The music of English composer Gavin Bryars has long managed the distinction of being both “defiantly personal” (The New York Times) and “utterly accessible” (The Guardian). A deep yet unsentimental emotional resonance and a patient, contemplative view of time – whether relating to harmonic rhythm or human experience – are complementary characteristics that run through his instrumental, vocal and theatrical catalogue like a red thread, the composer inspired by disparate spirits from Wagner and Satie to Cage and Silvestrov. The ECM New Series released multiple recordings of Bryars’ music in the 1980s and early ’90s, including the classic albums After the Requiem and Vita Nova. The first full ECM album from Bryars in decades is The Fifth Century, which includes the seven-part title work: a slowly evolving – yet immediately involving – setting of words by 17th-century English mystic Thomas Traherne, performed by the mixed choir of The Crossing with saxophone quartet PRISM. The album also features Two Love Songs, luminous a cappella settings of Petrarch for the women of The Crossing.
Both Two Love Songs and The Fifth Century underscore the primacy of gradually unfurling melody in Bryars’ music, the quality that both deepens his works and makes them distinctly approachable. He learned the art of vocal music by working closely with singers, especially The Hilliard Ensemble (including for such albums as Vita Nova). “I spent a lot of time with The Hilliards, particularly John Potter,” he recalls. “Learning from them the value of detail in vocal music – intonation, vibrato, diction, breathing – was an important process. Since then, I’ve written a few hundred vocal pieces, and I'm working on my seventh and eighth books of madrigals. Still, I continue to listen closely to what performers tell me about their craft, to both address practical considerations and come up with productive challenges. It’s a joy to work with Donald Nally and The Crossing, which is one of the finest North American choirs, to my mind.”
The congruent mix of voices with wind instruments in The Fifth Century yields a haunting effect, human breath driving the musicality of each. About this, Bryars says: “I’ve always liked the saxophone quartet as a vehicle, and I wrote for it initially as a kind of surrogate string quartet in Alaric I or II, recorded on my ECM album After the Requiem, from 1991. And in my first opera, Medea, I replaced the oboes in the orchestra with saxophones. With my background in improvised music, I’ve always loved jazz saxophone players, from John Coltrane to Lee Konitz to Evan Parker. Percy Grainger’s transcriptions of early music for saxophones were also an inspiration – such pieces can sound beautiful on the saxophone, which is a relatively modern invention that can evoke much older sounds. With limited vibrato, a choir of saxophones and a choir of voices share a strange sort of purity, as well as that quality of human breath.”
As for the text of The Fifth Century, Bryars describes Traherne’s Metaphysical writings – a rediscovery of the late 20th century – as having “an intense spirituality, celebrating the glory of creation and an almost conversational relationship with his God. In many ways, Traherne’s work is astonishingly modern.” Brian Morton, author of this album’s liner notes, points out that T.S. Eliot believed that the power of the Metaphysical writers was that they experienced thought with the intensity of physical sensation, acknowledging “no gap between the sensuous and the intellectual.” That feeling – the sensuous and the intellectual synergistically in sync – comes out in the music of The Fifth Element as a kind of radiance, a warm glow. Bryars says: “My natural instinct is more toward the elegiac and melancholic, such as that Elizabethan regret in Dowland and Taverner. And a lot of religious writing can be dark, even doom-laden. But Traherne writes about ideas of time, eternity and omnipresence with a smile on his face, a kind of optimism. It felt absolutely fresh and inspiring to me.”
The mysterious kind of music within words speaks to Bryars, who has always been drawn to Petrarch’s sonnets for “the heartrending beauty of the poetry and their sheer technical brilliance,” he says. “As a composer, I live by commissions and these can take me in many different directions. But in an ideal world, where I could be free to write whatever I like, I would choose to write vocal music, especially settings of Petrarch.” With Two Love Songs, Bryars returns to the Italian humanist poet so beloved of Renaissance madrigalists, as well as to the sound of unaccompanied female voices. Prior to those of The Crossing, Bryars worked closely with Trio Mediaeval, the Scandinavian group having included pieces by him on their ECM New Series album Soir, Dit-Elle, from 2004. “There can be something very touching about the ethereal sound of high women’s voices,” Bryars says. “The spatial effect can be very beautiful. With the bass note way up there, the music lives on a higher plane.”
The sense of contemplative movement in Two Love Songs and The Fifth Century is characteristic of Bryars’ music and the way he thinks. “I do enjoy experiencing time in a way that is structured but not hectic or hyperactive,” he explains. “In choral music, I like to slow down the harmonic movement, not that it’s static but so that it’s gradually evolutionary. I like the effect of suddenly finding yourself in new harmonic territory without quite realizing how you got there. Most people think time is strictly objective, but it’s also subjective, a matter of perception. There’s a Zen-like idea that I appreciate: that time is going on forever, that time will go on whether you’re part of it or not. The challenge is to keep the focus concentrated. When that works, you can perceive a kind of eternity, one of infinite space.”
Bryars, born in East Yorkshire in 1943, began his musical career as a double-bassist working in jazz, eventually collaborating with guitarist Derek Bailey and drummer Tony Oxley in the free-improvisation trio Joseph Holbrooke. Moving on to composition, Bryars began writing music influenced by the New York School of John Cage and Morton Feldman. One of Bryars’ earliest works, The Sinking of the Titanic (1969), became a classic of indeterminist minimalism, performed around the world; another early piece in this vein, Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971), blended a vocal tape loop with strings and brass, earning him another vintage success. In the years since, Bryars has broadened his style as he composed four operas, three string quartets, concertos for cello and for double-bass, works for his own instrumental ensemble, several pieces for choreographers and a long, ever-increasing sequence of vocal music, including six books of madrigals and a collection of more than 40 “laude.” His ECM New Series albums include Three Viennese Dancers (1986), After the Requiem (1991) and Vita Nova (1994), with pieces by Bryars having also been recorded for ECM by Trio Mediaeval and organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent.