updated 17 April 2023
© Kate Mount

Gavin Bryars

British composer and double bassist born 16 January 1943 in Goole, Yorkshire.

 Gavin Bryars took piano lessons until the age of 18. He then discovered jazz and began learning the double bass while studying philosophy at the University of Sheffield. With guitarist Derek Bailey and drummer Tony Oxley, he formed the Joseph Holbrooke Trio in 1964, a leading European free jazz group. In 1966, he turned away from both double bass and improvisation to focus on composition. He studied with John Cage in the United States and with two figures of British experimental music, the composer Cornelius Cardew and the pianist John Tilbury. Starting in 1969, he taught at Portsmouth College of Art, where he was one of the founders of the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an orchestra mixing musicians and non-musicians and whose iconoclastic re-readings of the classical repertoire were unexpectedly successful. In 1972, he took over the management of the Experimental Music Catalogue founded by Christopher Hobbs, until its closure in 1981. His first compositions were influenced by Fluxus and conceptual art; they often incorporate magnetic tape and consist in text instructions for the performer to execute. In 1975, a recording of The Sinking of the Titanic (1969) and Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971) was released on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label, quickly bringing Bryars international fame. Bryars was very close to the composers of the minimalist movement. Following their example, he founded his own ensemble in 1981, and in 2001 he created his own record label, GB Records.

The beginning of the 1980s marked a new point in Bryar’s career. In his first opera, Medea, staged in 1984 by Bob Wilson at the Opéra de Lyon, Bryars expressed his love for the post-Romanticism of Richard Strauss, Ferruccio Busoni, and Alexander Zemlinsky. From then on he undertook to revisit the nine centuries of the history of Western music, from Pérotin and Palestrina to Anton Webern, Tōru Takemitsu, and Bill Evans, via Franz Schubert, Charles-Valentin Alkan, Richard Wagner, and Camille Saint-Saëns. His approach was less postmodern than “posthistorical,” in David Christoffel’s word. As an example of Bryar’s work in traditional genres, his String Quartet No. 1, subtitled “Between the National and the Bristol,” was premiered in 1985 at the Vienna Festival by the Arditti Quartet, and recorded the following year for the ECM label on the CD Three Viennese Dancers. At the end of the decade, his encounter with the musicians of the Hilliard Ensemble inspired numerous vocal pieces, from Glorious Hill (1988) and Cadman’s Requiem (1989) to his first book of Madrigals (1998-2000), which are based on Petrarchan sonnets and now comprise six collections.

In 1986, Bryars became a professor at Leicester Polytechnic (now De Montfort University), where he had founded the music department eight years earlier. He stopped teaching in 1994 (though he lectured at the Darlington College of Arts from 2006 to 2009) so that he could devote his energy to composing. He signed a contract with the publisher Schott that same year. Since then, his profuse and protean work, as erudite as it is iconoclastic, has developed in many unexpected directions. His output today includes more than 200 works, prominent among which are his chamber music and vocal music — imbued with his passion for the repertoires of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Bryars composed a cycle of fifty-four Laudes, begun in 1998 and based on the Laude Cortonese, an Italian manuscript from the second half of the twelfth century.

From among his many other compositions, it is worth mentioning his cello concerto Farewell to Philosophy (1995); Adnan Songbook (1996), which uses poems by Etel Adnan; New York (2004), a double concerto that inaugurated a rather friction-filled collaboration with the Percussions Claviers de Lyon; The Stones of the Arch (2006), composed for Steve Reich’s 70th birthday; and Dido and Orfeo (2011), inspired by Henry Purcell and Christoph Willibald Gluck. His fourth opera, Marilyn Forever, a chamber opera premiered in Victoria, British Columbia, in 2013, has been produced several times. Another chamber opera, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, with a libretto by Michael Ondaatje, was premiered in Lyon in 2018. In 2020, Quartet No. 4 was finished, twenty-two years after the previous quartet. Following his concertos for saxophone, cello, piano, violin, and double bass, his harpsichord concerto, Liverpool, was premiered in March 2023 in the city of the same name.

Bryars has collaborated with artists from other musical universes, such as jazz, folk, and rock, including Tom Waits, Natalie Merchant, Gavin Friday, Bertrand Belin, and the duo Midget! He has also worked regularly with choreographers, among them Lucinda Childs (Four Elements, 1990), Merce Cunningham (Biped, 1999), Carolyn Carlson, and Édouard Lock, and with visual artists Juan Muñoz, Christian Boltanski, and Brothers Quay. He designed installations for the Tate Gallery Liverpool (1988), the Château d’Oiron (1993), and the Architecture Biennial in Valencia (2022). A man of panoramic curiosity and erudition, Bryars has also conducted extensive research on the eccentric figures who fascinate him: Lord Berners, Erik Satie, and Marcel Duchamp. His research earned him an invitation to join the Collège de ‘Pataphysique in 1974. In 2015 he reached the top of the organization’s hierarchy as a Transcendent Satrap, like Jacques Prévert, Joan Miró, Man Ray, and Umberto Eco before him. Bryars is also a connoisseur of the works of Jules Verne, which inspired him to write several compositions, including his saxophone concerto, The Green Ray (1981); his second opera, Doctor Ox’s Experiment (premiered in 1998 at the English National Opera, directed by Canadian Atom Egoyan); and By the Vaar (1987), a piece for double bass and orchestra, written for the double bassist Charlie Haden.

Married to Russian-born filmmaker Anna Chernakova, Bryars lives and works between Leicestershire, England, and British Columbia, Canada.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2022

Noble et polyvalent

By David Sanson

The Versatile Peer

The music of Gavin Bryars falls under no category. It is mongrel, full of sensuality and wit and is deeply moving. [Bryars] allows you to witness new wonders in the sounds around you by approaching them from a completely new angle. With a third ear maybe.

This statement, found on Bryars’s website and given by his friend the Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje, perfectly captures the elusive position Bryars occupies as a composer and double bass player in the contemporary music scene. This position is in part the result of his wide range of experiences as a free-jazz musician and as part of the British experimental music scene in the wake of Cornelius Cardew. Bryars passed through various other schools of art, finally to veer toward minimalism. While his music is, in a post-minimalist way, mostly tonal, the many facets of his work remain difficult to grasp, to summarize, and, even more, to label.1

Yet, this matter of categorization can hardly explain the void of information concerning him. Up to now, he has been the subject of only one monographic work, a collection of interviews in French by Jean-Louis Tallon.2 This lack of attention is all the more surprising considering that Bryars composed two “hits” for the contemporary music scene, The Sinking of the Titanic and Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, and that he is regularly a guest artist and his music is performed around the globe. It is also striking how those two pieces, like Maurice Ravel’s Boléro and Pavane pour une infante défunte, largely overshadow the rest of his work. They are the subject of almost all the interviews and press articles devoted to Bryars. Dating from 1969 and 1971, they are among the earliest pieces in his catalog, which now includes over two hundred works. Nevertheless, they serve as an enlightening introduction to Bryars’s body of work, a collection that has kept an experimental edge, sharpened by his work in art schools, as well as by his acute curiosity about eccentric figures such as Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie, Lord Berners, Percy Grainger, and Raymond Roussel.

Bryars is a fascinating and prolific artist, a tinkering pataphysician, and an honnête homme whose cultural panorama and love of collective art have proven an endless source of inspiration. While his use of quotation casts his music as postmodern, it could be better described as iconoclastic. It is permissive and inclusive, especially when it comes to his teaming up with rock musicians. Collaboration is an important aspect of his work. His slow music only seems simple, its fluctuating harmonies the fruit of an internal rigor that relies on text, words, and the voice. His music moves freely between poles: between system and feeling, lyricism and abstraction, rationality and sentimentality, experimentation and experience, Fluxus and flux. All his pieces share an immediate power. Unraveling the mystery of this power is the task at hand.

Genealogy of Freedom

As the musicologist Keith Potter predicted, the first two decades of Bryars’s career — a fertile period spanning from the early 1960s to the 1980s — contain germs of the creative choices that burgeon, in various ways, in later pieces.3 One can also see, in this period, why his career has unfolded in such an atypical way.

It was atypical, first, because Bryars started out as a jazz musician and improvisor. He quickly became central to the developing European free-jazz scene, together with Sheffield, the guitarist Derek Bailey, the drummer Tony Oxley, and the pianist Gerry Rollinson. In November 1966, only three years after he started learning the double bass, he set it aside to concentrate on notated music by composers from Christian Wolff to Karlheinz Stockhausen and from John Cage to Olivier Messiaen. He wouldn’t take up the instrument again for fifteen years. He was finding improvisation to be a display of tricks and egotism.4 In 1978, however, he released My First Homage, a tribute to Bill Evans; this piece for two pianos launched a series of openly referential compositions and exorcised the “strong and pathological dislike” for jazz he had felt at the end of the preceding decade.5 The influence of jazz regularly crops up in succeeding pieces: for example, By the Vaar (1987) for small ensemble and the double bassist Charpie Haden and 11th Floor (2015), which quotes American film noir music and uses choreography by Edouard Lock. The saxophone begins to play a major role in Bryars’s music, such as in Alaric I or II (1989), a saxophone trio on the album After the Requiem (1991, ECM label). This album features several jazz musicians, including saxophonists from the Kenny Wheeler band (such as Evan Parker) and guitarist Bill Frisell, who features in a long improvisation in the title piece. Bryars’s recent harpsichord concerto, Liverpool (2023), includes improvised sections that can be linked both to jazz and to the chance procedures of John Cage. Through the 1970s, Bryars continued to collaborate with Bailey, who can be heard alongside Bryars himself, Fred Frith, and Brian Eno on The Squirrel and the Ricketty Racketty Bridge, a 1978 piece for eight electric guitars.

During this same decade, Bryars premiered works for multiple pianos by his friends Christopher Hobbs and John White. He also occasionally played percussion with pianist John Tilbury’s Music Improvisation Company. His activities as a performer, which he resumed in 1983 with the Gavin Bryars Ensemble, demonstrate the importance he put on keeping close contact with the audience. Bryars states that “there’s another way of making music, by touching the lives and feelings of ordinary people.” His performance experience also explains the influence chamber music has in many of his scores, including his concertos, where the soloist trades virtuosic licks for a fusional dialogue with the orchestra.

Bryars’s career is also atypical in that, by standard academic criteria, he is largely self-taught. He acquired his deep knowledge of Western art music and his practical experience not through a conservatory but by collaborating with other composers. He worked with Ben Johnston and John Cage during his stay at the Illinois University in 1968, and, upon his return to Britain, with Cardew and his young colleagues in the British experimental music scene. Like the American minimalists, these British musicians follow Cage in pursuit of a new music that eschews the linearity, unequivocal meaning, and claims of progress made by the avant-garde. Their association with their American counterparts became even stronger starting in 1970. That year, in the large house he shared with Parker and Hobbs in northwest London, Bryars invited Steve Reich to perform the London premiere of Reich’s Four Organs. Two years later, Bryars was one of the four British musicians who toured with Reich to perform Reich’s piece Drumming. They participated in the Holland Festival and the Festival d’Automne, alongside Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Ingram Marshall, Charlemagne Palestine, and John Adams. Some of his later pieces, such as Adnan Songbook (1996) and Winestead (2017), for voice and ensemble, contain ostinato motivic patterns that evoke American repetitive minimalism.

With the monopoly the avant-garde held in musical institutions, art schools presented a welcome alternative for experimental composers. This is the third, and perhaps most significant, atypical aspect of Bryars’s early career. Even more than John Tilbury and Howard Skempton, who also taught in art schools, Bryars was very much influenced by alternative institutions. He taught in Portsmouth in the late 1960s, and it was there that, for a student exhibition, he composed The Sinking of the Titanic (1969), a piece whose score was a single page of text. He also founded the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an orchestra open to non-musicians, like Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra. Bryars’s pieces from this time usually involved procedure; as Potter describes, they were “nearer to what is now called performance art than to traditional music making.” The performance setup and lengthy titles were often as important as the musical result: examples include Marvellous Aphorisms Are Scattered Richly throughout These Pages (1969), The Ride Cymbal and the Band that Caused the Fire in the Sycamore Trees, and Serenely Beaming and Leaning on a Five-Barred Gate (1970), where sixty-four tape recorders are linked to sixty-four performers. Daniel Caux, who, alongside the Festival d’Automne in Paris, was one of the first supporters of Bryars’s music, calls such works “ready-made” pieces.6 Manipulated magnetic tape was often central to their performance. These pieces were also heavily indebted to the outlandish spirit of the Fluxus movement; for example, the series Private Music (1969) is meant to be played simultaneously with other works. The piece 1-2, 1-2-3-4 (1971) uses the same concept: each musician accompanies a pop or jazz standard that they hear at various speeds in individual headphones. This type of uncategorized music continued to punctuate Bryars’s work in the subsequent decades, from A Man in a Room, Gambling (1992) — a radiophonic piece for string quartet and magnetic tape, inspired by card games and created with the visual artist Juan Muñoz — to the pataphysical pieces of 2018 and 2019 (Le Haha Platonique, The Pataphysical Calendar) and The Stopping Train (2016), a piece in collaboration with the poet Blake Morrison and meant to be listened to on the train between Bryars’s hometown of Goole and Hull. Related projects are the many sound installations, both temporary and permanent, that he created for the opening of the Tate Liverpool gallery and museum in 1988 (for example, Invention of Tradition, with the artists Bruce McLean and David Ward, as well as the late sound engineer Bill Cadman) and for the Château d’Oiron (Chambre d’écoute, 1993).

His immersion in visual arts explains why most of works from the first two decades of his career are conceptual, meaning that Bryars required what Potter calls “justification” for each musical element. The Sinking of the Titanic is a good example, as it is based on three years of research on the shipwreck. In it, he “recreates, through a series of variations on a theme played during the wreck, the acoustic transformation of the sound environment during the progressive immersion of the ship into the Atlantic.”7 Characterized by repetitive minimalism, The Sinking of the Titanic foreshadows the slow climatic development and richly chromatic structure in Bryars’s later works. The same is the case with Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971), a series of variations for orchestra based on a looped recording of a homeless man’s song. Both pieces were critical failures when they premiered in 1972. It is only in their recorded format on Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975, and a decade later on the Brussels label Les Disques du Crépuscule, that they received critical acclaim. Both were thereafter extensively performed and adapted for various media. In 2014, Bryars asked the esteemed electronic music artist Philip Jeck to perform improvised interludes between the seven sections of the ballet Pneuma by Carolyn Carlson, based on The Sinking of the Titanic. In the same vein, Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet has evolved from its original twenty-five-minute form (the duration of one side of a vinyl record), to sixty minutes (for a cassette released in 1990 by Les Disques du Crépuscule), and then to seventy-four minutes for the CD launch by Point Music featuring the American musician Tom Waits, who succeeded in popularizing the piece; ; a 12-hour version was even performed during the night at the Tate Modern in 2019!

In the 1970s, Bryars developed his interest in conceptual pieces by studying the works of “marginal” artists who fascinated him. He read Jules Verne and Sherlock Holmes as well as mystery novels in general. He was passionate about the approaches to language proposed by such philosophers as Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, and John Searle, and he published articles, gave conferences, and even began biographical projects on Marcel Duchamp, Henri Rousseau, Alfred Jarry, Roussel, Satie, Lord Berners… to the point that he put his career as a composer on hold to be admitted to the Collège de ’Pataphysique. Indeed, Bryars’s creative work has always developed in parallel to work as an “intermediary.” He taught for many decades and has remained committed to helping spread contemporary music, whether as a performer, an administrator for Hobbs’s Experimental Music Catalogue, or an artistic advisor (for Obscure Records starting in 1975 and for the Leicester Theatre in the 1980s). Bryars felt deeply attached to historic figures who excelled in various domains while being self-taught. In 1976 for the periodical Studio Magazine, he underlined that Lord Berners, Rousseau, and Satie “had little tuition in the art for which they are best known, and yet their work is of such startling originality that perhaps this in itself has been a contributing factor.”8 These lines seem to stand out as a mission statement.

Studying Duchamp and Roussel led Bryars to compose using playful restrictions similar to those in the Oulipo language experiments: the goal being to create multiple levels of meaning within a single work. His pieces from the second half of the 1970s can be read from multiple angles and make numerous nods and allusions. For example, The Cross-Channel Ferry (1979) alludes to Jean Ferry, an interpreter of Roussel’s work, quotes Satie, and uses only instruments that end in a: tuba, marimba, quijada, viola. White’s SS, a 1977 piece for two pianos, is a reference to his colleague John White, who stated that the two fundamental elements of his work were systems and sentimentality.

In addition to Satie and Lord Berners, other mavericks and outcasts of art music can be added to the list of Bryars’s mentors, including Grainger, Charles Ives, Ferruccio Busoni, Gustav Holst, Sigfrid Karg-Elert, and Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. Poggioli in Zaleski’s Gazebo (1975) and Out of Zaleski’s Gazebo (1977) pay tribute to two mystery-novel heroes, Poggioli and Zaleski, while quoting the Valses bourgeoises by Lord Berners (1919) and the Interludes for organ by Karg-Elert. Released in November 1981 on Les Disques du Crépuscule, the album Hommages is a tribute to Busoni, Grainger (in Hi-Tremolo), and Holst (in The Vespertine Park and in The English Mail-Coach, whose title makes reference to Thomas de Quincey). These marginal but essential figures of music significantly impacted Bryars’s composition method and techniques. One can hear, for example, the influence of Grainger and Ives in his use of percussion — and in particular tuned percussion as in The English Mail-Coach (1980), One Last Bar that Joe Can Sing (1994), and Extra-Time (2018), for bowed vibraphone and electric guitar — as well as in the opera Medea (1984). Bryars was also inspired by Busoni’s appreciation for music of the past and fervent opposition to rules of any type. Busoni’s influence infuses works like Allegrasco (1983), a piece for saxophone and string orchestra (the title refers to Edmondo Allegra, the clarinetist who premiered Busoni’s Elegy for clarinet and piano), and The Solway Canal (1990), a piano concerto in which, following Busoni, a choir sings.

Without losing their conceptual rigor, the ideas Bryars uses in the second half of the 1970s become more subtle and ample over the next four decades, as his need for justification becomes internal and intrinsic. While broad knowledge, an interest in games, and an insatiable curiosity for the arts and sciences still inspire his work, Bryars becomes a more mature musician and often opts “for simple, sometimes apparently naive, tonal statement, often through the use of familiar classical or popular material.”9.

A Deceptive Simplicity

Staged in Lyon in 1984, Medea marked a turning point for Bryars. This five-hour-long opera, written for the director Bob Wilson, resulted in Bryars gaining a new type of recognition and being solicited by other renowned musicians. It also opened a new field of references and technical possibilities for Bryars, who until then had learned his trade on the fly, so to speak. He developed an interest in late-Romantic lyrical works, dedicating two full years to studying Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Busoni, Alexander von Zemlinsky, and Alexander Scriabin. In 2017, he concluded that he had “started to look more and more to historical models in other areas of [his] work.”10 After having found artistic mentors in more “eccentric” figures, he slowly reached out to other areas of music history. His entire production can be understood through the lens of reference. From the medieval ars subtilior to Tōru Takemitsu, from Elizabethan composers to Joseph Haydn (Farewell to Philosophy, 1995, was inspired by Haydn’s Symphonies Nos. 22 and 45) and Richard Wagner (The Porazzi Fragment, 1999, is based on a mysterious thirteen-measure theme that Wagner sketched out), the vast majority of his compositions are explicitly based on music of the past. Since 2007, he has also composed adaptations of Antonio Vivaldi, Henry Purcell, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and others for Lock’s choreography.

References to music of the past might be common among British experimental composers. Michael Nyman, who is also interested in such an approach to composition, has noted that

unlike Americans […] English composers have tended to use as their source material the music of Western classical composers. And as regards to method, while the Americans have evolved highly controlled systems, English composers have tended to adopt less restricted processes.11

Bryars’s approach is at odds with Nyman’s in that, despite his well-known sense of humor, he writes with not one speck of postmodern irony. Though he juxtaposes different artistic worlds, his references are not mere quotations: they help him to reach “greater depth.”12 His oeuvre is not a collage but a work of syncretism. He has been tireless in studying scores by other composers and then feeding them naturally into his own, not to exploit or reproduce them, but to make them bear fruit. From these scores, he also draws conceptual and formal structures that, from his first Fluxus-influenced works, have sparked his creativity and enabled him to be spontaneous.

The approach Bryars takes to past music could be described as post-historical, as opposed to postmodern. This links him more to Valentyn Silvestrov, who explores the artistic potential of cultural memory, than to Nyman. As with Silvestrov, the seeming simplicity in Bryars’s music is perhaps more deceptive than novel: his pieces’ familiar idioms are misleading, as they bring the listener into an unstable harmonic universe, punctuated by peculiar progressions, chords, and various other small and ambiguous variations. Speaking about his Danse dieppoise (1978), Bryars described how such a “deceptively simple surface […] lulls the listener into a false sense of security.”

His music is no more neo-medieval than neo-romantic. It is simply contemporary:

I don’t write old-fashion music. Rather, I take the original forms of pre-existing pieces and try to find in them something new. The type of music that I write, its style and its instrumentation was simply not possible when these pieces were composed.13

Although he has not shied away from writing in canonic genres (he has composed six concertos, four string quartets, and six books of madrigals), he has not tried his hand at the symphony or the sonata, and he completely ignored the solo piano until his Ramble on Cortona (on themes from his Laudes) from 2010.

Again like Silvestrov, Bryars composes slow music. Except for a few exceptional pieces and passages in his operas, he writes in slow tempi in which the lack of contrasts becomes apparent only when they appear at the most unexpected moment. In the liner notes of The Fifth Century (2014), a piece for choir and saxophone quartet on texts by the English poet and theologian Thomas Traherne, Bryars explains:

I do enjoy experiencing time in a way that is structured but not hectic or hyperactive. In choral music, I like to slow down the harmonic movement, not that it’s static but so that it’s gradually evolutionary. I like the effect of suddenly finding yourself in new harmonic territory without quite realizing how you got there.

As a minimalist, Bryars (a long-time follower of Zen Buddhism), is more like La Monte Young than Philip Glass: his music seems to discretely expand time.

Another point Bryars shares with Silvestrov, as well as with Arvo Pärt, is the large proportion of vocal music in his catalog. Bryars has been writing for voice since his 1988 piece Glorious Hill, composed on a text by the Italian philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and for the staging of Summer and Smoke by playwright Tennessee Williams; this piece marked the beginning of his close collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble. After his six operas, choir pieces occupy a central position in his oeuvre: highlights include Cadman Requiem (1989), which uses the text from Pärt’s Stabat Mater and which was composed in memory of his friend Bill Cadman, killed in the Lockerbie attack, as well as Mistral (2019), premiered by the chamber choir Les Eléments, and A Native Hill (2019), a magnificent piece written for the American choir The Crossing using excerpts from eponymous essay by Walter Berry (1968). In an interview with Tallon, Bryars declared, “In an ideal world where I could compose whatever I wanted, I would only write for the voice […] I would be totally satisfied to base all my music on Petrarch sonnets for the rest of my life.”14 Two cycles stand out in his production. First is the Madrigals, which he began writing in 1988, commissioned by Cadman’s parents. They now comprise six books; the first is on poems by Morrison, and the others on Petrarch sonnets. The Madrigals demonstrate Bryars’s interest in constraints: after he realized he had composed the first three Madrigals on a Monday, he decided to compose seven books, one for each day of the week. The second cycle is his Laudes. These fifty-four pieces were commissioned in 2002 by the choreographer Carolyn Carlson and finished in 2020.

This interest in choir music is intimately linked to text, which, like in Pärt’s music, functions as a structural base for the musical composition. As it relates to Bryars’s approach using justification, the text thus justifies the music, in more mature works. In the liner notes for the Second Book of Madrigals (GB Records, 2010), Massimiliano Pascucci, leader of the Vox Àltera Ensemble, writes,

The way of emphasizing the meaning of a word, a concept or an image is still for Bryars one of recreating it musically, suggesting it and synthesizing it; summing it up with musical metaphors to enrich the original poetry with new semantic value. The compositional technique is still that of durchkomponiert — letting the form compose itself, with no prior formal planning, so that the musical sections are created independent of each other and characterized exclusively by their expressive adherence to the text. This continuous and flexible adherence to the text is the basis of Bryars’s compositional language, seemingly austere and restrained, but actually with a daring use of a wide range of styles, from late Romantic tonal chromaticism, to a modal system reminding us of Gesualdo, Debussy or Martin, to dreamy jazz harmonies. […] Bryars’s deep, though not obvious, modernity lies in juxtaposing and blending seemingly incompatible musical worlds, in order to create a third reality, derived from a fusion of the stylistic and expressive features of such different languages.

In his late works, Bryars composes in an increasingly spontaneous, empirical, and almost improvised manner. For his first Laudes, he wrote the vocal line in just under an hour and, like a Japanese calligrapher, “never reworking what had been written,” he said.15 He has become confident to let his music evolve without a pre-established plan. Ralph van Raat, the dedicatee of his piano concerto The Solway Canal, underlined how Bryars showed a growing interest in “a more improvisatory way of composing.”

An essential dimension of Bryars’s approach to composition — and perhaps the most paradoxical — is his spontaneity. Throughout his career, his spontaneity has been sparked and encouraged by his collaborations with performers (“according to me, performers are the real authors of the musical work”16), with composers and artists in other fields, and with writers, stage directors, visual artists, and choreographers, as well as by the way he experiences physical places and landscapes. Particular examples of his spontaneous approach include Four Elements (1990), a piece for choreography by Lucinda Childs, and BIPED (1999) for choreographer Merce Cunningham, which surprisingly juxtaposes the music of Richard Wagner and Brian Eno. In 2003, Bryars wrote an article about Lord Berners for the The Guardian; its title, “The Versatile Peer,” could very well suit Bryars himself.17 Both well-read and spontaneous, rational and emotional, Bryars is fundamentally dialectical and “one of the few composers who can put slapstick and primal emotion alongside each other.”18

1. See “‘Farewell to Philosophy,’ concerto pour violoncelle d’un musicien inclassable – Gavin Bryars, musicien pataphysicien,” in Libération, 21 October 1996. https://www.liberation.fr/culture/1996/10/21/musiques-nouvelles-farewell-to-philosophyconcerto-pour-violoncelle-d-un-musicien-inclassable-gavin-b_183986/
2. Jean-Louis TALLON, Gavin Bryars: En paroles, en musique, Marseille, Le Mot et le Reste, 2020. 
3. Keith POTTER, “Just the Tip of the Iceberg: Some Aspects of Gavin Bryars’s Music,” in Contact: A Journal for Contemporary Music vol. 22, 1981, pp. 4-15. https://journals.gold.ac.uk/index.php/contactjournal/article/view/contactjournal22_p4-15
4. See the interview with composer Derek Bailey published in 1980 in his book Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, quoted in ibid., p. 5. 
5. In TALLON, Gavin Bryars, p. 125. 
6. Daniel CAUX, “Les ready made ‘aidés’ de Gavin Bryars,” Le Monde, 24 November 1979. 
7. “Gavin Bryars, The Sinking of the Titanic”, duuuradio.fr, 30 April 2020. https://duuuradio.fr/archive/matthieu-saladin-precipites-de-lenteur-gavin-bryars-the-sinking-of-the-titanic
8. Gavin BRYARS, “Berners, Rousseau, Satie,” in Studio International vol. 192, no. 984, 1976. 
9. POTTER, “Just the Tip of the Iceberg,” p. 5. 
10. Ethan IVERSON, “Interview with Gavin Bryars,” Do the M@th, 30 May 2017. https://ethaniverson.com/interview-with-gavin-bryars/
11. Michael NYMAN, Experimental Music, Cage and Beyond, Cambridge University Press, 1974, p. 157. 
12. “What John and Chris and others were doing was nearly always referential. There was always some outside reference to other music: to Elizabethan music or piobaireachd or something. They were playing games with musical structures and reworking them. It was not just some sort of [Bryars sings a parody of quaver-based process music]; it would actually come from somewhere else and have a different resonance, which for me always gave it greater depth.” In Keith POTTER, Kyle GANN, and Pwyll ap SIÔN (eds), The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music, Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2013, pp. 87-106. 
13. TALLON, Gavin Bryars, p. 245. 
14. Ibid., p. 222. 
15. Ibid., p. 241. 
16. Ibid., p. 302. 
17. Gavin BRYARS, “The Versatile Peer,” in The Guardian, 22 February 2003. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2003/feb/22/classicalmusicandopera.artsfeatures
18. Michael Ondaatje, cited in the front matter of TALLON, Gavin Bryars

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2023

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