Gavin Bryars

Listening to a Gavin Bryars's work is traveling and curiously the pleasure you get from it is like the pleasure of first reading Jules Verne , Dumas or Borgès. Slow narration suffused with litterature and painting (one understands his attachment for Erik Satie or John Cage), Gavin Bryars's works are not music for music's sake but a pictorial journey along the channels of memory and imagination. Here are neither chords nor harmonic relations but settings, landscapes, densities where sonorities flow along the Ariadne's thread woven by the composer to express the continuity and fluidity of thought.

A modern musician born of jazz, Gavin Bryars has always been interested in saxophone. This instrument - wich has gained a unique place in the jazz world - has always been injustly disregarded by classical music. Listening to the three jewels, Allegrasco, Alaric I or II and Three Elegies, one can but regret this void and hope that saxophone will take its due place in the contemporary repertoire at last. Wich instrument could have this lyrical intensity and this mysterious hue in Allegrasco? Wich instruments - better than this full-strength saxophone family (from contrabasso to sopranino) - could make us float in the astonishing sonorous hazes of Three Elegies ?

On this CD - wich is a true ode to the saxophone by the only contemporary poet of slowness - Gavin Bryars delivers a forthcoming pacified music in wich the passions of gone-by centuries have given place to contemplation. Put this record on your Hifi stereo, close your eyes and trice sails up your Earth vessel for an endless journey in an expanding universe; in your seaway, some note dust - memories of stars cruising towards eternity.  


Allegrasco was written in response to a commission from Jan Steele for a concert piece for soprano saxophone and piano, with funds made available by West Midlands Arts. Later, Roger Heaton premiered the version for clarinet and piano and the piece has been modified as an ensemble piece, featuring the solo clarinette. One of the models for the piece is Busoni's Elegie, a work that I admire enormously. Just as the Busoni piece is a 'Satellite' work to the opera Doktor Faust, written in advance of the opera, so Allegrasco has a similar relation to Medea. Allegrasco was written between the cancellation of the planned first performance of Medea at La Fenice in Venice and its eventual premières in Lyon and Paris in 1984.  There re other associations too, not least of which was the saxophone's Franco-Belgian origin, and also its use in jazz. The title, originally only a performance instruction (like 'adagio', 'allegro'), refers to the style of clarinet playing viz that of Edmondo Allegra, the dedicatee of both Busoni's works for solo clarinet and hence, one imagines the person best able, for Busoni, to play the pieces in the spirit in which they were written.


3 Elegie

In June 1993 when I was working with members of my ensemble on a project in France at the Chateau d'Oiron I promised Roger Heaton a piece as a present for all his work for me over the years. The piece is dedicated to him. Roger has been a member of my ensemble since 1986, though I have known him and his playing for much longer, and he has recorded a number of my pieces. At first I thought of a fairly short unaccompanied solo work, but eventually the piece developed into a longer and larger ensemble piece for 4 B flat clarinets, 2 alto clarinets, 2 bass clarinets and 1 contra-bass clarinet, with optional discrete percussion in places utilising all the facilities of studio multi-tracking.  The piece begins with an extended series of unison lines, gradually evolving into a sequence of accompanied solos for either clarinet or bass clarinet with the full ensemble reached some way into the piece. Although the music is generally rich and slow, in live performance there is an optional fast, high, quiet Prelude for unaccompanied clarinet which leads into the opening unisons of the ensemble section. At all times I had in mind Roger's warm, refined sound as well as his abilities in areas of new music, such as the use of multiphonics which appear from time to time. For live performance with my ensemble 1 have added material for electric guitar and two percussion.

Three Elegies for Nine Clarinets was first performed by Roger Heaton at the Townsgate Theatre, Basildon 3 May 1994.

Alaric 1 or Il

This saxophone quartet is scored for two soprano saxophones, plus alto and baritone, rather than the more common SATB, to mirror the instrumentation and pitch ranges of the more familiar string quartet. I have been interested in the saxophone as a concert instrument for some time and had, of course, known the jazz répertoire fairly well from the time when 1 worked as a jazz musician in the early 1960's. Indeed, in my first opera Medea I included two saxophones (soprano doubling alto, and alto doubling tenor) in the orchestra both to replace oboes and at the same time to reinforce the chorus. I have always enjoyed Percy Grainger's views on orchestration and his thinking about the saxophone is particularly illuminating (he made transcriptions and arrangements of early music for the saxophone, for example, finding the instrument's tone quality, especially in ensemble, as a modern équivalent of the sound of medieval instruments). Alaric 1 or Il was written during the summer of 1989 when I had no access to any instrument or recording equipment and so the musical references which I wanted to include were done, imperfectly, from memory. These included parts of my second opera Doctor Ox's Experiment (then only existing in sketch form), the work of the Argentinean bandonéon player Dino Saluzzi and so on. I also included a number of extended techniques including circular breathing, multiphonics and extreme registers. The piece is technically quite difficult and, curiously, it is the lower instruments which have the hardest parts - the baritone sax having some altissimo passages and, eventually, ending the piece with a brief elegiac solo in the pibroch piping tradition. The piece is essentially lyrical and even vocal in character, thereby following Grainger's idea of the saxophone family (SATB) as a parallel to the family of human voices.

The title comes from the name of the mountain, Mount Alaric, in South West France, opposite the Chateau where I spent the summer. No-one seemed to know which of the two "King Alarics" the name referred to.

Gavin Bryars


Gavin Bryars, born in 1943 in Goole, Yorkshire, is the most provocative and original member of an unusually gifted generation of composers. He started his career from an expérimental position rare in British music, and bas continued to chart a radical course while attracting an international following. His music is featured in the world's leading festivals and is recorded on Decca, ECM and Philips. In 1979 he formed the Gavin Bryars Ensemble with which he tours extensively. Nonetheless, he has remained steadfastly beyond the establishment -- and always several degrees ahead of it.

This pattern of subversion can be traced to his student days. While reading philosophy at Sheffield University he played jazz double bass in his spare time and explored free improvisation. The lessons of the unorthodox training and his expérience with amateurs in the 'Portsmouth Sinfonia' influenced early works such as the indeterminately scored The Sinking of the Titanic of 1969 and the classic jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet of 1971. Though their conceptual nature was new to British music, it was thoroughly in keeping with Bryars' own creative concerns, combining an openness to expérience with an imagination rich in powers of association. His involvement with the contemporary fine arts movement in the 1970s was another powerful stimulus, leading to a period of creative reassessment through a detailed study of the work of Marcel Duchamp. The pieces that resulted from this discipline, Out of Zaleski's Gazebo of 1977 and My First Homage from 1978, both for two pianos, show a renewed interest in 'found' material and a refinement of his already subtle harmonic palette.

A major turning point in his development was the opera Medea, premièred at the Opéra de Lyon and Opéra de Paris in 1984 in a production directed and designed by Robert Wilson. For the first time a large-scale structure gave an ambitious focus for his abiding musical interests: the nature of musical slowness, the role of memory, and the scope of the new tonality that also embraced a dramatic and innovative simplicity. With the ballets Sub Rosa of 1986 and Four Elements of 1990, Bryars continued his involvement with the stage, while exploring his new-found musical territory in terms of instrumental, vocal and choral works written for a number of distinguished fellow performers. Glorious Hill of 1988 was the first of several pieces conceived in fruitful collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble, including the Cadman Requiem and Incipit Vita Nova (for their countertenor David James), both written in 1989, and more recently Three Poems of Cecco Angiolieri and Expressa Solis from 1997. The Cello Concerto (Farewell to Philosophy) of 1995 was premièred by lulian Lloyd Webber and the English Chamber Orchestra.

A fan of Sherlock Holmes and a member of the College of Pataphysics, Bryars has also felt free to translate his wide-ranging literary interests into music : for example, his enthusiasm for early English texts in the choral-orchestral The War in Heaven of 1993; for Bram Stoker's Dracula in The North Shore of 1994; for Thomas De Quincy in the a capella And so ended Kant's travelling in this world of 1997; and for Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in three remarkable seascapes written in 1991, The White Lodge for mezzo soprano and electronics, The Black River for soprano and organ and The Green Ray for soprano saxophone and chamber orchestra.

Based on a Verne short story, Bryars' second opera, Doctor Ox's Experiment, given at English National Opera in 1998 but in gestation since the mid-1980s, is a natural sequel to his music composed since Medea. Several works in the intervening years, whilst being complete in themselves, served as opportunities for the composer to work through ideas for the opera. The concerto By the Vaar (1987) is a study for the love scene in Act one, dedicated to and recorded by the American jazz bassist Charlie Haden. The 1988 Doctor Ox's Experiment (Epilogue), for soprano and ensemble, is an entire telling of the story, in retrospect, by one of the protagonists, Suzel. A fable of human relations blighted by the misuse of science, Doctor Ox's Experiment is a 19th century story with a moral far beyond the millennium. Another twist in the unfolding story of Bryars' artistic journey, it is both a summing up of his achievement to date, and a harbinger of promise for further adventures to come.

Nicholas Williams

© Schott & Co. Ltd


Sélectionné par les Inrockuptibles / FNAC en novembre 1998


« Féru de Pataphysique et amateur éclairé de Duchamp, Satie ou Jules Vernes, l’Anglais Gavin Bryars imagine un espace vierge où glisse avec lenteur le fil arachnéen de la mélodie. La 2° de ses Trois Elégies distille son rythme en arabesque et retient le temps avec un douceur infinie.   Les Inrockuptibles novembre 98    

« …Allegrasco permet ici à Jean-Pierre baraglioli de montrer la grande précision musicale de son jeu… »   Gérard Dupuy Libération janvier 1999    

« Poursuivant sa quête de musiques nouvelles, l’ensemble 4uatre nous plonge dans un univers contemplatif et méditatif du compositeur Gavin Bryars, l’un des principaux artisans de la musique répétitive britannique. […]Les phrasé des saxophones ont ici un caractère nettement vocal. Très intéressant ! ( quatre diapasons )  Georges Hustings DIAPASON octobre 1998    

« …il existe incontestablement un « son » Bryars auquel les différents interprètes de ce disque savent donner vie et qui prouve – s’il en était besoin – la vitalité de la musique tonale en cette fin de siècle »  Karol Beffa CLASSICA novembre 1998    

« …Dans une version pour neufs saxophones, réalisé avec l’accord du compositeur par Antoine Bélec ( membre de 4uatre ), ces Trois Elégies synthétisent le style de Bryars, aux confins du jazz et de la musique classique.   Franck Mallet Le Monde de la Musique octobre 1998



Disque DAPHENEO 9810

Allgrasco for soprano saxophopne and string orchestra.

Alaric 1 or 2.

Three Elégies.