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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.

"Three Last Letters," an extended piece by Craig Vear, took up all of the gig's second half. The Bryars Ensemble members returned, along with three vocalists: Christopher O'Gormon, Michael Lambourne and Stephen Langstaff. The piece fantasises and surmises the mind-state of polar explorer Captain Scott during his final leavetaking, utilising diary extracts, letters and Antarctic field recordings. Intense snowstorm activity spread throughout the surrounding speakers, with sonics diffused by Vear himself, building up to a whiteout peak, clarinet, cello and guitar adding to the cumulative spread of environmental sculpting. The vocal artists alternated between singing and intoning the diary entries, exchanging their roles either when prompted by their laptops or possibly by totally ignoring the algorithm instructions. It seemed as though several responses were allowed. Their tone wisely slouched down at a more realistically verbal level, avoiding too much of a stridently theatrical post-opera delivery. Style was not fixed. Church intonation was also present, reminiscent of the abstract spirituality that's often conveyed by Arve Henriksen. The vocal parts were mired in the general landscape, but their narrative content was still discernible. Abrasive guitar seeped in, the voices subsumed into the overall storm, "steadily wove" emerging as a key phrase. It was almost a drone piece. Despite the composer's involved theories of the work's construction, Vear was inhabiting areas of sound that could easily have been the result of complete improvisation. His organising properties governed the shape, but there was a sense that individuality was encouraged, either directly, or as a result of freedoms to choose a pathway through the deep drifts.

Matt Quinn
The Black Swan
March 6, 2014

The Black Swan Folk Club operates a regular platform for rising young talent, concentrating on performers that are either in their teens or early twenties. Matt Quinn graduated from Newcastle University in 2012, where he'd been studying folk song traditions. In that same year, he also released Broom Abundance, his debut album. Quinn is lately dwelling back down in Brighton. In 2010, he formed The New Slide with Nathan Armstrong and Tom Redman.

He was rather unlucky for most of his Black Swan set, due to a pile-up of unpredictibilities. Resolutely, Quinn managed to surmount all obstacles in his way. For starters, he was somewhat self-deprecating, revealing his uncertainties with various aspects of solo performance: testing out new interpretations, leaving his towel in his car, and suffering from stinging contact lenses. Anyway, momentum was steadily built up, and Quinn offered just over an hour's worth of old traditional chestnuts, either pumping melodeon or concertina, infiltrating a spot of mandolin and performing several songs completely a capella. Quinn's voice was sometimes slightly uncertain in its delivery, but he's blessed with a strongly communicative clarity, eventually picking up momentum. He offered "Thaxted Square," with a percussive jolt to his melodeon pump, making its wheeze-breath a signature feature, a bass note plod to emphasise the tune's jauntiness. Then he played "Barbara Allen" on the duet concertina, and made a valiant start to "Captain Coulston," a capella, until he suffered from a sudden memory loss of its verses. Then, his solo mandolin spot was derailed by an uncanny technical fault emanating from his plug-in pick-up. With a microphone swung to the fore, Quinn soldiered on, a step closer to acoustic purity. On some levels, this was not Quinn's lucky night, but ultimately he transcended an unusual quota of minor misfortunes, getting the crowd firmly on his side by set's close.

The Chimera Ensemble
The University Of York
March 7, 2014

Chimera is the largest student-operated contemporary music ensemble in the UK, working from within the University's music department. A typical programme will be dominated by internationally established composers, but each gig also provides a platform for new student works. This concert presented a strong selection of renowned writers, from Japan, Romania and Germany, alive and dead. Toru Takemitsu's "Water-Ways" opened, with a grouping of clarinet, piano, violin, cello and doubled-up vibraphones and harps. These latter were particularly evocative in conjuring that typical Takemitsu aura of suspended meditation, with their rippling embellishments. Daniel Johnson's "Bukowski Mine" certainly didn't call up the gritty universe of its namesake, being a stilted duet between singer and cellist, making an attempt at dramatic presentation, but ending up pompous and shrill. The first half peaked with "Échange" by Iannis Xenakis, highlighting Will Ozard's bass clarinet, which was distorted and overblown during the fully-flowing ensemble sections, transforming into a more rounded sound in the stretches where he was playing completely alone. Droning horns (trumpet, flute, trombone, oboe, bassoon, tuba) swelled up dark clouds, then slipped into fanfare stabs, alternating with slippery waves of violin, viola and cello, the latter leading a series of aggressive swipes, building up to a roiling climax.

In the second half, James Whittle's "For Who Digs Hills Because They Do Aspire" provoked a mixed response. On the one hand, the piece suffered from all the faults of works that set out to inject so-called humour and rule-breaking into the new music arena, but conversely, its interpreters did possess a degree of committed enthusiasm that carried it off, particularly as the work neared its climax, some of the players having made their way down the aisles, eventually grouping into a scabrous kind of Brechtian chorus, clustered at the front of the stage area. The remaining bulk of the second half was monumentally taken up by Helmut Lachenmann's "Mouvement," for the largest grouping of the evening. There were instances of severe minimalism, in the sense of an exceedingly sparse terrain, faint percussion strikes, glancing string-cuffs, and plopped horn-tubes, with mouthpieces removed. Activity intensified, then tipped back into starkness, the particularly impressive trio of percussionists moving from godly thunder down to rodential scuttling.

Photo Credit
B. Prévost

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