Text: Etel Adnan
Duration: 30′
Dedication: Jane Quinn and Martin Duignan
Instrumentation: Soprano voice, bass clarinet (and clarinet), electric guitar (and acoustic guitar), 2 violas, cello, bass
First performance: Valdine Anderson and Gavin Bryars Ensemble, Almeida Theatre, London, July 20th 1996


January 1, 1996

Gavin’s Notes:

Adnan Songbook (1996)

The songs in the Adnan Songbook set a group of eight Love Poems by the Lebanese writer Etel Adnan. Etel left Beirut many years ago and now lives and works in California and Paris. I collaborated with her on Robert Wilson’s large scale operatic project, the CIVIL WarS in 1984, and one aria from that opera to words by Etel, “La Reine de la Mer”, forms part of my cantata Effarene. We worked together, with a number of other performers and designers, in the isolated setting of the Monastery of La Sainte Baume in the mountains above Marseilles in a bitterly cold winter.

The first of the poems to be set was the fifth one which was written for Mary Wiegold and the Composers Ensemble in 1992. The first and second, sung by Sarah Leonard, were written in 1995, commissioned by the BBC for the ‘Songbook’ series as part of their ‘Fairest Isle’ season. The remainder were commissioned by the Almeida and written in 1996 for performance by Valdine Anderson with my ensemble and she gave the first complete performance in July 1996. Since Anna Maria Friman joined my ensemble this has become a piece closely associated with her voice.

The instrumentation is a restrained one using only 6 players but with a combination of instrumental sonorities that characterise my ensemble: 2 violas, cello, double bass, electric guitar (doubling acoustic guitar) and bass clarinet (doubling clarinet). The vocal part, being for a high lyric soprano, was written for Valdine and in all cases the music is written with my own performers in mind. The bass-clarinet, for example, has long been one of my favourite instruments and I enjoy the possibility of its extreme ranges. With the electric guitar I generally prefer it to be played without attack, allowing sustained chords or melodic lines to complement those of the strings, and this grainy combination of electric guitar and low strings was one which I first used with Bill Frisell in After the Requiem (1990). The formation of the strings here provides in effect a kind of string quartet, transposed substantially downwards. For the last three songs the bass-clarinet moves to B flat clarinet, and the electric guitar changes to the classical acoustic instrument.

There are many cross-references between the songs, as there are between the poems, and three of them are extended by instrumental epilogues – viola for numbers 2 and 8, clarinet for number 6. The first two songs are played together without a break.

The Adnan Songbook is dedicated to my friends Jane Quinn and Martin Duignan.

Text for The Adnan Songbook

I had a gypsy
with Indian silver
all over her body

She had a
navel like the morning star
and eyes
like the meadows
of the sierras

She was a deer
and a trail
leading to an archetypal

One day the sun shone
on her hair
and the forest caught fire
only the car broke down
by the curve of
the road

And we slept on a hospital bed
to rise again
like the Indian Rainbow.

The sun came in
The pain went out
a window on the lone mountain

a tree decrucified
its roots.

2000 years of suffering redeemed
in a woman’s two-days’
from paradise to paradise
we went with no mule
nor train
but with our hands and our eyes.

I went to the drugstore
to sell my pain
I got a penny and bought an Indian rug
on the grey wool
I read the footstep of
a sheep
on the black line      I followed a

and we arrived at a meadow
there, only water talked
to us
we spoke of rain and fire
and the three of us
slept together
because we became the morning dew.

No one asked you to be an angel of
or even of death

We only wanted your skin to be
as smooth
as the sea
an October afternoon
in Beirut, Lebanon
between two civil wars.

You came
with a handful of pain
and a smile
which broke the ground under my feet
as the earthquake does
when two people

You are a white cloud
coming down my spine
fire moves its fingers along
my pain
but two black eyes remain
resolved in tears
the cloud becomes a song
I heard in the fog
and over the city
while you were counting
the money
for yesterday’s hospital

We are not playing a game
of sorrow
we are trying to grow

You are under my hands
a piece of fire
which doesn’t burn itslef out,

You cry with the rain
and laugh every morning
at the advent of the sun

I see you
with your cousins the deer
chase shadows
under the oak trees of the ranch

You refused a
voyage to the moon
in order to
a moment more
in bed.

White as the unfolded tree
of a winter in
on the sun’s decisions
you draw my naked body
on the city’s
invisible walls
and a million tiny roads
go to a single point.
White as Ophella’s pallor
you make haggard statements
so that
madness and reason be reconciled
for ever

and the warmth of your
takes on
the color of frost
white as a permanent spring.

My hand on your hand
in the hollow of
a tree
one sky chasing another
devouring atoms
going to the moon.
Green is the color of

Two lips tasting mushrooms
and the Colorado River
the village….
from the persistent Mediterranean
to the persistent
we cut roads with our feet
share baggage and
running always one second
ahead of the running of

we are travelling at some
infinite speed

we are not scared.

Gavin Bryars