Gavin Bryars's Coolly Passionate, Accessible Avant-gardism

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Gavin Bryars is one of the great polystylists of our time. His works could be by turns described as minimal, experimental, neoclassical, neoromantic, historicist or even jazz.

Born on January 16, 1943, the very same day as the ultramodernist Brian Ferneyhough, Bryars was one of a handful of English composers influenced by John Cage and Morton Feldman. In 1970 he co-founded The Portsmouth Sinfonia, a sort of performance art joke orchestra which required members that could not play their instruments. One of the clarinetists was Brian Eno. When Eno formed his Obscure Records label, he released an LP featuring two compositions which would make Bryars name in the new music world, The Sinking of the Titanic (1969) and Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971.)

Titanic is a masterpiece of indeterminacy lent to a semi-narrative cause. Sound elements of the famous calamity (such as recordings of hymn tunes reportedly played by the musicians on the stricken ship) are assembled in an electroacoustic soundscape that creates the illusion of an eternal life at the bottom of the North Atlantic. It was an unprecedentedly weird statement from a serious composer, and Jesus Blood seemed hardly less radical at the time. A recording of an elderly homeless man singing a few lines of a self-made hymn tune is repeated throughout, at first almost inaudible, but gradually rising in volume, joined by the overlaid harmonies of a string section, building and receding back to its quiet beginnings over a half an hour.

Both of these works create a delicate tension between the conceptual framework and a desire to be expressive within it. Another example of this balance is found in the BBC-commissioned A Man in a Room, Gambling, in which the artist Juan Munoz describes methods of cheating at cards to the accompaniment of a string orchestra. Each of the ten movements were broadcast unannounced at odd times of day or night, much like the famed Shipping Forecast. What makes it all work is the poignant flow of the music, which subtly draws attention away from the specifics of the sleight of hand crimes being described by Munoz, misdirection masking misdirection, as it were.

Bryars music can sneak up on you, seeming ambivalent or full of mixed emotion, as in the enigmatically titled cello concerto Farewell to Philosophy. It can brood noirishly, as in the bass ensemble piece New York, or offer ironic commentary, as in Les Fiancailles from Robert Wilson’sThe CIVIL warS.

When it matters, the approach may be earnest, as in the Cadman Requiem, written for Bryars sound engineer Bill Cadman, who perished in the crash of Pan Am 103. But whether the offering is high concept or simple pleasure, evoking mellow jazz or renaissance madrigals, the constant center is Bryars, the coolly passionate, accessible avant-gardist whose art is so likeable that it’s easy to forget how good it is.