Gavin Bryars


Born: January 16, 1943
Gavin Bryars displays nearly all the trademarks of late twentieth/early twenty-first century classical music: versatility, integration of visual arts and multimedia, explorations of non-traditional approaches, and extensive collaborations with other composers and arts organizations. Like several of his contemporaries, he has attracted popular attention through the combined innovation and approachability of his compositions, and writes articulately on a wide variety of music and musicians. His first love in music was jazz, and he performed as a bassist with Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley. Some of this influence shows in his use of improvisation. In the late 1960s, he began to study and work with several other innovative composers, including John Cage and Cornelius Cardew. In 1969, he began teaching at the Portsmouth College of Art, where he helped found the Portsmouth Sinfonia, and also wrote his first major composition, The Sinking of the Titanic. This first foray into musical conceptual art was inspired by his considering what the sounds of the band that continued to play as the ship sank would have been like in the watery environment. Two years later, he composed Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, a work in which he combined a tape looping the voice of a man in a homeless shelter, singing the title phrase, and a musical background. In 1981, he followed on the success of the Portsmouth Sinfonia by creating the Gavin Bryars Ensemble. Rather than following traditional ensemble structures based on a group of instruments, Bryars chose instead to make it a group of musicians who would work well and creatively together. This resulted in constant changes in the ensemble's musical textures and capacities, though low strings have tended to predominate its sound. He wrote his most famous opera, Medea, in 1984 and it premiered at the Opera de Lyon. In 1988, he wrote his first work for the Hilliard Ensemble, Glorious Hill, beginning a long-standing collaboration, as well as material for the opening of the Tate Gallery in Liverpool. He wrote The War in Heaven for the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1993. In 1998, the English National Opera premiered his second opera, Doctor Ox's Experiment, based on a story by science fiction writer Jules Verne, and he also began his First Book of Madrigals for the Hilliard Ensemble, completed in 2000. 1999 marked his first incursion into film music, with his score for Unless the Eye Catch Fire, a striking series of variations on a chorale theme. In 2002, he wrote his Second Book of Madrigals (Bryars plans five more books) for the Trio Mediaeval Sextet and also appeared as bassist in By the Vaar at the Vancouver Jazz Festival. He also collaborated with choreographer Carolyn Carlson on Writing on Water, which premiered in Venice, and wrote his third opera, G. In the early 1990s, after Point Music recorded The Sinking of the Titanic and Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, both recordings became classical best-sellers.
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