Gavin Bryars, On Photography: Bryars, Maskats, Silvestrov

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 08.05.11 in Reviews
A number of Bryars’s choral pieces, performed by the Latvian Radio Choir

Gavin Bryars has been a singular figure on the English new-music scene since the 1970s. A bassist who still hangs out with some of the Derek Bailey/free-jazz crowd, he has been one of Britain’s leading composers ever since the producer Brian Eno introduced adventurous rock listeners to Bryars’s early tape-music classic “Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet” on his aptly-named Obscure Music series in the late ’70s. (That series, by the way, also gave first exposure to music by Michael Nyman, the Penguin Café Orchestra and John Adams — not a bad track record!) The fact that Bryars plays the bass is useful to know, because it may help explain the dark colors and brooding quality of many of his works. This album features a number of Bryars’s choral pieces, given committed performances by the Latvian Radio Choir. The album’s opener, “And so ended Kant’s travelling in this world,” is an atypically chromatic work; a trio of Italian settings look back to Bryars’s studies of medieval Italian music; the album also includes a short but lovely score by Latvian composer Arturs Maskats, whose music Bryars discovered while making this recording. But there are two major reasons to get this record: One is “Expressa Solis/Tersa Perfetta” (and its shorter companion piece, also, confusingly, called “Expressa Solis”), inspired by a 19th-century text that praises the new art form of photography — by the man who would later become Pope Leo XIII. The piece unfolds slowly, but the rhythmic cells that color the English version of Minimalism are in evidence as the piece picks up steam. The other major composition here is Valentin Silvestrov’s twilit “Testament,” whose drifting harmonies and dark hue perfectly complement Bryars’ own works.