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

No comments:

Post a Comment