Gavin Bryars’ The Fifth Century

bryars-fifth-centuryEnglish composer Gavin Bryars was born in Yorkshire in 1943. He studied philosophy at Sheffield University and, as might be expected, became a jazz bassist during his time there. He’s worked in a number of different idioms and styles, from jazz to minimalism, and has written operas, string quartets, concertos, and at least one requiem.

That last was my introduction to Bryars’ music, the Cadman Requiem, dedicated to his sound recordist, Bill Cadman, who was killed on Pan Am 103, which I purchased one day when I was feeling adventurous and had a couple of extra dollars in my pocket. It was, to say the least, intriguing, and so I was more than happy to say “Yes, please” when offered the opportunity to review this disc.

The Fifth Century, for choir and saxophone quartet, takes as its text selections from the writings of seventeenth-century mystic Thomas Traherne, from the last section of his The Fifth Century of Meditations. Several commentators have pointed out the tendency of the Mystical poets to conflate spiritual reality with the mundane – as Brian Morton calls it in his essay accompanying the recording, an “amalgamation . . . of disparate experience.” Given Bryars’ own eclectic background, with influences ranging from Wagner to Cage, and any number of points in between, this seems as apt a characterization as any.

So, what’s it like? “Mystical” comes close: there’s an elusive quality to the music, a sense of waiting, or perhaps awakening – it’s really hard to pin down, which can be somewhat frustrating for those of us who spend time translating music into words, save that the music itself is so beautiful that it doesn’t really matter. There’s an otherworldly quality to the sound of the voices that calls to mind in some respects the music of Arvo Pärt, save that Bryars’ version is quieter, more ethereal. Textures are so seamless that I, at least, had to remind myself that there were also saxophones involved. The total effect is as if Bryars had managed to find a concrete example – as concrete as music can be – of his contention that “There’s a Zen-like idea that I appreciate: that time is going on forever, that time will go on whether you’re part of it or not. The challenge is to keep the focus concentrated. When that works, you can perceive a kind of eternity, one of infinite space.” He brings that idea home here: eternity and infinite space, while the beginning and end of the work are merely markers.

The Crossing, which commissioned the piece, and the saxophone quartet PRISM are, in a word, perfect. There’s not really more to be said – the fit between music and performers is rather closer than the proverbial hand and glove.

The Two Love Songs, written for a trio of sopranos and performed here by the sopranos of The Crossing, are settings of two of Petrarch’s sonnets, something that Bryars confesses has been a passion of his for some time. They are rather more connected to our earthly reality than The Fifth Century, but only just: the whole point is to present an idealized love, and if these two pieces are rather more grounded in the mundane, well, so is love.

Is this a must-have? If you have any interest in contemporary music, it’s certainly worth investigating. I, for one, am going to spend more time with the music of Gavin Bryars.

(ECM Records, 2016)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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