Before he turned to concert music in the late '60s, the English composer Gavin Bryars played bass for the seminal jazz trio Joseph Holbrooke, also featuring drummer Tony Oxley and guitar great Derek Bailey. But his reputation still largely rests, rightly or no, on some of his earliest composed works, which used highly inventive conceptual means to achieve sonically rich musical results.
In the '70s, for instance, Bryars's Portsmouth Sinfonia—a chamber orchestra founded with his students at the Portsmouth College of Art—combined trained classical musicians with players who had only the slightest idea how to play their instruments, then performed and recorded ragged takes on the hits of the classical repertoire.
Bryars's best-known individual works are undoubtedly The Sinking of the Titanic (1969) and Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971), both based on cycling hymn-tunes. Titanic uses "Autumn," the song reported to have been played as the titular ship went down, as the basis for an open score using indeterminate instrumentation, recordings, and other sound sources, describing the famous wreck in music. Jesus' Blood is named after the hymn sung by a homeless man on a recording made by Bryars, which the composer then looped—with all its rhythmic irregularities intact—for accompaniment by a strictly notated, slowly building orchestral part.
Much later—during the chill '90s, that peculiar decade in which Richard D. James's Aphex Twin project got video airplay on MTV and Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony hit No. 6 on the UK charts—Bryars's early works enjoyed a popular resurgence, thanks largely to richly produced new recordings of Titanic and Jesus' Blood, in vastly expanded versions, on the POINT Music label. Aphex Twin put out remixes of the new Titanic; Bryars fan Tom Waits sang duet with the taped vagrant.
But Bryars hadn't just been hanging around for two decades, waiting to be rediscovered, and he didn't disappear when the popular vogue for ambient music expired. He has continued, quietly, to build up an admirable body of work, much of it with a slightly mystical bent, and much of it now available on his own label, GB Records.
His first choral work, On Photography—a setting of Pope Leo XIII's Latin poem "Ars Photographica"—was completed in 1983 as part of Robert Wilson's aborted The CIVIL WarS project and then lost behind a filing cabinet until 1994. His music has also been championed by luminaries from the early music world: in 1989, after his sound engineer and friend Bill Cadman was killed in the Lockerbie disaster, Bryars composed his Cadman Requiem, written for the Hilliard Ensemble and later revised to include viol consort Fretwork; more recently, he composed two movements for Trio Mediaeval's Worcester Ladymass project, available on ECM Records.