Not failed us yet - Gavin Bryars in Vilnius

  • 2012-11-14
  • By Jonathan Brown

EMERGING TALENT: Gavin Bryars, before studing music, studied philosophy.

VILNIUS - English composers can be elusive. Surrounded by salt water, they’ve always been suspiciously isolated from American and European trends. Yet the composers and compositions that leave the Isles, curious as they are, do so with a bang. That Gavin Bryars is performing a concert of his own music with his own ensemble in Vilnius should raise a few eyebrows; a few questions too. For many, the first may be: “who is Gavin Bryars?”

You’ll have heard of Edward Elgar and maybe even Benjamin Britten. More recently though, it’s Brian Ferneyhough and Bryars who have most successfully punctured Great Britain’s musical veneer. Although Ferneyhough and Bryars were both born in 1943, it would be hard to find two more different composers. Where Ferneyhough gravitated to staggering, machine-like complexity, Bryars’ ideals were more humane.

One hundred years after its sinking, the Titanic’s stories are immutable. Bryars’ composed his first major piece The Sinking of the Titanic in 1969. It is a powerful tribute to the band that played on while the ship went down. Speculations, witness accounts and the band’s hymn combine to mark the legendary tragedy. Bryars penned Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet just two years after. Filming in London’s Waterloo station, he unintentionally recorded some local runabouts singing opera excerpts and popular songs. One of the lesser drunks sang a religious ballad, Jesu’ Blood. This accidental recording became the raw material for Bryars’ composition. Both The Sinking and Jesus’ Blood continue to be his best-known pieces, maybe because they offer sympathetic, but compelling stories about people and their experiences.

It’s uncommon for one composer to feature exclusively on a concert program. But when the occasion calls, there’s usually a good reason. So, what sets Bryars apart? Unlike many musicians, his instrument was not the piano; his genre wasn’t even necessarily classical. He first developed a reputation as an improviser and jazz bassist. It’s telling that before music at University, Bryars studied philosophy. Perhaps this was the impetus for quitting jazz and moving to the States to learn from the infinitely exploratory John Cage. Jazz, improvisation, philosophy, studying with Cage in New York, Bryars background may not be the norm; but its conjured brilliant originality.

When Dutch composer Louis Andriessen failed to promote his music among existing ensembles, he started his own. His was a practical solution to an inevitable problem for contemporary composers - finding musicians to play your music. Andriessen’s ensemble, Hoketus, is by no means the only example; it was, however, one of the first and most successful. The founding of The Gavin Bryars Ensemble in 1981 happened under similar circumstances. Since then, the ensemble has flourished, becoming one of the most important performing today. It has performed in Norway, Australia, Japan, Mexico and almost everywhere between. Bryars has collaborated outside the ensemble, too, with the Latvian Radio Choir, choreographer Merce Cunningham, the Hilliard Ensemble, and stage director Robert Wilson.

The ensemble’s performance in Vilnius is the postscript - the final hurrah - of the Gaida Festival. Gaida featured a robust and well-rounded array of top performers including Bang on a Can, the Lithuanian National Symphony, Spain’s Plural Ensemble, and Steve Reich. Bryars follows a number of tough acts, but no doubt theirs will be an impressive and worthy conclusion to Gaida. The timing of the performance is interesting. This concert falls about one month after Gaida’s last. As if there was a specific time when new music ought to be performed, this concert permeates outside the umbrella. It’s a step that brings contemporary music to the same playing field as classical and maybe even popular music, too.

This leads us to a more important idea and the reason to see Bryars in Vilnius. Since the 20th century, trends in music have multiplied so rapidly it’s near impossible to tell them apart. The idea that music can be divided into different genres is increasingly controversial. It’s easy to cite examples of the most unlikely candidates dispersing their inhibitions and prejudices to collaborate on new experiences and new music. The results have been both problematic and inspiring. It’s this process that has coined the phrase “post-classical.” This phrase suggests progression. It shows that our ability to distinguish some music as “classical” is waning, if not completely disbanded. It recognizes music beyond genres and embraces the musical melting pot. Bryars’ role in this has been poignant and paramount.

The Gavin Bryars Ensemble performs on Nov. 21 at the Vilnius Congress Concert Hall at 19.00. For more information about the performance visit