Gavin Bryars Composer-in-residence (PIAF)

Composer-in-residence (PIAF)

St George’s Cathedral

Reviewed by Neville Cohn



Gavin Bryars is a burly, black-clad figure with a shaven cranium who might be mistaken for a night club bouncer but is a cove of a very different stripe. The music that pours from his pen is the antithesis of his physical appearance. Most of that offered at St George’s Cathedral at two well-attended concerts is couched in often hushed terms, music of mainly gentle, very gradually evolving ideas which, on paper – and this goes to the crux of his output – might seem a sure recipe for tedium but instead, in a way difficult to define, engages the attention totally.
Most of his output experienced at these two cathedral concerts sounds entirely in accord with Bryars’ fascination with the nature of ‘musical slowness’ and what he calls ‘innovative simplicity’.

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Bryars, too, has an ability to see creative potential in what others might dismiss as expendable rubbish, as exemplified in his inspired musical treatment of a strip of recording tape containing a single line from Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me sung in a thin, quavering voice by an elderly hobo, now dead. Bryars wrote the simplest of orchestral accompaniments to the vocal tape played over and over again. But what might, on the face of it, seem a sure recipe for tedium is, in fact, an utterly engrossing listening experience which, in its poignancy, places it in a special category of excellence.

At this Tura New Music event, we also heard Daniel Kossov as soloist in Bryars’ Violin Concerto with Roger Smalley a meticulously prepared conductor. Kossov’s exquisitely hushed, finely drawn violin line, to an often muted accompaniment, called water-colour images of mist-enshrouded landscapes to mind, an essay in tranquillity.

Percussion ensemble Tetrafide gave us an account of One Last Bar Then Joe Can Sing, yet another of Bryars’ fascinating experiments in musical gentleness. I felt strongly drawn to this, as the five percussionists created hushed auras of sound by bowing crotales and vibraphones which combined with marimba murmurings and delicate use of windchimes to produce some of the most soothing music imaginable.

I found Bryars’ Viennese Dance No 1 bewildering as was Bryars program note that Mata Hari (Dutch, her real name was Gertrud Zelle) was one of the three most celebrated dancers in the world. Really? I could not, in all frankness, discern anything about this work that could persuade me that it unequivocally suggested either Vienna or the dance.

But Bryars’ String Quartet No 3 was very much more satisfying musical fare. Deeply felt, often throbbing with ardour, its most passionate moments called Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht to mind and held the attention throughout despite the irritating intrusion of traffic roaring along St George’s Terrace. This was yet another excellent contribution by the Cremona Quartet which has been one of the glories of PIAF 2004.

© 2004

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