Gavin Bryars: Three Viennese Dancers (ECM New Series 1323)

 

Gavin Bryars
Three Viennese Dancers

Pascal Pongy French horn
Charles Fullbrook percussion
Gavin Bryars percussion
Arditti String Quartet
Recorded February 1986, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The opening moments of this seminal disc encapsulate Bryars in a nutshell: restrained yet so full of life. A murky prologue drags us through reverberant waters, never quite breaking the waves of percussion above. Like the tides, sustained tones caress the coasts of our attention with invisible rhythm. If one were to record a wind chime, slow it down to a languid crawl, and submerge it in a tank, and if we were outside that tank with our ears pressed against the glass, straining to feel the vibrations with every inch our bodies, we might approach an analogous sound. Despite the lack of discernable melody, the mood is thick, fading into the silence whence it came.

String Quartet No. 1 (“Between the National and the Bristol”)
The result of a 1985 Vienna Festival commission, this quartet allowed Bryars to look beyond the insular world of his main instrument (the double bass) and into new territory. Having never written for string quartet, Bryars was faced with the task of both expanding upon the intricacies of his instrument while being faithful to the dynamics of this new medium. On the title, Bryars says:

During the time that I was working with Robert Wilson on The CIVIL WarS I undertook research into the life of Mata Hari in order to find text for an aria. One night in 1906, unknown to each of them, the three most famous dancers of the period were staying in Vienna. Maud Allan was at the National, Mata Hari was at the Hotel Bristol, and Isadora Duncan, another reference within the quartet, was staying in a hotel “somewhere between the National and the Bristol”.

While one might easily dismiss the anecdotal underpinnings of the quartet, they do add a splash of color to its monochromatic canvas. The instruments seem to enter in procession, with the violins in the lead. Each layer of the quartet is clearly introduced, as if each were its own string in a larger instrument, speaking as one story between worlds. The music here is fairly minimal and at moments puts me in mind of Michael Galasso’s wonderful album Scenes, also available on ECM. With the same grace that embodies so much of his work, Bryars traces his path in arcs. The quartet evokes a European city in pastiche. Violins raise a call to arms and, with one foot firmly planted in the arid terrain of imperialism, sound an alarm of imminent histories. We become privy to the sentiments of a young girl who has grown up in an oppressive regime and who must now choose between life and death, between family and freedom. She wanders the lamp-lit streets, glistening with a fresh spate of rain, and she despairs because she has lost something more than her grounding: her identity. The state does not beat her with its fists, but oppresses her with its presence of mind, even as her not-so-distant memories haunt her with promises of a better life. But then, we are suddenly lifted away from this scene in a swish from cello to violins, whereupon the narrative slips into a bizarre sort of dance—one that sways and tilts in conversation with gravity. It is the twirl of slippered feet dotting the landscape with steps as yet undiagrammed. The passage of time becomes contested as strings ascend once more into new harmonic possibilities.

First Viennese Dance
This third piece nears the 20-minute length of its predecessor and is scored for French horn and percussion. Again, we get a broad swell of gongs and liquid tones. Tubular bells resound in our ears as metallic clusters glitter like handfuls of coins dropped into a fountain. Like the prologue, this music is murky—so much so that even the trebly glockenspiel is diffused in a haze of post-production. Unlike the first string quartet, the structure of this first dance is so amorphous that all potential themes are stretched to the point of misrecognition. By the time we get to the end of any melodic line, we are so far from the beginning that we forget it. This music is more atmosphere than motive, flickering somewhere between an unknown future and nostalgia. Bryars is able to elicit from these acoustic ingredients a sound that is almost electronic in taste. In contrast to Bryars’s earlier The Sinking of the Titanic, however, the music represented on this album seems to have no specific vessel. It is, rather, the aura of a war-ravaged city yet to be built, much less destroyed.

The album ends where it began, plumbing the depths of clouded waters, leaving us to recede ever downward into a heavy darkness. This is an album to be experienced with closed eyes.

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