Gavin Bryars - Biography
Emerging as a key figure in British art music during the 1970’s, Gavin Bryars occupies that rare space between experimentation and accessibility. Through pioneering free improvisation in the late 60’s to expanding the orchestral language by introducing non-traditional elements such as tape loops into his compositions, Bryars has never strayed far from foregrounding the emotional content of his writing. Exceedingly innovative but never shying away from the beautiful, his music has a grace and wit that has only grown over time.
Richard Gavin Bryars was born in Goole, a small English village near Yorkshire on January 16, 1943. He went on to study philosophy at Sheffield University in 1963. While at Sheffield, Bryars began playing jazz bass professionally in a group with legendary guitarist Derek Bailey and drummer Tony Oxley. The trio was absurdly named Joseph Holbrooke. After fairly traditional jazz beginnings, the group went on to explore a language of freely improvised music influenced by American jazz, but attempted to shrug off many of that genre’s standard trappings. Bailey would soon become one of the foremost practitioners of this style, performing and recording with many like-minded collaborators and constantly reaching for freer and less dogmatic ways of playing.
After the trio disbanded in 1966, with Bailey and Oxley moving to London to form the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Bryars became dissatisfied with improvisatory music. He traveled to the United States in order to study and work with composer John Cage. After several years, Bryars returned to England and was hired as a fine arts instructor at Portsmouth College of Art in 1969. It is at Portsmouth where Bryars would compose some of his most important and enduring work.
In an environment that saw him working with forward thinking artists and composers such as Cornelius Cardew and John White, Bryars made the first sketch in 1969 of what would become his first composition. Titled “The Sinking of the Titanic,” the idea for the piece was based around the story of the Titanic’s band continuing to play as the ship sank. Initially the piece was conceived of as conceptual art and Bryars did not intend for the work to be performed, but this changed in 1972 when he wrote the first performance score.
At this same time Bryars was critical in founding the now legendary Portsmouth Sinfonia. The Sinfonia was conceived of as a community orchestra that accepted anyone into its ranks as it strove to “embrace the full range of musical competence.” Bryars has said that he sought to liberate classical music from its grandiose cultural station with this group. Influenced by Cornelius Cardew’s populist ideas as well as the indeterminate compositions of John Cage, the Sinfonia proved to be a cult success, even allegedly selling out the Royal Albert Hall in 1975. The orchestra performed classical and popular music alike, with often hilarious and always intriguing results as evidenced on two releases, The Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays the Popular Classics (1973 Transatlantic) and Hallelujah!: Live at the Royal Albert Hall (1975 Transatlantic).
Among the Sinfonia’s members was Brian Eno, at the time a young visual art student. Eno was a performing member from 1970 to 1974, producing both of the Sinfonia’s recordings. Bryars and Eno became friends and this relationship found fruition in Eno signing the composer to his fledgling Obscure label in the early 70’s. The label’s first release was The Sinking of the Titanic (1975 Obscure) and stands as one of the classic Bryars recordings. Comprised of the two major works “The Sinking of the Titanic” and “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” the record, produced by Eno, is a sublime mix of lyrical minimalism, proto-ambient orchestration and unabashed tonal beauty.
“The Sinking of the Titanic” begins the record with dense tonal clusters of strings, shifting around muffled sustained notes and phrases. Gradually a piano motif and spectral recorded voices enter the watery mix, barely audible. It’s a haunting and emotional piece, extremely approachable but also subversive in form. The second piece on the record, “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” arguably Bryars’ most famous work, literally revolves around a tape loop of a homeless man singing a hymn. The unaccompanied vocal loop begins the piece, with the written arrangement slowly gaining volume and density until the end. The vocal itself is extremely affecting, the music serving to bolster the emotional charge of the man’s wavering yet hopeful voice. Both compositions are heavily influenced by Bryars’ work with Cage, as well as the music of other New York composers, Earle Brown and more directly, Morton Feldman.
Bryars would be included on two more Obscure releases, Ensemble Pieces (1975 Obscure) and Machine Music (1978 Obscure). The former included a performance of his composition “1, 2, 1-2-3-4” next to pieces by John Adams and Christopher Hobbs, while the latter features, “The Squirrel on the Ricketty-Racketty Bridge,” a work for eight guitars performed by Bryars, Eno, Derek Bailey, and Henry Cow guitarist, Fred Frith.
The last work Bryars would record for Obscure was also his first foray into the realm of opera. Working with librettist Fred Orton, Bryars composed Irma (1978 Obscure), which was staged by Tom Phillips with an orchestra conducted by Bryars. This began Bryars relationship with opera and so birthed two more pieces. “Medea” which was staged in Paris in 1984 by Robert Wilson and “Doctor Ox’s Experiment,” based on a Jules Verne story and staged in 1998 in London by renowned Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan.
In 1981 Bryars began a relationship with the Belgian label Les Disques du Crepuscule. A label with ties to the legendary Factory Records and a progressive aesthetic that combined rock and pop with art music and allusions to philosophy, it was a great fit for Bryars. His first record for Crepuscule was a collection of ensemble pieces directed by Bryars titled Hommages (1981 Les Disques du Crepuscule). Produced by Belgian composer Wim Meterns, the recording is typically beautiful with a resounding lushness and ease of performance. Conceptually a series of homages to composers as diverse as Bill Evans and Gustav Holst, the music is minimal but with a neo-classical lyricism, which became more prominent in Bryars work. One more recording for Crepuscule would follow, a lauded revised long version of The Sinking of the Titanic (1990 Les Disques du Crepuscule).
During the same period Bryars found time to record for acclaimed jazz and new music label ECM. The atmospheric work “First Viennese Dance” on Three Viennese Dancers (1994 ECM) started out as accompaniment to a scene from Robert Wilson’s opera Civil Wars, but was cut from the production. Utilizing tuned percussion and French horn, the piece creates a tug of war between a flowing sense of motion and hypnotic stasis. The record also includes “String Quartet No. 1” vigorously performed by the Arditti String Quartet and employing high register harmonics to great effect. Bryars himself performs on the “Prologue” and “Epilogue” pieces which bookend the recording, marking one of his finest records. After the Requiem (1991 ECM) followed. Featuring work performed by violinist Alexander Balanescu, guitarist Bill Frisell, saxophonist Evan Parker and Bryars himself on bass, among others. It is a captivating listen. Dedicated to the passing of a friend, the overall tone of the record is one of sadness and mourning.
The mid-1990’s saw Bryars revisit both “The Sinking of the Titanic” and “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” for the Point Music label. A long version of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1993 Point Music) featuring a climactic ending with Tom Waits singing along to the original taped vocal sold over a quarter million copies, making Bryars one of the best-selling new music composers. The next year saw yet another long version of his first composition, The Sinking of the Titanic (1994 Point Music). Renewed interest in these pieces served to further cement the composer’s influence on ambient and electronic music. In 1995, ambient and techno producer Aphex Twin remixed “The Sinking of the Titanic” as Raising the Titanic (1995 Point Music) and in 2007 an amazing performance of the same piece was recorded for the Touch label. This recording arguably stands as the most perfectly realized version of the piece. Featuring British turntablist Philip Jeck and Italian electro-acoustic duo Alter Ego, with Bryars on double bass, it is certainly the most textural interpretation of the work. Jeck’s manipulated records create a multi-layered backdrop of faded patinas and shifting whorls of static and sound that serve to alternately float and submerge the piece’s main motif. It is a perfect match to Bryars’ original conceit of the composition.
Bryars remained active throughout the late 1990’s and into the new century. He has written for the Balanescu Quartet (The Last Days, 1995 Argo Records), the Hilliard Ensemble (Cadman Requiem, 1998 Point Music), jazz bassist Charlie Haden and cellist Julian Lloyd Webber (Farewell to Philosophy, 1996 Point Records) and a new work for his own Gavin Bryars Ensemble, A Man in a Room, Gambling (1997 Point Records) was released. 2001 saw a major new work conceived for a Merce Cunningham dance performance titled Biped (2001 GB Records) on Bryars’ own GB Records imprint.
The music of Gavin Bryars has found resonance with many musicians across many genres, from modern classical to jazz, art-rock to contemporary electronica. It is possible that his elastic ability to push boundaries of form while writing music with deep beauty and emotional strength has afforded him a sincere universal appeal. The frequent reinterpretation of his earliest work and the popularity of his current music provide proof of this.