Brian Morton New Choral Requiem; Dance To The Music

Gavin Bryars talks to Brian Morton about his new choral Requiem, composed in collaboration with choreographer David Dawson for Dutch National Ballet

The defining quality of David Dawson’s dance-making is its unforced humanity. His choreography always seems like an extension of natural human movement, expressing emotions without excess rhetoric or artificiality.

In that, he seems a natural match for composer Gavin Bryars, who is still perhaps best known for two open-form works, The Sinking of the Titanic and Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, which combine research, found material and a ’pataphysical approach [finding imaginary solutions] to fact and narrative with a profound empathy and respect for ordinary people, whether they are musicians on a doomed liner or a rough sleeper in South London.

Composer Gavin Bryars  has experience of writing  for dance, having worked  with Merce Cunningham,  Lucinda Childs, Édouard  Lock, and now David  Dawson
Composer Gavin Bryars
has experience of writing
for dance, having worked
with Merce Cunningham,
Lucinda Childs, Édouard
Lock, and now David

Dawson and Bryars have worked together before. The 2005 ballet Reverence, made for the Mariinsky in St Petersburg, used material from Bryars’s Third String Quartet, which was later orchestrated.

Five years later, Bryars produced a new score for Dawson’s The Third Light, a meditation on the properties and metaphors of light, made for the 40th anniversary of the Royal Ballet of Flanders. Now, though, they are embarking on a new work that presents unique challenges not just to the composer and choreographer, but to the theatre as well. Requiem premieres at Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam on 9 February 2019.

The date is perhaps significant. Bryars says, ‘A lot of people assumed that the piece is intended as a reference to the centenary of the Armistice … I’d probably have turned it down if that had been the case!’

Bryars owned to some reservations about marking the 100th anniversary in 2012 of the Titanic sinking, but acknowledged that the productions of that year were only a positive blip in the progress of what has become a well-loved and constantly evolving piece.

More recently, he has declined to write music to mark the anniversary of the Oklahoma bombing (‘What if Trump turned up?’), though he is considering writing something that expresses a more general mourning, as he did when asked to contribute to a group programme of works marking the 9/11 attacks.

He shrinks from opportunism, as anyone who knows the work will already sense. Stripped of any external resonance, Requiem promises to be a work in which Bryars and Dawson again explore dance and music as pure and interrelated forms. But there is a complication; for this is a score that involves not just orchestra, but a choir as well. Unusual, surely. ‘There may be more,’ says Bryars, ‘but I can only think of Stravinsky’s Les noces and Lord Berners’s Wedding Bouquet, and it’s often done with a narrator rather than a choir, which I think is rather a pity.’

Berners is an old enthusiasm, one of a number of preterite or marginalised composers whom Bryars has helped keep in view. ‘Obviously, having a text means that you have a whole other layer of meaning, which is relatively unusual in dance.’

The text is drawn from the traditional Requiem Mass, ‘but without the Dies Irae, and with the Agnus Dei done very fast and loud – fff – and with the trumpets going full blast.’ So far, so (un)predictable. Bryars takes a strikingly personal and gently subversive line on most traditional material; but aren’t there challenges to be met here, even before the music is discussed? ‘Yes, there’s the simple problem of where to put everyone! You could do it as they do Les noces, with everyone – dancers and singers – on stage, but that would be impossibly crowded, so they’re all going to be in the pit.’

Bryars produces a fascinating drawing of the layout, which already looks complicated, even though he has decided to dispense with timpani, piano and celeste. ‘It might be that we do what they do with The Rite of Spring, and just take out the first three rows, to accommodate a larger pit.’ Most people to whom I mention Requiem assume that I am talking about Cadman Requiem, a key item in Bryars’s evolution as a vocal composer. It would make sense, but for his resistance to what he calls, with evident distaste, ‘catching the moment’, since that earlier piece is dedicated to his friend and sound engineer Bill Cadman, who died in the Lockerbie bombing of December 1988.

‘Having a text means that you have a whole other layer of meaning, which is relatively unusual in dance’

Had he gone back and looked at that very personal piece again? ‘Yes, but only really to make sure that what I am doing now is completely different, and just to see how I had handled the various elements of the Requiem.’

Bryars’s association with dance goes back to his long tenure with the Merce Cunningham group, which continued after Cunningham’s death but which has now been gently put aside, with the understanding that some works may be revived in future. How do later experiences with choreographers compare? ‘Merce made no demands on you. You knew the basic design of the dance, but were otherwise left alone.

Working with Lucinda Childs was different again. She would specify the length of a movement and the metronome markings – so you basically knew how many steps were involved – but apart from that, it was down to me to fill the musical space. With Édouard Lock [founder of the Quebec contemporary dance group La La La Human Steps], it was a matter of working with existing music in new versions, so that was a different situation again.

David, I’ve found, is amazingly respectful, almost in awe of the composer. I’ve had an entirely free hand.’ This seems characteristic of Dawson’s methodology, which is perhaps too engaged and personal to be called a methodology. His aim, always, is to blend together sound and movement in a way that ever more fully expresses the human form. And it is scarcely heretical to think that a Requiem should evoke vitality as much as mourning, or that a work which seems to engage with Last Things should not represent a new beginning, too.


Formerly a presenter of jazz and classical music on BBC Radio 3, Brian Morton is a writer and broadcaster based in the west of Scotland

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