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Live From Old York: Gavin Bryars, Craig Vear, Matt Quinn & The Chimera Ensemble

Live From Old York: Gavin Bryars, Craig Vear, Matt Quinn & The Chimera Ensemble
Martin Longley By

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Gavin Bryars/Craig Vear
York Unitarian Chapel
March 1, 2014

This gig opened up the 2014 season of Late Music concerts, a series that's dedicated to newer developments in modern composition, at least when viewed in the context of centuries-old classical tradition. This two-part evening combined the works of Gavin Bryars and one of his old students, Craig Vear. Bryars is an eminent freshly-septuagenarian English composer with his roots lying in 1970s minimalism. His key pieces remain "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet" and "The Sinking Of The Titanic," which both appeared on a classic vinyl album released on Brian Eno's Obscure label in 1975. Originally, Bryars played upright bass in Joseph Holbrooke, a trio of freely improvising pioneers that also included guitarist Derek Bailey and drummer Tony Oxley. Other major Bryars works include "Cadman Requiem," "A Man In A Room, Gambling" and "After The Requiem," the ECM recording of this latter featuring guitarist Bill Frisell, plus saxophonists Evan Parker, Stan Sulzmann, Ray Warleigh and Julian Arguelles.

This evening in the pews began with an impromptu chat between Bryars and Vear, the latter keeping serious by discussing the algorithms employed in the composition of his "Three Last Letters." Bryars, conversely, chose to muse on the significance of his mystically-chosen brand of pencil, as employed in his determinedly old school method of actually inscribing notes in a notebook, by hand. Since 1982, Bryars has solely favoured the Aztec Scoremaster 101, which he'd purchase upon every visit to NYC. Either that, or send a messenger on a shopping mission. Now, that West 52nd Street store-source has dried up, and the lead ain't as good as it used to be. Bryars only has a few pencils to go, but is deliberately avoiding using the last one. The eraser on its end was always an asset, and it's the faint visibility of previous artistic choices that Bryars enjoys, keeping him well away from any laptop software. Vear also managed to instill some feeling for chance operations, explaining that his work has room for interpreter choices, as well as decisions made by his computer banks. Bryars benefited from age, wit and wisdom, free from any obligation to directly discuss his chosen compositions.

The concert's first half was devoted to a celebration of Bryars, including some of his less familiar short pieces. Two players from the regular Bryars Ensemble were on hand: clarinetist Roger Heaton and guitarist James Woodrow, who is also a member of Icebreaker, along with the evening's cellist Audrey Riley. Unusually, Bryars himself played piano on the second tune, "Lauda Con Sordino." The opening "Tre Laude Dolçe" featured guitar and cello. On the pew directly in front of your reviewer, a child had her soft toy parentally banned from watching the show from its ledge-perch vantage point, which was a great shame. Forever scarred! Riley's sonorous cello acted as the main voice, with Woodrow's electric guitar turned down to a colouring presence. A tentatively introspective sound-world was established that would pervade the entire selection of Bryars pieces. This was a different kind of minimalism, truly sparse, savouring subtle textures, toying with careful space and strategic silences. Bryars sat at the piano for "Lauda Con Sordino," contributing stark, eloquent notes in well-chosen points, the cello remaining in prime position (Riley is the work's dedicatee). Dappled progressions were surrounded by further guitar sustains, the piece ending on an extended hover. This trio departed, as Heaton took to the stage, bringing two actual clarinets to use against the previously recorded parts of "Three Elegies For Nine Clarinets." It became impossible to avoid considering Steve Reich's "New York Counterpoint" as a reference point. Citrusy harmonies rang with growing overlaps, Heaton moving to bass clarinet, answered by the low-toned gathering of his taped brethren, in a soupily luxurious amassing, making dramatic pauses between exhalations towards the work's close. Bryars was absent for the fourth tune, Heaton remained, then Woodrow and Riley returned. This was a brand new work, commissioned by the Late Music folks, invoking the memory of recently departed drum master Chico Hamilton, with particular attention paid to his soft mallet-sticks. "Lauda Rubata A Tre" also tips the cap to Vear, who Bryars once auditioned. In the absence of a drumkit, future buddy Craig proceeded to dent Gavin's briefcase, something that could have been avoided via the use of fluffy mallets. Heaton stuck to bass clarinet, and the wonderment of stasis continued, with plucked cello phrases nestled up against held reed and cloud guitar.

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