were out there. So, harmonic stasis, rhythmic complexity, these were in the air. And how it expressed itself, with me this kind of accident came up, and there I go!”

In works like ‘Cello Counterpoint’, or ‘Triple Quartet’, Reich uses a single music entity and dramatically augments the sound with tape, so ‘Cello Counterpoint’ actually contains 8 cello parts, and ‘Triple Quartet’ features 3 string quartets. “That whole idea is based on the idea that if you have a cello playing, you don’t really know what is what and in a sense it doesn’t matter, what you’re hearing is this web of raw sound, which is what I’m aiming for, and you can’t get that if you have, let’s say a cello and bassoon and electric bass, because they’re going to separate out. It’s like having one big gigantic instrument!” Steve Reich certainly sounds like he has had a lot of fun with music over the years – fellow composer John Adams describes him as being ‘intent on restoring the pleasure principal to contemporary music’. How does Reich feel about that? He laughs, “I accept!"

©TrishM 2014