Jean Martin composes music for film, TV, theatre and performance. He is also a writer and lecturer at University of Brighton

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Gavin Bryars interview

London, 24 February 1994
by Jean Martin

Q: This spring your new CD "Vita Nova" will be released.

Bryars
It's a piece I wrote, in fact it's the third thing I wrote for the Hilliard Ensemble but this one is for David James, and it was written as a surprise present for one of my managers... I write for the counter tenor because I love David James' voice, but I don't write a counter tenor piece, I write a David James piece. Later of course it then becomes, if you like, the property of any counter tenor...

Q: How important are extra-musical concepts for your music?

Bryars
Every composer has a problem of how to get started... In the case obviously of vocal music there's a text, so immediately that gives some sort of flavour, some context and even some sort of shape to the piece but quite often, in fact with most pieces I've written apart from one opera I've chosen the text myself or manipulated the text myself; so making a text is one of the first stages. If it's not a vocal piece then extra-musical things I think can be helpful. Either a kind of image, a pictorial image, something about the nature of the instru¬ment, the player, whom you're writing for.

Q: Why do you use Tonality?

Bryars
..It tends to be a question that worries people who don't write tonal music... So I don't share that kind of view of music history as being an inevitable move forward - even the word forward is doubtful... One argument is of course that music or history is moved forward by a series of great men or great events... But at the same time one might say, well if you don't accept that point of view, what other view of music history would you have? And there are so many alternatives now and so many other kinds of music activity, that I prefer to think of music as not moving in a single direction but moving in many directions at the same time, or even running round in circles if necessary.

Q: There seems to be an alienation between the audience and so-called new music composers .

Bryars
I think that's one of the by-products of new music seeing itself as a specialist, highly technical activity, as being that it actually excludes a non-specialist public; ...And then you have things like the ISCM, the International Society for Contemporary Music, from 1923, which is a specialist form or organisation in order to promote certain forms of contemporary music. I remember going to, in fact I've have had pieces played at the ISCM. I think the first string quartet of mine was the only piece booed in the Festival because it was tonal, and they were having conferences - the delegates - about acceptable levels of dissonance ... But that's not the way in which people listen to music... So I think the simple answer is that this form of music is more approachable. It doesn't mean it's more simple, or even that it's naive, but it simply means that people can at least get a hold on it.

Q: What are the gains of Experimental Music?

Bryars
...I think there are some remains, not necessarily in terms of the music that's been written but in terms of the attitude that people retain from it... it was a kind of self-organised, self-generated activity. And what that produced I think is a kind of state of mind rather than a form of music;...I still find ways of subversing, if you like, some areas of music practice, by collaborating with artists, by working on installations, by trying to do things which take me outside my normal confines. So I think those attitudes, that sort of rather friendly kind of anarchism is still there. The anarchy was not a kind of hostile thing, it just didn't mean that we were interested in chaos, what we were interested in I think was the kind of order that you have when you have no leaders. That is to say when you don't have great men to look up to but you are only responsible for yourself and for your friends.

Q: Is Jesus' Blood is a part of this line?

... It's a piece which grew out of working within an experimental music context in England. I would say it also grows out of my fondness for the work and ideas of John Cage, which might seem slightly surprising, but one of the things I always like about Cage is that no one who calls himself, if you like a follower of Cage ends up writing music anything like him...so in a way Cage lets you free and you can go off and do what you want, provided your mind is in a particular shape and Jesus Blood ... came out of that post-Cage experi¬ence. It was within a couple of years of me having worked with Cage in America.

Q: Three Viennese Dances: tranquillity and the beauty in it - is the spiritual dimension deliberately intended?

Bryars
It's fairly clear that quite a lot of the music I write is not fast, loud and aggressive...lot of things I write tend to be fairly slow motion if not necessarily slow tempo. - That they take time to unfold and that can be a sort of spiritual thing. I'm not a Christian though I find spiritual experience quite interesting as a phenomenon and I became very interested in Buddhism when I was a philosophy student and I'm probably... an agnostic Buddhist.

Q: Which I found again in Vita Nova in the third part - when I listen to this music the word "beauty" comes to my mind. When I listen to Stockhausen or Boulez this concept never occurs to me.

Bryars
Within my stuff I would say I tend to keep within one territory for most of the piece, the piece doesn't change dramatically; it might slowly evolve, it might get faster, it might get louder, but it doesn't do it suddenly. I think the only time I've ever done that is if I've worked in a dramatic context when I wrote an opera when there are particular occasions where for reasons of the mis-en-scene or the text it's necessary to have some form of interjection; ..I also enjoy the idea that you find in minimalism and also in the work of Erik Satie, of a piece of music depicting a single state; it's rather looking at a picture where you don't tell a story, or you don't go through a dramatic argument, you have a state of affairs and that's it. That's something which I find very interesting to do musically.

Q: Apart from your own music where do you think at the moment interesting things are taking place?

Bryars
I think we're in a slightly odd time. I would have said that maybe twenty years ago, twenty five years ago in the late sixties, early seventies, there was a lot of change, a lot of energy and a quite sort of dynamic state of affairs in new music in terms of the range of things that was happening; ...If anything I would say there's a sort of new conservatism in a lot of younger composers who seem to want to achieve success through rather the more conventional means. If you think of in the past people like Steve Reich, Phil Glass, Terry Riley, they actually formed their own composing performing ensembles, they performed in galleries, they made their own careers. Now people would look more towards institutions, towards symphony orchestras, arts councils, government agencies as a way of helping them, that was less the case then. And in fact in a way one of the dangers can be that you start to have to compromise if you want to achieve that kind of success. There are interesting composers now but I would say that there isn't the range of interesting activity that there might have been in the past in the younger area.

Q: Do you think all these new electronic media tools are useful for compositional exploration.. or electro-acoustic music?

Bryars
It depends. I think it's exactly the same problem as writing for a string quartet. You either have good ideas or bad ideas and the danger that can happen with electronic instruments and electronic technology, digital technology, is that you can start to use or start to be seduced by the parameters that are given by that technology, rather than relate to it in an intelligent way. ...I don't find it interesting to compose on the computer. Frankly I find it too slow. I think much faster with a pencil...

Q: It seems a lot of your activity is taking place on the Continent, what the English call Europe.

Bryars
It's never been a financial reason for me working abroad, it's not only Europe, it's also America, Canada, Japan. It's just that the impetus to ask me to do things has tended to come from abroad. The spirit of adventure or even of just trying some crazy possibility has come from abroad. During that whole time in the seventies when experimental music was, if you like, active in England, the places where we were getting official recognition were... was mostly in Belgium. There we were taken seriously, we were giving regular concerts and it was very interesting to actually be treated like human beings instead of like some sub-species! So I've always found that Europe - Continental Europe - actually has been much more sympathetic. I've had a lot of work in France. The opera I did with Robert Wilson was produced in Lyon and Paris, it never came to England. No one from England even came to look at it... Ironically now I've been commissioned for an opera by the English National Opera, which is terrific. So it's twelve years since that time so there has been a period when the initiative has come from European organisations.

Q: Your new opera Dr Ox's Experiment has a text by Jules Verne .

Bryars
After I did Medea, the other opera I did, I actually found that I enjoyed working on this opera and I actually enjoyed all the pressure of production and the whole experience of making the opera; and I wanted to write another one. I looked at two or three possible texts and the Verne was one of them. It's a very curious story... It came about originally when I was asked to do a concert in Belgium in the Festival of Flanders in 1986 and my first idea of it came then because the setting of the story is in Flanders in an imaginary town which no longer appears on any map,... But it's a town where time sort of stood still; everything was incredibly slow so it suits me down to the ground. People moved at an incredibly lethargic pace; no one would take a decision; there were no heated arguments; the council would refuse to come to a conclusion about any matter and when people got married they were engaged for a minimum of ten years... And then into this town arrives a mysterious stranger and his assistant - a man called Dr Ox. And he has offered to provide free of charge gas lighting for the town, so he's installing pipes and so on. Little by little incidents start to happen. People are heard having animated discussions and gradually life changes and what you realise eventually, is that Ox is actually conducting some huge social experiment and is actually pumping pure oxygen into the air to animate them in a different way. To demonstrate that in fact all human emotion, all kind of creativity energy is actually simply a chemical phenomenon. And eventually by the end there is a huge explosion, Ox disappears, the town goes back to normal but rather shaken by its experi¬ence and is no longer on any map. It's a slightly surreal story but the concept of tempo is fundamental to it; because once Ox starts intervening people start moving at a faster pace if they are generated by the gas, as it were.

Q: Is your music music about music ?

Bryars
There's a sense in which music affects other music, so music is always about music to a certain extent in that it inevitably is a reflection on other music. At the same time it is also about itself and sometimes about other things too. Political questions, ideas of morality, spiritual values, therapeutic things, all sorts of things music can be but I tend to find it a fairly pure activity. That's why I admire Satie so much, for me he's probably the purest musician tha ever existed. He virtually lived for his art; he drank heavily and the rest and so on and was an amusing and eccentric person, but nevertheless for him music was almost like a holy art ...

I admire Satie. I don't like all his music without reservation but for me he is a composer who is underrated, to a certain extent misunderstood, but in a way most of us are to some extent.

Q: And Cage?

Bryars
Cage I think is fantastically important and that in a way it was Cage probably who drew attention to the importance of Satie. Cage constantly stressed Satie's importance as a composer and for me Cage is probably the major composer of this century.

Q: You are a football fan?

Football and cricket, yes.
When I was eighteen I was nearly a professional football player. I nearly became a professional footballer. I decided to become a university student instead but it could have happened.
...So later when I was no longer playing football I started going to football matches and I would go and see Queens Park Rangers every Saturday. In fact I was the person with John Tilbury, who first took me to Queens Park Rangers, together we took Michael Nyman for the first time, so Michael Nyman is a passionate Queens Park Rangers supporter. We all three used to go every Saturday for many years and sat in the same seats and so on and I still follow their results very keenly.

Q: This hasn't got anything to do with music!

Bryars
Well it did at that time. We actually incorporated in some of the early exper¬imental pieces, elements from the crowd chants at Queens Park Rangers es¬pecially for the hero Rodney Marsh who was the player we admired most. There was a particular way in which they would sing "Rodney" on a minor third - "Rodney, Rodney..." It used to appear in lots of pieces at that time! And there's that kind of sound, that sort of energy at a football match. ...But they (daughter & friend) were amazed by the sound because they'd always seen football on television where obviously the commentator's microphone is very close and you hear the sound of the crowd. But it's the volume of it and the collective energy and the suddenness with which it happens. Suddenly you'll hear 30,000 voices doing exactly the same thing. Or a sequence of chants will start
A sudden crescendo and something happens on the field and....phooo! Herbert von Karajan couldn't get a better response. No conductor. It's instant response, it's emotion, a complete outpouring suddenly. It can be aggressive, it can be warm, it can be humorous, it can be very many different things.

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