Gavin BRYARS (b.1943)
New York
At Portage and Main [15.36]
One Last Bar Then Joe Can Sing [18.01]
New York [25.55]
Percussions Claviers de Lyon
L'Ensemble de Basse-Normandie/Dominique Debart
rec. No date provided, L’Autre Studio, Paris.

In the notes to this disc, Gavin Bryars says, “the family of keyboard percussion is as important as, say, the string family”. By “keyboard percussion” he means instruments such as vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, glockenspiel, etc.; these instruments are also commonly known as “tuned percussion” instruments, because they play pitched notes. Bryars has long appreciated these instruments, and his first opera, Medea, written in 1984, “included a quintet of tuned percussion in the orchestra, replacing the more conventional violins”.

This disc features three works: the first two for a quintet of tuned percussion instruments, and the third, New York, for the same quintet plus a chamber orchestra. Bryars’ approach to this music is different from, say, Steve Reich’s early works, which depended more on rhythm - and the relationships between rhythms played by different instruments - than melody.

At Portage and Main is a subtly melodic work where the percussion instruments play chords and melody, with cymbals providing the occasional wave of whitish noise in the background. While it depends on a very strong pulsing rhythm, the simple melody is very present, carrying the piece along through key changes, yet maintaining, for most of the piece, the same consistent pulsing melodic line. This is an attractive mood piece, with a soundscape that recalls ambient music, yet with much more tuneful material. The recording of the instruments blends them into what is often a blurry sound, somewhat like the way a string quartet merges at times into a single unit, yet the sound is balanced and attractive. The last few minutes of the piece are less structured, and the music fades out into the silence from which it was born.

One Last Bar Then Joe Can Sing begins as an exploration of rhythm and non-melodic sounds. It is a more impressionistic piece, which seems to have little structure at first. After about three minutes, the music changes to a slow, crawling melody that is built up by parts from different instruments. In this piece, as in the first, the melodies materialise from a cloud of sound resonating from the instruments, as throbbing chords make up a background for the melodies. A third section of the piece, at around 7:30, gives another change of tone, as cymbals and drums are heard, bells ding out occasional notes, and the melodies fragment. Then a six-note rhythmic figure provides a base for explorations in this sound-world, which sound somewhat like variations as they overlay the steady foundation of this figure. With three minutes remaining, the rhythmic structure breaks down, and the piece becomes more amorphous, with occasional notes interrupting a throbbing background. We then return to a blur of sound from bowed instruments that fades away.

None of the above really says much about the music. It simply describes what happens. It’s hard to give an idea of this music, but One Last Bar Then Joe Can Sing ends up being a very attractive work, in part because of the variety of structures and rhythms used. Unlike some minimalist percussion works that maintain more or less the same rhythm throughout, Bryars paints textures with the percussion instruments, creating a realm that is attractive and enjoyable.

The final piece, New York, features a larger group of musicians; at 25 minutes, it is also the most ambitious of the three works on the disc. This time the same percussion group is featured together with an 18-member chamber orchestra: strings, wind quintet and piano. It begins as a tense work, with strings providing a very soft background for the percussion instruments, which move ahead very slowly. It goes through a number of changes, and at shortly after 6 minutes takes on a driving rhythm that brings to mind part of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. While perhaps less melodic, New York does have some of the same type of musical colouring, while the urgent rhythm of the strings in this section recalls some of Philip Glass’s recent music. As the piece continues, it sounds more like a chamber symphony with percussion, than a concerto for percussion and chamber orchestra. The strings play very compelling music until around the mid-point of the work, where the tone changes again, this time bringing more attention to the winds and percussion instruments. Just before 18 minutes, the tempo ramps up, and the music becomes more intense and driving, then around 20 minutes there is a pause as the strings and winds play plaintive melodies. These develop and metamorphose into a final section which softly ends this work.

Once again, this description offers little to tell you what the music is really like. Suffice it to say that New York is a very moving “symphony” for strings, winds and percussion, and it is among the most compelling new works I have heard in many years. While the first two percussion pieces are interesting sound-scapes, and offer attractive music, New York is bold and moving and offers unique multi-layered music that stands out for its emotional power. I’ve listened to this work over and over, and each time I have enjoyed it more.

I’ve been listening to Gavin Bryars’ music off and on since the late 1970s, when I first discovered his earliest recordings on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records. His music has always interested me, even though I haven’t kept up with his prolific production. He has a unique sound-world, which, while borrowing from minimalism and composers such as Morton Feldman, blends his own approach to music – a combination of experimental and classical – into works that are unique. Bryars’ Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet is one of the most moving recordings I have in my collection. The present disc is highly enjoyable and confirms that Bryars is a modern composer with a unique voice. This disc gets better as it goes on, with New York, in my opinion, being by far the best. Overall, this hour of percussion-based music makes for a wonderful disc that anyone who is interested in non-atonal modern music, especially with a minimalist sensibility, should hear.

Kirk McElhearn

A wonderful album of contemporary music that is highly enjoyable