“Ensemble Pieces” = GAVIN BRYARS: 1,2,1-2-3-4; The Squirrel and the Ricketty Racketty Bridge; CHRISTOPHER HOBBS: Aran; McCrimmon Will Never Return – Gavin Bryars, Christopher Hobbs, Brian Eno, var. instruments/ensemble – Obscure BCGBCD23, 36:38 [Distr. by Allegro] (11/13/15) ***:

Important reissue from the early British new wave.

Obscure Records had a short but interesting tenure as an LP label specializing in the music of new and – at the time – lesser-known composers from England and elsewhere. Operated by the iconic Brian Eno, the repertoire typically consisted of music by musicians who were seen as the latest permutation of experimental and cutting edge music. This disc, for example, was originally released on vinyl in 1975 and held the present four works plus a very early and pretty ‘obscure’ work by John Adams, American Standard (if readers know how to get a copy of that LP, please contact me).

The most important, to me, reason to have this disc is to have an example of some of Gavin Bryars’ earliest work. We can hear in these two works, 1,2,1-2-3-4 and the entertainingly titled The Squirrel and the Ricketty Racketty Bridge, the seeds of Bryars’ later and more well-known style. We know Bryars and his own unique brand of slow-moving, very “meltdown” minimalism tinged with jazz through the pieces The Sinking of the Titanic and Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.

I know less about Christopher Hobbs but that he was a collaborator and artistic colleague of Bryars, Brian Eno and Michael Nyman. Hobbs was a founder-member of the Promenade Theatre Orchestra (PTO), with John White – also a founder and operator of Obscure Records – and a group of composer-performers that specialized in music for toy pianos and reed organs, and so forth; including Bryars. We tend, in the U.S., to think of the cultural mecca and amazing breeding ground for composers and artists that New York was (still is to some extent) in the early sixties melange of John Cage, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and so on. It is easy to overlook what was happening in the U.K. with names such as Bryars, Hobbs, Eno, Nyman et al.

This CD serves as an important artifact from that, recognizing that some forty years later, Eno, Bryars and (clearly) John Adams have become well-known and for a style that was an outgrowth of these early years.
Truth be told, this album is not an ‘easy listen.’ I actually enjoyed both of Hobbs’ pieces, especially the too brief Aran and the slowly morphing McCrimmon Will Never Return. Both works feature reed organs and the latter simulates Scottish bagpipes.

Bryars’ works feel more improvisatory and also just a bit more tedious. I did admire the odd interplay between the four guitar players of The Squirrel and the Ricketty Racketty Bridge (a strange reference to the nut of the bridge on a guitar and an English children’s song.) Both this work and his 1, 2, 1-2-3-4 make for interesting but a bit patience-testing listening. It is interesting how Bryars’ later style is a bit more “friendly” than these very avant-garde examples.

This album is, ultimately, for the collector or purist of new music enthusiasts. I do not recommend that this be your first introduction to the work of Gavin Bryars or even Christopher Hobbs but this is cerebral, interesting and worthwhile none the less.

—Daniel Coombs