Musicians Gavin Bryars and Gavin Friday have joined forces through their love of Shakespeare. Duncan Seaman reports.
Gavin Bryars’ career might have taken him a long way from his East Yorkshire roots, to some of the world’s foremost venues for classical music, but it seems he has not forgotten Goole, his home town, or the countryside around it.
When last year he composed a piece for the Yorkshire Festival called The Stopping Train – “about the Goole to Hull stopping train, as a kind of audio soundtrack which follows the journey” – he was so impressed by the support of the town’s 19-year-old mayor Terence Smith and local art centre, the Junction, that he agreed to return. “In May this year I did my first concert performance in Goole since I’d been a member of this amateur orchestra playing bass when I was 18 being conducted by my uncle. That was really nice.”
In the summer Bryars collaborated with Opera North on a composition for Hull City of Culture 2017. “I decided to do something outside Hull, in Holderness. There’s this beautiful little church, Winestead, it’s about half a mile from the village and it’s completely isolated, it’s surrounded by trees and you can hardly see it but it was where the poet Andrew Marvell’s father was vicar and Marvell was baptised there, so I did this piece setting some of Marvell’s poetry and I played this little organ in the church, it’s a single manual, no pedals, no volume control, no swell, just five stops, with John Potter, the tenor, singing. We did it within Hull and then the whole of these commissions were taken to the South Bank, in the Festival Hall, and there I played harmonium, which I love.
“I have these very good friends in Yorkshire, Phil and Pam Fluke, who have this harmonium services and a museum with 30-odd instruments in Saltaire and we always rent from them. I had another project with Opera North, on Tom Waits, so it was another chance for me to play one of their mighty instruments. They have one which is like the Stradivarius of the harmonium world.”
Next week the 74-year-old composer and his ensemble are at the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds, performing several of Bryars’ works. Chief among them is Nothing Like The Sun, eight Shakesperean sonnets set to music, which was first commissioned by Opera North and the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2007. Joining them for the performance will be the tenor John Potter, soprano Sarah Dacey and the Irish rock singer Gavin Friday, who will also perform his own setting of Sonnet 40.
Rather than focus on the well-known love poems, Bryars chose “the more abstract and philosophical” sonnets. “They didn’t really deal with personal relationships but more concepts of time, infinity and memory, those are rather abstract things which I found to have greater Elizabethan melancholy. It was characteristic of the period for music and many other things.”
Bryars speaks appreciatively of Friday’s talents as a narrator and singer. “He’s a very charismatic, sort of glam rock performer, he’s very different from the classical world of everybody else. He’s there in his black leather and gold chains, with his shirt unbuttoned to the waist. It’s fantastic.”
Friday, it seems, is also a fan of Bryars. “I remember first hearing about him when he released Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet way back in the mid-70s. I’ve always been a fan of that piece, and also The Sinking of The Titanic.
“About 11 or 12 years ago he was in Dublin working the Crash Ensemble, who are an Irish-based classical ensemble that I had done some work with previously. They invited me to meet the man because they were proposing to do Jesus’ Blood and The Sinking of the Titanic in Dublin. I meet Gavin and immediately we just clicked, we had similar music tastes and he suggested that maybe we should collaborate on something.”
After working on an improvised version of The Sinking of The Titanic (“it was quite a strange, spontaneous thing”) Bryars invited him to collaborate on his Shakespeare project. Friday admits to finding the Bard “quite tough” at school. “Not only was the language old, it never connected.” It took until 2007 to convince him otherwise. “I think age has a great thing, when you look at poetry as a grown man rather than a teenager, it had a different relevance to me.” He found the words of Sonnet 40 “just jumped at me, I don’t know why, the foresakenness of it all, probably”.
“I think everyone in the world wants to like Shakespeare, it’s just how it’s approached or sold to people. I find that old school, Olivier-like thing, ‘Take this, my love!’ and you go ‘woah’. The language is old and it’s hard enough to grab onto but when it’s projected at you in this old school way is there a need for that now? With technology we have amplification.
“Then I looked at it again. It’s an absolutely exquisite love sonnet, why don’t you slow it right down and have that atmosphere of intimacy? And music is a great glue. I’ve done numerous performances over the last ten years with Gavin and his ensemble, doing Nothing Like The Son, and it’s an extraordinary way to listen to Shakespeare, because it isn’t hitting you over the head. The music is coming in and almost embracing you and then you can hold onto the words.”
Gavin Bryars and Gavin Friday perform Nothing Like the Sun at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on October 25. www.operanorth.co.uk
He’s a very charismatic, sort of glam rock performer, he’s very different from the classical world of everybody else. He’s there in his black leather and gold chains, with his shirt unbuttoned to the waist.Gavin Bryars
An early supporter
Gavin Bryars’s first album, featuring Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet and The Sinking of The Titanic, was originally released on Brian Eno’s record label Obscure in 1975.
Bryars remembers first meeting Eno when he was an art student in Winchester. “He was using print-making and he printed some scores for me. Then he got involved in Roxy Music. we were friends. Because of his connections in the musical world he was able to put forward this project. What his idea with Obscure was when he’d been a student he’d often pop down to the South Bank to the Purcell Room to concerts that maybe I would do or John Tilbury or Cornelius Cardew. At that time I think you could ren the Purcell Room for something like 40 quid, which was quite a lot of money then but you could break even. It was a nice size, 300 or 400 seats, and Brian used to come down to those concerts. He felt he owed a big debt to those things; he also felt that a lot of music of that kind, although it’s contemporary music, it’s much more approachable than some of, say, the European avant-garde and he felt that if he put it out with his imprint, as it were, people might approach it more readily.
“The irony is he did call the label Obscure and the earliest albums are almost impossible to find. At first they were only available on mail order, which was ridiculous, but the idea was nice. There were about ten of these albums and I had things on about four of them, I think.”