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Super Nova

The album Vita Nova proves British composer Gavin Bryars still never failed yet

By Marc Weidenbaum

Gavin Bryars’ musical clarity apparently has its source in confusion. Early works like The Sinking of the Titanic (1969) were meshes of found sounds and notated segments. When composing more traditional arrangements, he writes for specific musicians, not just specific instruments, so his scores persistently smudge the line between where his transcribed intentions end and a performer’s voice begins. And asked from professorial advice, he might reply with a handy paradox.

For example, what would the composer, whose touring ensemble includes a keyboard-synthesizer player and an electric guitarist, suggest to a student writing for a mix of acoustic (or “non-amplified”) and electric instruments?

“I would recommend that the student see what are the acoustic properties of the amplified instruments,” says Bryars, who teaches music at De Montfort University in Scraptoft, England. “I remember once, when I started writing for the alto saxophone, a saxophonist told me to think of it as being like a cross between an oboe and a viola, but louder. That tends to make you think of different instruments as already being hybrids. so there are all sorts of ways of blending.” To write best for a specific instrument is to understand that it is, in fact, many instruments at once.

If his answer has a tidy Zen contradiction at its heart, his music is similarly marked by a monastic intent: stillness, meditaion and the conservatively planted epiphany are all hallmarks of his compositions. Bryars had a surprise hit last year when his most overtly non-secular title; Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (Point Music) featured a homeless man singing the humble title prayer, the brief tape segment looped eternally. And Bryars’ most recent recording, Vita Nova (ECM New Series), is something of a curriculum vitae of the composer’s holy resources, from the call-to-worship bells that open “Four Elements,” to the variety of Church prayer that inform the album’s two vocal set pieces, both with Latin texts.

Though Bryars’ recorded output focuses primarily on his small-scale chamber material, he has also written operas (a 1984 Medea and the upcoming take on a Jules Verne novella, Dr. Ox’s Experiment), orchestral work and music for film. Early next year, Point will release an expanded version of The Sinking of the Titanic, which was the A side of the LP that introduced Jesus’ Blood to the world in 1975. That album was the first to be released by the aptly named Obscure label, run by Brian Eno, whose enormous contributions to popular music, especially as a producer, owe much to the previous generation of British experimenters in whose wake he was educated, including Bryars, the late Cornelius Cardew and Michael Nyman (who played organ on the 1975 Jesus’ Blood).

Production is very much a hands-on process for Bryars; working closely with his sound designer, he strives to convince today’s classical audience that the recording studio is not, to borrow a phrase from his ECM label mate Arvo Part, a tabula rasa. “One thing I’m doing on the new Titanic recording is actually bringing in different acoustic spaces,” says Bryars. “As much as mixing instruments, I’m also mixing acoustic space so the music will travel through some different sorts of environments.” So whereas Jesus’ Blood saw the same musical material filtered through a wide variety of orchestral settings — with an independent string quartet, low strings, no strings, etc. — the new version of Titanic will present much the same recorded music in a variety of ambient rooms.

In a more subtle manner, Vita Nova asks the listener to compare the professional London studio in which the album’s two instrumental pieces were recorded with the hushed reverberations of the monastery in which Bryars, and producer Manfred Eicher, chose to tape the two vocal pieces. Says Bryars of this new compositional frontier of acoustic space, “It’s just another form of orchestration.”

Originally published in Classical Pulse! magazine, October 1994. Copyright © 1994 Marc Weidenbaum. All rights reserved.

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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