GAVIN BRYARS: At Portage and Main; One Last Bar Then Joe Can Sing; New York: Concerto for Percussion Quintet and Chamber Orchestra – Percussions Claviers de Lyon/ L’Ensemble de Basse-Normandie – GB Records BCGBCD17, 59:35 ****:
According to the discography on Bryars’s own website, there seem to be about 78 albums of his music currently available, so the man is hardly under-recorded. This one, completed in 2010, is of his percussion-based chamber music, along with one percussion/orchestral work. Think of your favorite quiet Hearts of Space music, add the delicacy and stringently balanced structures of Anton Webern mixed in with a completely tonal and minimalist-flavored seasoning (though I am sure Bryars would hate the “minimalist” allusions) and you might get some idea of how this music sounds.
Bryars, now 68, is an English doublebass player and composer that is most well-known for his wildly popular and brilliant Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971), a loop of a vagrant singing the hymn of that name with gradually increasing harmonic properties building and building before finally fading out. He has had a very successful career after initially studying with John Cage, and being influenced by Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and yes—minimalist techniques. His work, while peripherally avant-garde, is nonetheless very accessible and always thought-provoking and enjoyable.
The pieces here all use a percussion ensemble of five players that employ varied non-pitched instruments while giving the backbone of the music over to vibraphones, marimbas, xylophones, and glockenspiel, lending the pieces a very Boulez-like middle register of soft timbers and quite comforting base harmonies. At Portage and Main refers to an intersection in Winnipeg where the composer stayed while working with the Winnipeg Symphony. It is supposedly the coldest street corner in North America, and the music reflects this chill, but in a very warm way. You perceive the cold but its description comes across in the music leading you Siren-like to the very -35 degree weather that Bryan experienced. One Last Bar Then Joe Can Sing starts from the last bar of the second act of his opera Medea, only here the unturned percussion instruments from the opera are gradually taken over by tuned ones. New York, a percussion concerto of sorts is admittedly not especially a virtuoso piece, thought the percussion is nearly non-stop and the chamber orchestra more intermittent. The work is a kaleidoscope of enticing aural colors, and this is easily the most attractive work on the disc, seductively alluring in the beautifully molded sounds that Bryars is such a master. “New York” by the way actually refers to a misunderstanding in a communique he sent to Normandy about a “new work”, and back it came with the American designation. So it’s really a small village in Lincolnshire, where he passes often on the Boston-New York road!
The album is recorded brilliantly, played wonderfully, and is a definite feather in the composer’s recorded legacy. Warmly recommended!
Live premiere recording of Bruckner’s 1881-1884 Urtext Edition, 7th Symphony