Saturday, April 19, 2008

Collaborating Composers

Earlier this week I found myself reviewing the Gavin Bryars discs in my CD collection. I first became seriously aware of Bryars during my time at Schlumberger, when I used to listen regularly to John Schaefer's New Sounds program on WNYC. (I say "seriously" because my first actual contact with Bryars was in late 1971, since he was the only person who had written to me requesting a copy of my doctoral dissertation! At that time, however, I had absolutely no idea who he was, let alone what he was actually doing.) One of Schaefer's programs featured "Jesus' Blood never failed me yet" in its original recording, which filled one side of a vinyl LP issued as part of Brian Eno's Obscure series. The work absolutely fascinated both my wife-to-be and me. In a sort of parody of Maurice Ravel's "Bolero," the composition was based on a tape loop of a British tramp singing this hymn on the text that Bryars assumed as his title, accompanied by a "live" chamber ensemble playing providing the tramp with more elaborate background on each iteration. It took me forever to find a copy of the recording, which I finally got when a British friend sent me a package of several of the major Obscure releases. By then I had also been exposed to the other side of the vinyl, "The Sinking of the Titanic," which offered a different (but equally fascinating) take on variation-through-repetition.

With the advent of compact discs, it became easier to collect Bryars' music; and I started learning more about him. I learned, for example, that the overall architectures of both "Jesus' Blood" and "Titanic" had been determined by the duration of music that would fit on a single LP side. Thus, when they were released on CD, they were no longer coupled; each work now pretty much filled the capacity of a single CD. More interesting, however, was my discovery of how many of Bryars' compositions seemed to grow out of musicians with whom he came to work; and those musicians made for an interesting mix of the genres they usually performed. For example "After the Requiem," composed in 1990 added Bill Frisell's approach to jazz on an electric guitar to three of the members of the Balanescu Quartet with an alluringly moody result. Similarly, in 1987 Bryars, himself a double bass player, composed "By the Vaar" for Charlie Hayden, who has performed bass in some of the most experimental jazz groups.

There is, of course, nothing new about composers working directly with performers. It is a practice that can probably be found in every era of music history. What is more interesting is the emergence of genre-crossing in what we tend to call "serious music;" and Bryars is far from alone in this practice. Each of Steve Reich's "Counterpoint" works was composed with a specific soloist in mind; and in "Electric Counterpoint" the soloist was Pat Metheny (who has experimented with collaborations of his own involving composers as radically different from his own style as Ornette Coleman, who, just to illustrate the complexity of the social network, frequently performed with Charlie Hayden as his bass).

We may have the Sixties to thank for at least part of this kind of cross-fertilization. After all, Frank Zappa's early fascination with Edgard Varèse (because the guy behind the counter in a record shop could not imagine why anyone would want to listen to that kind of music) eventually led to his collaborative work with Pierre Boulez and the Ensemble InterContemporain; and we should probably take at face value claims from The Beatles about the influence of Karlheinz Stockhausen (even if, as I have suggested, Stockhausen was more reticent about his own influences). More important, however, is the way in which this trend provides us with yet another reminder that the music is all about the performance, rather than about a composer wrestling with filling up the pages of blank sheets of manuscript paper. As a corollary we have come to recognize that each genre engenders a different approach to listening. So the crossing of genres is an opportunity for the synthesis of new listening strategies, which will then engender new approaches to composition and performance that will elicit their own new approaches to listening. Has music ever before be so alive with so many avenues for creativity?

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