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An interview with Gavin Bryars

PARIS - On the Paris stop of a European junket for the launch of a new compact disc, British Composer Gavin Bryars talked to Klassiknet about his "post-minimalist" music (Cello Concerto: Farewell to Philosophy; One Last Bar, Then Joe can Sing; By the Vaar). Strongly attracted to percussion instruments, the 53-year-old contemporary of Cornelius Cardew and rocker Brian Eno swapped the violins in an orchestra for a marimba and sound bells.

klassiknet: Point Music is the new music label of Philips Classics, which commissioned you to write the cello concerto for Julian Lloyd Webber. Did the record company give you any directives about the concerto's composition?

Bryars: No, they didn't tell me what key to write it in. They indicated a duration of around 25 - 30 minutes. In the end I came out with 35, which wasn't a problem. Philips did stipulate that Julian and I had to iron out our relationship. I had to could come up with something we would both be happy with.

klassiknet: Couldn't this be restrictive though, a commission from a recording company whose objective is essentially to sell records?

Bryars: It could be, but I am not trying to sell their records. I am writing something which I find satisfying and which I am prepared to put my name to as a composer. I would also like the soloist to feel happy to put it in front of the public, because in the end he's on the firing line, not me. The chain between a composer and the people who listen is a vital one. In no way did I have to pander to Philips' taste, as I didn't even know what that is. If they knew what I had written in the past, I suppose they imagined I wouldn't totally change direction and come out with a neo-Birtwistle piece.

klassiknet: And perhaps they thought you would produce a piece responsive to the underground pop trends that steer the market.

Bryars: Sure. What was once underground is now coming to the surface. People like Arvo Pärt would not have been taken seriously 20 years ago. Clearly, tonal music is no longer an anachronism, but something comtemporary. Some things which are now written tonally could not have been written without Boulez and Cage. Writing tonal music now, you are not writing into the 19th Century. Music history has flowed under the bridges for many years.

klassiknet: Listening to your new compositions, notably the cello concerto, was like looking at a tailor-made suit -- almost like music made to measure.

Bryars: Craft is part of the creative process. Over the years I have tried to develop something which is technically assured. I now think of some of my earlier pieces as quite inept and clumsy. I currently spend a lot of time thinking about orchestration and every detail of a piece. I work very fast, keeping the ideas flowing but making sure they come out the way I intended. In the case of a commission I am aware that I am writing for a particular performer and performance, but in the end it has to be universalised, so other people can play it. In the case of the cello concerto it was commissioned by the record company for Julian Lloyd Weber who gave the first performance and recording, but Philips didn't insist on an exclusive clause, so next week it is being played by a Canadian cellist in Vancouver. It already has a life, which is important for a new piece.

klassiknet: Do you think that your personal contact with Brian Eno and Cornelius Cardew had an influence on your music?

Bryars: Brian Eno actually admires this kind of music, which he first heard as a painting student developing into a rock musician. I was teaching in an art college. He was 19 or 20 then. We've been friends for many years, though I have not seen him recently. We worked on records in the 70s. He is a kind of Renaissance figure in the pop world. He wanted to produce albums with this sort of music, because he thought the public was being deprived of it back in the mid-70s. To him, this music is very accessible while still challenging certain musical conventions. Cardew took a different kind of line. He was actively encouraging a more collective form of action, as a computer composer in a formal community... an important concept for us in England in the late 60s and 70s.

klassiknet: Is what you are writing now more cutting edge for you than the more academic area of new music?

Bryars: The academic area of new music or modern music festivals is not something which attracts me at all. It's rather like attending a university seminar where you are talking to a few gifted specialists who deliver a paper to an audience of their peers. That's one way of making music. There's another way of making music, by touching the lives and feelings of ordinary people. The ideal, of course, is to have the respect of professionals and the admiration of amateurs. I suppose this was the case in the past. Somehow in the 20th Century an idea has developed that music is an activity or skill which is not comprehensible to the man in the street. This is an arrogant assertion and not necessarily a true one.

klassiknet: In France, for example, there's been considerable debate, hostility, and even rejection, concerning American minimalism and subsequent currents.

Bryars: True. And I have experienced it myself first-hand. Concerts in France can be a difficult experience for someone writing in a tonal way because an aggressive official modernism has developped as a musical force. Which is unfortunate because at its worse, it can become a form of Stalinism, with a politically correct way of writing music. I've heard though that there is a younger generation of tonal French composers who are reacting with vigour. Still, American composers working in France have had a pretty hard time. Steve Reich has always been respected because of the technical rigour of his work. Philip Glass is successful because of Bob Wilson's theatre works in Paris and Lyon. I know that John Adams has had a very hard time directing French ensembles. It's a difficult situation.

klassiknet: Another Polygram classical label, Deutsche Grammophon, commissioned an American techno composer, Todd Levin, to write several works for orchestra. As composition and in performance the results were poor from both a techno and classical point of view. Do you think classical labels of the traditional repertoire are musically competent or properly equipped to work with composers of new music today?

Bryars: Some are, some aren't. I have friends who have a CD mastering plant in Hollywood and they are very sceptical about European record labels' understanding of digital technology. They think some of the records and the techniques involved are appalling -- you can hear microphones moving in some DGG recordings. They are sceptical about the way European labels have moved from simple analog to digital. I am sure there is a dinosaur which needs kicking out of the way in order to get them moving. It all depends on having the right producers, people who look beyond existing ways of working. The composers have to rethink, and so do the record companies.

klassiknet: With its shrinking publics, doesn't the classical music industry see you as an interface to younger publics?

Bryars: I'm kind of young and vibrant myself! For an old man I feel flattered! Record companies and live concert organisations have gone on for too long, reproducing the same repertoire endlessly. There are only so many new Beethoven cycles or Brahms symphonies with the same conductor, specially when most record companies have in their vaults some masterpieces of very fine conductors, recorded in the 60s or late 50s. It makes sense to invest in new work. It's almost like having a research department in a scientific laboratory. You have to try things out. You'll make some bad mistakes. Some things will fail but at least you'll energise the organisation.

klassiknet: When most composers are asked to attribute a genre to their music, they answer that their music is their own genre. Is your music post-modernist, ambient, etc.?

Bryars: I sympathise with composers who have the problem with "isms", but I also sympathise with people who need to find an "ism" because it makes identification easier. I am writing an opera for the English National Opera. The marketing department said we are going to need a label, can we call you minimalist? "Not really, no" I said. There is repetition in the music, but it's not really minimalist. If you want a label you can call it post-minimilist, just as more recent John Adams is post-minimalist because of its romantic streak. If you want to combine those things in some form I wouldn't object. I don't feel part of any particular movement except that there are a number of people writing meditative or reflective tonal music like Arvo Pärt, but I'm not a religious person like Arvo.

klassiknet: If we look at your cello concerto, there is a movement called "the philospher" and the work has a program title "Farewell to Philosophy". Is this acoustical research from Haydn to Bruckner or are you saying good-bye to Western philosophy and hello to Zen Buddhism?

Bryars: I did that as a personal journey when I was a philosophy student and working as a jazz musician, so I moved from philosphy to music. Composing music was a way of saying "Farewell to Philosophy." Still, when I was studying Western philosophy I was most interested in some aspects of Wittgenstein which can become quite mystical. Later, there was Zen Buddhism. I found more value in that on a personal level, specially in that it made possible a spiritual experience without invoking God.

klassiknet: Although Wittgenstein worked in England, his name also generates images of Vienna.

Bryars: Wittgenstein did an awful lot of work at Cambridge, but certainly he relates to Turn of the Century Vienna and its music which I adore: the songs of Hugo Wolf, Mahler, early Schoenberg like the "Gurrelieder" and "Verklärte Nacht", early Zemlinsky. It's fantastic music. It has that quality of being dangerously tonal. It tries to go somewhere else, while trying to stay rooted. I respect that.

klassiknet: Zen Buddhism implies contemplation. How important is this to your music?

Bryars: It depends on the situation. In the case of the cello concerto, I set out to write something which was reflective, lyrical which exploited Julian's ability to play long sustained lines and to play strongly over a long period. It's a tough piece in terms of stamina.

klassiknet: In "One Last Bar, Then Joe Can Sing", the composition you wrote for Nexus, the percussion ensemble, the acoustical research seemed obvious.

Bryars: Percussion always interested me. Percussion music is 20th Century music, and there isn't much percussion music outside of ethnic music.

klassiknet: World music must interest you. There were gamelan sounds in your scores.

Bryars: Absolutely. Living in England we hear a lot of Indian music. The nearest town to where I live is 25% Asian. A percussion ensemble can be as flexible and as expressive as a string quartet, and especially a group like Nexus which has lived and worked together for 25 years. Whilst on the surface, instruments like the xylophone, marimbas etc. appear inflexible, and not at all expressive, for me they are perfectly capable of being expressive in the right hands. When I was teaching at the university back in the 70s I required my students to study percussion. They had to play rythm accurately, and come to turns with the music of the 20th Century. Otherwise, violinists, say, can get away with just playing 17th, 18th and 19th century music. It meant people had to take more responsability as performers. It also meant that people had access to a lot of repertoire to tune percussion music such as transcriptions by Percy Grainger, things of Henry Cowell, as well as repetitive music by Steve Reich and Terry Riley and so on. I have two percussionists in my ensemble. How the whole range of percussions is used colouristically and as a full section in an orchestra is very important. In my first opera "Medea" I got rid of the violins, but I had a team of five tune percussion players, plus the tympanist. Effectively, they became like the leaders of the orchestra. They carried the musical momentum in the piece. Percussionists are key players now.

klassiknet: Herbie Hancock once noted that sometimes when classical pianists play jazz it doesn't swing. You started as a jazz musician and moved to classical. Is there a similar problem?

Bryars: Herbie Hancock is exactly right. Equally you hear classical ensembles playing classical music which doesn't swing. You can get a sense of swing within any genre. And there are people who play with precision...very accurately, but without soul. As a jazz player I would know when I am playing with someone who doesn't swing and it's very embarrassing. Ultimately, the music is dragged down.

klassiknet: Jazz is as complex as classical music and also perceived as elitist. There are experiments to bring jazz to wider publics by mixing it with acid rock, for example. The result is often that for the jazz lover the jazz part of the hybrid was cool, but the rest you could do without. Do you have this problem when writing for a jazz musician like bass player Charlie Haden?

Bryars: Not really. In fact it is not a jazz piece although there is a rhapsodic improvisation which resembles more a cadenza where the underlying pulse is not a swing pulse. But the piece does swing. The way Charlie plays his notes within a given measure, compared to the way the orchestra follows the conductor, produces a sort gap between the two, which is what generates the swing. Certainly, the way Charlie inflects a melody, it's a fraction delayed, rather like Sinatra singing a beautiful ballad which gets suddenly transformed. You hear someone else sing it like Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and you just groan...oh please do something else.

klassiknet: In "By the Vaar", a work for solo double bass, bass clarinet, percussion and strings, there seemed to also be a great deal of acoustical research. Can you comment on that?

Bryars: When I was a bass player, if anyone put on any jazz record I could immediately say who the bass player was. Every bass player has a different sound. It's not just the way their instrument is set up. It's the way they attacked the beat. Mingus is different from Richard Davis who is different from Freddy Gomez. Charlie's sound is extremely individual and I have always known that sound. I first heard it as a child in Yorkshire when I used to listen to the jazz record requests on the radio, and someone played Ornette Coleman. The radio caller said it was appalling music, but for me it was sensational. Later, when I became a player and we met, Charlie was connected to a lot of guys like the Bill Evans Trio. The bass as an instrument physically was important for me. It was in my hands for up to eleven hours a day. From having heard Charlie play particular tunes, I knew how notes sounded. When we first played the piece I played the orchestral bass parts together, which was fantastic for me. I really had the possiblility of exploring sounds in that detailed way.

klassiknet: Why did you move from jazz to classical composition?

Bryars: I moved from conventional jazz to free improvisation. At the same time I used a lot of the money that I earned as a player to acquire music by Cage, Morton Feldman, Stockhausen and Messiaen. There was an implied contradiction between what I was aspiring to in these pieces and what I was actually playing at the time. I discovered there was a built-in limitation in improvisation. What I was getting from Cage was the sense of removing personal taste, working in a more detached way, using chance operations. I simply became more interested in writing. Eventually, I worked with Cage for a little while in America. Like many people who spent time with Cage, you don't end up writing music like him, and he generously gives you a certain liberty to do whatever you want.

klassiknet: Which living composers interest you?

Arvo Pärt is a personal friend. I like most of his music. John Adams is a friend and I like quite a lot of his music. In jazz, or jazz related work, I think Carla Bley is a genius. I love her work and I like her as a person. In Paris, the great organ composer Naji Hakim is a fantastic composer and a great improviser.

klassiknet: Any comments on the Net as a composer?

Bryars: I enjoy the Net. My eldest daughter plays around all the the time with the Net. She entered my name in a search engine and suddenly this site emerged which actually had my photograph with my dog. The head of my dog was an icon to enter into the guest pages! You can use the Net in a playful way or humanistic way to encounter people. You can use it as a serious reasearch tool in visual arts, historical things, museum catalogs, or for e-mail as a mode of communication. You can download sounds. I use it all the time now. I have a colleague who met his wife on the Internet and has now acquired a family. They had been talking for months. When they finally met it wasn't like a blind date where you don't know what to say. He is also a composer and he has created works by downloading digital resources from the Net to synthesize pieces and sounds.

klassiknet: What's next?

Bryars: There will be four new works on Point: a collaboration with the Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz called "A Man in a Room Gambling" for spoken voice. He reads texts about how to cheat at cards, and I come in with some very beautiful melodic material which tricks the public into a false sense of security. There is a piece for viola and chamber orchestra, called "The North Shore", a hommage to Glenn Gould, a piece for cello and piano called "The South Down", and another chamber work for my ensemble.

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