Percussions Claviers de Lyon questions


Occasional Writings
August 5, 2009


  • Quel souvenir avez-vous des PCL, lorsque vous les avez rencontré pour la création de Medea

You must bear in mind that when I wrote Medea I had written nothing orchestral whatsoever and that, in researching ideas for the opera, I looked at all aspects of musical production and instrumentation was one of them. I came up with the idea of removing entirely the violins from the orchestra and replacing them with a large array of tuned percussion instruments – 5 players (plus timpani separately in its conventional role). I had used tuned percussion extensively in my own ensemble work from the mid-70’s. This came from a number of sources, one of which was the work and ideas of Percy Grainger. There was also the fact that I had played in the Steve Reich group in 1972, performing Drumming, and I became good friends with a number of the percussionists, especially Russ Hartenberger and Bob Becker (although Bob joined afer that tour). I also knew Nexus from its foundation in the late 70’s.

Working with PCL, as it became, was a pleasure, as indeed it was with most of the orchestra. There was a good spirit: most of the players were very young and highly motivated and we all got on well. It helped that I spoke French all the time (unlike people on the theatre side like Bob Wilson) and, being essentially a practical musician, always took the advice of the players about specific questions. It has been a principle of my life to always pay attention to what performers tell me – they know far more about their instruments than a composer ever will! The encounter with Gérard and the others was immensely rewarding and very important for me.

  • Quelles sont les particularités de la pièce que vous écrivez en ce moment pour les PCL? Sera-t-elle spécialement «percussive»?

I’m not sure about “percussive” – there is a sense in which this word is used to mean the opposite of “musical”. Give that I have only just started looking at the piece I can’t be too precise, but I would say that, as with other music that I have written for percussion, I will think of the players as chamber musicians first and foremost – groups like Nexus, PCL are every bit as musical as, say, the Amadeus String Quartet! Given that we are talking about tuned percussion as the heart of a group like PCL, questions of harmony, melody, counterpoint and so on are as relevant as they are with ther ensembles

  • Très peu nombreux sont les compositeurs qui maintiennent au cours de leur carrière une activité d’instrumentiste. Est-ce naturel pour vous?

For me playing is very important and entirely natural. It is a means whereby I can engage with the pubic in a way that does not perpetuate the hierarchical and ludicrous position of the composer as “Great Man From Afar, who descends from His Lofty Perch in order to pass Wisdom and Insight to Inferior Beings”. The fact that I perform emphasises and reinforces the fact that, for me, music is a profoundly social activity which involves close attention and equality between all the participants (of course, I do not include orchestral music, which I view as a somehwat unnatural activity, in this description).

  • Le Gavin Bryars ensemble est-il le meilleur prolongement de votre écriture, ou plutôt une manière de pousser votre démarche jusqu’au contact direct avec le public?

The Gavin Brars Ensemble is he ideal environment for me, when I find myself playing music with musicians I admire and with whom I have chosen to work, and at the same time playing the music that I have written specially for them. The members of my ensemble are my favourite musicians and people with whom I have developed long artistic and personal friendships. There are some who I have worked with for over thirty years, and even the most recent members have been with me for over eight years.

  • Votre musique semble ne jamais se perdre dans la provocation de l’avant-garde, ni dans une recherche musicale destinée à un public restreint. Est-ce une volonté de s’adresser à un large public ou cela correspond-il simplement à vos aspirations ?

I certainly don’t write in order to attract a large public – indeed there have been times when my work has brought about real hostility. For example, when Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet was performed in the early 1970’s and subsequently issued as a recording it was treated with great disdain and critical disapproval. But when the same music was recorded and released in the early 1990’s it achieved great popular and critical success. The same thing has happened with many pieces. However, at the same time, I respond with suspicion to the corollary, that new music will always be rejected at first hearing and will be judged more favourably by history – this is often a way of avoiding the painful truth that a piece is actually not very good, and will never be good!

I simply write music in the way that interests me, and that ends up being something that I enjoy experiencing both as a listener as well as a performer. There was a time very early in my life when I thought that it was obligatory to engage with the polemical questions of the avant-garde. But more and more I found that this musical world, and performing within such an environment, resembled more and more the academic way of life, whereby “progress” occurs through the participation in academic debate, in the publication of scholarly papers, and where actions are either “right” or “wrong”. The notion of musical regulation and prescription within such a constrained and hermetic field brings to mind the saying of the American painter Barnett Newman, that “aesthetics for the artist is like ornithology for the birds”.

Gavin Bryars
Metchosin BC August 5 2009

Gavin Bryars