Nothing Like the Sun – Gavin Bryars Ensemble at the Howard Assembly Room

I arrived in the manner I do everything – two seconds shy of being late. The Shakespeare Sonnet settings mostly occupying the second half of the programme, the first was mostly given over to instrumentals, beginning with a quartet (viola, cello, double bass, and electric guitar), which was more gloomy than pensive, more slow than meditative. Next the stage was invaded for an octet, adding piano, percussion, another viola, and a clarinet to the foregoing. Here I reflected that it was quite nice not to have that little tyrant the violin, so that the viola, which received a lot of the melodic material, could play. However, just like the last, this piece spun a lot of atmosphere without a lot of activity within the sphere, and a pattern began to emerge in my expectation—along with a dread—of a monotonous evening.

Thankfully, the harmonies arrived occasionally at nice, ear-catching chords replete with flattened fifths and extensions. The texture was thin, only rarely (cumulatively, about five seconds) thickening, and the same was the case with the volume. As one might expect, at times the music was too ponderous, seeming simply to be endless repetition of:

Indeed, I could see the pianist’s score from my (really very good) seat, and I began to feel sorry for her, and hoped the gig paid well at the very least. At times such Max-Richter-esque sound would give the impression of completely adequate incidental music for television or film, but nothing good as per itself.

For the third piece, a setting of the 40th Sonnet (‘Take all my loves, my love: yea, take them all’), a new human entered the stage. He had on a black suit, paisley scarf, black sunglasses, and a microphone. “Good Lord,” I said to myself, “What is he going to do with that thing? Surely he won’t be making any music.” And that he didn’t. Murdering Shakespeare is what he did. He was a spoken word artist, and all the music was Shakespeare’s. “What can this latter-day Falstaff (without the wit) do for Shakespeare?” my inner ratiocination asked again. Perhaps my antipathy was a result of his molestation of the microphone, rubbing it as he did over his cheeks, and almost his jowls. Perhaps it was the general affectation of his performance, the wandering off into the crowd without the microphone (small mercies!) shout-whispering the last line of the Sonnet over and over, and over, as if to say, “Charles, you will never enjoy Shakespeare again—I will be sure to make it so.” He left the stage, and I was happy to get back to the previous monotony—or, if you like, out of the fire and back into the frying pan. In an interesting turn of the screw, I later learned that this gentleman was in fact the author of the music to this particular Sonnet, and indeed it was the best music of the night, featuring actual melodic activity and perceptible structure. I was reminded that no one is all bad.

The fourth piece, rounding off the first half, was called ‘The Flower of Friendship’ (2009). The first two had been called ‘It Never Rains’ (2010), and ‘The North Shore’ (1994)—so much variety of title, so little reflected in the music. Indeed this one-style-fits-all-occasions composition seemed miraculously to be just as capable in depicting the absence of rain, north shores, south shores—shores anywhere you like them (including Bohemia) as it was friendship, friendship’s flower, or whatever concept’s flower you liked. And I could only conclude from Bryars’ music that all these phenomena must to him be occasion for the same effusions of great sorrow and misery.

I spent the interval reading, but briefly conversed with the gentleman next to me (who, though gentle, cared not what I had to read for when). Now, in yet another turn of that screw, I learned that he loved the music, and even the lovemaking between the microphone and the spoken word artist, Mr Friday. This gentleman used the metaphor of waves to describe the music, to which I agreed—yes, they ebb, they flow, but they never really go anywhere new, and they are each indistinguishable from the other.

Anyway, the ensuing Sonnets. The first is #60 (‘Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore’).—Waves! My gentleman locutor will enjoy this one, if he takes his eyes off the pianist for two seconds. As for me, I was huddled in terror as the speaker came back on stage. In this half however, after we suffer through the speaker’s rendition of the sonnet (to music) we are treated—ah, it is like going from purgatory into paradise!—to the fine voices of tenor John Potter and soprano Sarah Dacey. “Now this approaches a fit musical realisation of these Sonnets,” I thought. Sure the backing music was dull as anything, but now it actually was background, not foreground, to the real music of these wandering monodies.

The only thing with this half, was that it basically does the same thing eight times: one suffers the speaker, and through the music, to wander into the massive, complex, contemplative and imaginative spaces opened by the perfection of Shakespeare’s words. As a colleague of mine said on the way out, the good to come out of the whole evening was merely the chance to contemplate a small selection of these great and complex poems with an attention which seems to be hard to bring to them fully in the busy everyday of life.

In the third Sonnet (#128), Mr Friday gesticulated his hand in front of his face, telling me that he must have some problem with restlessness. He moves his fingers as though they’d just been crushed by a sledgehammer and he were checking for breaks. However, by the fourth Sonnet (#94), I feel immune to him, and concentrated on the nice piano solo.

As Friday Good-Fridays (i.e., crucifies) Sonnet #102, one of the very finest ever written, my focus is on the clarinettist lifting his glasses to inspect his reed, this being at the time the most interesting thing on stage. Still, when Sarah Dacey gets up to sing the almost late Romantic melody, very well-judged and -fitted to this Sonnet, the effect is almost faultless. “Sonnet #146, just two more after this one.” This time the clarinettist entertains me by cleaning his bass clarinet—a big job, as all know who are acquainted with this instrument, and indicative of the protraction of Mr Friday’s recitations. But what a wonderful execution in cleaning the bass clarinet! I was affixed throughout! I wanted an encore, and would have had him clean the entire stage of mediocrity.

The great #55. This time the clarinettist holds my attention by playing through Mr Friday’s (mis)reading—by far the least pleasing entertainment yet. Next please. We are near the end, and the music has reached no higher than mezzo forte all night, and I have seen hardly a single semiquaver, apart from the viola arpeggios, love for which (the reader will recall) I have not shown, or felt.

#64. The last one, the last one! My seat is only vaguely comfortable and I have things to do. Please, gods, please let there be no encore.

“Does Bryars know what a sonnet is?” I reflect. “The music of the form is lost in the monotony of the music. O no! The speaker has come back at the end of the piece. Away! I hate it like an unfilled can,” as Sir Andrew Aguecheek says. I thought we had seen the last of Mr Friday, but he must, it seems, have the last word. He just keeps saying “When I have seen,” over, and over. Better seen than heard, I say.

Still, the evening rolls to a close, without encore, and I am sure there is a Shakespearean quote on Time to summarise all this, perhaps the words of Time himself in The Winter’s Tale: “I, that please some, try all.” One general consideration remains, and that is why Shakespeare’s Sonnets are not more popular in music. A. E. Housman is set virtually from the moment of first publication and without a pause right up until yesterday, I imagine. Problems rush upon me: the sonnet is a perfect form for musical setting; England has (unjustly) been described as “the land without music”. Are we too cautious with our national poet? The Germans are not too precious with Goethe, and indeed much of their greatest music rests on that foundation. Indeed, Schubert even set Shakespeare—in German! And over here, we have a few curios—Thomas Arne, and not a lot more. Therefore I submit a challenge to composers: give Shakespeare’s sonnets a setting worthy of them, and let us have—to paraphrase Sonnet #1—from fairest creatures, our desired increase.

  • Written by

    Charles Eager