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LIVE: Phaedra Ensemble: Gavin Bryars at 80, String Works – Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, 02/12/2023

Gavin Bryars turned 80 years of age in January. To celebrate the occasion, Phaedra Ensemble – the New Music collective who were founded in 2014 by violinist Phillip Granell – have created a diverse and innovative programme of the highly acclaimed Yorkshire-born conceptual artist, composer, and double-bassist’s work. 

On what is a bitterly cold winter’s night outside, the atmosphere in the building is customarily warm and welcoming and the performance begins with a refreshingly frank, insightful conversation between Gavin Bryars and the Projects Director for Opera North, Dominic Gray. They speak about connectivity in Bryars’ work across the decades and his collaboration with others. With regards the former and in but one example of his typical self-deprecation Gavin Bryars remarks that “they all sound remarkably the same.” He is equally modest, almost dismissive, about his work with other artists, amongst whose number he can count many high-profile musicians, sculptors, and choreographers. He says he “is not aware of any influence he has had upon others (artists)”, going on to firmly reject any notion that “a composer is seen as some supreme being” by stating unequivocally, “that’s just arrogant shit.”

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Gavin Bryars in conversation with Dominic Gray

Despite Gavin Bryars’ remarkable self-effacement, this evening’s music will evidence but a relatively small cross- section of his incredible creative talent, one that spans avant-garde experimentalism, jazz, minimalism, free improvisation, and Renaissance choral music. 

Phaedra Ensemble tonight comprise a string quartet of Zahra Benjounis (violin), Phillip Granell (violin), Miguel Sobrinho (viola), Sergio Serra (cello), plus audio mixing and immersive visuals from the collective’s co-director, Jamie Hamilton. They commence with Gavin Bryars’ ‘String quartet No.4’, a tender, reflective piece that magnifies feelings of serenity and melancholy in almost equal measure. The London-based trumpet player and composer Laura Jurd then joins the quartet for her own composition, ‘New Work for String Quartet + Improvised Trumpet’. Here she stretches the boundaries of minimalism, pushing towards the outer limits without ever losing her innate sense of harmony and melody. 

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Laura Jurd with Phaedra Ensemble

After the intermission, Phaedra Ensemble return with what is commonly regarded as Gavin Bryars’ first major work, ‘The Sinking of the Titanic’. Inspired by the tragic denouement of the British passenger liner’s maiden voyage across the Atlantic and a report that the ship’s band continued to play the hymn ‘Autumn’ as it went down, the piece here captures all those key elements of abandonment, bravery, and loss before an eerie calm starts to descend. Accompanied by Jamie Hamilton’s almost surreal visual representations of water, ‘The Sinking of the Titanic’ is heartbreakingly beautiful.

‘A Man in a Room, Gambling’ is a 1992 collaboration between Gavin Bryars and Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz and again complemented perfectly by Hamilton’s projected images, the composition mimics musically the sleight of hand inherent in playing card manipulation. It is as deceptive as it is clever, once more highlighting Bryars’ acute levels of sonic invention and the vivacity of the string quartet’s playing.

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Phaedra Ensemble

Gavin Bryars, Laura Jurd, and Jamie Hamilton all join the string quartet on stage for the closing ‘1, 2, 1-2-3-4’. Bryars tells us he wrote this piece in the mid-60s at a time when he was the house bassist at Greasborough Working Men’s Club in South Yorkshire. By design, each instrument is dislocated from the other, but they ultimately all join together, assuming an almost dreamlike quality in their collective delivery as they do so. And just like the entire performance itself, therein lies the immense power of connectivity and collaboration. 

Photos: Simon Godley

More photos from this concert are HERE

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