FEATURE GAVIN BRYARS
NEW MUSIC THAT
Joe Alexander talks to GAVIN BRYARS, the composer who made a moving contemporary musical icon from the song of an old tramp.
t would be a great shame if people became
ﬁxated on Gavin Bryars’ malleable Jesus’
Blood Never Failed Me Yet at the expense
ofa similar interest in the rest of his varied
output. The presence of Tom Waits on the
latest recorded version of this unique work (nominated for the Mercury Prize last year) has increased its profile outside of contemporary composition circles, but there is a lot more to this most individual of British composers.
Nonetheless. we begin with an old tramp singing a poignant hymn. Bryars explains at length in his sleeve notes how Jesus’ Blood grew out of a recording made for a never- completed television film about those living rough around Waterloo Station. Moved by the tape, Bryars set it to music for the first time in 1971, and recorded the first version of it for Eno’s Obscure Records in 1975.
The latest version. released on Philip Glass’ Point label, made full use of the extended playing time of the compact disc, re-cast as it was in six sections with varying accompani- ments. from string quartet to full orchestra. One new departure was to add another voice in counterpoint with the tramp; that voice belongs to Tom Waits, who contacted the composer a few years ago asking for a new copy of the original record. which he claimed was his favourite. The version which the Gavin Bryars Ensemble will play in Glasgow, though, is a 30- minute one. scored for the ensemble, minus Waits.
‘The thing about Jesus' Blood is that it will work at almost any duration — l’ve done nearly 75 minutes of it on the CD, but l’ve also done a single version to help raise funds for Shelter.
Gavin Bryars: ‘I keep coming back to it because of the strange dignity in the old man‘s voice.’
which came in at under four minutes. it is completely adaptable to the particular setting I want to feature it in.
‘I keep coming back to it because of the qualities i hear in the old man’s voice, and especially the strange dignity which it has. despite the circumstances in which he found himself. It would have been very easy for me to make a cock-up of the whole thing. I think it stands or falls for people by the way they react to the voice — ifyou don’t like it. then what I do with it will probably make you like it even less! I must have listened to it thousands of times now. however, and it still affects mejust as much.’
Like Philip Glass. Steve Reich and Michael Nyman, Bryars formed his own ensemble to play his music. and his work has a distinct relationship with that of the minimalist composers. although his own background was in jazz (he plays double bass), and in the idiosyncratic, anti-academic ethos of the 60s English musical experimental- ists. His particular take on repetition. however, is rooted in a liking for allowing works to unravel at a deliberate pace. rather than the ‘more head-banging, high energy aspects of it’.
‘1 think there is a growing appreciation of more reflective works which are allowed to unfold slowly, even within the pop world, and I am very interested in music which works that way. i don’t wear my heart on my sleeve too much in my music, but i think the emotion comes out that way just the same. The other big difference 1 see with the minimalists is that my
We begin with an old tramp
singing a poignant hymn.
works are usually based on some imagery or extra-musical subjects. rather than abstract pattern-making.’
His composition The Archangel Trip for the new music ensemble lcebreaker (heard on their recent Scottish dates, and out on CD in April) is a good example of that. and its more deliberate development stood out amid the general fervour of the set for that reason. Having heard the band. he says. he decided to treat the commis- sion as if they were a jazz band playing a club. ‘Their music tended to be very energetic, and I wanted to write them a piece which would work like a ballad being dropped into the middle of ajazz set.’
His own latest recording. Vita Nova (ECM). is out to coincide with the Glasgow concert, and features one of the works they will piay at Mayfest, Sub Rosa. as well as examples of his vocal writing for the Hilliard Ensemble. Further collaborations with the Hilliard are in the offing. as is a new opera for English National Opera, Doctor 0.x"s Experiment ( Epilogue). based on a story by Jules Verne.
Bryars continues to find his own individual path through the morass of contemporary trends and British music would be none the worse ofa few more like him. His rejection of the academic approach of his era has now found an echo in the work of a younger generation of composers — Martland. Turnage. MacMillan — who are also leading contemporary music in much more promising directions. C]
The Gavin Bryars Ensemble play at the Beck ’3 Tent, Glasgow Green on Mon 2.
14 The List 22 April—5 May 1994