Alexandra Maria Tchernakova and Gavin Friday Opera North

The Gavin Bryars Ensemble – Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, 25/10/2017

It was during my teenage years that I first became aware of the music of Gavin Bryars. In 1975 Brian Eno established his very own record label, Obscure Records, which he had set up to provide a home for experimental music. In its short, three year lifespan the esoteric label produced 10 albums of which Gavin Bryars featured strongly on four of them. To be seen walking into the sixth form common room at that time with one of these abstruse albums tucked under your arm would have gained you either looks of complete bemusement or else instant kudos from your class mates.

A collaboration with Tom Waits aside, Gavin Bryars would then not seep into my consciousness for another 35 years or so and then it was in the most unlikely of surroundings, the Crazy Horse public house on the Butlin’s holiday camp in Minehead.  It was a Sunday lunchtime at the ATP Festival and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, led by artistic director and cellist Clarice Jensen, kept us completely spellbound as they performed ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’, which Bryars had composed in 1971 (and which had taken up a complete side of The Sinking of the Titanic, the very first album that was ever released on Obscure Records all those years before). It lasted for 27 magnificent minutes and to this day still has to be one of the most mesmerising, hypnotic, almost hallucinatory pieces of music that I have ever had the great fortune to experience in a live setting.

Between those two personal milestones, Gavin Bryars has worked with jazz musicians, visual artists, all manner of experimental improvisers, founded the music department at what would become De Montfort University in Leicester, written four operas and, as a most proud Yorkshireman, established a long collaboration with Opera North here in Leeds. It is one of those works that brings him to the Howard Assembly Room this evening.

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Nothing Like The Sun was originally commissioned by Opera North in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company whereby Gavin Bryars was asked to do a programme of settings of William Shakespeare’s sonnets. Bryars eventually settled on a suite of eight of these sonnets and whilst they have previously been performed by his ensembles all over the world this is the very first time that Nothing Like The Sun will have been experienced in its spiritual home at the Howard Assembly Room within Leeds Grand Theatre.

The Gavin Bryars Ensemble, though, commence the evening with ‘It Never Rains’, a short instrumental that Bryars wrote in 2010 for the Californian record label Cold Blue Music and performed by him on his customary double bass, alongside cello, viola and guitar. This is followed by ‘The North Shore’, and by which time the original quartet of musicians has been joined by a second viola, piano, clarinet and percussion. Both pieces vividly contrast their respective light and darkness and the Sunshine Coast and the North East of England.

Dressed in a dark suit, tinted glasses, silver earrings and brothel creepers, Gavin Friday then joins the ensemble and the former singer with the Irish post-punk band The Virgin Prunes adds some genuine rock’n’roll gravitas to the proceedings. Utilising the vocal technique of sprechgesang  – half singing, half speaking – Friday intonates Shakespeare’s Sonnet 40 with an even more dramatic sense of desolation. “Kill me with spites, kill me with spites….” he repeats again and again, as he slowly walks from the stage. It all makes for the most compelling theatre.

After a short intermission, the full ensemble – numbering 11 musicians in total – return to perform Nothing Like The Sun in its complete, seamless entirety. Each individual sonnet follows the same pattern whereby Gavin Friday reads Shakespeare’s words over a Bryars’ led instrumental backing, followed immediately by a sung version in which Sarah Dacey’s soprano and John Potter’s tenor feature variously as both a duet and on their own. The combined effect is stunning.

For this project Gavin Bryars deliberately eschewed William Shakespeare’s more familiar love sonnets, choosing instead to focus upon the poet’s more abstract works.  In so doing and by wreathing their words in a most intimate neo-classical garland of music, Bryars not only captures the sonnets’ central pillars of allusion and innovation he also successfully transports them 400 years into the future.

The main photo of Gavin Friday and Alexandra-Maria Tchernakova taken at the soundcheck for this performance comes courtesy of the Howard Assembly Room.

The second photo – Simon Godley

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.