Farewell to philosophy? Not quite...
Gavin Bryars gets inspiration from the most unlikely of sources. He tells Arminta Wallaceabout the homeless man whose singing inspired his most famous work
GOOD WITH WORDS, is Gavin Bryars. Not for him the po-faced practice of labelling his musical compositions "opus one", "opus two" and "opus three"; a piece by Bryars is far more likely to be called Farewell to Philosophyor The North Shore, or even One Last Bar: Then Joe Can Sing.
Maybe it's this humorous, human touch that makes Bryars one of the most successful contemporary composers in the business. Or maybe it's the scope of his compositional palette.
The double album Gavin Bryars: A Portraitshowcases an impressive slice of musical storytelling, from the 21-minute saxophone concerto The Green Rayto the four-minute "hit single" featuring Tom Waits, Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet.
The aforementioned Farewell to Philosophyis a cello concerto commissioned and performed by Julian Lloyd Webber; The North Shoreis a meditation on the idea of "north" for viola and orchestra; One Last Baris, according to the composer's explanatory sleeve notes, "an extended aria for songbells".
It should therefore come as no surprise to find the highly versatile Bryars working on a new composition for the sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird. Based on Irish poems and prayers from the ninth century to the 20th, Anáil Dé( The Breath of God) will be premiered by Ó Lionáird and the Crash Ensemble at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma) tomorrow.
For the Yorkshire-born composer, the project represents a kind of homecoming. "As a 14-year-old, I went camping at Skerries with the Boy Scouts," he says, "and, until 2004, I had never been back to Ireland. But in my first term at university - when I should have been studying other things - I spent the whole time reading Irish plays. They had complete sets of Wilde, Synge, O'Casey, Beckett. I just read plays all the time."
In 2004 he brought an ensemble to Dublin's Christ Church Cathedral to perform some settings of Synge's translations of Petrarchian sonnets.
Before the concert began, there was a solo set by a singer called Iarla Ó Lionáird.
"I sat at the back of the cathedral - which was absolutely packed - and heard him command a whole space with unaccompanied voice for 30 minutes," Bryars recalls.
"In the middle of all this, he was about to sing a 16thcentury lament and he said, 'between you and me, I'd love Gavin Bryars to do a setting of this.' I thought, 'what do you mean, between you and me? There are 500 people here'."
Duly arranged for voice and a consort of viols, the piece ended up on Ó Lionáird's album Invisible Fields- and the idea of a collaborative composition was born.
THE TITLE, Bryars says, was Ó Lionáird's idea - as were the texts, many of which are taken from a bilingual collection of Irish poems and prayers, Lón Anama( Food for the Soul).
"The first thing I did was to read the texts and see which of them appealed to me directly. It's always hard to say why you pick particular poems. Sometimes it's to do with imagery. Sometimes maybe there's a poem that you like - but there might be just one phrase that doesn't ring true to what you want to do. It's a delicate balance."
The overall shape of the piece, Bryars says, has been determined as much by the text as by the musical textures.
"It's a journey - a kind of space that you wander through. Rather than have, as you would in a classical symphony for instance, a fast movement, a slow movement, a dance movement, finish."
The concerts at Imma and at the Solstice Arts Centre in Navan this week will also feature some of Bryars's instrumental pieces. "Iarla will probably sing a couple of traditional songs too," Bryars says.
When he's composing for the human voice, is that very different to writing for a solo instrument?
"Oh, yes, completely different," he says.
"And, almost always, I have some awareness of who I'm writing for. The actual quality of the voice is very important. It's important when I'm writing for an instrument too, of course, to know the musical character of the person I'm writing for. People have their individual sounds. There are some cellists who are very good at virtuosic passage work, others who are very good at middle to high lyrical passages and so on.
"There is that sense of personality with every musician - but much more so with a singer, where the human voice is their instrument.
You can't separate the two, or put your instrument in for renovation. You are that instrument. And it's not just you physically.
It's you emotionally - and everything you've lived through culturally as well."
In his setting of a cycle of Lebanese poems for the soprano Valerie Anderson, Bryars gives the singer some eerie, floating high notes to sing - presumably because he felt that was her vocal strong point.
Is there one feature of Ó Lionáird's voice which he has picked out in this way? "There are several things," he says.
"Iarla can surprise me. He has a lovely high sound, but he also has a very interesting low register - a very focused, but slightly breathy, bass. What I did was remove almost all the accompaniment so you hear it alone rather than mask it. There are moments of that.
But I use it very sparingly, because it's quite tiring for him as a singer to go down there too much.
"Iarla also has this beautiful phrasing, and the ability to ornament notes - and I hope that he'll feel free to ornament notes where I haven't necessarily put ornaments in. He'll naturally just do a pair of grace notes or something. I wouldn't want to inhibit him from doing that."
This is because Ó Lionáird comes from the traditional, rather than the classical, side of the musical spectrum - though, as Bryars points out, classical music has its spontaneous moments too.
"It's almost like writing a new piece for a baroque harpsichord player. I did one based on the music of Handel and Frescobaldi, where I asked the harpsichordist to feel free to decorate the phrases - as they would if it was 18th-century music."
He adds that it's quite a familiar experience, in any case, for a composer to hear different performers interpret his music differently.
"That's always a pleasure - and sometimes a real surprise," he says.
IT'S HARD TO imagine the utterly sanguinesounding Bryars being surprised by anything - not even the almost cult status acquired by his pieces, The Sinking of the Titanicand Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet.
The latter was first recorded in 1975 for Brian Eno's Obscure Records, then reworked in 1993 with the addition of Tom Waits.
It has had many incarnations, but its genesis is in the mantra-like repetition of a fragment of a Christian song sung by a homeless man.
Bryars studied philosophy in college - so what was it about that almost kitsch, intensely devotional faith that stimulated his creative interest?
"Well, when I first heard this old man's voice - which I really came across completely by accident - I was touched by many things," he says.
"Here was a man, very fragile, someone who was living rough on the streets towards the end of his life. But he was singing this phrase beautifully in tune, with very nice phrasing, even though he has rather a tremulous voice. And at the same time there is this simple optimism in the voice. There's a kind of humanity and dignity in it. Yet here you have someone living in complete adversity. It was that combination of musicality and simple faith which I found incredibly touching.
"There is a dangerous borderline between that and kitsch - you might say, between sentimentality at its worst and sentimentality at its best. People often fight shy of the sentimental and find it rather trite and manipulative - but I can be touched by extraordinarily sentimental things.
"I used to work as a bass player and I would accompany cabaret singers and comedians. All kinds of people. One person would sing something as ordinary as Danny Boyincredibly beautifully, and then someone else would do it and it would seem a cheap gesture. There's a fine line, and for me that old man's voice hovers on just the right side of that line."
• Gavin Bryars's Anáil Dé( The Breath of God) will be premiered by Iarla Ó Lionáird and the Crash Ensemble at the Irish Museum of Modern Art tomorrow. The concert will be repeated at the Solstice Arts Centre in Navan on Saturday