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Born in Goole, East Yorkshire, England, Bryars studied philosophy at the University of Sheffield before pursuing musical studies for three years.
The first job he is remembered for is his role as double bassist in the Joseph Holbrooke trio (an active formation in the 1960s in the United Kingdom, particularly in Sheffield and its environs), together with guitarist Derek Bailey and percussionist Tony Oxley. The trio began playing jazz in a relatively traditional style before opting for free improvisation. However, Bryars was unhappy about this work when he saw the young double bass player Johnny Dyani perform in a way that seemed “artificial” to him, beginning with his interest in composition.
Bryars’ early compositional works are strongly influenced by the so-called New York School of John Cage (with whom he studied for a brief period), Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and minimalism. His first known composition, The Sinking of the Titanic (1969), is an almost indeterministic work that allows performers to take a variety of sounds related to the wreck of the Titanic and bring them together in a musical work.
A well-known work of this first period is Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (The Blood of Jesus has never failed me yet, 1971), whose base is a musical loop with the recording of a vagabond improvising the religious hymn of that name. At the beginning of each loop, rich harmonies are created, executed by a musical group playing live, continuously growing in density until the whole gradually fades away. In the nineties a new recording of this work was made, with Tom Waits singing with the original recording of the vagabond during the final section of the work.
Bryars was a founding member of the Portsmouth Symphony, an orchestra whose members would consist of performers who “embraced the whole musical competence” – and who performed (or hoped to perform) pieces of popular classical music. One of its members was Brian Eno, whose record Obscure Records published the following works by Bryars. In one of the first three productions for the label, the album of Brian Eno Discreet Music, Bryars directed was co-arranger of the three pieces called “Three Variations on the Canon in D major by Johann Pachelbel” (Three variations on the canon in D major by Johann Pachelbel) that make up the second half of the album.
Bryars ‘most recent compositions include A Man In A Room, Gambling (A Man in a Room, Betting, 1997), a work commissioned by the BBC Radio 3 radio station. In it, Bryars’ music is heard under monologues interpreted by the Spanish artist Juan Muñoz, who talks about cheating methods in card games.
Bryars has written a number of works, including three operas, and several instrumental pieces, among which are three string quartet and several concerts, among which we can highlight one written for bass oboe in 1994. He has written also several choreographic pieces, like Biped (Bípedo, 2001) for Merce Cunningham. Between 1981-1984 he participated in the CIVIL warS (the CIVIL wars), a vast unfinished multimedia project directed by Robert Wilson.
Bryars was the founder of the music department of the Polytechnic of Leicester (today, De Montfort University), where he taught courses for several years. He currently resides in England and, in the summer months, on the west coast of Canada.
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