John Potter
Musician & Author

News & Comment

Gavin Bryars at 80

Published at: 06/12/2023

The launch at Schott's of the  new book, edited by David Wordsworth and Leslie East, was a joyous occasion. It’s a massive achievement by the editors: any anthology is a nightmare to edit, but one about Gavin, that tries to show the whole person, not just analyse his music, means you have to deal with musicians who are generally too busy doing it to write about it. There are twelve contributing authors of whom I was one (a chapter on the vocal music). I’ve been singing Gavin’s music since the 1980s and the chapter was enormous fun to write, though not easy as he wouldn’t stop composing so I had to keep updating it. And now, obviously, it’s out of date and getting more so as he continues to exercise his famous pencils.

                                                            Gavin with Sara Mohr-Pietsch at Dartington last year

I won’t give away what’s in the book (and there’s also a chapter on Gavin in my From Leonin to Led Zeppelin which should appear next year) but here’s my Bryars discography. It’s been a privilege to be an occasional member of the Gavin Bryars Ensemble, and to have taken part in concerts all over Europe as well as Mexico and Canada. Gavin’s music is always written for specific people so there is a symbiotic connection between composer and performers, and Gavin’s band has developed an extraordinary empathy with the composer and his music over many years. 

This CD has the first 15 Laude that Gavin wrote for Anna Maria Friman and me. I had flu during the photo session (with Gavin’s wife, film-maker Anna Tchernakova) and as you can see, I couldn’t wait for it to end. The album, on the other hand, is essence of Bryars. My chapter in the book tells the story of the origin of Gavin’s extrapolations on the medieval paradigms.

None of us expected to see this as an album; it’s a live gig at the Punkt Festival in Kristiansand, Norway, and again features Laude composed for Anna and me, including two with Anna’s husband trumpeter Arve Henriksen. The Lauda project went on to include all those in the Cortona Manuscript, arranged for many different vocal ensembles, with and without instruments.

Nothing Like the Sun is another live gig that we didn’t expect to survive beyond its performance at the Adelaide Festival in 2015. It’s one of my favourite Bryars pieces, commissioned by Opera North and the Royal Shakespeare Company for the 2007 centenary. Anna Maria Friman was unable to be there, so the soprano part is sung here by Peyee Chen (a former Masters student of mine) with the mesmerising spoken voice of Gavin Friday. I hope to record Jacob Heringman’s arrangement of Sonnet 128 for 2 voices and 2 lutes next year.

There are two recordings of the Cadman Requiem, a setting of texts by the 7th century Caedmon in the context of the Latin requiem. The live version is a performance in Westminster Cathedral on the anniversary of the Lockerbie crash which claimed the life of Gavin’s sound man, Bill Cadman in whose memory Gavin created the piece.   The programme also includes early music and three pieces from the First Book of Madrigals (which were later incorporated into the Morrison Songbook arranged for me and the GBE and dedicated to my wife Penny). The Point studio recording also has Valdine Anderson singing the Adnan Songbook, perhaps Gavin’s greatest song cycle (and the subject of Anna Maria Friman’s chapter in the book).  

This is where it all started: Vita Nova includes the first of many Hilliard commissions, Glorious Hill. The title of the album refers to Incipit Vita Nova, written for David James and string trio. 

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There's also a YouTube video of Winestead from 2017. It's a live recording and I was a bit under the vocal weather, but the playing of Gavin's band is stunning. The bittersweet verses of Marvel's Mower poems are sauturated with musical colour by Morgan Goff (viola), James Woodrow (guitar) and Nick Cooper (cello) with the composer on the tiny organ in Winestead church. 


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