Gavin Bryars

Gavin Bryars
Background information
Birth name Richard Gavin Bryars
Born (1943-01-16) 16 January 1943
Origin Yorkshire, England
Occupation(s) Composer
Instruments Double bass

Richard Gavin Bryars (/ˈɡævɪn braɪərz/; born 16 January 1943)[1] is an English composer and double bassist. He has been active in, or has produced works in, a variety of styles of music, including jazz, free improvisation, minimalism, historicism, experimental music, avant-garde and neoclassicism.

Early life and career

Born in Goole, in East Yorkshire, England, Bryars studied philosophy at Sheffield University but became a jazz bassist during his three years as a philosophy student.

The first musical work for which he is remembered was his role as bassist in the trio Joseph Holbrooke, alongside guitarist Derek Bailey and drummer Tony Oxley.[2] The trio began by playing relatively traditional jazz before moving into free improvisation. However, Bryars became dissatisfied with this when he saw a young bassist (later revealed to be Johnny Dyani) play in a manner which seemed to him to be artificial, and he became interested in composition instead.

Bryars's first works as a composer owe much to the New York School of John Cage (with whom he briefly studied), Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and minimalism. One of his earliest pieces, The Sinking of the Titanic (1969), is an indeterminist work which allows the performers to take a number of sound sources related to the sinking of the RMS Titanic and make them into a piece of music.[2] The first recording of this piece appeared on Brian Eno's Obscure Records in 1975. The 1994 recording of this piece was remixed by Aphex Twin as Raising the Titanic (later collected on the 26 Mixes for Cash album).

The Sinking of the Titanic
Sample of The Sinking of the Titanic by Gavin Bryars.

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A well known early work is Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971), which has as its basis a recorded loop of a vagrant singing a musical fragment that the old man had improvised.[3] On top of that loop, rich harmonies played by a live ensemble are built, always increasing in density, before the whole thing gradually fades out. A new recording of this work was made in the 1990s with Tom Waits singing along with the original recording of the vagrant during the final section.

Bryars was a founding member of the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an orchestra whose membership consisted of performers who "embrace the full range of musical competence" — and who played popular classical works. Its members included Brian Eno, whose Obscure Records label would subsequently release works by Bryars. In one of the first three releases from the label, Brian Eno's album Discreet Music, Bryars conducted and co-arranged the three pieces Three Variations on the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel which constitute the second half of the album.

Bryars's later works have included A Man In A Room, Gambling (1992), which was written on commission from BBC Radio 3 and Artangel. Bryars's music is heard beneath monologues spoken by the Spanish artist Juan Muñoz, who talks about methods of cheating at card games. The ten short works were played on Radio 3 without any introductory announcements, and Bryars is quoted as saying that he hoped they would appear to the listener in a similar way to the shipping forecast, both mysterious and accepted without question. His Cello concerto Farewell to Philosophy was recorded in 1996 by Julian Lloyd Webber.

Bryars has written a large number of other works, including four operas, and a number of instrumental pieces, among them three string quartets and several concertos. He has written several pieces for choreographers, including Biped (1999) for Merce Cunningham. Between 1981–1984 he participated in the CIVIL warS, a vast, never-completed multimedia project by Robert Wilson, who also directed his first opera "Medea". He has also written a large body of vocal and choral music for groups such as the Hilliard Ensemble, the Latvian Radio Choir, the Estonian National Men's Choir, Red Byrd, Trio Mediaeval and has written a great deal for early music performers including 5 books of madrigals and a collection of over 40 "laude".

Bryars's When Harry Met Addie (a tribute to jazz singer Adelaide Hall and saxophonist Harry Carney) was premiered at the Duke Ellington Memorial Concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on 1 May 1999. The piece was performed by the London Sinfonietta Big Band[4] and was commissioned by the baritone saxophonist/bass clarinettist John Surman. Cristina Zavalloni sang the soprano and the London Sinfonietta Big Band was conducted by Diego Masson·[5]

Bryars founded the music department at Leicester Polytechnic (now De Montfort University), and taught there for a number of years, but left in 1994 to concentrate on composition and performance. He lives in England, and, for part of the year, on the west coast of Canada.

He was born on the same day (16 January 1943) as another prominent English composer, Brian Ferneyhough.

In his June 2008 appearance on Desert Island Discs author Peter Carey chose Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet as his eighth and final record choice.

Since 1974 Bryars has been a member of the Collège de 'Pataphysique and was elected Regent in 2001 and in 2015 was named as Transcendent Satrap, the highest honour in the Collège, a position shared with Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Eugène Ionesco, Umberto Eco and others.

Personal life

Bryars is married to Anna Tchernakova, a Russian filmmaker, and has a stepdaughter and son. Bryars has two daughters from his first marriage.

Selected works


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