Gavin Bryars: The Fifth Century (ECM New Series 2405)

The Fifth Century

Gavin Bryars
The Fifth Century

PRISM Quartet
Timothy McAllister soprano saxophone
Robert Young alto saxophone
Matthew Levy tenor saxophone
Taimur Sullivan baritone saxophone
The Crossing
Donald Nally conductor
John Grecia piano
The Fifth Century was recorded July 2014 at Gould Hall, Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia
Two Love Songs was recorded June 2015 at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia
Engineers: Andreas K. Meyer and Paul Vazquez (Digital Mission Audio Services)
An ECM Production
Release date: November 18, 2016

A shepherd, soldier, and divine,
A judge, a courtier, and a king,
Priest, angel, prophet, oracle, did shine
At once when he did sing.
Philosopher and poet too
Did in his melody appear;
All these in him did please the view
Of those that did his heavenly music hear:
And every drop that from his flowing quill
Came down, did all the world with nectar fill.
–Thomas Traherne

Before this 2016 release, the last ECM New Series album dedicated solely to composer Gavin Bryars was the 1994 masterpiece Vita Nova. What both discs lack in temporal proximity, however, they make up for in philosophical overlap.

Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations, written in the 17th century, yields the 2014 title composition. Scored for choir and saxophone quartet, this setting of a long-unknown English theologian distills what he calls the “essence of God” from glorious creation. The fifth and final century of Traherne’s mystical treatise examines relationships between finite bodies and infinite space, knowledge and ignorance, intimacy and grandeur: dichotomies Bryars has explored in And So Ended Kant’s Traveling In This World (1997) and Glorious Hill (1988), among others. The combination of reeds and voices is as seamless as it is variegated, leaving behind a trail so distinct as to feel antique. That said, the saxophone quartet is subdued in its presence and function, serving as guide rather than commentator, and reaching peak integration in the fifth of seven sections. Performed by the PRISM Quartet and The Crossing, under the direction of Donald Nally, these motifs carry enough weight to exist on their own yet cohere like a sacred text in which is wasted not a single word. While the poetry is rich throughout, the first lines of section III epitomizes the spirit of the piece: “Infinity of space is like a painter’s table, prepared for the ground and field of those colours that are to be laid thereon.” This echoes a theme laid out in the opening of Centuries proper: “An empty book is like an Infant’s Soul, in which anything may  be written. It is capable of all things, but containeth nothing.” Bryars evokes this very sense of purity corrupted by flesh in his harmonies, which remind us that dissonance can be beautiful when interpretation is treated as an act of humility rather than pride. And in that humility Bryars, like Traherne, finds joy.

Alongside this cathedral stand the smaller Two Love Songs. These 2010 settings for female choir of sonnets by Petrarch, a personal favorite of the composer, draw a dotted line between the Italian madrigal tradition and the melodic vibrancy of the language itself, which shimmers in the second song, “Solo et pensoso.” Here soloists Kelly Ann Bixby, Karen Blanchard, and Rebecca Siler arise like relics from a receding ocean in a world run dry with passion for want of transfiguration.

Trio Mediaeval: Soir, dit-elle (ECM New Series 1869)

 

Trio Mediaeval
Soir, dit-elle

Anna Maria Friman soprano
Linn Andrea Fuglseth soprano
Torunn Østrem Ossum soprano
Recorded April 2003, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by John Potter
Executive Producer: Manfred Eicher

The music on this, the second album from the Trio Mediaeval, represents 500 years of creation. And yet, as John Potter notes, “in a sense it is older than that, tapping into the continuing present—a timeless present, perhaps—that is what medieval music means to us.” These three Scandinavian singers have done so much for the music they touch, and in turn British composers Gavin Bryars, Ivan Moody, Andrew Smith, along with Ukrainian Oleh Harkavvy, have nourished that sound with newly fashioned music of their own. At the heart of these dedicatory contributions lies the Missa “Alma redemptoris mater” of Leonel Power (fl. 15th century). The mass is a fine example of early Renaissance polyphony and through the Gloria alone expresses a cathedral’s worth of light and shadow. The tonal qualities of the singers and the sung are luminescent, all coming to a flowering head in the visceral Agnus Dei. Power’s music comes to us in spite of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, thereby speaking to us all the more lucidly through a history that might have silenced it. Its clarity is as pervasive as its texts and forms a warm framework through and around which the women of Trio Mediaeval weave their artfully conceived program.

Plainchant is the inhalation and exhalation of Harkavvy’s Kyrie (2002), as of the program as a whole, which unfurls bursts of polyphony in its pores. From ashes to flesh and back to ashes, it paints a tableau of life in barest terms, exceeded in simplicity only by the solo laude of Bryars, who also aligns all three voices in his stilling Ave regina gloriosa (2003). The Ave Maria (2000) and Regina caeli (2002) of Smith expand upon the gorgeousness of these horizons, again inscribing broad mosaics of faith with minimal vocal borders. Only when we get to Moody’s The Troparion of Kassiani (1999) do we find ourselves wrapped in a more detailed cartography. Its shifting microtonal harmonies, evocative textual phrasings, and resplendent highs cut to the core of the singers’ art. Moody also offers the pinnacle of this disc in his 2002 composition A Lion’s Sleep, if only because it seems to draw upon the Trio’s talents most intimately.

In light of the above impressions, however, I am wary of treating the album as anything but a unified whole. Like all Trio programs, it is structured like a stained glass window, each section having been soldered into place with great individual detail, but which comes to vibrant life when vocal light shines through it. Only then does the image tell its story, share its moral lesson, and open its wings to an understanding of vibration and sound that is as constant as the sun in its veins.

Gavin Bryars: Vita Nova (ECM New Series 1533)

Gavin Bryars
Vita Nova

David James countertenor
Annemarie Dreyer
violin
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.)
–Dante

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.

Sarah Leonard/Christopher Bowers-Broadbent: Górecki/Satie/Milhaud/Bryars (ECM New Series 1495)

 

Górecki/Satie/Milhaud/Bryars

Sarah Leonard soprano
Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Recorded June 1992, Hofkirche Luzern
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Not many record labels would produce, let alone conceive of, an album consisting mainly of works for soprano and organ. I am glad to say that ECM did not back away from such a challenge, and in the process left one of its most indelible musical marks on the classical landscape. Of the four composers represented here Bryars is the only ECM mainstay, but he is in fine company indeed.

Henryk Górecki’s O Domina Nostra (1982-1985/90), conceived as an apostrophe to the Black Madonna of Jasna Góra, emerges from and recedes into a profound stasis. An earthly low pedal D on the organ is paired with triads descending from the cosmos, leaving us caught in the middle. Our only guide is the bare text and the voice that articulates it:

O Domina nostra
Claromontana
Victoriosa
Regina nostra Maria
Sancta Maria ora pro nobis

Oh, our Lady
Of the Bright Mount,
Victorious
Our Queen, Mary
Holy Mary, pray for us

Amid this murky swirl a soprano scours her lowest range, trying to pull herself from the depths of some unnamable crisis. She proclaims her joy in faith, as if each new utterance might touch a hope that its predecessors failed to reach. She returns to the opening invocation, closing on a supplicative “O Domina.”

The epic Messe des Pauvres (1895), or Mass for the Poor, by Erik Satie is, like much of the composer’s paradoxical output, both representative of the eclecticism for which he is known and something of an anomaly. According to Wilfrid Mellers’s liner notes, early on in his compositional career Satie “sought to reintegrate the disintegrated materials of tradition by juxtaposing fragments of melody and chord-sequences without obvious relation to one another or to development.” Thus do we get the Messes des Pauvres, a piece rooted in plainchant, sans the theological overload such a comparison might imply. Normally the organ is accompanied by unison voices, but forgoes them here. The piece rarely lingers, as if the four limbs required of its performance were seeking a point of unity through which to gain access to something far more mystical. Yet the piece also questions the mystical, and with a levity that indulges our skepticism. The music is wrought with such beautiful indecisiveness that moments of resolution seem intrusive. Only when the organ bares its teeth midway through is the power of this indecision fully realized. The heavy feet of an overarching sarcastic glory trample even the fluted reverie that follows.

The diptych of miniatures that is Darius Milhaud’s Prélude I/II (1942) is charmingly rustic and prepares us for the masterpiece that awaits us. The lead melodies are like the ramblings of shepherds, whose carefree desires can only go so far before the flock disperses beyond containment. The rhythms move like a human figure, as graceful as they are imperfect.

Which brings us to this album’s pièce de résistance: Gavin Bryars’s The Black River (1991). The text, culled from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, is told from the viewpoint of Professor Aronnax as he describes the many underwater life forms that escort the mighty Nautilus through a vast underwater current from which the piece gets its name. Bryars successfully makes of this passage a world unto itself, one not subterranean but submerged. A languid introduction from the organ opens our ears to the soprano’s entrance as she propels herself through a subdued tour de force of intonation, melody, and atmosphere. The melody sustains itself through a constantly shifting mosaic of moods, in which recapitulation is found only in the organ at the end.

Sarah Leonard sings with rare beauty, and her rich voice is laced with a nasal quality that burrows into the very marrow of the listener’s bones. Her high note in The Black River sends shivers down the spine (and do keep an ear out for the haunting overtone she unwittingly produces at the 13:18 mark in the same piece). Christopher Bowers-Broadbent is the perfect foil, eliciting from the organ a delicacy I have heard nowhere else. This will always be one of my most beloved New Series recordings.

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.

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.