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September 23, 1997

Modern Composer

The Last Days. Music by Gavin Bryars. String Quartet No. 1 ("Between the National and the Bristol"); Die Letzten Tage ("The Last Days"); String Quartet No. 2. The Balanescu Quartet. (Argo, CD # D111733) 1995.

British composer Gavin Bryars (b. 1943) looks more like a Hollywood casting- office stereotype of a longshoreman than a musician or composer (think young Jack Warden without hair). But his working-class dress and demeanor give no hint of the ethereally haunting music he creates. Though he studied composition at university, his first professional work as a musician was as a performer, playing double bass with cutting-edge British jazz groups such as those of Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley. While performing jazz, he also founded the Portsmouth Sinfonia, "which acquired a cult status for its performances and recordings of the classical repertoire with minimal musical skills." Bryars also produced his first major work of composition during the sixties with "The Sinking of the Titanic" in 1969. This album contains three recent compositions: two string quartets and "The Last Days," for two violins.

The title of The Last Days refers to the end of the millennium, but Bryars says that this work is "in an anti-millennium spirit." Originally written for a 1992 exhibition with the same name, the five-section work effectively evokes a quiet and subdued end-of-the-century mood.

Bryars was asked to write a string quartet in 1985. He says that as a bassist he "found [him]self outside the quasi-privacy of such an ensemble," but he took the commission. The result was the String Quartet No. 1, a haunting work that pushes the traditional string quartet in several new directions. "As a way of ingratiating myself into this closed world," Bryars says, "I introduced aspects of the double bass into the piece. The passage with cello and viola playing heavily in octaves in the bottom register, for example, simulates the sound of the bass, and extended solos in natural harmonics...are part of the bass's technique." This is a somewhat jarring effect, heard in the second of the piece's four sections, which are played without pause.

The first section begins with a soft, tentative, barely harmonic two-note pulsing motif. This pulsating element is laid over a series of long chord that show some movement, but no real progress. The effect of the combination is hypnotic after a few minutes, but this mood is broken abruptly as the second section begins. This section combines two apparently unrelated strains, with a third element consisting of a single repeated chord. This is the section in which the viola and cello combine to mimic a double bass, playing long, strong, near-melodic chords as a quasi-ostinato to the more volatile motifs of the upper strings. The first quartet ends quietly, without any final resolution but with a feeling of wholeness and peace.

The second string quartet, written in 1990, is more full-bodied, more melodic, and more "relaxed [and] easy-going" than the first. Also played without pause between the sections, this work, says Bryars, "in a way...begins where the first Quartet ends -- rather like the second episode of a television series." The three works on this album show an only somewhat more conventional side of a composer known for decidedly unconventional works. It's a delightful revelation.

You can hear Gavin Bryars' String Quartet No. 1 on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, October 2, at 7:30 pm as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green

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