Gavin Bryars: Vita Nova (ECM New Series 1533)

Gavin Bryars
Vita Nova

David James countertenor
Annemarie Dreyer
Ulrike Lachner viola
Rebecca Firth cello
The Hilliard Ensemble
Gavin Bryars Ensemble
Recorded September 1993 at Propstei St. Gerold and CTS Studios (London)
Engineers: Peter Laenger and Chris Ekers
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Nomina sunt consequentia rerum.
(Names are the consequences of things.)

The music of Gavin Bryars has always been a revelation in my life, and it all began with this 1994 album. In my opinion still one of ECM’s finest New Series releases, Vita Nova is the perfect introduction to the composer’s heartfelt musical cosmos.

Incipit Vita Nova (1989), for male alto and string trio, sets the short Latin phrases that appear in Dante’s otherwise Italian La Vita Nuova. The title means “A new life is beginning” and the piece was written to celebrate the birth of a child, aptly named Vita, to his close friends. That this “new life” was the inspiration for a piece on that very subject imbues the music with the mystery of creation. Its etherealness cannot be overstated, and anyone who adores the voice of David James may find no better showcase for it. The piece swells into audible existence, bobbing like a petal on water that stays in place as waves roll beneath it. From these languid beginnings James ravels into his own life as the strings apply a more pronounced rhythm, each weaving through the others with the deftness of divine messengers. James negotiates the text with a practiced throat, though every instrument has its moment, the cello navigating the words “Omnis vita est immortalis” (All life is immortal) like a thread through a needle. There is an airy pause before the opening motif returns, this time in descending half steps, forging microtonal harmonies between voice and violin.

Glorious Hill (1988) was the result of a Hilliard Ensemble commission. The text is from Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man and imagines a dialogue between God and Adam. Here, Adam is graced rather than cursed with self-awareness—the sacred gift of personal re-creation given to no other creatures in God’s domain, where free will becomes the determinant of human nature. It is a breathtaking piece, and one in which James also figures vividly at the center of a veritable tapestry of choral sounds. But where in Incipit the strings supplemented James with “vocal” gestures, here those gestures are explicitly taken up by the human body, which renders notes with even more fragility. James spreads the text over this choral backdrop in a veneer of supplication as the tenors weave a central drone. Voice-pairs and solos emerge in turns, shifting weight with richly varied effects. Consequently, each section of text seems to be treated as its own full composition. Some are antiphonal, while others are densely polyphonic. The beautiful call of “O Adam” goes straight to the heart, upon which the tenors launch into sustained undulations, even as James charts the most inspiring regions of his unparalleled craft. Gordon Jones provides a few glorious moments of his own. This masterful piece is by far one of Bryars’s finest and ends in shining resolution, folding ever inward into solemnity.

Four Elements (1990) redirects our attention with a larger instrumental ensemble. Scored as incidental music for a ballet by Lucinda Childs, the piece characterizes Water, Earth, Air, and Fire through a variety of tonal and rhythmic combinations (one has to take such pieces with a grain of salt, for the ways in which one views primary elements differs with subjective experience). “Water” opens with an ominous thud and is dominated by bass clarinet and bells, making for a nocturnal, oceanic sound that betrays only the slightest indications of coastline through the fog. Swells of marimba and piano plow the darkness of “Earth.” The pace accelerates in “Air” with a healthy dose of brass, of which alto sax provides much of the melodic thrust before fading into the fluegelhorn-led “Fire,” ending with a slow reverberant finish as James intones a delicate flame.

Sub Rosa (1986) is another ensemble piece, if of a far more intimate persuasion. Dedicated to Bill Frisell, whose track “Throughout” from the ECM album In Line Bryars has re-imagined here, the piece is otherworldly. The central presence of a recorder lends it an antiquated flair and further enhances its enigmatic title. This is perhaps the most pensive piece on the album and speaks of a mind that is spiritually in tune with its own goals and means of achieving them. Beautifully ascendant passages from the violin are overlaid with alluring swaths of recorder, at times struggling against the most delicate of dissonances. The piano marks its path steadily and slowly with triadic arpeggios. Intriguing doublings and an ascendant chord progression make Sub Rosa all the more transitory in its beauty. It skirts the line between waking and dreaming, placing careful steps in a realm where the spirit speaks more fluently than the lips.

Anyone who finds fulfillment in the music of such ECM-represented composers as Arvo Pärt, Giya Kancheli, and Alexander Knaifel should feel rather comfortable being surrounded by this most august music. Bryars is a discovery to be cherished. Listen and be moved.

Gavin Bryars: After the Requiem (ECM New Series 1424)


Gavin Bryars
After the Requiem

Bill Frisell electric guitar
Alexander Balanescu violin, viola
Kate Musker viola
Tony Hinnigan cello
Roger Heaton clarinet, bass clarinet
Dave Smith tenor horn, piano
Gavin Bryars bass
Martin Allen percussion
Simon Limbrick percussion
Evan Parker soprano saxophone
Stan Sulzmann soprano saxophone
Ray Warleigh alto saxophone
Julian Argüelles baritone saxohpone
Recorded September 1990, Rainbow Studio, Oslo and CTS Studio, London
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Stepping into the territory of Gavin Bryars is like coming home, so familiar are the morphemes with which he composes his musical language. One of the most significant recordings in the Bryars catalogue, this disc offers a fine condensation of his spirited and nostalgic sensibilities.

After the Requiem dates from 1990 and follows his Cadman Requiem of the previous year. After completing the latter, which was written for the Hilliard Ensemble in memory of Bryars’s friend Bill Cadman, Manfred Eicher suggested that Bryars spin an instrumental postlude from the requiem’s latent fibers, thus giving us the title piece of this brooding and gorgeous album. Scored for two violas, cello, and electric guitar, After the Requiem offers a distinct take on the state of mourning it so affectionately recreates. Like the gravelly strings that open the piece, the mood is raw and unbounded. Frisell’s guitar sears the darkness like the northern lights with a slow and lustrous fire, bleeding spectral life force into the evening sky. The strings gather momentum, as if to coax the guitar toward the horizon, chasing the memory of an afternoon that can no longer be recovered. Frisell plays as if he were bowing the guitar, drawing out an amplified sustenance that nourishes the vocal hunger of his accompaniment. Where the strings seem to mimic voices, the guitar mimics the strings, ad infinitum. The piece slows about midway through, burrowing even deeper into contemplative soil, at which point Frisell wrenches out some grinding low tones from the lower register of his axe. What would be but one voice lost in a power chord more forcefully played rings here with the humility of supplication. Before long the guitar lets out more substantial tones and shifts to an aerial shot of the same landscape. The earth recedes, leading into the most beautiful moment of the piece, during which the guitar drops from a soaring high note. One can hear, indeed almost taste, the meticulous care that went into this performance. The music fades, as if sending off a spirit to a realm where life continues of its own accord. The continuity between instruments here is such that there are almost no audible gaps between them. And while all the musicians play with consummate grace, Frisell is nothing short of astonishing. Despite the polished feel of the piece it was the result, as Bryars makes clear in his recording diary, of much refinement and experimentation on Frisell’s part, working closely with the composer to achieve the ideal effect.

The Old Tower of Löbenicht. This piece, composed in 1986, is the early version of an instrumental interlude for a yet-to-be-realized opera adapted from Thomas DeQuincey’s The Last Days of Immanuel Kant. Says Bryars, “It occurs at a point in the opera where Kant is disturbed at the way in which growing poplar trees have obscured the view of a distant tower which ‘he could not be said properly to see…but (which) rested upon his eye as distant music on the ear—obscurely, or but half revealed to the consciousness.’” The music is meant to evoke Kant’s divided response to the tower’s presence and obfuscation, hence the nocturnal bass clarinet and ominous bells that dominate the first half. The music moves like a barge through ice flows. Its signals ring across the waters to the mainland, traversing coastline, steppes, mountainous terrain, barren fields, contaminated pools. A solemn piano appears with a rhythmic and minimal motif, rocking between two-part harmonies, as Balanescu solos beautifully on violin, at times doubled by Roger Heaton on bass clarinet. This progression is landmarked by a plucked bass and vibraphone. Bryars weaves a few audible strands of light into the otherwise requisite darkness, where constellations are but a memory lost to annals of history. The music very much resembles the trajectory of Glorious Hill, another Bryars masterpiece. The sheer clarity of Balanescu’s tone, at once thin and rich with melodic substance, is the binding thread. As the piece ends, a marimba flutters like butterfly wings in and out of our sonic purview, leaving behind a litany of bells while a bass clarinet scrapes the bottom of its available registers.

Alaric I or II (1989) is scored for two soprano saxophones, one alto, and one baritone. “The title,” Bryars tells us, “comes from the name of the mountain, Mount Alaric, in South West France, opposite the Chateau where I spent the summer [composing this piece]. No-one seemed to know which of the two ‘King Alarics’ the name referred to.” Alaric I or II is an exercise in virtuosity, requiring of the players a variety of techniques, including long bouts of circular breathing and controlled multiphonics. As with the rest of the album, this piece builds slowly yet with purpose. After a series of languid dissonant clusters the alto sax sketches a theme in its haunting surroundings. Suddenly, the two soprano saxes launch into a rhythmic arpeggio, lending a Philip Glassian flavor to the palette. Soon this thins out in a more contemplative air, pausing on a resolved chord, further darkened and reformed into a new beginning. Another rhythmic section begins as the baritone sax raises its throaty call. From this point a steady energy is maintained by at least one instrument as the others play over or around it: one lead is immediately switched off for another, typically between alto and soprano. An evocative fluttering technique signals a close as the quartet subsides into quiet agreement, hermetically sealed and indistinguishable from the rest of the rocky cove. The musicianship here is superb, the saxophonic sound rendered with precision. At times this piece shares an affinity with the brief saxophone quartet in Michael Nyman’s soundtrack for The Piano and would be equally suited for some incidental purpose. Although this is a fairly minimal piece, it evokes a range of atmospheres and images. Its energy moves in peaks and valleys, opening the earth’s bindings just a little further to smell its ink-blotted pages. It’s like a captain’s log floating unseen in the wake of shipwreck, plowing the waves for days before the water turns it into invisible molecules.

Allegrasco (1983) is an “operatic paraphrase” of Bryars’s first opera Medea. It is another larger ensemble piece that opens humbly with piano and clarinet. Brooding strings wrap their arms around the central melody. A bell intones; the strings grow louder; the clarinet snakes its way around like a loose scarf caught in a strong but silent wind. A playful passage ensues, a dance in a silent film. The guitar grows into a more supportive voice, dropping remnants of the album’s title piece into this limpid pool. Allegrasco is a series of finely wrought vignettes, each turning like a musical waterwheel. The music is never still, as if at the whim of an unseen narrative force. We graze the shoreline with each musical gesture, sometimes sinking, sometimes floating.

Bryars’s music practically begs for imagery, if only the listener’s own. It is corroded, antique, and accrues value with age. One hears it anew every time, for it holds a world of possibility.