Music that sounds both ancient and modern and beautiful throughout.

GAVIN BRYARS: The Fifth Century; Two Love Songs – Prism Quartet/The Crossing/Donald McNally – ECM New Series ECM2405, 50:58 [Distr. by Naxos] (11/18/16) 50:58 ****:

I have always found Gavin Bryars’ music to be beautiful, mysterious, unique; sometimes a bit disturbing – but always worth investigating.

Known for its often slow-paced and quiet kind of minimalist-inspired sound, his music continues this effect with The Fifth Century, a song cycle after the seventeenth-century English poet and theologian Thomas Traherne. The title is actually also the name of a treatise on the “essence of God” by Traherne.

While the texts are steeped with imagery of the infinite, of the heavens and of eternity, the real attention-getting aspect of this piece is Bryars’ rich, yet sparse, chord progressions and voicings and the beauty they produce. The other aspect of this score that cannot be appreciated until heard is the use of a saxophone quartet to accompany the otherwise a capella choir.

One would think that saxophone quartets in such a context would drown the vocals or be given some oddly out of place chordal progressions or exposed moments that sound very stereotypically “saxophone-like.” However, in Bryars’ vision, the saxophone quartet; in this case the very talented Prism Quartet, sounds nearly like an organ; at times like a string quartet. At nearly forty minutes this seven-movement work; all extracts from Traherne’s very heady writings, never gets dull. The beauty carries us right to the end. Additionally, this amazing work was written in memory of The Crossing’s singer and co-founder Jeff Dinsmore who died suddenly at the young age of forty-two. This Philadelphia based vocal ensemble produces a rich sound and with the requisite emotion throughout Bryars’ softly moving score.

The Two Love Songs, for female a capella choir (drawn from The Crossing) are short and lovely Sonnets by Petrarch. Bryars admits being attracted to Petrarch’s “scattered rhymes” organizational scheme and their somewhat madrigal-like quality. These are also simply beautiful little works that couple very well with The Fifth Century.

These works also serve to illustrate Gavin Bryars’ versatility and evolution as a composer. While The Fifth Century has as much emotionally in common with Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet or The Sinking of the Titanic; his style has developed so that the present works really do not sound much like the “early” Bryars – yet it all remains wonderful in my opinion.

—Daniel Coombs