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Gavin Bryars’ Tragic Seascape

New York
Tenri Cultural Center
01/17/2020 -  
Gavin Bryars: String Quartet No. 1, “Between the National and the Bristol” – The Sinking of the Titanic
American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME): Clarice Jensen (Artistic Director, Cello) Laura Lutzke, Ravenna Lipchik (Violins), Hannah Stein (Viola), Grey Mcmurray (Guitar), Qasim Naqvi (Modular Synth), Chihiro Shibayama (Percussion), JAB (Sound)

(Back) G. Mcmurray, Q. Naqvi
(Front) L. Lutzke, R. Lipchik, H. Selin, C. Jensen (© Christina Jensen)

The sounds of people drowning are something that I can not describe to you, and neither can anyone else. It’s the most dreadful sound and there is a terrible silence that follows it.
Eva Hart, Survivor of the Titanic

Somehow in the 20th Century an idea has developed that music is an activity or skill which is not comprehensible to the man in the street. This is an arrogant assertion and not necessarily a true one.
Gavin Bryars (1942-)

That ever-inspired Yorkshireman Gavin Bryars might not agree, but I have always felt composed music the way Joyce Cary’s Gulley Jimson painted in The Horse’s Mouth. Mr. Bryars is not simply a composer but a painter of vast canvasses, taking a visual theme and expanding that theme to stretch across his own universe.

This doesn’t mean a Mahler-sized orchestra or outsized volume. He can take a single voice in Jesus’ Blood Shall Never Fail Me, and the repetitions can pierce the soul (with supernatural addition of Tom Waits). A few months ago, he was in Philadelphia for a 90-minute a capella choral setting of poem-stories of the equally eminent Wendell Berry, and the painting of words with voices became a cosmos of both.

Last night, Mr. Bryar’s second most famous work, The Sinking of the Titanic became a séance, a memorial, with literal sounds of gunwales striking rock, of the lachrymose sound of the doomed dance-band, and a creation of the ultimate underwater classic. Yes, Charles Ives did this before in The Sinking of the General Slocum, and Vaughan Williams caught the tragedy of maritime exploration in his “Antarctica” Symphony. Yet Gavin Bryars, as he proved last night at the Tenri Institute, covered the entire canvas of the stage with the epic.

Mind you, neither Vaughan Williams nor Ives had the addition of a synthesizer creating–within its dark sounds–the wind, the waves, even a seagull or two. The British composer had a narrator, but Gavin Bryars used ghostly voices, strange tappings (on guitar and fiddles). Most important, when hearing The Sinking of the Titanic live, with a talented string quartet, one is immersed in that legendary dance orchestra which played to the very end.

Mr. Bryars could have used the hagiology that they were playing Nearer My God to Thee, but he worked on a reported song they played, called Autumn, the music entering and departing amidst the aural illustrations, the literal–and exaggerated–action of the story. Finally, when the four players are alone, we know that the end has indeed come.

How did Gavin Bryars achieve such an epic result? The composer once said “the music goes through a number of different states, reflecting an implied slow descent to the ocean bed which give a range of echo and deflection phenomena, allied to considerable high frequency reduction”.

That could put off some listeners. Rather, The Sinking of the Titanic has always been a fungible work, varying in duration and instrumentation. One must take each performance at its own merits.

Here, the central artists were the ACME quartet, playing the quasi-hymn with little vibrato, with an almost robotic emotion. A film director might visualize the music from passengers rushing past the musicians, hearing a few measures, stopping for a few seconds, then heading onto the lifeboat.

Add to this the multi-wired synthesizer, with Qasim Naqvi, with more sounds coming from ship bells, voices and...well, the skies and the seas.

G. Bryars/C. Shibayama

Yet so careful is Gavin Bryars with his sounds that the most subtle, those almost unheard tones came from Chihiro Shibayama’s percussion. One would have imagined great gong sounds, booming bass drum (both on stage). Yet Mr. Bryars is too subtle for that. The bass drum whooshed and tapped and gave aural breezes. The three gongs were soft, hardly heard. The other instruments–including cocktail glasses, beads, tiny stones–all made their contribution.

It was an ensemble piece, yes, but Mr. Bryar’s canvas was equally pointillistic, the points of sound around the stage never disruptive. As if the momentary panic of a ship going down would disappear in the sea itself.

This all-Bryars concert started with his First String Quartet. Again, this was a story. But had there been no explanation (three great dancers staying in two Vienna hotels at the same time), I wouldn’t have guessed at its meaning.

Certainly minimalist, the four players made miniature sounds, with little vibrato, with no change of meter (slow), with interesting color when you looked for it. I loved the high high notes played by all four, or when the two violins rose up and down to some insistent phrases by cello and viola.

And yes, manifold inventions by the composer, played with the deft subtle notation by the quartet.

Still, while one could admire such inspiration, this First Quartet could not grab at the emotional tethers. For that, we needed the sinking of a man-made behemoth and the man-made emotional replica by this always astonishing composer.

Harry Rolnick



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