Today ECM New Series released a new album consisting entirely of the music of Gavin Bryars, the first since Vita Nova was released in 1994 (which was their third all-Bryars album). The title of the album is The Fifth Century, which is also the title of the major work performed, a cycle of seven part-songs performed by the mixed choir The Crossing with instrumental accompaniment provided by the PRISM saxophone quartet. The texts for these songs all come from the metaphysical writings of the seventeenth-century English mystic Thomas Traherne. The remaining two tracks are given the title Two Love Songs, both of which are a cappella settings of sonnets by Petrarch, both from his collection Rime sparse (scattered rhymes), two of the poems supposedly inspired by “Laura.”
Bryars began as a jazz bass player but moved into composition under the influence of the New York School. If one were to identify a single composer from this group as an influence, it would probably be Morton Feldman, whose career involved longer and longer scales of duration usually involving less and less instrumental activity. However, while Feldman’s music can be seen as a musical reaction to the abstract expressionist painters, Bryars’ development seems to approach duration as facilitating factor for dwelling upon philosophical ideas. He titled his cello concerto “Farewell to Philosophy;” but it seemed not so much a rejection of philosophical thinking as it was of the debilitating approaches to philosophy taken in too many university classrooms.
In that respect The Fifth Century may be regarded as a quietly meditative philosophical experience. His interest in sustained tones seems to reflect on the use of suspensions that Traherne would have encountered in his own time (had he been a serious music listener); but, at the same time, the endurance of tones also seems to connote their being sustained through reverberations in a highly resonant acoustic space. To be fair, however, the resulting superpositions of sonorities tend to obscure Traherne’s texts, which can pose a problem when any single sentence has the power to elicit sustained reflection. As a result this is one of those recordings in which having the texts in the accompanying booklet is significant, if not downright essential. It might almost be preferable to set aside the time to read all seven Traherne passages in silence, allowing his ideas to plant their seeds in one’s consciousness. Having established that familiarity, the listener will then gain much from following the texts while listening to the serenity of Bryars settings. (That familiarity will also facilitate paying more attention to the accompanying saxophones than one might if one were encountering the text for the first time.)
In many ways The Fifth Century amounts to a continuation of Bryars’ interest in madrigals, even if these part-songs are setting of prose. Following up on sixteenth-century practice, Bryars has already written six books of madrigals and is currently working on two more. His decision to set Petrarch falls right in with these past accomplishments. Nevertheless, his approach seems to have less to do with the Italian madrigalists and more with English traditions, perhaps even those being practiced during Traherne’s lifetime. Nevertheless, while it would be unfair to call Bryars’ rhetoric dispassionate, there is still a sense that he is more interested in the idea of love than he is in the feeling itself. Taken on those terms, however, his approach to Petrarch is as absorbing as what one might encounter in much earlier settings, such as those of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina or Orlande de Lassus.