(This interview was done May 30, 2017 in Bryars’s home north of London and transcribed by Sam Braysher.)
Ethan Iverson: Where did you grow up, Gavin?
Gavin Bryars: In a small town in East Yorkshire, a town called Goole, about 100 miles North from here. If you’re looking at a map of England to the east you’ll see an estuary coming in around halfway up the coast, and that’s the River Humber… sort of opposite Liverpool, to the other side – that’s Hull, and where the river comes to a point, that is Goole. It’s about 30 miles from the sea, maybe a bit more. It’s very quiet.
EI: Was there an early experience with music that sort of put you in that direction?
GB: It’s a small town where nothing happened in the sense that, for example, there was never any visiting orchestra or theatre or dance company; nothing like that, and a population of about maybe 15-18 thousand. So everything that happened, in terms of music, tended to happen within the community, and a lot of that meant the church. My mother was a Sunday school teacher; my father died when I was nine, and was an amateur bass-baritone who sang in the church choir, sang in the local amateur operatic society. My uncle was a church organist; my mother was a cellist; another aunt was a kind of half-decent semi professional concert pianist. So there was music around the family and a lot of it was in the church, with the choir. It was a congregational church, which is not quite C of E (Church of England) and although nonconformist, it is not Methodist: it’s a sort of nonconformism but at the more austere end.
But there would be concerts in the church – Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Stainer’s Cruxifixion, Handel’s Messiah and all that kind of stuff. Sometimes my uncle would play the organ in concerts, for example the orchestral part of the Grieg Piano Concerto with my aunt playing the solo. My Mother sometimes would play…. And when we perform “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” in the Bach Cantata, my mother would do the cello line and so on, that kind of thing.
But it was just a very quiet place and apart from my Dad’s death when I was nine years old, I had a completely happy childhood. I was interested in music: my Mother started teaching me the piano when I was about four or five for about a year and then she passed me on to a music teacher.
EI: What was your first instrument?
GB: Piano. I stayed with piano all the time and later I moved on to a better teacher, who was the music teacher at the grammar school, and eventually I studied with him until I left school. Although I always wanted to play the double bass there wasn’t a double bass in the town, so the first time I actually got my hands on an instrument was when I went to university, aged 18.
EI: Why did you want to play the bass?
GB: It was the instrument I always followed when listening to music, I always heard the bass… I guess, with my Mother being a cellist, I generally listen to the bottom parts, but even when I was listening to rock or jazz I would always focus on the bass line. I was never interested in the words of songs or particularly the melody lines, for example: I was interested in the bass lines, the harmonic progressions. I became interested in jazz probably when I was in my mid-teens: 15 or so, I guess.
EI: What jazz records did you hear?
GB: It was mostly on the radio – we didn’t have a record player. And there were a couple of decent radio jazz programmes. There was one early every Saturday evening that I used to listen to. The people who interested me most at that time – I’m talking about probably ‘57/’58 – were probably people like Gerry Mulligan, the MJQ, Dave Brubeck. I remember that in 1958 I heard Ornette Coleman for the first time and I really loved that. And one of the things I really relished was the fact that people were saying so many bad things about it, and I thought that this meant that there must be something good here.
I tended to take that sort of line. For example, when I was at school I read a lot of Beat Literature: Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti, which was not necessarily fashionable in England. I liked that idea of the outsider, something being beyond the pale. It seemed to me that jazz had that quality. That’s why I found Ornette so interesting, just because he seemed so odd. But then I began to actually enjoy what I was listening to, and I remember of course hearing Charlie Haden for the first time.
Every now and again, myself and a group of friends, we’d leave Goole and hitchhike to a nearby city if there was a jazz concert. I remember going to Leeds to hear Brubeck. I heard the MJQ at Sheffield. I went down to London once – hitchhiked down, and went to Ronnie Scott’s. I went down to the Beaulieu Jazz Festival and heard people like Tubby Hayes and that generation of British jazz – Joe Harriott and some kind of free things…
EI: Tubby Hayes was great. He came on the stereo at some Italian club and I’m listening to this tenor player and I’m thinking, “Who the heck is this? This guy’s fantastic!”
GB: Well he did dep in the Ellington band, so he was acceptable at that level. And he died young. He was also a decent vibes player.
So I listened to those people, and I used to go out of my way to hear those things. And I tried to play a little bit of jazz piano when I could – I liked Monk, and a group of us would try and play some jazz. It was a very odd group: guitar, which was basically playing bass lines, I was playing piano, another friend was playing drums, and there was a harmonica player . Of course, we’d never heard of Toots Thielemans, but we tried.
It was naive and probably rubbish, but then when I went to university at 18 – I went to Sheffield, which is only about 50 miles away from my hometown, but it’s in the middle of Yorkshire — I had access to a lot of different things. In the first place, in the music department, in the basement, there was a bass. It was in a bit of a mess: the strings were hanging loose and there was a crack: it clearly hadn’t been touched for a long time. So I asked if I perhaps fixed it, that I might play the instrument, and they said fine. So I did that and taught myself to play. And I often joke that any bass player will tell you that after five weeks you can hold down a professional job – providing you can play in flat keys and hit the right roots, it’s not hard! It gets trickier a bit later, but at that stage to play with local dance bands: that’s easy. And so I started playing with student jazz groups, and got better and better. One thing led to another, and it was there that I met Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley and started playing with them. I first saw them when they were playing with a group in a pub in Sheffield. It was a quartet, or maybe a quintet.
EI: It was a very fertile generation of British improvisers and jazz musicians.
GB: Oh yes. They were playing in this pub, and they were playing straightforward harmonic jazz at the time. But they let the group I was playing with at the time play in the interval. It was a trio with a guitarist called Eddie Speight. I haven’t seen Ed for years but he went on to work professionally with a lot of people, like Graham Collier and Marian Montgomery. The bass player Derek and Tony had with them was someone who was just temporary, so they asked me if I’d like to audition. I went round to Derek’s house, where I played with Tony and Derek and a pianist called Gerry Rollinson. And they threw lots of things at me. The challenge was always to see if I could keep up with the changes and so on, and one of them was Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice,” where you have lots of changes, almost every beat And I did all that, so eventually I started playing with them,
But, in terms of Goole, it was just a very quiet time. I did get very strongly into English literature in my last two years at school, because a very fine young English teacher came – it was probably his first teaching job fresh from university, maybe 22 or 23 years old, not much older than us. We’d study lots of writers like Robert Browning, whose work I really loved, and a lot of poetry and texts we had to study for our exams. But he would bring in other things, outside the syllabus, like poetry and jazz… I remember him playing recordings of Hoagy Carmichael reading William Carlos Williams; and there was Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Bob Dorough, and Gerry Mulligan played on some things… It seemed to have put together by Kenneth Rexroth. (I later met Rexroth in the late ‘60s.) This English teacher was also a good jazz pianist – I remember him playing a solo in front of the school in the school hall. It was great; he was an inspiration and fired me up. I could see that there were things in art and music that made sense to me.
EI: At that time were you looking at philosophy as well?
GB: Not at all. Studying music, like philosophy – both of them happened more or less by accident: I never intended either. In England, you do what are called A Level examinations in your final two years at school: you study three or four subjects so that you can go to university, generally carrying on from one or two of them. My A Level subjects were English, French, Geography and something called General Studies. And at the end of the first term, by Christmas of the penultimate year, I’d got zero marks in every geography assignment. So it was suggested by my geography teacher that it was a waste of time for me to continue studying geography. So I thought, “Great, I’m only going to have to do three subjects, not four.” But then the headmaster insisted that I take another one so I said. “OK sir, I suppose I’ll take Music.”
So that’s how I got into music, because I was failing geography.
I hadn’t really planned to go to university but I got surprisingly high A Level marks… No one really expected me to do anything because I didn’t work very hard. So I did go to university, and at Sheffield you would do a general first year, studying four subjects, and then specialise from year two onwards. I did music, French, English and philosophy, which sort of replaced General Studies, thinking that at the end of the first year I probably would do music. Then I found that there was some small print in the regulations that said that studying music could only be done as an equal subject with a modern language. So I would have had to have done a dual honors: Music and French. Although I enjoyed French I’d had enough by then: I didn’t want to do a double subject. I went to some of the music staff and they said, “Oh well, it’s always better to specialize.” So I did a philosophy degree, and I simply carried on playing music. By the start of my second year I was effectively working as a professional musician, and I seldom made morning classes because I was out playing clubs until two or three in the night. And when it came to my final exams I had to fly back from playing a season on the Channel Islands in a hotel from Easter and through the whole summer, with Derek and the pianist Gerry Rollinson. When I finished my exams I just carried on playing. So there was no kind of strategy or aim or vision, one thing led to another and I just drifted into the next thing. I continued to do that for a long time. I probably still do!
EI: When did you first start taking notated composition so seriously?
GB: I did try to write a few little things when I was 16 or 17 but I got nowhere, and of course I had to do compositional exercises for exams. But in terms of writing anything, while I was playing with Derek and Tony I got interested a lot in written contemporary music. I used the money I earned from playing to buy scores. I bought things by people like Stockhausen, Messiaen, and also a lot of East Coast American composers: Cage, Feldman, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown. There was a standing joke in the music shop in Sheffield, Wilson Peck – I’d walk in and all these funny scores would always have the name “Bryars” on them. There was a package every week.
EI: A lot of them were probably oversized scores too.
GB: Oh, they were big. They always had these green covers. They were also overpriced well as underproduced, because they were simply just printed by dyeline from transparencies. The production was really crude. When I was playing with Derek and Tony there was also a trumpeter called Barry Whitworth who played with us for a time, And I started to write out graphic charts of patterns, structures of how we might approach improvisation or put them within some form of shape.
Eventually I felt that this was defeating the object in a way. I always hated that sort of controlled improvisation where people point at you and you’ve got to do something. You know, the kind of John Zorn thing, a lot of people do that. You get it in some classical composers too, who suddenly give you a little box where they say… “Play any of these notes as fast as you can for the next 20 seconds” and I find it rather lazy, I just don’t like that at all.
So I found that what I was doing in terms of trying to codify the way we play when improvising was just redundant.
EI: The language of improvising with Derek Bailey, say, is not disconnected to the language of Cage and those East Coast American composers, right?
GB: Absolutely, but also people like Webern as well. Derek would always play things like major sevenths, minor ninths rather than octaves and fifths and sixths and so on. So that kind of angular, jarring stuff… That was part of the same kind of musical sound world.
There were many hardline purists about, but there in reality was nothing to distinguish a lot of music Cage was writing by chance in the early ‘50s from the very highly controlled music of Boulez or Stockhausen in terms of their sound world. And the irony is of course: his was written by chance; theirs was written entirely by rigid determinants.
EI: I was really struck reading by the same point when recently reading Paul Griffith’s Modern Music and After. The way he would talk about the various currents of ’60s music was so different, but the sound, the final effect, was essentially the same.
GB: Absolutely. It’s the attitude behind it is what makes it different.
Later I worked with Cage and spent a lot of time in his company. No one really studied with Cage; he wouldn’t teach, he was a kind of guru in the sense that you were in his company and you fed off him. But anyone who passes through his world never turns out writing music like him, they write whatever they want to do. That’s his strength as a teacher.
Whereas if you went to study with Stockhausen or Moderna or Berio or whoever, you’d be expected to work in the “master’s” idiom in order for him to be able to say anything about it. What I found through Cage was: the attitude you had to the music you wrote, if you like the philosophical approach, so there is a residue of philosophy that lingers. That background information is somehow what informs it. And you might end up writing something which consists of simple little melodies, which is what happened in the Scratch Orchestra with all kinds of people like Howard Skempton and others, very simple stuff which would be unthinkable in some ways. And although, in theory, on the one hand it could have been written by, say, Erik Satie (who can be terrific), on the other it couldn’t because there things in there which Satie wouldn’t have thought of.
EI: Did you feel a relationship at that time to the West Coast composers like Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell and that sort of tradition?
GB: I didn’t really know of them at that time. I got to know more of them later, after I stopped improvising, when I became more interested in the diversity of experimental music. Probably by the mid to later ’60s I would have encountered it. I lived in Illinois for a time in 1968: I may have encountered some of that then. But much later, probably in the very beginning of the ‘70s. When I first went to California in 1974 , but before then I was in touch with people in California as well.
EI: Do you feel connected to that tradition as well?
GB: Not really, I mean I respect it and I enjoy it and I encounter it quite a lot. I’ve done the Other Minds Festival twice, with Charles Amirkhanian and that’s their world. I was there last year and there were people there like Larry Polansky and a lot of others. Now Charles is doing a huge Lou Harrison retrospective.
When I went to California the very first time it was just after Partch’s death and I was in San Francisco, in La Jolla and Redlands as well. I met people like Barney Childs, Warren Burt and so on. There was a bit of that in Illinois because of Ben Johnston, whom I was quite friendly with in Illinois, and who had been close to Partch. So it sort of filtered through. I didn’t pursue it particularly but every now and again I’d come across something and I’d enjoy it. And of course my first visit to California was really because there was something that started in 1969, called the Experimental Music Catalogue, which acted as publisher for this whole area of English Experimental Music, which I got into when I came back from America. I worked with people like Cardew, Tilbury, Chris Hobbs, Howard Skempton and those people. The EMC was a kind of publishing collective and eventually I took it over because by that time I happened to have a house and had space so I could do it. Along with my first wife we did lots of things like printing scores and distributing the music, so I tended to get a lot of correspondence: people would write in. As well as buying the scores many people would ask about the music and its context. I had about a year-long correspondence with John Adams when he’d just got his first job teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory, and he wanted to know what was going on in England. He’d heard about Cardew, he’d heard about other things, but he wanted to know about what was going on. We had this long correspondence and eventually he invited me out to California. I had a kind of residence at the Conservatory in San Francisco and that was, I think, March 1974 so our exchanges lasted for about a year and or so before that. And then I encountered a lot of West Coast music. I played at Mills as well, so I met a lot of the people there too.
EI: Tell me more about Cornelius Cardew.
GB: Cornelius was a phenomenal musician. He was like a father figure a lot of people – though not to me particularly. He was probably the first out of all the English composers who really got into the European avant-garde in a serious way, and in the late ‘50s – ’57 or ’58 – he went to work as an assistant to Stockhausen, and he was in that world that he met Cage and Tudor, when they were there in ’58 for the first time. But from the late ‘50s through the early ‘60s he was kind of proselytizing that new music, and he would play things like Stockhausen “Piano Piece Number 9” and La Monte Young’s “X for Henry Flynt” and those kind of things. He would write about this music in the Musical Times and worked alongside John Tilbury, who’d studied in Warsaw in the early ‘60s. They were the two people who knew lots of new music, so people looked up to Cornelius, and he was a very good composer: he was at the Royal Academy with Richard Rodney Bennett and they used to play a lot of two piano music together. Apparently they were both phenomenal pianists and also phenomenally fast sight-readers. It used to be said that the two of them could make sense of any notation and make it sound great, no matter how poorly it was written.
And then he moved. I think it was probably the meeting with Cage and Tudor when he could see that there was a world other than the European avant-garde, and I think that affected him. And so he became a focus for a lot of people…. He taught at the Royal Academy and he had a few students there. I knew of him, but of course I was living in the North so I didn’t meet him at all, but I remember I sent him some music just before I went to America, and I met him when I came back. I went to collect it and then we got to know each other. And in ’68, ’69 he started to organise concerts. He had AMM as an improvising group from the mid ‘60s, which was a mixture of different kinds of improvisers, but it was a very abstract kind of improvisation with Keith Rowe and Eddie Prévost and Lou Gare, as well as a very young Chris Hobbs. They were incredible. I remember seeing them in 1967. Astonishing performance: there were very, very long washes of sound, non-referential stuff. Extraordinary. Keith played the guitar lying flat with a bow… . Cornelius had a kind of class at Morley College in London, and out of that he advertised the idea of creating this kind of ensemble The Scratch Orchestra, which would bring together a lot of different experimental practitioners and some people involved in music who were from the fringes of fine art, people who were doing events rather than musical performances, like George Brecht, for example. Many were close to Fluxus. And so the Scratch Orchestra started, which was kind of a collective, and he really was the figurehead for that constantly. It had a sort of very hippie kind of feeling for a long time and some very crazy things were done. There were certainly people there who probably would never have written a note of music if it hadn’t been for Cornelius, and when the Scratch disappeared, they all disappeared too.
But there was a real energy. It was largely centered in London. When I came back from America I lived in London, so I got to know them. I never joined the Scratch but I was involved with a lot of their activities. And then later in the early ‘70s – ’72, ’73 – things started to change and it became more and more involved with left wing politics and then extreme left wing politics and eventually his music turned in that direction. It all came to a head when there was a tour of the Scratch Orchestra – I think it’s probably documented somewhere – where I think they’d been criticized by some rather conservative music critic for something they were doing somewhere in the North East of England, where they’d been doing some kind of nonsense, writing poems on toilet paper and so on…. There was this sort of harsh criticism because this tour was being paid for by the Arts Council, which of course comes from taxpayers – the usual kind of antagonism. But they decided that they would discuss all this: what are they doing and who are they doing it for? In a way, they had no real framework for that kind of debate. The discussion tended to be led by John Tilbury and Keith Rowe, both of whom were communists. John and I were close friends – we did a lot of duo performances together, and had worked together for years after I came back. Among other things we used to go to football matches together (Queens Park Rangers); still do if we can. But they led the discussion, and they suggested that they might analyse Mao Tse-tung’s lecture on art that was at the Yenan Forum, which was part of the Long March, from Mao’s writings. It was about the role of art in society and so on. Analysing this article was seen, apparently, as a way of understanding what their own collective position might be now. Gradually there was a move into a kind of Maoist world, and from then on their activities tended to take more of a political edge. The Scratch split into those who just wanted to make music, without any political content, and those who felt politics should be the driving force, and so by about 1974 the Scratch split up. And Cor continued the rest of his life pursuing that political path. I still handled publishing for the Scratch, and I was publishing some things that he wrote: transcriptions of Irish revolutionary songs, arrangements of Chinese revolutionary songs for piano, other ensemble pieces.
He also started to criticize his earlier works, to repudiate them, and also to criticize very heavily his former mentors like Cage and Stockhausen. This upset Cage; I don’t know about Stockhausen.
Cornelius was rigorously political. He was a somewhat humorless person. I remember my first wife would say it was a bit like having the vicar for tea when he came round. He was rather cold. He wasn’t dangerous of course – he wouldn’t have been able to start a revolution — but because he was involved in demonstrations and stuff he was a watched man by MI5 and so on. Whenever he’d call on the phone there was this mysterious click on the line when he started speaking and you’d think, “Oh, here we go again.”
Then he was killed in 1981 in a hit and run accident. Some people in the party maintained it was an assassination. The whole legend developed. But Cor was a phenomenal, phenomenal musician, and a really strangely charismatic man in the way that you can imagine really crazy cult people might be in the sort of crazy religion you might find in the New Mexico desert. Waco, Texas, that kind of territory, you know. But I liked Cor: we got on well.
By 1976 I became the official biographer of a man called Lord Berners, who was a composer, a writer a painter, a diplomat and a real Lord. He was one of only two English composers commissioned by Diaghilev; and was a friend of Stravinsky, who thought him the best English composer of his generation. Because Berners had moved in all kinds of right wing circles I found myself, for example, having tea with old British Fascists like Sir Oswald Mosley. Every now and then Cornelius and I would be chatting, and we’d be talking about various left wing things and I’d just drop in that I’d been with Sir Oswald last week and he’d say “What!?” I’d do it deliberately as a windup.
But Cor was really important. I think there’s a thing that Feldman said at one point: anything that happens in English music will happen because of Cardew. But then later when Feldman saw the way Cardew went he felt that Cor went off the rails. But certainly at the time Feldman said that it was probably true.
EI: Thank you. Well, I love that you’ve used this word that I’m now going to start using all the time: “non-referential,” when talking about experimental music.
GB: Derek also used to use idiomatic and non-idiomatic improvisation.
EI: But at some point you transitioned from non-referential experimental music into your mature style or something, which is comparatively referential. Do you agree?
GB: I would say very referential, yeah.
EI: So tell us about your growth and how you developed that way.
GB: Well we were talking about Cornelius and the experimental catalogue and so on, and I lived in London and was in that world. I was performing and working with fellow composers who were within that environment. And the ones I worked with were generally those musicians who hadn’t followed the political line of Cornelius: John White, Dave Smith – although Dave was politically with Cor he also involved other music – Chris Hobbs. We played a lot of music together. We essentially wrote for each other as fellow composers, within a composer/performer ensemble, and we really wrote for what instruments we had between us. A lot of the music we did was multiple piano music, because we were all pianists. So we did a lot of music for two pianos – four hands, six hands, eight hands, that kind of thing – there was a lot of this! And other things: just generally writing music which was vaguely… not particularly repetitious, but there was repetition involved.
During that period in the 1970s there was a kind of community of new music within England, but this also extended into Europe and to America. For example, I met Steve Reich and Phillip Glass in 1970, the first time they came over here. We became friends. In 1972 four English musicians toured with Steve: myself, Cornelius, Michael Parsons and Michael Nyman, we’d play Drumming. We were in that band (Chris Hobbs had played in the London performance but Michael replaced him for the tour). I remember when Steve and Phillip came over in 1970, they came round to this little one-room place I had, and we’d play tapes of our latest things to each other. Several composers came round, so there was a kind of sharing things… that went on through the 1970s, and we would play in similar environments. I remember in 1977 Chris Hobbs and I played a weekend of minimal music in the Holland Festival. Steve wasn’t there but Phillip was there, Terry Riley was there, La Monte Young was there, Pandit Pran Nath was there, Louis Andreessen was there, and so were we. So we were actually in that kind of world, seen to be part of that minimalist territory.
I wasn’t studying or anything like that: I would just write as a way of finding my way through situations I found myself in. So if someone asked me to do a project I would always say yes, whether I knew anything about it or not, and then find out how I could do it; I would never say “No, I’m not sure, I don’t know how to do that,” I would take it on. I kept on doing that, and so I was all the time finding challenges, like working with dance companies, for example. I started doing performances, outside England – in Belgium, Italy, France, a few in Germany. I think it was in ’79 that I played at the Paris Festival d’Automne. John Adams was there, and a lot of West Coast Americans were there. Ingram Marshall was there, Charlemagne Palestine. There was a big feature on this sort of non-European avant-garde. I was told afterwards that the theatre director Robert Wilson had wanted to come to hear the concert and couldn’t but a friend of his, who actually represented him in Europe, went.
And the result was that, in 1981, I got this call from Bob Wilson to meet. I was told that a number of people were thinking that he needed a musician to work with directly. After Einstein on the Beach he seemed to put together performances with a compilation of tapes: A track with Miles Davis, a bit of Keith Jarrett and so on. What was going on stage wasn’t helped at all by this rather off-the-shelf way of putting together music.
So, anyway, we met. He was planning a version of Euripides’s Medea as a play, which was going to be done in Venice at the Fenice Opera House in September 1982. There was already some incidental music for it, done by Arthur Russell. But he felt that this music didn’t really work for what he wanted to do, and wondered if I’d like to take over this project and do the music for this theatre production. But Bob can’t imagine music if it is described to him, you have to give him music to listen to. So I got together a couple of people and did some examples: a female aria, a male aria, I put two voices together as a kind of chorus and wrote a little instrumental piece and let him hear it, which to my surprise he liked.
Then he asked me to go through the whole text, the entire play by Euripides, and see which sections could be sung, because in his vision of the play there were certain parts which were sung, as a way of heightening the emotional climate, and to emphasize Medea’s difference from the people around her. He’d had some parts arranged to be sung when he’d been working with Arthur. So I went through the whole play and said what should be sung, what could be sung and what emphatically should be spoken. What I came up with was, essentially, that most of it could be sung, and it became an opera, not a play. So I was asked to do this opera. This is exactly a case of what I’ve been saying: someone gives me a project and I say yes.
If I’d thought carefully I should, of course, have said no, because actually I’d only ever seen one opera in my life, which was when I was in Illinois, Gunther Schuller’s The Visitation. I’d never written anything for orchestra; I’d never written anything for the human voice; I’d never written anything for the stage; I was teaching full time; the opera was in a language I could neither read nor understand – Ancient Greek. I was to handle my own publishing, which meant supervising copying, proofing, negotiating with the opera house about rights, hire fees and so on. However, the catch was that in August 1981, the moment when the play turned into an opera, the original opening date of September 1982 still stood, so I had that amount of time to do it, and, as I say, I was teaching full time. So I basically had until the following June, about nine months, to write an opera, which on paper was over five hours long. And I said yes – and I did it.
One of the first things I was asked by the Opera House was about orchestration, because they wanted to know this for their planning. And I read rather eclectically on what we know of Ancient Greek music, and I came up with this idea of using lots of percussion: tuned percussion. And I decided to have no violins. So a quintet of tuned percussion replaced the entire violin section. So the strings have violas downwards. Three marimbas, vibes, glock, bells, all kind of things, plus tymps. This ensemble became the anchor of the orchestra.
I also had no trumpets, no oboes: I replaced the oboes with two saxophones. I originally wanted the chorus to be just tenors and altos, but they insisted I couldn’t do that, because what would they do with the other singers for the rest of that time?
So then I had to get down to work immediately. I had to have a crash course in opera. The conductor, Richard Bernas, was someone I’d worked with in new music events: he’s a brilliant new music conductor, but he’s also a real opera aficionado, although he had never conducted opera but I asked him if he would conduct Medea. And in the end he did conduct the opera. But he also gave me a lot of guidance: he would give me examples of, say, an aria for two females, an ensemble of four voices, an ensemble of eight voices. He made up cassettes of examples from Verdi, all sorts of things. I also studied how to write for the soprano voice with orchestra…. I listened a lot to Wagner, Richard Strauss. Also, in terms of orchestration, I looked at Wagner and Strauss of course, but also Busoni and Percy Grainger: I had always been very interested in Grainger’s orchestration and his ideas in general. I just had to learn very fast…
There were times, later one, when I had to get some help because simply the volume of notes I had to write was too much. I would occasionally, in desperation, ask my friends Dave Smith and John White, who I worked with a lot: can you just do the French horn section for these 80 bars? I finally got there, and by the end of June I’d actually completed this opera.
But in the end it was cancelled and, after all that, it didn’t happen at La Fenice in September 1982. It was done, though in 1984 in Lyon, and at the Paris Opera as well. I had my first hands-on experience with full, live, big ensembles: orchestras, choruses in a big environment. And I learnt — really because of the needs of a dramaturgy — that you have to follow certain not traditional forms, but certain norms in order to be comprehensible. If you want to communicate what you’re doing, especially if you’re working mostly in a foreign language, you have to make sure it’s absolutely clear what’s going on. And given that Bob’s staging was very abstract and very, very still and minimal – there was very little stage action – I had to make a lot of the narrative evident in the music.
So the music became really quite dramatic, fast and loud in a way I hadn’t done mucb before (except Out of Zaleski’s Gazebo…) and some of it in a fairly traditional way. I remember there’s one bit – a chorus in Act 3, where Medea is determined to kill her children and to murder Jason’s future bride, and she met with the King of Athens in order to try and secure for herself a safe haven there. In the original Euripides play there’s this long poem in praise of Athens and the language in which it’s written is completely different from the rest of the play. It has this beautiful flowing poetry and this very eloquent, great dignity. And the point of that very specific use of language that you should realize, just from hearing it, that that Athens is not a place that Medea could possibly inhabit, and her language elsewhere in the play is nothing like this.
And so when it came to set that as a chorus I wrote something that was a “real” opera chorus: it could have been written by Wagner or Verdi – it was like something from Parsifal. And when I was in the audience, you could feel the audience warm up at that moment: “Alright, at last, real music!” And from then on I had them! The artistic director at Lyon, Jean Pierre Brossman, said that for him there was one moment where the opera suddenly took on a new life, during an aria with Medea and King Creon in Act 2, and in the dialogue exchanges between Creon and Medea.
I’d got into things that weren’t actually using traditional values, which were already there within the opera, in a sense, not usurping them but, if you like, purloining them and taking them for my own purposes. I was using structures that were historic, and when you’re working in a form like opera – and there are other forms too – you almost need to sense a perspective on history. It would be very hard to write an opera out of nowhere with no knowledge of operatic history at all – which is essentially where I started from, but my crash course in opera certainly helped.
It’s the same thing for a string quartet. The rules for a string quartet are that there are these four guys, and there are no others. It starts with Haydn and it goes on. You can add a soprano – Schoenberg did – but then you’re breaking the rules. My own ensemble has a double bass, cello and two violas? It’s a string quartet in one sense but it’s not a real string quartet, it’s four string players. And once you start working on a string quartet you immediately have a history of great string quartets: you have Shostakovich, you have Schumann, Schubert,, Mozart, Beethoven, a whole history that’s all there. You could ignore it I suppose, but I think it’s better to know what it is at least at first. And so I started to look more and more to historical models in other areas of my work.
Also, when I did the opera in 1984, I suddenly found myself much more in the newspapers. If you write an opera there are many people who will write about it. No matter what it is…. At least a preview of it: you will get a lot of press. And opera critics are not like music critics. They’re not really music critics at all, they’re in a different world. But they do get a lot of newspaper space. If you look at the newspapers, the Sunday newspapers, the classical music section is almost entirely opera. There might get a few little bits about other things from time to time, but almost entirely opera. And as a result of Medea I did become at least known, my name was known. And as a consequence I also found myself working with people who would never have given me the time of day previously. When I first started working with Bob on Medea, I also started working with him on his Civil Wars project. He was uncomfortable with real opera singers and he asked me to join him. I was involved the first sketch rehearsal at the Bavarian Sate Opera, and I found myself working with Kenneth McIntyre, who was singing Wotan at Bayreuth at the time, with Jessye Norman, with Hildegard Behrens: some very high quality people who I wouldn’t have met otherwise. And they took me seriously. So I realized that, OK, I may be a little experimentalist from this tiny enclave, but people can find value in the music if it’s actually put into this more public arena. As a result of that kind of public awareness I was commissioned by two very fine quartet ensembles: the Arditti String Quartet and the Hilliard Ensemble. So that took me into another world altogether, of very high quality music making.
EI: But let’s back up for a second, because in two of the earlier pieces you’re still most famous for, The Sinking of the Titanic and Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, the harmonic world is conservative. In the late 60s it’s abstract, expressionistic rhythm, and minor ninths, and then all of a sudden in the early ’70s it was comparatively basic rhythm and very tonal harmony. And you were there, you saw it happen, and it happened inside you.
GB: That was something that was subsequently articulated by Michael Nyman in his book Experimental Music, where he drew a distinction between the avant-garde and the experimental.
The avant-garde was, if you like, the European modernist world. The experimental was much more loose, more open and more wide-ranging in the kind of resources it would use. And there was also a difference of perspective. Just as people like Reich and Glass would make extended repetition pieces out of just little cells of music or little modes, creating a music that was essentially abstract, in England what we find was that we would deconstruct maybe existing tonal music like John Bull or William Byrd, or little things from the Fitzwilliam Virginal book, and make repetition pieces out of them. John White’s group, the PTO, which was always used four identical instruments: four toy pianos or four identical small battery operated Casio organs whereas Reich/Glass used high-tech, highly amplified Farfisa keyboards. The sources that the PTO was using were referential: their work referred to music outside.
Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet is a repetitive piece of course, and it’s a minimal piece in the sense that it does repeat a single musical element over and over again. But it uses traditional harmony to underscore the recorded voice and it draws this out of the implications of that vocal line – just what that harmonic line seems to demand… some people might harmonize it slightly differently but not much. And what I then do is to extend it ad infinitum, which is what one does in repetitive music.
With repetitive music, however, you need a reason for going as far as you want to go. In a lot of Steve’s things, like Piano Phase, when you get to a certain point you’re back where you were so that’s it: you go A to A via B.
And in a way, their music changed, and not always for the better. For example, with Steve and Music For 18 Musicians you start to add orchestration, harmonic change, and that moves it into a different world, less pure. And similarly I think probably with Phillip, you know, Einstein On The Beach and so forth: Once you start working with dramatic things it’s not on the same level anymore. Whereas before it was pure – like music in parallel motion, music in contrary motion, music in fifths and so on. .
But you also have to find why you go as far as you go, not further nor less. And so timing, that question of duration and pace, is probably the one thing you can’t teach as a composer. You learn when something has outstayed its welcome, or you can give it one last push. And I always think that I learnt that by working as a bass player in a working men’s club, which was like cabaret, for a long time. I was working with comedians and I could see them time the exact moment, to a fraction of a second, when they would deliver a line. And if it had been a fraction of a second either way it wouldn’t have worked. You learned timing, and in a way with Jesus’ Blood I tried to do that.
I remember when we did the first recording of Jesus’ Blood on Obscure, which was within Island Records. The manufacture of the album was almost aborted because Chris Blackwell, who ran Island Records, had this practice of listening to recordings when he was on the phone. So he started the piece running and he began to get very annoyed and he wondered what the hell this thing was. And the moment that he was really annoyed, that’s the moment that the first string chord happens, so he had only heard maybe three or four minutes of this unaccompanied voice gradually coming in. And then he realized, actually, that he should keep on listening. It was on the brink of not being manufactured, so the timing of that string quintet was critical.
In Jesus’ Blood‘s case the duration of the piece was always conditioned in the early days by external factors. Obviously when I made it initially it was on a simple tape loop, but that’s very fragile so I copied on to a reel-to-reel tape. Now a full reel on a Revox tape would take about 30 minutes, 32 minutes maybe. A reel of projected 16mm film is about the same, so 30 minutes tended to be the performance length in the first performances. When we came to make the first recording, I didn’t want to have a side break, and as the length of one side of vinyl was about 23, 24 minutes before you start to lose quality: you could go further but then the sound is poorer. So that was at 24 – it was a limit. But then later, when Philip Glass started the Point Label and he wanted to do Jesus’ Blood, he asked what else could he put on the same label, thinking that 24 minutes was the length of the piece. And I just said “no, no, we’ll just have the piece for the whole CD,” and he was very worried. If he had been the one to triple the duration he would have simply multiplied every measure by three, and it would just be very long and rather tedious. So what I saw was “No, what I’ll do is, to make the first 24 minutes have exactly the same structure as the original vinyl recording. Then, thereafter, you take the music on a different journey – by 1993 I’m a better composer than I was in 1971, and at least I know more about instruments and about orchestral color and so on.”
We had many other options, so I started to introduce different kinds of ensembles, choirs and so on. But that was governed by what was the length of a CD – at that time, roughly 74 minutes was about right. So it was about three times the old one. What I had to do now was work out, within those external confines, how to pace it within the overall time frame. And that’s where the judgment comes in, of how long will you go on for before you’re just about to outstay your welcome and to introduce something else. So those are judgments, which are sort of instinctive. It’s rather like painting a picture, it’s a picture of an external thing, it’s not an abstract, it’s like a landscape or a portrait: you’re looking at something tangible which you can recognize, or it reflects something that you know in your life, whereas if you look at Barnett Newman or Rothko, you know – great stuff but what does it look like? Does it look like a sunset or your back garden or your mother? No. At the same time, as abstractions, they also have to have structure too. But you have the additional thing, unlike the traditional minimalist composers, whereby you can go outside the narrow confines of the material that is being permutated. And eventually, I find more and more that people who’ve stayed within certain genres have tended to, not necessarily repeat themselves, but just to plough a kind of furrow. I shouldn’t be too harsh about this because, in a way, you could say that’s true of almost every composer, in the sense that they have their individual style. So you can’t complain that, say, Schubert sounds as he does, just because he sounded like that all the time.
EI: Your mature music some kind of real harmonic richness in terms of the major/minor tonal system, which — in my opinion — not all of composers who have been informed by minimalism have. Did you have a species counterpoint at some point, or formal harmony instruction?
GB: Not really. When I was still playing with Derek and Tony I did have some sort of composition lessons, but that was basically doing things like Bach counterpoint, chorales. But also some Palestrina counterpoint and a little bit of imitative composition, like a string trio in the style of Mozart, something like that. But no composition lessons in terms of people looking at my own work.
But also I was always instinctively aware of traditional harmony and counterpoint, for example by playing church music. You know, through endlessly playing hymn tunes – you get to know a lot about functional harmony. You also get to learn about some surprises, where suddenly you have one moment where there’s some unbelievable chord. My son was playing through a hymn book the other day, and in there there’s this one chord and I think, “Wow, that’s so incredible!”” It’s the hymn, “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, Forgive Our Foolish Ways,” and there’s one chord, which is a passing chord, which is unbelievable. So you find that in these places, even though it’s a very tiny thing.
And similarly I’ve found it in jazz – in harmonic jazz. When I first started playing with Derek, Tony and Gerry Rollinson, basically we were playing Bill Evans. I was Scott LaFaro. So the choice of a good root when the piano is doing a certain voicing makes everything work.
One of the pieces I love most is “My Foolish Heart,” though there is one moment where LaFaro just hesitates for a fraction on one note. Otherwise it’s perfect, and in a way that little blemish makes it even more so. There’s just LaFaro’s beautiful choice of notes in relationship to the way Evans is voicing chords…
EI: I think it’s so important they’re playing it in A too.
GB: Absolutely. People used to think it was in B flat, and there is a Japanese transcription in that key. But at over the final chord LaFaro plays a bottom open A, and there’s a C sharp and G sharp, the major seventh, on the two upper strings. [Sings chord]. You can’t do that if it’s in B flat; it’s not available. I think it’s great that it’s in A, and that’s one of the nice things about playing in piano trios: you’re not stuck in flat keys all the time, or if you are you can go very extreme and perhaps play in G flat, play something really rich.
EI: For jazz, you can’t really get closer to assessing functional harmony in a European way than that Evans and LaFaro on “My Foolish Heart.”
GB: The original song is just I-VI-II-V but they don’t do that. When they go back to I the second time it’s actually on the third of the scale and so on. And there’s also the chromaticism within the voicings, too.
A while ago I showed Steve Swallow a picture of my son playing bass. Yuri started bass when he was five on a tenth size instrument belonging to Gary Karr – Gary is a friend and neighbor of ours out in Canada. By the time my son was about eight he was playing an eighth size bass, and there’s a picture I showed Steve of him playing bass sitting down and he just looks completely happy. Steve said, “That’s really great, he looks so much at one with that instrument!” And then he added something that I always remember: he said, “I hope he experiences the pleasure that we have as bass players, of playing a good root on the first of the bar.” We take great pleasure in that little simple thing: a good root on the first of the bar, on the first beat. And he’s right. If you play a really solid well-focused, rich, reverberant, sustained note… I used to love playing ballads for that reason. At a fast tempo you can skip over mistakes but in ballads you can’t: you’ve got to hit it and it’s got to be completely right. When I worked with pianist pianist, Gerry Rollinson, he’d call out bass notes from time to time, because he was doing certain things with the harmony, and when he played a chord with that bass note he used to go [rasps] “Oh, beauty, beauty!” It was like heaven – that was one of his great expressions, and I learnt that kind of beauty, and it is really very satisfying.
EI: You mentioned, Bull, Byrd, the Virginal Book and hymns: there is a vital British tradition of classical music that isn’t experimental.
GB: Oh, yeah.
EI: When I heard The Fifth Century I thought, “This is in this tradition.”
GB: Well, the text comes from that world, it’s in that period: Traherne is late 1600s.
EI: Maybe for fun I could name some composers as sort of word association with you. Henry Purcell.
GB: Wonderful. I love Purcell: I’ve written quite a lot of pieces after Purcell. I was commissioned by Fretwork to do a piece in the Purcell centenary: I wrote an “In Nomine” for six viols. I’ve actually done a whole ballet, making new versions from Dido and Aeneas where I’ve recomposed sections from the opera for a quartet of saxophone, piano, viola and cello.
Purcell is an absolute genius.
EI: For me he’s almost the most avant-garde of some of the early composers.
GB: There are other people like William Lawes and some of the other viol consort writers: Jenkins. There are a lot of them but Purcell I think is probably the most supremely gifted of all of them.
EI: The phrase lengths are strange.
GB: Yes, they are. For example, “Dido’s Lament.” You forget this chaconne is seven bars long. You always think that it’s eight bars, but it’s not, it’s seven.
EI: Right now we’re apparently in a village that’s close to Handel, who was in some ways an English composer.
GB: Handel spent time in the countryside about six or seven miles from here. We drove past it on the way from the station, a place called Church Langton. One of his patrons was the Marquis Hanbury, whose country home was there, so Handel would stay there from time to time. Quite probably he played that church organ and certainly there was a performance of The Messiah in that church. The first performance was in Dublin and then there was one in London, but then the first performance in a church was said to be in this little church in Church Langton, just a few miles down the road.
In fact I once wrote a piece related to Handel. I was commissioned by a fine American harpsichordist, Maggie Cole, a lovely player, lives in London. I wrote a piece “After Handel’s Vesper,” not in the sense of a motor scooter but meaning an evening thing. There’s a wonderful French writer, Raymond Roussel, who I read. And there’s a book called Impressions of Africa, and lots of people tell stories within it, and there’s one story in which someone tells of a blind Handel composing a piece of music by chance, by people locating sprigs of holly on the balustrade of a stairway. As he goes down it he takes a bit of holly, one after the other, and it’s given a note and eventually by the end of it this piece of music is written by chance. It’s the most exquisite piece of music you’ve ever heard as, of course they always are in such stories. And it was called “Vesper.” So I wrote this piece and it was called “After Handel’s Vesper.”
I have had some relationship with Handel over the years. I guess I’ve played The Messiah quite a few times. In fact, one of the really good classical bass gigs is playing first bass in The Messiah: you just play non-stop scales and arpeggios. It’s a tough one, really great for the hands.
EI: What makes Handel, Handel?
GB: I don’t know… People always used to talk about Bach/Handel counterpoints, as if they were the same thing, and I don’t think they are, quite. Their years are pretty close, but of course Handel has the difference of being an opera composer, which Bach never was. You get a much more theatrical music with Handel than you do with Bach. And I do like the operas very much; there’s some fantastic stuff. I don’t know them as well as I should.
I mean, it’s one of the things about being a composer: you can spend so much time listening to other people, but eventually you’ve got to just get down and do something yourself. And I’m afraid I listen to less music now than I should. If I go to a festival, I’m often given CDs by people at the festival, and I come back and I try to listen to as much as I can, but I have to admit that I’ve still got one or two that are still in their cellophane, and I’m sure it happens to you too. And I feel a little guilty. But there are times, like late at night when I’ve been working here, and maybe my wife’s in Russia, my son’s away at school and I don’t have to get up in the morning, and I’ll stop working and listen to something for a while. Sometimes it’s for a reason. I used to have a routine of listening to “Erbaume dich” from St Matthew Passion – the John Eliot Gardiner version with Michael Chance. I used to enjoy listening to that late at night and in fact Michael Chance was going to be one of the singers in my second opera but that was also cancelled and when it was rescheduled he wasn’t available. I’m very fond of Michael’s voice.
EI: There’s a gap where we don’t have so many British composers but then in the early 20th century they come back with a vengeance.
GB: There were some in the 19th century – Sterndale Bennett, actually a very fine composer who was revered by Mendelssohn. Elgar is kind of q post-Brahms composer, but in the early 20th century there are Vaughan Williams and Holst and those guys and, for me, Grainger is the greatest – he straddles all that.
EI: Grainger was an experimental composer.
GB: Absolutely. There are these extraordinary Free Music Machines. He has also as a piece, “Random Round,” which is a piece of chance music. He’s also a phenomenal musical thinker and had an amazing ear. His piano playing is just unbelievable and also his views and ideas on orchestration – like with The Fifth Century, for example, I took his views on the saxophone as something that informed my thinking. He did some beautiful transcriptions of early music Hallelujahs for saxophone choir and they sound fantastic, you know, the kind of very pure, almost non-vibrato sax like the classical sax can do – it’s a lovely sound. And he always thought of the saxes as a kind of surrogate human voices, you know, soprano, alto, tenor, bass – that’s what they are – but essentially they are the human vocal range. He was also the first composer to really champion tuned percussion. He worked closely with Deagan during the First World War, discussed ideas for tuned percussion instruments, and he made fantastic use of tuned percussion, and there a piece called “The Warriors” where he uses multiple marimbas – and three pianos… The piece I wrote for Nexus, the percussion group, which was a sort of homage to Deagan and it all comes about because of Grainger. The instruments that he used from about 1916 through to the mid ‘30s are Deagan’s best – and he encouraged Deagan’s work. Nexus had some great Deagan instruments, especially a quite rare instrument called the song bells – it’s like an alto glockenspiel with resonators – an unusual instrument, but Grainger encouraged that sort of development.
Grainger, like Vaughan Williams and Holst were all involved in the area of folk song, but Grainger differed from them. Unlike Cecil Sharp and those folk song collectors who would flatten out their transcriptions into 3/4 and 4/4 and assume that the little kind of hesitancies were simply errors, Grainger wrote them exactly: like 7/8 followed by a 5/8 and 5 and 1/3rd and so on. Not only did he transcribe exactly the melodic line, but also the pronunciation. For example, there’s a song, “Sprig of Thyme” which begins “Once there was a sprig of thyme,” but he writes it as “Wunce” – “Wunce there was…” which is how it was pronounced in Lincolnshire at the time he transcribed it. That kind of love of the found material – you see that takes me to Jesus’ Blood – his reverence and respect for his sources, not to sort of draw attention to himself as a very clever person using the material, but to find the beauty of what he’s got and enhance it. I always say, with something like that, it’s rather like someone finding a phenomenal diamond and they set it in a ring. If they get the setting wrong, the diamond doesn’t look so great – but if you get the setting right, it’s fantastic and the diamond is even better. The diamond doesn’t change – it’s how you’ve treated it.
It’s exactly the same with the folk song people – some people just make it boring, just sing it over and over again, and nothing happens. For me one of Grainger’s greatest pieces is a wonderful, apparently simple piece called “Shallow Brown,” a sea shanty. I’ve performed it a lot with my students when I used to teach and almost every measure uses a different time signature. It’s a simple sea shanty with just a simple solo line, answering chorus, solo line/chorus, and it goes through six or seven verses. But it evolves and the orchestration evolves – it’s an unbelievable piece.
His piano music is wonderful too. There’s a great Marc-André Hamelin recording, but also I love Leslie Howard’s. Leslie has also recorded the complete Liszt, which was quite an achievement. Martin Jones did a great job recording all the Grainger. Leslie and Martin were in my ensemble for a time in the late 1980s
EI: Grainger has some added-note harmony accompanying some folk tunes, but Ralph Vaughn Williams has even more. Peter Warlock has this with his songs. This kind of thing went on to be a very obvious influence on Kenny Wheeler but I think Wayne Shorter as well.
Some of your music also has this access to this kind of beautiful British added-note harmony.
GB: Yep. There’s Delius as well, although I think I ought to like Delius more than I do. I do like Delius but somewhere, once a Delius piece gets halfway through, I start to drift off. It doesn’t grab me enough. But there is some very beautiful Delius. Delius is someone who Harold Budd loves. He wrote a piece called “In Delius’ Sleep” which I used to play sometimes. But in that whole period of pre-World War II British music there’s a lot of very interesting stuff . One of my favourites is Sorabji, but he’s hardly known.
EI: You need a lot of time.
GB: Yeah. There’s not a lot of it but the pieces can be very long. It’s technically unbelievably hard. There’s also the problem, of course, that Sorabji banned all performances of his music for many years.
EI: Did you know him?
GB: I didn’t actually know him but I was in touch with him. In the mid ‘70s I got friendly with Yonty Solomon who was the first person to be allowed to play Sorabji. Alastair Hinton, who inherited the Sorabji estate, used to play piano in a little trio in the Pump Room in Bath, a Roman spa, and he somehow became a sort of confidante of Sorabji. I think Hinton heard Yonty play the Concord Sonata and then suggested to Sorabji that Yonty might be someone who he might consider allowing to play his music. Sorabji had banned everything in the ‘40s, but Yonty did the first performances of some pieces and then recorded them. Michael Habermann became the first American to be allowed to do it.
In 1979 I was involved with a music festival in Como, Autunno Musicale, thanks to a friend, Italo Gomez, who was actually the Intendant of the Venice Opera House when I was commissioned for Medea. He got me to be a kind of musical advisor and I lived in Como for a month with my first wife and I programmed all sorts of things. We did a Lord Berners’ concert, we did some Grainger and I did an all-Sorabji concert. Leslie Howard did the Grainger concert, Yonty came out and did the Sorabji. It was the first ever all-Sorabji concert and the first time Sorabji had ever been played in Italy and so I corresponded with Sorabji. I did have some letters from him, which were fantastic because they were typed on an old Underwood typewriter or suchlike, and there were all sorts of mistakes and then he would just suddenly type in red and put “damn!” and then carry on. It was unbelievable. Unfortunately, I’ve lost the letters but they were great. But he was pleased that these things were going on and Yonty was fantastic. I think my most terrifying musical moment was the 47 minutes when I was the page-turner for Yonty in the second half of a concert where he played a Sorabji’s concerto for piano solo. It was the original manuscript of course, on hand-made paper, and was mostly written in green and purple ink, and it was indecipherable and I was the page-turner! I just about managed, and Yonty was very helpful, but it was a nightmare. It was such unbelievable music. But that’s nothing like “English” music: Sorabji ‘s mother was half Sicilian, half Spanish and his father a Parsi from Bombay, though he was born in Essex. He would say that, in Britain, if a cat is born in a kennel, it’s called a dog, and so he refused call himself a British composer.
EI: I think Scriabin influenced him in some way?
GB: Yes, and Busoni. Busoni was a big hero for him. In fact, Sorabji knew Busoni, slightly, before Busoni’s death.
EI: You’ve mentioned Busoni a few times now.
GB: Yes, Busoni’s an important composer. He’s not given half the credit he’s due. I mean, phenomenal piano music, just phenomenal piano music. The seven Elegies are fantastic, they’re really dark stuff. His opera Doktor Faust is a masterpiece. I saw a concert performance of that which completely opened my mind. It was unbelievable. The opera was incomplete at his death and it was finished by a pupil, Philip Jarnach. But then people were never completely convinced of the ending that Jarnach did and eventually it was completed by Antony Beaumont, and then it was an absolute magical opera. Wonderful opera. And there are other operas like Arlecchino… Some of the operas are awkward because they’re that difficult length, an hour or so long, so they’re very hard to program. That happens with Zemlimsky too. I remember once going to the Royal Opera House and they had two Zemlinskys on because each was an hour long. As luck would have it, one was cancelled so I only heard the one that I really wanted to hear anyway which was The Birthday of The Infanta.
Anyway, Busoni is incredible. There are also his writings, you know, his vision of music – his writings on music are fantastic, his view of the future. He was quite conservative in terms of his musical output but what he envisaged was remarkable. And he had that little bit of a disadvantage of being split between different musical cultures. He came from Trieste, which is on the border of north Italy and lived extensively in Germany as well as Italy so he was between those two different cultures and that’s there in the music too. Grainger studied with Busoni of course. Grainger used to come in and Busoni would say, “Ah, here’s Mr. Grainger – he’ll show us how to wreck the insides of a piano.”
EI: Speaking of Marc-André Hamelin, there’s a recent CD collection of late Busoni piano music…
GB: I haven’t got that.
EI: It’s unbelievable.
GB: Hamelin is wonderful. He is just terrific. I love what he does. I’ll seek that out.
EI: In terms of multiple traditions, I think you’re a rare example of a composer who has had quite a lot of professional relationships with proper jazz musicians Bill Frisell, Charlie Haden, Evan Parker and so forth. Have you kept up as a jazz bassist per se?
GB: No. One day in November 1966 I put my bass in its case and my bass didn’t come out of its case for 17 years. I didn’t touch it again for a long time. And then I did start to play a little bit in the mid ‘80s, here in Leicester. There was a sax player, called Conrad Cork who wrote a book on jazz harmony called Harmony With Lego Bricks, which was an interesting textbook. In fact, there’s a play-along that goes with it and I was the bass player for the play-along, which was quite nice. I was just playing time, you know: II-V-Is, endless turnarounds and stuff.
EI: Oh my gosh, I have to get that!
GB: Well, I looked for it on line and there was one copy available at £900. It’s ridiculous! It’s just a photocopied pack of stuff. Anyway, so I played. Conrad was a sax player. Like me he was someone who’d had a difficult relationship with improvised music. He’d done it and had fallen out, he was sort of reluctant to play, but had a great knowledge of jazz history and theory and repertoire and so we started playing duos together. We played together for quite a while in the 1980s and in fact we played at one of Derek’s Company events. I played a few times at Derek’s Company events, but then often I wasn’t playing bass, though sometimes I did.
EI: It’s a hard instrument to pick up and put back down – you need to work up your calluses again, right?
GB: Well, it’s not the calluses – I don’t have a big problem with the calluses. The calluses, if anything, are generally just on the plucking fingers rather than the fingering ones. You can be careful, in fact there’s a danger of getting your fingers too hard and you lose the sensitivity. What I found was I had to almost oil down the calluses so I’d use hand creams to make my hands soft but make sure all the cream had gone before I was playing, but if the fingers became too hard then you lose sensitivity. In fact, in many cases, what you find is that a lot of bass players have almost lost their fingerprints on their first two fingers so if there were to be a murder and here was an absence of fingerprints, you know the murderer was a bass player!
But yeah, I don’t play really, but sometimes I do, every now and again, and I can still do it. I didn’t play after stopping with Derek and Tony – and I didn’t play with them again until 32 years later when we were brought back together in Germany for a series of performances celebrating Tony’s 60th birthday. And then we did play a few dates after that, and there is the studio recording on John Zorn’s label – Zorn issued some of them. I’ve still got about at least two CDs’ worth of unissued recordings from those sessions. Zorn took the double album, which was a real kind of investment of love from him. He was incredible. He did that just before Derek died and it was great that, when Derek was dying, he knew that this was underway and he was happy about it. It was when Derek was in his last months. He had motor neurone disease and he could understand things perfectly but he couldn’t articulate so I used to have these very curious phone conversations with him – I’d talk to Derek and he’d go [feeble voice] “Eeeeh eeeeh.” And then his wife would say “Derek’s fine” so I carried on – it was like telling yourself a story without getting any feedback. But I kept telling him about what was happening. I would send also drafts of sleeve notes and things like that and he was very happy.
We played our last date live, in Antwerp in January 1999 – we’d done the live concert in 1998, the Germany live thing, and we did some studio things in the autumn of ’98. Then we played this one date live in Antwerp. We hadn’t wanted it recorded but I discovered later that someone had recorded it on a cassette. I knew this existed, probably – if you can know something “probably” – but I was pretty sure it existed. But then it was found and I received the cassette in the post on Christmas Eve 2005. It was a C120 cassette, the most vulnerable kind, and I played it in my studio late at night, transferring it to CD for safety as I was playing it, and that night Derek died. I was probably playing it as Derek was dying…
I still mean to do something with it and get the other tracks out. It’s more evidence of what he was like as a player. On the last live things, we were probably playing as well as we ever did. Both Derek and Tony said — when we started playing together again for the first time in ’98 in Germany —that it was a really strange experience because of course they’d continued as full-time improvisers, ever since ’66. When we started to play together again they suddenly felt they had to think afresh. For example, Derek hadn’t focused on pitch half as much as he had to do when I was playing with him, so suddenly there was pitch to reckon with, it wasn’t just textures or abstractions – these were real notes and you suddenly realise, shit, that implies something based on the notes I’d played, you know, and it was great. And with Tony, with rhythmic things, there’s a different kind of chamber music feel to it, which they really enjoyed. I would say that last performance, in January 1999 is really very good. The only problem with the cassette is that it was on a single C120 cassette and the mic was hanging in the rafters above us in the hall.
EI: Some of those Charlie Parker and John Coltrane recordings we treasure are in terrible fidelity.
GB: Yeah, there are many things that have been re-worked – old Ellington recordings and all sorts of stuff. It’s almost like an historical duty, and I feel like I’m like a kind of guardian or something. Maybe it’s almost worthless or it might mean something only to a few people, but I have it and I shouldn’t just let it disappear. Having done scholarship, researching and writing and lecturing and so on, I respect the scholars’ work and so I know that when I’ve been searching through archives for things and I’m going through indexes, once you find names in the index, even if it’s only one reference, suddenly your day lights up. I know the joy that people find when something that they know exists actually appears and they can actually see it for the first time.
There was also the occasion when Derek, Tony and I played with Lee Konitz in ’66 when we toured in the north. In one of the early editions of Lee’s discography there’s this listing about a recording in March 1966 in a club in Manchester: Lee Konitz, alto sax; Derek Bailey, guitar; Tony Oxley, drums; unknown bass player. Then someone corrected it so I’m now there but I was once “unknown.” I was really happy about that. I knew there was a tape somewhere, Evan Parker told me about it. I remember that tour with Lee …
EI: Were you playing free or tunes on the tour with Lee Konitz?
GB: Well, we were playing free when we met Lee. Lee liked it for a while,, then he’d get a bit fed up and he’d turn round and say, “Star Eyes.” By the time we got to Manchester, later on in the tour, we were just playing time. There are three tunes: “Carvin’ The Bird”, “Out of Nowhere,” and “I Remember You.” It’s not bad playing but it seems a bit odd. It’s strange to hear Derek playing changes and Tony playing kind of real time.
I didn’t have this recording but then I came across, on the internet,, a forum with people discussing this recording. I entered the forum and they were just staggered – this is the guy on the recoding and he’s actually entered the forum! And then someone gave me the location where I could get it so I downloaded it and I now have it. There are these tracks, each one about 10 or 11 minutes long. Lee plays exactly as he always does, you know. He’ll play “Pennies From Heaven” every night of the year and find something new in those simple changes. That’s his way.
Lee and I got on very well. I remember meeting him at Sheffield railway station when we first played together and he had some luggage, headphones, and this large tape recorder – he was listening to a broadcast of Webern or something. It was very funny, and very unusual at the time. We didn’t really rehearse anything because we were playing free. When we were backstage before we started playing in Sheffield I was just tuning the bass harmonics on the A and I said “Is that ok” and he said “Yeah, that’s fine – we’ll start with an A” – that’s all we said.
As you say, I have in a limited way worked with those people. In that case I was playing Lee’s work: in the case of people like Charlie Haden and so on they were playing mine.
EI: I was very impressed with the piece for Bill Frisell on After the Requiem, it’s a really wonderful track.
GB: I remember that Manfred Eicher felt that was a very important recording, but it wasn’t as big a success as he’d hoped, I think. I remember, we’d recorded it and we were in Oslo – it’s what Manfred does when he’s in Oslo, he always stays in the same hotel and rents the same kind of car and drives it to the studio, parks it outside the studio and drives back but he wants to listen to stuff on the way back. We listened to it, on cassette. It would have been in 1990, and he felt it was a very important piece for him. I think it was also important for Bill too, because Bill had had a big break up with Manfred and he was quite nervous about going back, but there’s a lot of things which came together in that session, both socially in terms of our personalities but also in terms of music. The way Bill responded to certain things. It happened to be the 20th anniversary of the death of Jimi Hendrix, for example, which led him into a certain kind of feedback that happened part-way through the piece and in the improvisation section and even where he voiced the notes along the melodic lines, things like that.
I’ve always loved Bill, we’d always meant to do more work together but our diaries never coincided.
EI: Evan Parker’s on that record too, playing in a sax quartet. I think Evan is one of the master musicians.
GB: We go back a long way.
EI: Say something about Evan Parker.
GB: Well, I knew of Evan before I met him. But when I came back from America, at the end of ’68, I moved into this one-roomed flat in west London, in Kilburn. I had one room on the top floor and Evan was in the other room on the top floor. He had a couple of little annexe rooms and had his wife and son there too, so we were next-door neighbours for three years and this was at the time when I’d given up improvisation. I used to hear him, practising that bloody circular breathing, all day! But we got on really well. And we did do some playing together, some improvising with Derek and Jamie Muir, a drummer. I’d work with John Tilbury but I’d be doing some other things with percussion and stuff, not bass – a group called Music Improvisation Company, which evolved into something else. So we did some things. I’ve always had a massive respect for Evan’s playing. He’s a master and we get on at every level. We don’t see much of each other but when we do see each other we’re really good friends. I’m very fond of him and we never have really done any playing or work where we’re, if you like, equal partners.
When he played on the sax quartet, of course, he was just one of four sax players.
EI: Playing completely written music.
GB: Completely written music. Again, that was ECM, it was when Manfred was recording with the Kenny Wheeler Big Band, and that sax quartet was essentially the sax section minus one.
EI: It strikes me as technically hard, that saxophone quartet.
GB: The baritone is the scariest part in the world, apparently. There are some unbelievably high notes but it can be done. It is technically hard, with circular breathing and multi-phonics. The baritone is the hardest, the alto is the second hardest and then the two sopranos. I deliberately didn’t do SATB, the conventional sax quartet line-up – I did it as two sopranos, alto and baritone as if it were like a tuned down version of a string quartet, you know, two violins, alto and bass.
EI: Is there any piece of yours that combines your, shall we say, mature harmonic style with the esoteric or avant-garde soloists from the old days on top of it?
GB: I’m not sure that there is. There’s nothing in principle why that shouldn’t happen.
EI: Well, my humble recommendation is you should try it because I think that would be a marvelous thing.
GB: It could be interesting. It could be, you know, doing something with Evan.
EI: Well, that’s what I’m saying right here. I’m thinking of the Stan Getz album, Focus. But in this case it would the beautiful Gavin Bryars orchestra with Evan Parker on top.
GB: Yeah, that Focus album is one of my favorites. It’s one of Getz’ greatest albums, I think. Yeah, I’ve always loved that. Maybe we’re all getting a bit old, I’m not sure. Evan still has the chops, I think.
EI: I think so!
GB: There’s also a great pianist who died recently, a guy called Frank Campbell who was a great classical pianist but also a fantastic jazz pianist. I also wanted to do something with him, in that way, and it just never happened. I arranged the Purcell “Dido’s Lament” for his funeral.
Frank came to study with me when I was teaching, and he was the same age as me – both in our mid-40s when that happened, But he was a Franciscan monk in a monastery in Scotland. He used to accompany a lot of visiting American soloists, which seemed very strange for a priest to do, you know.
EI: And also very strange for someone who’s a professional classical pianist.
GB: That too. He was brilliant playing Messiaen – Messiaen was a big thing for him – as a Franciscan monk that’s not surprising.
EI: Are there records of him? It’s not a name I’ve heard before.
GB: There are many private recordings.
When he came to study with me he was allowed two years out and then he had to go back to the monastery. We did a lot of jazz playing together, some straight jazz playing, some free playing. He finished his two-year period of leave, graduated with a first class degree, but he told the monastery he wasn’t sure about going back and so they gave him 9 months (like a pregnancy) to think about. He then moved to London to see if he could exist as a musician in the wide world without the kind of cloistered walls of the monastery and without the protection of education. He didn’t think about his decision at all for that whole time and then the night before he had to meet his father superior again he called me and he hadn’t decided. he asked what I thought. I said “To me, you are a supremely gifted pianist. You have an unbelievable ability. I’m sure there are a many good people, you’re a good person – you’re a religious person, you’re a good priest.” I’d seen him officiate at funerals and all kind of things. He was a wonderful, beatific person, completely saintly. I said there are lots of those in the religious world but there’s no one who combined that goodness with what you do on the piano. That’s what I said: “but don’t let me influence you – that’s my view.” He decided not to go back, he stayed out. Apparently he had two grand pianos in this little flat that he had – one was a Bechstein – and he recorded things privately. And he died and Olivia who lived with him and looked after him completely, and she will have all those tapes. They married just before he died. He did some things with Paul Motian, he did work with some people on the London free scene – he died a couple of years ago.
EI: What did he die of? Seems like he died young.
GB: There was some kind of brain tumor. The funeral was extraordinary: they decided that, because of his keyboard ability, they wouldn’t use the organ nor any kind of keyboard and all the music in the service was vocal music written by him. They had a four-part a capella quartet who sang and I arranged the Purcell at Olivia’s request. It was extraordinary.
When I was teaching, we played a lot of Carla Bley. She had given me all the parts from her late 70s band. Carla has a piece 3/4 For Piano and Orchestra and Frank played that which was terrific. It’s a strange little piece. Carla recorded it and I heard Frederic Rzewski play in London once. We played it twice with Frank.
EI: Is the Bley piece fully notated in the piano part?
GB: No, it’s mostly improvised. It’s just a simple waltz, notated at the beginning, and then it gradually evolves. There are things where the piano moves into improvisation but you’re confined by the structure of what the orchestra is doing. But Frank was great.
EI: You just mentioned the name Frederic Rzewski, another hero of mine. Did you have much to do with him?
GB: I knew Fred slightly. In fact he was in Knoxville when I was just there for Big Ears, although I didn’t see him. I knew the group, Musica Elettronica Viva, with him and Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum, when they were in Rome and they played in England in the early ‘70s. I knew Alvin Curran better. Frederic was a rather prickly guy and not very easy, a little bit brittle and he was very influenced by Cornelius’ political work as well. The People United Will Never Be Defeated is a phenomenal set of variations, and he is of course a great player, But I didn’t really know him well, personally – we just found ourselves in each other’s company sometimes.
EI: I like his album of Cornelius’ piano music. Rzewski improvises so well, unusually so for a composer of classical piano. He takes these cadenzas which are quite stunning.
I’d like to ask you about a couple more pieces of yours. I’d like to talk about the album of card tricks, narration with string quartet, A Man In A Room, Gambling, with Juan Munoz. I think it’s really incredible. This is an album you can’t explain to somebody: you have to put it on and listen to it, because otherwise how can you even explain what the heck this is.
GB: That’s one of the advantages about collaborating with people outside music. Something will come up with between you, which is not necessarily what either of you would have thought of at the outset. Working with choreographers is similar. They all have different kinds of demands and different kinds of freedom.
I did teach for the best part of 10 years in Fine Art Departments – at Portsmouth and Leicester. I found that when were talking with artists, one was talking about ideas. Their aesthetic concepts were far more advanced than those of musicians. If you were talking to musicians they would probably talk either about techniques or money. But artists would talk about art and ways of making art and concepts of art and views about philosophy of art – what can be art and what can’t be and so on. Is there anything that can’t be? I always find that an enriching thing. I’ve worked a lot with other artists. Juan Munoz was a sculptor. I worked with him through an organization called Artangel which specializes in putting art and events in non-conventional environments – they’re not exhibition spaces, they’re not concert halls and so on. In our case it was a question of a composer and a sculptor creating a work for radio. Juan’s brother-in-law is a musician, Alberto Iglesias, who does the music for most of Almodovar’s films: he’s a good musician and a very nice person and he was with Juan when we first met.
Juan had an idea about doing a piece based on card manipulation. Part of the concept came the street card sharp, doing “spot the lady” in the street and conning the person into losing lots of money. We came up with the idea of something that was not a visual piece, nor a purely musical piece, but an audio piece where you were obliged to visualize. We thought of it as a radiophonic piece for broadcast and also that it would be broadcast in a specific and quite innocent way. We decided that there would be 10 pieces. Juan wrote texts which were taken and slightly modified from a book well known within the magic world by a card manipulator called S. W. Erdnase. Erdnase was Canadian and his book is called The Expert At The Card Table and was written at the beginning of the twentieth century. In it he describes in minute detail how to deal from the bottom of the deck, how to palm an ace, all kind of things of that kind.
So Juan wrote these texts and the idea was that the listener would try to follow the description and to visualise what he was doing. But we also wanted to do something that was the equivalent of what the card cheat in the street would do. That is, in order to confuse the person observing you would cause distractions, in his case, probably by conversation and constant chat. Just a moment’s lapse of concentration is enough to have lost concentration. We decided that we’d accompany these descriptions of tricks with music. The music was done in such a way that, say, at a critical moment in the exposition, where the music has been relatively functional so far, there might be one particular phrase – a harmonic shift or a little melodic movement which just took your ear for a moment – and you would have lost the thread – was it the right hand or the left hand at that moment,; was it the little finger or the middle finger. We also decided to make the pieces completely uniform so that each is exactly five minutes long – the music is exactly crotchet = 60 so I can place everything in time on any second all the way through.. We’d always have one full measure of four seconds before Juan speaks: so four seconds and “Good evening. Welcome to A Man in a Room, Gambling” and then at 4.52 he’d say “Thank you, and goodnight,” followed by a four second play out. It always had exactly that structure. The first thing we did was to record Juan reading all 10 of these texts but of course some were shorter than others and, just like with Cage with his timed lectures, you pace the words so that they fit within that time frame as if it’s quite natural.
The form of the texts essentially follows: an introduction about what the subject is, an exposition of how the manipulation is done, and then a kind of coda at the end with a reflection reflect on what’s happened. So usually, after the exposition, he will say “Now, take your cards” and that “now” could be reinforced with a cello pizzicato on that beat and that’s when I start to play around a little bit.
They all have exactly the same structure. In fact five and seven are almost identical, because we were short of time. One is to do with three cards and the other is two cards, and so I wrote the same music. However, in one of them everything which is longer than a crotchet quarter note is done tremolando, so in fact it doesn’t sound that similar.
We had this idea about someone driving a car on a motorway and turning on the radio to check the last news of the evening, say at midnight. He turns it on a few minutes early and gets this five-minute programme beforehand. He thinks, “What was that?” and then the news follows. The ten programmes were designed to be broadcast over two weeks, on each weekday night.
In England, we have something like that — no longer on the main channels — called The Shipping Forecast whereby five minutes before the main news you have a detailed account of the weather conditions at different stations, all the way around the British Isles from the extreme north, between Britain, Scotland and Norway, all the way round up to Iceland, one by one after another and the same language is used throughout: “wind variable”; “visibility moderate.” There are certain expressions that refer to quite precise numerical values. For most people, it’s quite abstract, it’s a sound that they know but probably don’t understand. It’s trasmitted for commercial shipping, recreational sailors and so on., In my case because my brother went to sea, I used to be alert to certain sea regions to know how we was. The Shipping Forecast always precedes the news and breaks up the continuity. We wanted to put A Man in a Room, Gambling, in there before the news, but the BBC never did it, although it was done in some other countries. I was actually very interested in Glenn Gould’s ideas of radiophonic manipulation and also, in that case, thinking about the way in which it’s heard through live radio, not just as a sound piece but a sound piece that you would actually hear broadcast.
EI: There’s a man with a lovely Spanish accent talking about these card tricks, there’s beautiful string quartet music: nothing makes sense yet it somehow really works.
GB: There have been times when people have asked if someone else can read it. For example, with the record company, with Point, as a promotional thing, they said, “Maybe we’ll get Antonio Banderas to do it.” I said, “What? Don’t be silly, that’s showbiz.”
Juan’s English is quite idiosyncratic and I was all the time coaching him – his English is great – but certain things he never quite managed., For example, he would never say the last consonant of some words:“…can I see your righ hand” for “right hand.” He also kept saying “subterfugue,” rather than “subterfuge.” Things like that – they are just so endearing.
EI: There weren’t any concert performances, were there?
EI: How did you do that? Was there a score with the text?
GB: Yes, eventually there was a score with the text. You have the score and the text written above so that you know where you start and there’s a click track so that when you’re playing it you’ll have two measures – eight beats of click then you start playing and that’s four beats before the recording of Juan’s voice starts.. We played it at an exhibition of Juan’s in Madrid in the ‘90s and Juan was there with John Berger in the front row and Berger loved it.
At the end, we took our bows and I persuaded Juan to come up and take a bow too and he was completely incoherent. He said that when artists do private views of their exhibitions they don’t take bows: they just socialize. He really loved the idea of bowing.
EI: I suppose as a visual artist you don’t usually get to take a bow.
GB: No. At a private view you’re chatting, you’re dealing with people buying your works, you’re talking about art, you thank them, you shake hands. If you give a talk or something, you wouldn’t necessarily bow – you stand there going, “Thank you, thank you” — but that’s all you do, you don’t do a bow. Juan did learn how to perform it live and we did that several times before his death. Now, I still perform it but with his recorded voice.
EI: Well, we’ve been talking for about two hours. I think we’re about there but I have one last question. I’m talking to a great composer, a master of harmony. It’s a sort of open-ended, really kind of dumb question… but I would just like to ask you if you have any poetic thoughts about tension and release or consonance and dissonance.
GB: Not really. One of the things I don’t have is any kind of formula or any kind of system. I work entirely empirically.
Probably the thing I enjoy most is writing for the human voice, because then you have texts which will lead you into directions in terms of natural cadences: “There’s a natural release point here, the natural moment of tension on this word.” I have very favourite voicings for certain chords: for example my favourite voicing of an F minor 9th chord, which is a chord in Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, – F, C, G, A flat, C, E flat – and it moves to a C minor, 6/4 cadence. I often find myself instinctively using that on the word “death” in texts. That’s as close as I get to a formula — but then when I find myself doing it sometimes and I say to myself, “Stop it and do something else. There’s the death chord again!”
Since working with the Hilliard and working with early music singers, I’ve done more and more a capella choral music. Also I’m starting on my fifth opera which will be done next spring.
EI: What’s it called?
GB: It’s from Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy The Kid. It’s a chamber opera and it will be able to be done one night after another, just like the Marilyn Monroe opera, which we did three nights in a row in Adelaide. There will only be two voices in Billy the Kid, the male singer is a French rock singer-songwriter, who doesn’t read music,. He’s very interesting – Bertrand Belin. I’ve not met him yet – I’m going to meet him next week,. The female voice is called Claron McFadden, who’s an incredible, new music soprano, but who also sings baroque music too. In the band there are four tuned percussion, piano and violin.
I really do enjoy writing a capella and also in relation to early music. I’ve worked a lot with with some very fine groups, I’ve five completed books of madrigals, I’m partway through a sixth and a seventh and there will be an eighth. Many of them set Petrarch in Italian, which I enjoy very much and I find in doing that that there are things in the language and in the poetic rhythm and flow which lead me into natural sort of release and tension and some moments of anguish in the poetry and so on…but at the same time avoiding obvious word painting so you don’t do waterfalls and that kind of thing.
EI: I’m just realising you have a piano concerto with a male chorus, so that’s another connection to Busoni.
GB: Yes. Busoni had a chorus in his piano concerto as well. And I also have a double bass concerto with a bass chorus. Chorus of basses, yeah!
I’d always kind of avoided writing for the double bass until relatively recently. The first thing I wrote was for Charlie Haden but then that’s writing for Charlie’s sound, not for the bass. Later I’d become friendly with Gary Karr. Gary has this instrument that belonged to Koussevitzky, it’s the greatest bass in the world, an Amati from the 1690s, and was given to Gary by Koussevitzky’s widow. He’s now given it to the International Bass Society, and it’s known as the “Russian bass.” I had the idea of my bass concerto being about the “Russian bass,” But then the term “Russian bass” also refers to a vocal sound. I’ve worked a lot with great Baltic choirs, with the Latvian Radio Choir and the Estonian Men’s Choir. So for the recording I used the basses from the Estonian Men’s Choir and the guys there are extraordinary. It is the biggest professional men’s chorus in the world – 60 voices – and there are four of the basses that are really, really low. I remember when we were rehearsing for the recording, Kaspars, the conductor, was doing the warm up. He would play a chord [hums tune], then take it down a semitone, [hums tune], down another semitone. So gradually the high tenors drop out, then the baritones drop out, and then you’re just left with the basses and finally there were just these four guys. And Kaspars would be going down, down and eventually he just stopped and said, “Ok, now we’re going to rehearse.” Later, at the coffee break, I asked Kaspars, “What was that last chord you played?” and he said “F” — a ninth below the stave! And they were still going – these were not just grunts, these were real notes. These guys are incredible. One of them came up to speak to Kaspars at one point, this little guy, and he said, “Kaspars, do I have to sing the high notes?” What high notes? It was G, the top space in the bass clef! Incredible! Those voices, my God! So I had three-part bass voices in the double bass concerto.
That didn’t really answer your question because of course I have to use harmony in non-vocal music too. I guess you just have to use your judgment. It’s rather like that story, when Dustin Hoffman was working with Sir Laurence Olivier. Dustin Hoffman was talking to Laurence and says, “What’s my motivation here, how do I do this?” and Olivier replies, “Try acting, sonny…”
Your judgment has to be formed from all the experiences you’ve had: everything that you’ve listened to and everything that you’ve responded to both favorably and negatively. And it’s made me what I am, and I have no choice in the matter, except of course that I’m exercising judgment when I’m making those choices, but they’re not conscious. When I respond to something, I guess it’s sort of innate, although it has to have been conditioned in the first place, and maybe that comes from things like key things I’ve listened to, like Bill Evans. There’s moments where a chord with just a minor second on the bottom notes: G, A flat and C, and that can be an F minor, it can be an A flat minor, it can be all kinds of chords, it can be anything until you put the bass in there: and then you know. Busoni has strange little things that he does. There’s a thing where he talks about harmonizing a melodic minor scale, starting on the seventh degree, so if you were in F sharp minor you’d start on E sharp and go from E sharp to E sharp. But then you harmonized it with the first chord as an F major chord, then I think the next one would be possibly a D major, then maybe a B minor…
EI: One of the “Elegies” has this.
GB: Yes, one of the “Elegies” has exactly that. That kind of little device will suddenly occur to me, if that’s the right thing for here. And similarly there are also some things in some of the chamber music of Ives – 10, 12 instrument things like “Mists” and those kind of things, which have this generally tonal quality, but there are these colors, there are these what the Schenker people call non-chord tones (I’ve never done Schenker, but once someone mentioned in rehearsal these “NCTs…”) That’s sometimes like giving some strange overtone series: you get the fundamental but you get these other things which are way, way up in the series, but they color it.
But ultimately it comes from judgment. I’ll find a lot of the time I am writing instinctively. I don’t actually write at the piano. You see I have that Korg M1 there next to my desk, but I start writing then just turn to the left and check on the keyboard.. I’m just verifying it a lot of the time. I don’t sit at the piano with a manuscript book and write like some people do.
EI: There’s not much fast music really, even on your album of piano music. You’d think on an album of piano there’d be some faster things, but it tends to be quite stately.
GB: There’s one piece which is actually universally fast and loud, but I don’t think there’s a recording of it, called “Out of Zaleski’s Gazebo,” from the late ‘70s, which is a for two piano eight hands. I did a version of it with the Estonian Piano Orchestra for four pianos, 16 hands, and this is fast and loud all the way through.
EI: [Laughing] I’m not complaining about it, I just thought it notable that on a piano album there wasn’t any fast music!
GB: Yes. For example in the piano concerto, I deliberately didn’t make it a virtuosic piece in the sense of writing something that is technically challenging. For example, where he’s playing eighth notes, I could have made them 16ths or 32ths. And it would have made no difference to the music, except I didn’t want it to become that kind of flashy playing; I wanted the piano, like the choral voices in this piece, to be within the ensemble, almost like chamber music.
There is fast music in the operas, of course, because you can’t really have a dramaturgy where it’s all on one level. My second opera, Doctor Ox’s Experiment, which comes from a Jules Verne novella, is set in a place in an imaginary Flanders where everything moves very slowly and time sort of stands still. And the first act of the opera is very, very slow and lasts about 80 minutes. And the second act is very fast and lasts 40 minutes, about half the time. I remember when I was talking about it with the artistic director at the ENO – we were in some sort of meeting and there were some press people there, and I hadn’t really started work on the opera particularly, I’d drafted some ideas and someone asked me what the opera was like, and I just said, “Oh, like Parsifal with jokes” and so the guy goes “Ah shit” and his head went down.
But the first act is very slow, because the story involves a mysterious stranger who comes to this very quiet town and animates these very lethargic people by injecting gas into the atmosphere and it’s pure oxygen, which animates these people and things start to get faster and faster. And towards the end of the first half there is this moment where suddenly everything starts going very, very fast and in the middle of the performance… In this little town there’s an opera house where they perform operas but their tempos are so slow that they never get through an entire act in one evening. On this occasion they’re doing Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, incredibly slowly as usual.. And so I have this setting from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots within my opera,, Then, gradually, oxygen is piped into the hall and the tempos get faster and faster and eventually they find that the whole act was less than 18 minutes. And then the hall and the audience quietly subside and go back down again. So that happens at the end of the first half of my opera, and then in the second half, when the whole town has been taken over by this gas, it’s very fast all the way through until just before the end when the gasworks explodes and life goes back to normal, ending with a bitter-sweet epilogue.
So there you see the dramaturgy makes me do those things with tempo. Obviously in Medea there are moments of great anger and conflict and so those do involve some fast music. A few scenes were cut just before the premiere: eventually when it was done it got down from five hours to about three and a half. And I managed to trim it down a bit further so when I did a concert performance some years later it was even less. But one of the things that did get cut in the first performance was a scene at the beginning of Act Five, where Medea has murdered Jason’s wife-to-be by providing her with a wedding dress, which is impregnated with some kind of poison that causes her t burst into flames, so she’s killed by this dress. Bob Wilson wanted to have a puppet on a kind of cliff top, and to have this little puppet in flames and then fall down the cliff into the sea. I accompanied this with a five-minute orchestral interlude. But the actual realization of this puppet thing was just so risible that people just… I mean it was just looked so feeble. The conductor Richard Bernas always felt this was some of the best music I’d ever written, and all the way through there’s just a constant pulsed A – it’s a kind of a minimal piece. But the A is played all the way through by transposing instruments which don’t look like A on the page, and I always write full score in transposition, so look at it and you think “What are all these different notes?” then you realize, “Damn, it’s all the same note” – it gets passed between French horn, bass clarinet and so on,.
There are times when things are fast, but my natural inclination is towards slowness. I prefer more reflective music. I mentioned earlier that when I was a jazz player I always preferred playing ballads to playing up-tempo. There’s some pretty cruel stuff in jazz, you know, whereby if you walk into a club and you want to sit in, they will play some bebop thing at a very high tempo: you know, “Cherokee” really fast. So if you’re a bass player, people look to see when is he going to drop into two, or if he’s playing the same two notes on consecutive beats [sings fast walking bass line] instead of [sings medium tempo walking bass line]: that’s a kind of macho thing. You find that in the nastier side of jazz. But I never really liked that sort of faster, virtuosic jazz. I could play fast jazz, and in fact some of the things I played with Lee Konitz, they were not slow, there were some quite brisk tempos. But I really loved playing ballads. Also, I love that thing of being able to swing at a very slow tempo. I love Carla Bley’s, “Lawns,” for example, on her Sextet album.
And one of the things where I found that at perhaps its highest level was when once when I saw the Imperial Japanese Court orchestra, the Gagaku, when they came to the West in the late ‘60s for the very first time. And there was this incredible slow motion ensemble, but absolutely precise. There was maybe like 12 people, but absolutely on it: no conductor, but it was just so precise, and this bizarre, really slow rhythm; and it sort of swings at that incredibly slow tempo. And I find that far more interesting; it’s more subtle.
EI: Thank you for your time today, Gavin, and even more for exploring subtle realms with such an acute ear.
Bonus track: DTM review of The Fifth Century. Donald Nally, the PRISM Quartet and The Crossing just won a Grammy for “Best Choral Performance.”
Bryars himself namechecks John Dowland and John Tavener; other references might include Ralph Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells. (Howells is perhaps especially relevant to the a cappella women-only Two Love Songs encoring after The Fifth Century.) The librettist is 17th-century English mystic Thomas Traherne. In his excellent liner notes, Brian Morton (who I know best as the knowledgeable British jazz critic who co-wrote the indispensable Penguin Guide to Jazz with Richard Cook) begins with a scene from a famous spy novel, The Honorable Schoolboy by John le Carré.
All this is to say this is some real English material, except that the work is performed by American forces, the mixed choir of The Crossing conducted by Donald Nally along with the PRISM saxophone quartet. Each and every member of both groups is a master of pure tone untouched by vibrato.
The whole cycle of The Fifth Century is beautiful, but a standout track is “Eternity is a Mysterious Absence of Times and Ages,” which just suspends and sustains, the voices and horns melting and moving imperceptibly through the void. It’s hard to believe these foggy sounds are saxophones, they seem to emit from mother earth herself.