Dark Mofo – Hobart
August 19, 2021

Part 1 – From Studio to Hobart

My Viola Concerto had been originally written for performance at the 2020 Dark Mofo Festival. Although the festival was cancelled the commission went ahead and I intended to finish it before the original planned performance date in mid-June. It was in fact finished on June 4th (my mother’s birthday|). However, Morgan and I never had chance to meet about the piece at all until we were in Hobart over a year later. When we met at Heathrow May 29th, 2021, it was the first time we had seen each other in person since December 2019 – the 50th anniversary of Titanic at King’s Place, and the final Biped performance with CNDC Angers in Normandy. Morgan had the score and part as well as an mp3 of the orchestration since Summer 2020. He worked on the part and listened to the orchestration, and we talked about various things – some small adjustments to alleviate technical problems with double-stops and so on, but essentially that was our entire contact about the piece until we were in Hobart itself.

We flew from Heathrow to Sydney via Qatar and on the flight from Qatar there were just 30 passengers – on a 300-seater jet. Ours was the only plane to land at a deserted Sydney airport that Sunday afternoon and there were around 50 bags going round a single carousel in baggage claim. We picked up our baggage and were escorted by police and military to a bus with a few others and there was a police escort from the airport. I was the first to leave the bus and I was escorted into the hotel by a policeman and three soldiers, who carried my 3 bags to the hotel – then one took it up to my room which I wasn’t to leave for 14 days.

When arrived in Sydney we were separated into different quarantine hotels – although Morgan was practising the piece, I wasn’t in touch with him about the piece – we did speak everyday just not about the piece (on audio rather than video since I was slightly embarrassed about the superiority of my room compared to his…). There was no access to any outside space of course, food was left outside room, there was a $5000 fine if you were to open the door without wearing a mask, and the only person there was a guard in the corridor. We both had three Covid tests while were in quarantine on days 2, 7 and 12 (I have had both vaccine doses). As I had one test just before leaving UK and another on arrival in Hobart, that made 5 PCR Covid tests in 20 days! The police limit alcohol to one bottle of wine a day (or 6 beers) so I decided to have no alcohol at all for the whole time in my isolation – and also not to turn on the TV set!

I found it a very positive experience, rather like an extremely comfortable monastic retreat.  I had brought a decent library with me, and I had plenty of music to write, setting lines from the 12th century Japanese Hojoki, which had also provided the subtitle for the concert “A Hut in Toyama”- the festival organisers arranged for me to have a keyboard in my room…

When in quarantine, I found a site that the TSO had set up – they had recorded videos of various groups with the orchestra during their lock-down so I saw and got to know many of the orchestra through these videos before meeting them in Hobart. All the programmes were presented by the orchestra’s bass-trombonist called Mitch (who as it happened didn’t play in the concert at all) – in every presentation he had next to him a small bottle of hand sanitiser…Perhaps the strangest experience leaving the hotel after 14 days was feeling a gentle breeze: I hadn’t experienced movement of the air like that since leaving England 16 days earlier.

When Morgan and I were released from quarantine we finally met again at a Sydney airport hotel and went into town to have dinner with many of his family (Morgan is originally from Australia). I even managed to fit in a short meeting with Antony Pitts from The Song Company before dinner got underway… After staying one more night we then flew to Hobart to start rehearsals the next day

Part 2 – Rehearsals and Performance

CONCERT 1 7pm June 17

Gavin Bryars – Conductor

Morgan Goff – Viola

Bryars: The Porazzi Fragment for 21 solo strings

Bryars: In Nomine (After Purcell) 

GB chat

Bryars: Viola Concerto (A hut in Toyama)

Waits, arr. Bryars: The Briar and the Rose (Gavin Bryars, solo jazz bass)

CONCERT 2 7pm June 18

Gavin Bryars – Conductor

Andrea Keller – Piano

Pärt: If Bach had been a Beekeeper

Bley, arr. Bryars: End of Vienna (solo piano Andrea Keller)

GB chat

Bryars: Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet

We were to have plenty of rehearsal time as my friend Jude Gun, who had handled our Adelaide festival performances in 2015 and was the organiser of Dark Mofo, had arranged an extra private two-hour rehearsal for Morgan and myself alone before meeting the orchestra. This was the first time we had heard the piece together.

After this, in the afternoon, I took the first orchestra rehearsal – beginning with the other two string pieces (Porazzi Fragment and In Nomine after Purcell) and then the concerto. The advantage of this was that the concerto only adds 5 wind instruments + piano to the strings so I had already worked with the strings and got to work with just them before going through the concerto. Everything worked and everyone seemed happy. After the rehearsal Morgan and I joined his dad and stepmother, who had arrived from Sydney, at a vast Dark Mofo eating area in the harbour for the festival’s opening night. Where we ate street food from Taiwan – very large pieces of squid on a stick

The next day we had another rehearsal, this time for the second programme which included my new arrangement of the Carla Bley piece: End of Vienna, as well as Jesus’ Blood. For the Carla Bley piece we had pianist Andrea Keller, a great Australian jazz musician, improvisor and composer from Melbourne. In addition to the Bley, she also played the orchestral piano part in Arvo’s piece as well piano in Jesus’ Blood. She has the ideal qualification for the concert: she is a fantastic player and loves Carla’s music, and in addition she was also completing her PhD on Arvo! However, a serious problem emerged because Melbourne had been moved into lockdown during the time Morgan and I had been in Sydney, and it seemed possible that she might not be able to come. It was touch and go but Jude and the festival managed to get special permission for her to play and she arrived just in time for rehearsals. But she was subject to strict conditions: she had to remain in her hotel unless she was  rehearsing or performing, and had to wear a mask at all times (no one else in the concert wore one). She was only allowed to take off the mask once, when we had coffee together at the hotel, because we were deemed to be ‘working.’

We had rehearsed the two pieces with Andrea and were due to rehearse Jesus Blood after the break that morning, but I was told there had been an accident and some theatre lights had fallen onto the stage just before rehearsal, narrowly missing two people – which meant that we couldn’t rehearse immediately on stage. So instead, I met with the full orchestra over coffee and explained how the piece worked to save time. – I recognised many of them from the TSO YouTube videos that I had watched during my quarantine. They all seemed to understand, and I was touched that one, the oboe player, came to me with a copy of the 1975 original Obscure Records album for me to sign. Eventually we were able to rehearse the piece and it went completely smoothly.

On the day of the first concert, we had a general rehearsal of all the pieces in the morning; including the encore, my version of Tom Waits’ The Briar and the Rose, in which I play solo jazz bass – and sing the last four bars! The concert was in the evening and was a huge success. In fact, I was told that both concerts had sold out online within an hour of being put on sale! Morgan played beautifully, and all the individual solo orchestral parts were played really well – there were especially difficult solos for the French Horn and some beautiful cello solos. Overall, the orchestra played like angels, and I found that I had the support of the whole orchestra with the piece – there were also some players who’d known Morgan when he was a student in Canberra.

One odd thing about the venue was that it was in the same building as my hotel – so I hardly went outside during the rehearsal period and after the first concerto we had drinks in the hotel lobby.  I was amazed when a guy came up to me and said that he and his friends had come from Alice Springs(!) just for the concerts and loved it.

The second concert had the full orchestral Jesus’ Blood preceded by Pärt and my arrangement of Carla Bley’s End of Vienna for orchestra. After the concert I spent more time with the group from Alice Springs…

Part 3 – PostScript

Morgan had stayed on for the second concert and for a further day afterwards. He spent time with various musician friends that he knew from the past, some of whom were in the orchestra and one, former horn player Toby Frost was producer for the ABC recording of the concerts – and the three of us ended chatting together until late. Morgan had also taken the ferry to MONA, the extraordinary art museum, and told me that people kept stopping him to talk about the concerts and especially about his performance.

I’d planned to visit MONA too, so I went there on the Sunday afternoon and was also constantly stopped by people who’d been to the concerts. I looked around the main gallery for a while and, as it was mostly underground, I decided to look at things outside in the fresh air. I spent a few minutes listening to a harpist playing in a small amphitheatre on top of a hill overlooking the river. As I was walking back towards the gallery, I stumbled and fell onto concrete steps. It was my elbow that took the force of my entire weight, followed by my head. I couldn’t move and there was blood everywhere, though I didn’t lose consciousness. Security people arrived quickly as well as paramedics and then an ambulance. I was taken to the Royal Hospital. My friend Jude arrived and as I was being wheeled into emergency, I turned to her and the orderly pushing the trolley and sang softly “… never failed me yet, never failed me yet…”

Even in the hospital there were people who’d been at the concerts – an anaesthetist in the operating theatre, the physiotherapist, Tom, who’d been at both concerts with his girlfriend… I was in hospital for 5 days and I immediately had two operations on my elbow – one to put the various bones back in the right place, the other to pin them and add a titanium elbow joint. They also had to work on my left eye, where I’d fractured the eye socket along with other things. Afterwards there was some shakiness with walking, so I have had to use a stick since then. Thanks to Jude and the festival I was able to stay a few more days to recover a little and they’d changed my return flight. During these days, Jude and Toby looked after me completely. Toby collected me from the hospital and to my complete astonishment there was a bottle of champagne waiting for me in the hotel room which had been ordered by my friend Brian Morton in Scotland! Toby took me on excursions into the country outside Hobart and showed me the ‘best fish and chips in Hobart’ from a boat right in front of the hotel. Jude and I would generally have dinner in my room and chat at great length, all of which made my extended stay not just bearable, but a pleasure.

Eventually I took the long journey back, around 40 hours, and was met at Heathrow by Yuri, who drove me home, and Ziella who came up overnight to help settle me in. Yuri had even arranged a bed downstairs for me…

(note: performance photos by Benjamin Alldridge / Wall of Sound Australia)

Gavin Bryars