Memory in the music of Gavin Bryars

I’m fascinated by memory and the many ways it comforts, shapes, or confounds us. Maybe this was one of the reasons I became involved with Gaelic singing in Cape Breton — I was drawn in not just by the songs themselves but the way they refer to the collective memory of that culture, and are enmeshed with the memories of individuals. But memory plays a vital role in many, if not all, kinds of music. At the most basic level, this is why we are tickled by references to other works; snippets of one song mentioned in another or quotes from a poem in a novel (‘signifying’ in jazz, and intertextuality in literature) spark associations and call upon our memories of past experiences.

While working at CBC Radio I became familiar with Gavin Bryars and his music, and noticed that memory seemed to be a key feature of many of his works. Back in 1993, he saw his composition “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” climb the pop charts, and he has boxes of letters from listeners telling him how this piece touched them.

Bryars seems to have a talent for tapping into the memory of his listeners, enabling him to create music with resonance. And whether it serves as a building block of composition, or is invoked in various ways, memory seems to be a powerful force in Bryars’ own music. It is not surprising then, that he is willing to muse upon the topic, and a few years ago I was lucky to have the chance to talk to him about it. As he said,

It strikes me as something which is very powerful, the way in which people use their memory, the way in which memory can distort, the way in which memory can provide information or disinformation, the way memory can provide some kind of consolation or not, the way in which memory can be mistaken.

For Bryars, the use of allusion and association is intentional, and this often means that he uses text or other material as a starting point for his compositions, drawing on his own prodigious memory and wide-ranging interests. A personal memory might inspire the concept or structure of a work: in his song cycle Oi Mei Lasso he re-imagines medieval sacred songs; The North Shore is inspired by the landscape near St Hilda’s Abbey in England, and writings by Jules Verne. At other times, Bryars used a pre-existing musical work not as material to quote, but as the basis of his own new one in a more subtle way: his piece Sub Rosa both invokes and is a trope on a composition of Bill Frisell, Throughout (from his recording, In Line), which in the past had provided comfort to Bryars’ nerves during air travel.

In his multi-part work “A man in a room, gambling,” textual and musical elements recall each other, and situate the listener both in the work and in an array of external references. Bryars uses these references to confound as much as to illuminate, banking on the fact that memory is notoriously unreliable. The piece consists of ten, 5-minute segments. These are identical in length and describe actions which themselves involve visual illusion and trickery, serving to compound the element of confusion. From section to section there is an inevitable repetition of words and phrases: references to the cards, instructions such as “shuffle”, “with your thumb”, etc., and the framing elements of the spoken section such as the opening “Good evening, and welcome once again to A man in a room, gambling …”. At times it is difficult to remember if you’ve heard this part before. This sense of disorientation spills over into the narrative itself in Programme Nine when the voice announces, “We have lost today’s program somewhere, in some little memory pocket or rather, we have lost the text that we intended to read.” It’s a beautiful self-referential twist and an ironic commentary on the nature of memory.

For the composer in the act of creation, does memory perhaps always play a part? Bryars says,

I’m not sure about all — but certainly, quite a lot… I guess it’s that the way in which something which has a sense of…poignancy, of a local connection, for me is far more meaningful than writing something which is simply a string of notes. I mean, I couldn’t dream of being Mozart and writing yet another Serenade in E flat for wind band. For me there has to be some sort of emotional force in these things and quite often this will come about because of some kind of connection, or something which evokes something else…

I am not certain if we can ever understand why a particular song becomes a ‘hit’, and why Bryars’ work Jesus’ Blood Never Failed me Yet achieved such notoriety. It does seem clear, however, that there is great power in a piece of music which, even if it springs from a very personal source, taps into both the individual and collective associations of the listeners who experience it. By evoking individual associations though the use of memory, and in creating a common context for individual reference, he gives the listener agency as a participant in the experience of the music.

This is an excerpt from the unpublished paper, “Memory in the Music of Gavin Bryars”. ©Stephanie Conn, 2015.



St. Ann’s bay, looking towards River Bennett

Cape Breton looks different in every season. In summer it is dark green and blue and smells of salt and pine; the fire- and churchhalls are bursting with dancers and spilling over with fiddle music. In the winter it is quiet, the snowy hills carved like stone, every social visit celebrated and wrung out for all it can be. But here is Cape Breton in the Fall, all contradictions: soft yellow march grass, bays as still as a millpond one day and as wild as the North Atlantic can be the next. Cafes closing for the season, and the Celtic Colours festival club pressing on into the wee hours.

I’ve been visiting Cape Breton for 19 years now and along the way many people have asked why I count the place as my second home despite not having family ties there. Over the years my purpose for going has subtly evolved. At first I went to find songs, but instead I found a beautiful culture, wonderful people and a powerful community. It became clear that there was no way to just sing the songs, and to do them or their traditionse justice. Instead I tried to learn the Gaelic language, but just as important, the unspoken language of the culture: how people behaved towards each other, what their thoughts were about the songs but also each other, and the place they are so rooted in. Now I go to reconnect with all of that.

For my research on Gaelic singing I got to know many members of the eldest generation and prepared myself early for our friendships to be brief. I was lucky to have many years with them, but those that remain are octogenarians at best. Now, just as Fall gives way to winter, I sense a transition is possible and necessary. I continue to be interested in these amazing songs and the rich history of their performance ad transmission, but I also want to think about how all of this is being carried forward.


Screenshot 2015-10-11 15.26.37At this year’s Nuit Blanche I participated in The Composition Engine, a sound installation at Trinity College Chapel that invited attendees to interact with musical performers with a simple system of switches. People seemed delighted at the combinations they created or what resulted by chance.

So often as artists or presenters we create and then share works with no idea of how they will be received by audiences. We start from a place of excitement or fascination and hope that those who consume our work will feel some of that, too. After it is over we try to gauge its reception with the sound of applause, box office numbers. But even in more traditional performance contexts, there are examples of performers inviting more direct audience feedback, such as when guest fortepianist Malcoln Bilson urged Tafelmusik audiences to talk or applaud during a piece or encore individual movements

Although it is clearly not always feasible to provide such opportunities for audience participation, it is tempting to consider how this might be done and begs the question of how opening up greater space for interaction might affect the present listeners or their future experiences.

Brilliant songwriting and brave performances

Originally published on StereoIQ’s Best Albums of 2012 )

Fiona Apple: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Early in this album Fiona Apple shouts, “Look at me! I’m all the fishes in the sea!” and we can’t help but take notice. The sparsely-arranged Idler Wheel, which features just voice, piano and percussion, is a brave and sometimes difficult tour-de-force. But it’s Apple’s lyrical prowess that raises this album to “Best Of” status. She forges lines with internal swing (“My heart’s made of parts of all that surround me/ And that’s why the Devil just can’t get around me”) and plays virtuoso with language and metaphor (“The rib is the shell and the heart is the yolk/ And I just made a meal for us both to choke on). These songs are as confessional as any Apple has written. In hushed whispers and full-throated howls she explains why life is so difficult for her (“The ants weigh more than the elephants”) but she also serves up a reason for everyone to stop worrying : “Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key.”  — Stephanie Conn

Ondaatje, music and archival inspiration

With typically intriguing introspection and detail, Michael Ondaatje talks about his writing inspiration and process in video interviews recently released by The Lousisiana Channel of Denmark. In one he compares poetry to novel-writing. But in the second, he talks about his relationship with music. “The rhythm of music has been the biggest influence on my writing — it’s not Wordsworth, it’s Ray Charles,” he explains. This is no surprise to me; he’s my favorite writer mainly because of the cadence of his prose.

Screenshot 2015-06-21 13.29.20

In that interview, Ondaatje explained that music and writing are so connected that they must sometimes be separated. In his early novel Coming Through Slaughter, though, he didn’t eschew the association, but instead created something that is overtly musical in its style as well as its subject matter. The book tells the story of legendary jazz trumpeter Buddy Bolden, taking inspiration from a hazy photograph and reconstructing the rest in a sort of jazz riff that draws on the imagined memories of those who knew him. Bolden was reputedly an inspiration to New Orleans jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong and pianist Jelly Roll Morton, but ironically his own playing was never recorded; Ondaatje, however, suggests that even if recordings of Bolden existed we could not fully experience his playing. Musical expression must be interpreted within a context, in part because of it’s physicality —the embodied aspects of the creative act. As one character recalls,

“It was a music that had so little wisdom you wanted to clean nearly every note he passed, passed it seemed along the way as if travelling in a car, passed before he even approached it and say it properly. There was no control except the mood of his power … and it is for this reason it is good you never heard him play on recordings. If you never head him play some place where the weather for instance could change the next series of notes – then you should never have heard him at all. He was never recorded. He stayed away while others moved into wax history, electronic history, those who said later that Bolden broke the path. It was just as important to watch him stretch and wheel around on the last notes or watch nerves jumping under the sweat of his head. (Coming Through Slaughter, p 32)”

All we have of Bolden is a hazy photograph, and even that must be ‘translated’ into a clearer image, since it is as imprecise as the recorded sound would be. Finally, one character writes that in consulting with all those who knew Bolden he found that “their stories were like spokes on a rimless wheel ending in air. Buddy had lived a different life with each one of them.”

This discussion ties in with one of my main research interests: the role of archives in the preservation of a musical tradition. In an age where almost everything can be preserved virtually — with recordings, photographs, videos — it’s useful to stop and the point Ondaatje’s character makes. In the experience of any music we lose a little with each step we take away from its physical embodiment; to learn a traditional song from the notation in a book is to only glimpse a shadow of what it would have sounded like being sung; to learn it from a recording is better, but is still an incomplete experience of transmission. It’s for this reason that some musicians also dislike bootlegged recordings or their performances. For those who were there, yes, they’re a souvenir of the experience, with all the warts and misfirings along with the high points, but for those who were not, they are incomplete and in some ways, incomprehensible.

Of course we’re lucky to have documents of any kind, so as to connect more viscerally with past music and art. And it’s intriguing to think that just as young poets are inspired by the masters such as Wordsworth, and young jazz musicians are inspired by Fats Waller, that synaesthetic inspiration might also be possible across genres, so that a young Ondaatje the writer was inspired by the rhythms of early jazz.