Bryars and Friday come together

Review of the Gavin Bryars, Crash Ensemble and Gavin Friday concert in Dublin on November 10, 2005.
By forum member roguevox
Sinking of the Titanic

3 violins, cello, double bass, percussion [complete with xylophone], keyboards, electric guitar and bass – The Crash Ensemble. They’re laid out in a semi-circle thing, all standing, and there’s a microphone there. And the conductor walks on, then in his best black suit, brothel creepers and hair down comes Mr F. Their backing is this BRIGHT CERULEAN SEA BLUE which burns the eyeballs, that then fades with the lighting [which is much better for the eyes].

The song they play is “Coming Together” by Rzewski [pronounced jeviski]. It’s based in response to an historical event. In September of 1971 inmates at the state prison of Attica, New York, revolted and succeeded in taking possession of a part of the institution. Foremost among their demands was the recognition of their “right to be treated as human beings.” After several days of fruitless negotiations, Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered state police in to retake the prison by force, justifying his action on the grounds that the lives of the guards whom prisoners had taken as hostages were in danger. In the ensuing violence forty-three persons, including several of the hostages, were killed and many more wounded. One of the dead was Sam Melville, a prisoner who had played a significant role in organizing the rebellion. In the spring of 1971, Melville had written a letter to a friend describing his experience of the passage of time in prison. After his death the letter was published in the magazine Ramparts. The band start up, and Gavin is theatrically speaking the words:

“I think the combination of age and a greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. It’s six months now, and I can tell you truthfully few periods in my life have passed so quickly. I am in excellent physical and emotional health. There are doubtless subtle surprises ahead, but I feel secure and ready. As lovers will contrast their emotions in times of crisis, so am I dealing with my environment. In the indifferent brutality, the incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men, I can act with clarity and meaning. I am deliberate, sometimes even calculating, seldom employing histrionics, except as a test of the reactions of others. I read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.”

And you can see it in him – the moods of the piece. It’s intermittantly soft, then harsh, furious, then loving. Repeating words, and phrases and lines with the music. He goes from crooning the words in a husk to being a Virgin Prune again, all under the watchful eye of the conductor. And he nails it. I think, to be honest, the audience is surprised, and the applause at the end is rapturous to say the least. And Gavin buggers quickly offstage, and the conductor chases him to get a hold of him, dragging him back onstage for more cheers. Gavin does this little curtsey-bow thing and scarpers.

The next song is “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me”, and Gavin’s not in that. It’s good, we see Gavin Bryars for the first time who was playing double bass, and it alternates between soporific and soothing to getting a little bit long in the tooth. Both my friend, S, and I doze a bit in it, and yet it’s the one we came out singing. The whole show was all about contrasts and things being different, and the best feel I got was a line I heard someone else say – “I’m not sure I’m ready enough to offer an opinion on it just yet. Give me a couple of weeks.

And after that, we realise like, an hour and a half has gone by, and it’s interval. We head out so I can have a smoke, and I realise I’ve left my papers in my bag. Bounce back to get it, narrowly missing the gorgeous, grinning Mrs Hewson who is descending upon the blonde, hairedly lot of Guggi and company. I fight my grin, and the urge to gawk hopelessly and head out with my bag, having to walk past Guggi again and fighting the urge to do anything stupid. I’m with a friend, and finally we head back to the auditorium, sitting and watching people and the stage at rest.

The band come onstage, this time 2 double basses, electric guitar, percussion, trombone, HUGE group, and they do Rzewski’s “Main Drag” which is incredible. A gorgeous version that at the time I really really was lost in, but then couldn’t remember singing.

Afterwards, Gavin Bryars comes onstage and does a little talk, about why he’s in Ireland, his love of Irish literature, whilst the stage is set up, admitting that he’s only there to be a distraction whilst this all goes on. He’s warm, self-effacing, and YORKSHIRE, which makes me giggle to myself, as it’s been a while since I’ve heard another Yorkshire accent.

So then the stage is set up for “The Sinking of the Titanic”, and there’s a table with a clock, a wine bottle, and a glass. As the band are setting up, out walks Mr F. and sits. He’s on the Stage Right, legs crossed, a sort of dark fedora on. And then they do this odd thing, a really long silence. 3 minutes, maybe? Whatever it is, it’s an aching, anticipatory silence – you just know that something is going to happen.

Then the percussionist starts up, and you’re on the boat, the bell is ringing and the timpani are the sound of a boat hitting an iceberg. And Gavin is silent and still, and darklit and gorgeous. My friend got it, the music was throbbing and aching, the rattles and cracks of a ship going down. She called it music to slit your wrists by. Everything was unsteady and uncomfortable, and you knew it was only going to get worse.

A voice over starts – it’s a woman, talking about the Titanic, about the story, about her experiences. It’s low, you can’t hear everything all the time, but it’s heart-rending and I found myself fighting to hold back tears.

The violins start to play Amazing Grace and My Kingdom Tis of Thee and other things, the ‘band’ on the Titanic did.

And then he starts… indistinguishable words, words of a drunk, about the children not wanting to die, about a dog, about an aching obsession – not all of them making sense, or working properly, a man torn apart by the tragedy of the Titanic, and lost in the waves of drunkenness. And he ends with:

Hail Mary full of Grace the lord is with thee, blesséd art thou amongst women and blesséd is the fruit of thy womb. Holy Mary mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Again. And again. A mantra, whispered and hushed and painful, and he has this rosary wrapped around his hand, the cross dangling and it’s manic and again. He starts to slur them together, quick and intense and desperate, the words coming out, slipping around words, no idea how to get the words out quickly enough.
And the last words are “Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”


I really can’t express any opinions about the show. I came out of it with a really odd sensation of having felt every crazy emotion in the entire universe. Gavin was breathtaking, utterly invested in what he was doing. The only word that I was left with was “intense”. Breathtaking.