Gavin Bryars

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Hommages Review

by Uncle Dave Lewis

After a period of silence in the early '70s where Gavin Bryars, by his own account, "wrote little or no music," he embarked on a new series of pieces that marked a profound change from his early experimental, minimalist phase. That period included The Sinking of the Titanic (1970), a work whose score is a written text that contains not a note of music, but usually produces similar results from one performance to the next. When Bryars got back into the game of composing in 1975, he embarked upon a path that comes midway between the minimalist strategies of Titanic and the fully scored, though understated, neo-classic idiom he has pursued since the late '80s. These pieces still evolve as much from oblique strategies -- to borrow a phrase from Bryars' one-time collaborator, Brian Eno -- as from specified music, and reap the benefits of Bryars' particular preferences in harmony, his interest in the re-creation of the works of others, and in improvisation. Hommages summarizes this period excellently well; it was originally released on the Belgian Disques du Crepuscule label in 1981, an album very difficult to locate outside of Belgium, though some in the know managed to obtain it.

Even though the master tape has developed a bit of flutter, goes out of phase, and has other preservation-related issues, this is a highly valuable re-release for fans of Bryars. Bryars' fellow composers -- Dave Smith, John White, and Christopher Hobbs for example -- interpret the works on these recordings, perhaps as the performing community wasn't quite yet on the same page with Bryars and his style, which emphasizes intuition. A high point is My First Homage, which evokes and transforms the idiom of Bill Evans circa 1961, much as Bryars' first collaborative excursion in the group Joseph Holbrooke did a little closer to that point in time. Its relaxed, exploratory ambience should appeal very strongly not only to fans of Evans but also of Brian Wilson; although implacably English, it's just as strongly evocative of California as it is London in 1981. Though written for percussion, The English Mail-Coach has a monolithic efficiency similar to the effect of the Misha Mengelberg pieces that Bryars' close friend Derek Bailey was so fond of playing, such as like Where Are the Police?, whereas The Vespertine Park is atmospheric and redolent of open field, like My First Homage as reconceived in the daytime. Written for a dance ensemble, of the pieces here, Hi-Tremolo is most easily reconciled to the minimalist idiom of the time.

The bonus tracks, Out of Zaleski's Gazebo and Danse Dieppoise, were recorded earlier than the rest for a projected album that did not achieve release at the time, and as these tapes were never used, they sound brighter and more immediate than the balance of Hommages. Out of Zaleski's Gazebo is an uncharacteristically loud and extroverted piece that "rocks" in a rhythmic sense; Danse Dieppoise has a wandering sense of intonation unique in Bryars' work; however, in other ways it presages his mature style as it began to definitively emerge in the 1990s. It seems appropriate to say that without the piece of the puzzle that Hommages represents, one cannot get a grasp of Bryars' particular musical alchemy; therefore, it is essential. Although unavailable for a long, long time, there is no reason why devotees of Bryars would want to pass Hommages, and for them, its return to the catalog really is something to write home to Mom about.

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