Gavin Bryars - Vita Nova (1994)

Posted By: celmomas
Gavin Bryars - Vita Nova

The Composer

(b Goole, Yorkshire, 16 Jan 1943). English composer. He read philosophy at Sheffield University (1961–4) and studied composition with Cyril Ramsey and George Linstead. In 1968 he became part of London's fast-developing experimental music scene; although never a member of the Scratch Orchestra, he worked regularly for a while with the pianist John Tilbury. His best known works of this period – The Sinking of the Titanic (conceived in 1969 and still officially in progress 30 years later) and Jesus' Blood Never Failed me Yet (1971) – are good working examples of his early aesthetic. While conceptual concerns are central (the former work is based on a series of hypotheses surrounding the disaster that befell the liner), these are explored via a rigorous, not to say relentless, extrapolation of found objects, be they the music which evidence suggests was performed on board the Titanic as it sank, or the tape of a London tramp's song, incessantly repeated in Jesus' Blood. A further dimension of the experimental aesthetic was demonstrated by the concerts of the Portsmouth Sinfonia, founded while Bryars taught at the Portsmouth College of Art: here, the performances of Western classical music by untrained musicians embodied what Michael Nyman called the ‘wide discrepancy between intention and effect’ (Experimental Music, London, 1974). The first period of Bryars' work offers a very English perspective on the experimental tradition, augmenting territory already defined by Satie, Cage and others with an openness towards, for instance, frankly sentimental materials and their associations.

The influence of Marcel Duchamp, already detectable in earlier works, was enhanced by intensive study during two fallow compositional years (1973–4), by which time Bryars had established what was to become a long-standing relationship with Leicester Polytechnic. A determination – inspired in part by the composer's affiliation to the 'Pataphysics movement – to justify every compositional decision via specific, though often hidden or arcane, associations with its literary or artistic inspiration is here harnessed to musical processes derived in part from American minimalism. Bryars's main source of performances during this period was his own ensemble, formed in 1979 and initially dominated by keyboards and percussion, since the early 1990s by low strings. Pieces such as Out of Zaleski's Gazebo for two pianos, six or eight hands (1977) and My First Homage (1978 onwards, best known in the version of 1981 for eight performers) submit familiar-sounding borrowed materials – many taken from his then favourite composers: Lord Berners, Grainger, Bill Evans, Karg-Elert – to repetitive forms governed as much by the logic implied by these pieces’ musical and extra-musical reference points (and by the significant play of irony) as by purely internal musical processes. This approach governs Bryars's second period which lasted until the opera Medea (1982, rev. 1984). The flexibility, if not compromise, demanded of a composer in the theatre led to changes in Bryars's attitude and working methods; the Duchamp-inspired principle of justification was then abandoned in favour of a more free-wheeling approach to structure. Since Medea his output has often been for more conventional forces, such as orchestras and string quartets, and commissioned by musicians of repute in other fields; there has been a number of works, for instance, for the Hilliard Ensemble, including The First Book of Madrigals (1998–2000). While a modal but often chromatically restless melancholy remains an important component of his idiom, the opportunities to write for much larger forces later enriched and sometimes energized Bryars's melodic and harmonic style while offering him a broader timbral palette. These developments are well illustrated by the opera Doctor Ox's Experiment, first performed in 1998. Review on Incipit Vita Nova

This would be a great album to give someone who thinks they don't like modern, contemporary composers. Gavin Bryars work is always fresh and challenging, but he never 'rubs it in the listener's face'. His compositions have form, structure, intelligence, emotion, and – gasp! – melody. This is not a study in dissonance challenging us to listen to it all the way through – when it's over, we want more.

The Hilliard Ensemble is, of course, at the pinnacle of their field. Their voices inhabit that razor's edge between 'perfect' and 'human', with taste, ease and without pretention. They have reached the status that their name being attached to a recording is the musical eqivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal – there is quality to be found within. They are featured on only one track here as a group, 'Glorious hill' – it was commissioned by them, and you can tell it was written with their talents in mind. This is one of the most singularly beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard.

David James, the Ensemble's countertenor, is also heard on the cd's opening track, 'Incipit vita nova', written by Bryars to celebrate the birth of a daughter to a couple of his friends. His voice is heard alongside violin, viola and cello here. Bryars' text – rendered into Latin – is one of the most eloquent expressions of the wonder – and the promise – of birth I've ever read.

'Four elements' also features the voice of David James, although it is largely instrumental. The composition is built in movements to represent water, earth, air and fire – it was originally written as a dance piece. Bryars places this in the hands of his 'large chamber ensemble' – 10 players (alto sax, bass clarinet, fluegelhorn, French horn, trombone, piano, electric keyboard, two percussionists, double-bass), plus James and a conductor – but the arrangement and performance gives a real feeling of intimacy.

The album's final track, 'Sub Rosa', was written by Bryars as a tribute to Bill Frisell. He explains in the notes that he was particularly impressed with a track from Frisell's IN LINE album (also on ECM) – in 'Sub Rosa', Bryars paraphrases and expands upon line from Frisell's composition 'Throughout', from IN LINE. This piece is performed by Bryars' smaller ensemble (6 players: recorder, clarinet, violin, vibraphone, piano, double-bass).

The music on this disc is, as I mentioned, intelligent and challenging – but it's also extremely listenable. Bryars' work shows us that the work of 'contemorary composers' need not alienate potential listeners by extremism for its own sake. His work is both thoughtful and beautiful.

Track List can be seen on this image:

The album is split into 4x50 MB and 1x42 MB parts. Click HERE to get the archive with the download links. Password for all archives is Files are on Rapidshare, and I don't want them to be mirrored for the time being.

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