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Gavin BRYARS (b.1943)/Juan MUŇOZ (1952-2001)
A Man in a Room, Gambling (1992)
Juan Muñoz (speaking voice)
Yukio Fujishima (additional speaking voice)
The Balanescu quartet
Recorded February and March 1992


Bryars and the late Juan Muñoz collaborated on a project that described card manipulation – tricks, many of them from the writings of S W Erdnase – in ten texts each lasting five minutes. Bryars had remembered the radio Shipping Forecast, that nightly alert, and formulated the project to appear after the evening news so that listeners could encounter A Man in a Room, Gambling rather as they would the Shipping Forecast. The text, read by Muñoz, was introduced exactly the same way – Good Evening – and ends at 4.52 precisely the same way as well – Thank you and Good Night. Accompanying the text is a string quartet. They play at the same sort of tempo throughout.

That’s the theory. In practice I got out a deck of cards and listened along. As Bryars warns in his notes one momentary distraction and one loses the thread completely. I suffered ten such distractions and finally contented myself with cutting the pack and playing solitaire as I listened, lacking the trickster’s mind and ambition or indeed the rudimentary intelligence to follow what I was being told. The tricks are genuine by the way – sorting three cards in a pack, the Mexican Row etc.

What is fascinating however are the little narrative incidents that lend this project its strange power. Muñoz opens the first programme (Bottom Dealing), his Spanish accent lending an even more complex narrative twist to the proceedings, with the words once again – a "once again" to which we have not been privy and which has presumably, so the conceit must go, been going on for some time. Immediately we are led into a teasing and soothingly difficult world. The quartet play music that is lyrical, impressionistic, with aptly judged and timed accompaniments to key moments in the text, along with mock Wagnerian portentousness. Did you see it? asks Muñoz, twice, of one trick. Each programme adheres pretty much to this model – ostinati in the second leading to real tension, unison strings in the third – with increasing expressivity especially for the lower strings prefiguring the words, again twice, It’s amazing, the repetitions taking on dramatic narrative heightening. These moments, addressed to the listener, are both confidential and startling.

By Programme Five things are beginning to come unstuck. A Japanese speaker repeats certain words – who he is or why he’s there we don’t know – but Muñoz’s words as on every evening envelop us in the drowsy inevitability of it all, giving us the promise of permanence and the sense of a continuous, everlasting now. A pizzicato opening to the Sixth programme gives density and changing texture to the inevitability of the announcer’s unchanging introductory welcome and it leads to some keening depth, almost a threnody complexity and sense of anticipation behind Taking Cards from the Bottom. By Seven the Japanese voice is more explicit, copying the Spanish reader, getting words and phrases subtly wrong; all this summons up a strange loop of linguistic dislocation. In Nine, Three Card Trick – The Mexican Row we hear, behind Muñoz the tape sounds of bustling Seville – a programme we have actually heard previously but is now placed in a new context of projected al fresco crypto-realism. By now things have moved beyond the anticipated to a sense of heightened reality, the practical application of learned lessons – and it’s no surprise and yet still rather sad when we hear Muñoz wish us Good Night and Lots of Luck at the end of Programme Ten. Now it’s down to us.

Jonathan Woolf


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