Live at QEH
This recording is of part of a concert I gave within the 1994 Meltdown Festival, curated that year by Louis Andriessen. For this I was able to expand my ensemble considerably, having in effect a string orchestra instead of solo strings for some pieces. It also occurred at a critical time when I had chosen to give up university teaching after 25 years and go back into the “dangerous” life of a freelance composer as well as, having handled my own publishing for many years, commit myself to a proper music publisher, Schott. My ensemble also began to evolve, a development that can be seen in the various recordings for GB Records: Biped; Oi Me Lasso; I Send You This Cadmium Red; Live at Punkt; The Sinking of the Titanic 2012 Tour; Nothing Like The Sun; The Stopping Train; Live at Café Oto. The Gavin Bryars Ensemble, in its various manifestations, remains at the heart of my live music making and its members are my closest musical (and personal) friends.
Gavin Bryars Ensemble: Live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 1994
1. Les Fiançailles (1983 rev 1994)
A sketch for Les Fiançailles (“engagement”) was written in 1983 for a scene in Robert Wilson’s CIVIL WarS, for which I worked with him from 1981 to the summer of 1984. In this scene a Japanese bride delivers two texts: one in French announcing a forthcoming aristocratic marriage; the other an old text in Japanese announcing the link between the Sun and the Imperial throne. In the theatre work, never completed, in addition to the sung texts, an instrumental section appeared during a slow motion sequence. This was rehearsed with the actress Delphine Seyrig quietly reading a letter written by Mari Curie to Pierre, her dead husband at his graveside.
The full concert piece was written for a performance in the Secession Hall in Vienna and I took into account the special quality of a Viennese string quartet that performed with me, and of the location itself. In musical terms this relates to the Secession Hall’s special importance in Viennese music, in particular to its connection with early Schoenberg and Mahler. The writing, especially in the first part of the piece, consciously evokes chamber music of the period, in particular the arrangements written for Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances. In the more dreamy last part, which moves with a slow and steady pulse, the strings play almost entirely in unison high artificial harmonies.
2. The North Shore (1993-4)
This piece, originally for viola and piano, was written for Bill Hawkes to play at the opening of an exhibition of the work of James Hugonin in Edinburgh. It was expanded both in duration and instrumentation to make this version for solo viola, strings and piano. Through working with Bill Hawkes, and earlier with Alexander Balanescu, I became more and more interested in the viola both within my ensemble and as a solo instrument. The North Shorebecame the second of four pieces that relate to the cardinal compass points: The Green Ray(west coast, for saxophone and chamber orchestra); The South Downs(for cello and piano); and The East Coast(for bass oboe and chamber orchestra). I particularly like the relationship between the abstraction of Hugonin’s paintings and the location where they are painted – the North East of England. Having already written a number of vocal pieces that use Northumbrian texts (by Caedmon) I decided to move a little further down the coast, to Whitby, where I had spent summer holidays as a child. The North Shore, therefore, takes this austere location as its inspiration – looking out to sea from the cliffs by St Hilda’s Abbey involves “looking north.” It represents a kind of response to the “Idea of North” found in the work of Glenn Gould, as well as a reflection on the obsession of Jules Verne’s Captain Hatteras who, in his final madness, would walk only towards the north.
3. Sub Rosa (1986)
Sub Rosawas written for what was, officially, my first GB Ensemble concert, in 1986 in the Flanders Festival. Earlier that year I had made my first recording for ECM Records (Three Viennese Dancers)and was given a number of recordings, one of which was a solo album by Bill Frisell, In Line. I enjoyed especially the second track, Throughout, and Sub Rosa is an extended paraphrase of and comment on this piece. I transcribed Bill’s solo and combined phrases in new ways, adding others, altering the harmonic rhythm, and writing for the instrumentation of my ensemble. The gallery where we had performed in the Gent Museum of Art was adjacent to a large circular room that had an astonishingly long reverberation time, and I placed one instrument, the descant recorder, in that off-stage space to exploit this characteristic. With the slow melodic lines, the descant recorder (a part now taken by the electric guitar) is paired with the clarinet, and the violin is mixed with the bowed vibraphone to give an equivalent sense of distance. When Bill and I first met, in Leicester during his British tour, we had a meal together at a friend’s Indian restaurant and he listened to the live Belgian recording on headphones between courses. “It was,” he said, “like some crazy dream”. Subsequently Bill and I collaborated on a recording project for ECM (After the Requiem).
4. Doctor Ox’s Experiment (Epilogue) (1988)
After the final performances of my opera Medea in December 1984 the conductor Richard Bernas asked if I was interested in writing further operas. There were three texts that interested me at that time and one was Jules Verne’s novella Doctor Ox’s Experiment. As with my first opera, I wrote concert works as sketches or pilots for this project. The first of these was By the Vaar, an adagio for jazz bass, strings, bass clarinet and percussion written for Charlie Haden and performed by him at the 1987 Camden Jazz Festival. This was to provide material for a love duet in the first act of the opera, where the jazz bass has a similar function to, say, the obligato oboe or violin in a Baroque opera. The other was an extended concert aria for high soprano and ensemble for an Arts Council Contemporary Music Network tour in the autumn of 1988. This takes the form of an epilogue in which one protagonist looks back and reflects on what has happened – an epilogue that is necessarily compressed in the opera itself. The full opera was commissioned by English National Opera, and eventually performed in 1998.
The action of the opera takes place in the imaginary Flemish town of Quiquendone, a town whose geographical location is precisely fixed, but which appears on no map (The Vaar is a river that flows through the town). It is a town where everything happens very slowly; where an engagement of 10 years is the norm; where the council never reaches a decision, where operas are never completed as they are performed at impossibly slow tempi. That is, until the appearance of two strangers, Doctor Ox and his assistant Ygène, who arrive (ostensibly) to install gas lighting, but whose actions produce devastating side effects. At the end of the opera, following an explosion, Doctor Ox disappears as mysteriously as he has come, leaving the town to revert to its former existence. In an epilogue one innocent victim, Suzel, recalls the events that have taken place, and realises that things can never be the same again. The coda from By the Vaar,where the bass is, effectively, Frantz, Suzel’s betrothed, appears transformed in this last scene after Suzel has faced the future nervously.
The text is by Blake Morrison, librettist for the opera itself and who became my collaborator for many subsequent works. The vocal part was specially written for the remarkable soprano Sarah Leonard, for whom I have written a number of other pieces (The Black River,for voice and organ, and The War in Heaven,for soprano, counter tenor, chorus and orchestra).
This piece is dedicated to Ruby, the name of a typhoon which confined me to my hotel room in Hong Kong, and without whose timely intervention the piece would not have been ready in time for the first performance.
Sarah Leonard, solo soprano
Gavin Bryars Large Ensemble
2. The North Shore
3. Sub Rosa
4. Doctor Ox's Experiment, Epilogue