Richard Gavin Bryars (/braɪərz/; born 16 January 1943) is an English composer and double bassist. He has worked in jazz, free improvisation, minimalism, historicism, avant-garde, and experimental music.
Early life and career
Born in Goole, in East Yorkshire, England, Bryars studied philosophy at Sheffield University but became a jazz bassist during his three years as a philosophy student.
The first musical work for which he is remembered was his role as bassist in the trio Joseph Holbrooke, alongside guitarist Derek Bailey and drummer Tony Oxley. The trio began by playing relatively traditional jazz before moving into free improvisation. Bryars became dissatisfied with this when he saw a young bassist (later revealed to be Johnny Dyani) play in a manner which seemed to him to be artificial, and he became interested in composition instead.
Bryars's first compositions owe much to the New York School of John Cage (with whom he briefly studied), Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and minimalism. One of his earliest pieces, The Sinking of the Titanic (1969), is an indeterminist work that allows the performers to take a number of sound sources related to the sinking of the RMS Titanic and make them into a piece of music. The first recording of this piece appeared on Brian Eno's Obscure Records in 1975. The 1994 recording was remixed by Aphex Twin as Raising the Titanic (later collected on the 26 Mixes for Cash album). In 2012, the centenary of the Titanic's sinking, he made a new extended version, with film projections by Bill Morrison and Laurie Olinder, that included his four children as a low-string ensemble (viola, 2 cellos, bass) and turntablist Philip Jeck, subsequently released on GB records (BCGBCD21)
A well-known early work is Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971), which has as its basis a recorded loop of a vagrantsinging a musical fragment that the old man had improvised. On top of that loop, rich harmonies played by a live ensemble are built, always increasing in density, before the whole thing gradually fades out. A new recording of this work was made in the 1990s with Tom Waits singing along with the original recording of the vagrant during the final section.
Bryars was a founding member of the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an orchestra whose membership consisted of performers who "embrace the full range of musical competence" — and who played popular classical works. Its members included Brian Eno, whose Obscure Records label would subsequently release works by Bryars. In one of the label's first three releases, Eno's album Discreet Music, Bryars conducted and co-arranged Three Variations on the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel, which constitutes the second half of the album.
Bryars's later works have included A Man In A Room, Gambling (1992), which was written on commission from Artangel. Bryars's music is heard beneath monologues spoken by the Spanish artist Juan Muñoz, who talks about methods of cheating at card games. The ten short works were played on Radio 3 without any introductory announcements, and Bryars has said that he hoped they would appear to the listener in a similar way to the shipping forecast, both mysterious and accepted without question. His cello concerto Farewell to Philosophy was recorded in 1996 by Julian Lloyd Webber.
Bryars has written many other works, including five operas, and many instrumental pieces, among them three string quartets and several concertos. He has written several pieces for dance, including Biped (1999) for Merce Cunningham, as well as works for William Forsythe, Carolyn Carlson, Edouard Lock and David Dawson. In 1981–84 he participated in the CIVIL warS, a vast, never-completed multimedia project by Robert Wilson, who also directed his first opera, "Medea". He has also written a large body of vocal and choral music for groups such as the Hilliard Ensemble, the Latvian Radio Choir, the Estonian National Men's Choir, Red Byrd, Trio Mediaeval, Singer Pur, and The Crossing, and has written a great deal for early music performers including six books of madrigals and a collection of over 47 "laude".
Bryars' When Harry Met Addie (a tribute to jazz singer Adelaide Hall and saxophonist Harry Carney) was premiered at the Duke Ellington Memorial Concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on 1 May 1999. The piece was performed by the London Sinfonietta Big Band and commissioned by the baritone saxophonist/bass clarinettist John Surman. Cristina Zavalloni sang the soprano and the London Sinfonietta Big Band was conducted by Diego Masson·
Bryars founded the music department at Leicester Polytechnic (now De Montfort University), and was Professor of Music there for several years. He left in 1994 to concentrate on composition and performance. He lives in England, and, for part of the year, on the west coast of Canada.
He was born on the same day (16 January 1943) as another prominent English composer, Brian Ferneyhough.
In his June 2008 appearance on Desert Island Discs author Peter Carey chose Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet as his eighth and final record.
Since 1974 Bryars has been a member of the Collège de 'Pataphysique and was elected Regent in 2001. In 2015 he was named Transcendent Satrap, the highest honour in the Collège, a position he shares with Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Eugène Ionesco, Umberto Eco, and others.
Bryars is married to Anna Tchernakova, a Russian filmmaker, and has a stepdaughter and son. Bryars has two daughters from his first marriage.
- The Sinking of the Titanic (1969, First performance: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 1972).
- Necropolis Soundtrack Film Franco Brocani (1970).
- Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (for Pre-recorded Tape and ensemble), 1972.
- Medea (Opera, libretto after Euripides. ) 1982, revised 1984 and 1995.
- CIVIL WarS (incomplete Opera collaboration with Robert Wilson), 1984 . Some sections of the music exist in completed form, as follows:
- On Photography for Chorus (SATB), harmonium, piano.
- 2B for Percussion ensemble.
- Arias For Marie Curie, The Queen of the Sea, Captain Nemo, The Japanese Bride.
- String Quartet No 1 Between the National and the Bristol, 1985.
- Cadman Requiem (Dedicated to Bill Cadman, his sound recordist, who perished in Pan Am 103), 1989.
- String Quartet No 2, 1990.
- A Man in a Room, Gambling for speaking voice and string quartet (Text: Juan Muñoz), 1992.
- The North Shore for viola and piano, 1993.
- Three Elegies for Nine Clarinets, 1994.
- Cello Concerto Farewell to Philosophy, 1995.
- Adnan Songbook, 1996.
- Doctor Ox's Experiment, opera, 1998.
- String Quartet no.3, 1998.
- Biped – music for the dance by Merce Cunningham, 1999.
- When Harry Met Addie - music for soprano voice (vocalise) and big band, 1999
- G (Being the Confession and Last Testament of Johannes Gensfleisch, also known as Gutenberg, Master Printer, formerly of Strasbourg and Mainz) Opera, 2002.
- Nothing like the Sun – 8 Shakespeare sonnets for soprano, tenor, speaking voice, 8 instruments, 2007.
- Piano Concerto ("The Solway Canal"), 2010.
- Marilyn Forever - Opera 2013
- Hövdingar hittast (Heroes Meet), 2014 with Rúni Brattaberg (bass) and Eivør Pálsdóttir (soprano). A collection of pieces based on Faroese and Icelandic sagas.
- Pneuma - ballet 2014 with Carolyn Carlson
- The Seasons - ballet 2014 with Edouard Lock
- 11th Floor - ballet with Edouard Lock
- The Fifth Century - cantata for choir and saxophone quartet, text from Thomas Traherne, 2014.
- The Heart of August - ballet with Eduard Lock
- The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, chamber opera, text by Michael Ondaatje 2018