July 1998

Old instruments

New music


Gavin Bryars writes.

There is a good deal of resemblance between working in experimental music in the 1960's and 70's and working with early music performers. In trying to decode a Fluxus score by George Brecht, an early work of LaMonte Young, a prose piece by Christian Wolff or, say, Cornelius Cardew's Schooltime Compositions the performer has to use considerable invention and imagination in the face of quite flimsy and, on occasions, wilfully misleading notational evidence. This is not unlike the situation in which the most adventurous performers in the early music world find themselves time after time. Over the last ten years I have worked closely with the Hilliard Ensemble, with Fretwork, composed music for harpsichordist Maggie Cole, and become friends with members of the Palladian Ensemble. Indeed for a recent project in which I arranged one of the songs for pop singer Natalie Merchant's new solo album I used a consort of viols (Fretwork), theorbo (Christopher Wilson) and renaissance tenor recorder (Pamela Thorby) all of whom entered into the work with great spirit and enthusiasm offering suggestions and advice. In passing it was pointed out to me, by Fretwork, that in one of the verses of the song I had instinctively demonstrated a talent for ‘divisions’, a form which was unknown to me until then. When I first wrote for the Hilliard Ensemble 10 years ago I was ignorant of the intricacies of tuning systems but I quickly became aware that there is more to life than equal temperament. At one rehearsal with them I also learned that the question of vibrato is a complex subject and not something which should be left to the soloist’s ‘expressive’ whim. Indeed one initial rehearsal of my Cadman Requiem threw up the question of conflicting approaches to vibrato by the singers and by the modern strings (two violas and cello) which accompanied them. The ensuing hour spent rehearsing one section for vibrato alone is something that I will always remember and is equally something I have never encountered in any other musical context. I subsequently by-passed the issue by rearranging the piece for the Hilliard plus Fretwork and there is now no argument at all. When performers of this calibre take an interest in new music and bring to its performance the kind of values that they apply to their (apparent) specialism the results are invariably committed and can even be spectacular. The Hilliard, of course, are well-known for their espousal of all music up to the baroque and of contemporary work – there is one marvellous and, in their normal terms of reference, somewhat heretical recording of the gap in between with their EMI album of 19th century German partsongs. Being composer-in-residence at their summer school last year gave me the chance to write music at great speed for them and for the larger body of amateur, semi-professional and professional specialist singers who spend the week there. It showed me that such performers are not only dealing with a repertoire which has a long and (superficially) finite history but are capable of responding to music which is newly composed as much as to old music which is newly discovered. In fact for them there would appear to be no difference between the two cases; they are equally ‘living’ musics. I have no doubt that there are people in the early music world who are only concerned for what they see as their ‘territory’ just as there are those specialists in new music who refuse to admit musical possibilities other than those thrown up by their own aesthetic proclivities. The cases are basically the same and are both sadly misguided.

Gavin Bryars will take part in Cambridge Early Music School’s Composers’ Forum in August. His new opera Dr Ox’s Experiment completes its run at English National Opera on July 3rd.

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Event listings for this month

June 1998:
Blue sheep of record companies

May 1998:
spnm looks to the future

April 1998:
New Music 98 in Manchester