Gavin Bryars Family Ensemble
The Gavin Bryars Ensemble has evolved gradually since its first performances in 1986. When I started, I worked on the principle that pervaded my early work with composer/performer groups: that first and foremost the ensemble should comprise musicians with whom I wanted to work rather than players who were there simply because I needed certain instruments. The composition of my ensemble varied according to repertoire: some pieces like The Sinking of the Titanichaving a much larger formation than others. From around 1993 I began to favour an ensemble centred on low strings – one or two violas, cello, double bass – with the addition of electric guitar, bass clarinet, sometimes percussion and piano, and increasingly the human voice. Adnan Songbook(1996) is a special portrait of my ensemble at that time: soprano, 2 violas, cello, bass, electric/acoustic guitars, clarinet/bass clarinet. For the last few years the nucleus of my ensemble has become just four players – electric guitar, viola, cello, bass – with the occasional addition of a second viola, or two voices (different singers for different repertoire). The Flower of Friendship, recorded here, is an equivalent ensemble portrait of these four players.
For this recording the addition of my four children to the nuclear group reinforced the low string emphasis, adding 2 cellos (Ziella and Orlanda), bass (Yuri) and viola/piano (Mashka) to become the Gavin Bryars Family Ensemble…
Live at Café Oto
Laude Dolçe I, II and III (2007)
Over the last few years I have written a number of pieces for voice(s) based on the texts and format of the “lauda”, which appear in a manuscript collection from 12th century Cortona. These laude are religious (but non-liturgical) songs that were performed outside churches and in other public places. In setting these texts for voice I would not imitate the style of the original but rather the spirit and form, but I also relish the challenge of writing something quite austere and self sufficient. I have now written almost 50 laude, some for several voices with and without instrumental accompaniment.
TheTre Laude Dolçewere written as a gift for Audrey Riley and are instrumental versions of the first three vocal laude. The first was written to provide Audrey with repertoire for a recital of unaccompanied cello music that she was to give in Spain. This is based on the first vocal lauda that I wrote (“Venite a laudare”). The other two were added shortly after, being versions of the second and third laude but with my third vocal lauda (“Ave donna santissima”) becoming the second for cello, and the second vocal lauda (“Laude novella”) becoming the last one. Here Lauda Dolçe II is a version for solo viola. Like the vocal laude these instrumental pieces are essentially solo melodic lines, though here I use the string instrument’s capacity to add other notes for harmonic implication or decoration.
Eventually I started to include these pieces in my ensemble concerts, adding drones for the double bass while James Woodrow’s electric guitar, almost a surrogate bowed string instrument, would draw out the harmonic framework implied by the rapid cello ornamental arpeggios and add texture and colour to the vocal line.
Dancing with Pannonica (2012)
This was originally a short solo piano piece written to celebrate the 70thbirthday of Peter Hanser-Strecker, the Head of Schott Music. I subsequently made two quartet versions for my ensemble: this version has the electric guitar taking the solo role, and the other uses piano. It is essentially an affectionate homage to Thelonious Monk.
The title refers to the English aristocrat ‘Pannonica’ Rothschild, who was deeply involved with jazz – she lived with Monk for several years, supporting him up to his death, and Charlie Parker died in her New York apartment. There are several references to Monk’s music: the most overt are “Pannonica” and “Crepuscule with Nellie” (Nellie was Monk’s wife). The piece is in memory of the saxophonist Steve Lacy, who was devoted to Monk’s music, and with whom, as a bassist, I played Monk on one occasion.
The Flower of Friendship (2009)
The instrumental piece was commissioned by a Canadian university professor, Simon Fodden, as a gift for his wife Christina Hawkes and is dedicated to her. I had originally thought to write a song for this commission, but it transpired that Christina does not like the human singing voice, so instead I decided to write songlike material for four solo instruments in my ensemble, a kind of musical portrait of these players. The piece makes use of the same alternation of verse and refrain as we find in the form of the vocal laude: the “refrain” is a recurring pizzicato bass solo and each “verse” features a different solo instrument. The title ‘The Flower of Friendship’ is a joining together of two literary sources each of which refers to the easy exchanges between friends. A collection of letters written to Gertrude Stein was published with the title The Flowers of Friendship. And the poem Ian in the Brochby the Scottish poet George Bruce refers to “the flower of friendships” to describe the give and take of conversations between fishermen on the sea front in Fraserburgh, North East Scotland.
Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971)
In 1971 a friend, Alan Power, was making a film about people living rough in London, around Waterloo and Elephant and Castle. While filming he made a number of tape recordings, some synchronised with the film, others not, and he eventually brought them to me for mixing. He gave me those tapes that he didn’t need for his film, and which were to be discarded. For some reason I listened to them all. On these tape people talked about their lives, sometimes they would break into drunken song – sentimental songs, loud operatic extracts. But one man, who didn’t drink, sang “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.” I was struck by his singing, which was very touching, in tune and musical, and also happened to be in tune with my piano. I made a loop from his singing, and wrote a simple accompaniment and arranged this for a small ensemble with a simple, gradually evolving orchestration. Over the years I have made many different versions ranging from just a few players to full orchestra and chorus. The accompaniment, though, does not seek to draw attention to itself but forms a support to the old man’s voice, respecting its dignified humanity and simple faith. It remains an understated testimony to (in spite of his situation) his optimistic spirit.
This version was made for the Gavin Bryars Family Ensemble, with new material added, such as the piano part for my daughter Mashka.
Epilogue from Wonderlawn (1994)
In May 1994 I worked with the choreographer Laurie Booth on a full evening piece called Wonderlawnfor which I employed a small string group drawn from my ensemble consisting of viola, cello, double bass and electric guitar. In the original dance the final section was accompanied by a version of this Epilogue. Later I enriched the instrumentation and made a few other changes to the piece: I added a part for a second viola, as well as two additional cellos and a second double bass (my son’s bass has a low C). These four instruments are the ones that my four children play (and here my eldest daughter is playing my mother’s cello)…
The piece begins with a simple series of harmonies played as guitar arpeggios sustained by the bowed strings. It then evolves into an extended melody, a kind of song-without-words, for the solo viola supported by occasional duet material with the solo cello. The music was written specifically to highlight the special qualities that my own players bring to this music.
James Woodrow, electric guitar
Nick Cooper, cello
Audrey Riley, cello
Ziella Bryars, cello
Orlanda Bryars, cello
Alexandra-Maria Tchernakova, viola, piano
Yuri Bryars, bass
Gavin Bryars, bass
2. Lauda Dolçe II (solo viola Morgan Goff)
3. Lauda Dolçe III (solo cello Audrey Riley)
4. Dancing with Pannonica
5. The Flower of Friendship
6. Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet
7. Epilogue from Wonderlawn