December 10, 2004


All points Norse: Egil was a 10th-century warrior and axe-murderer who saved his life with one of his own poems. You couldn't ask for a more vivid inspiration, composer Gavin Bryars tells Nicholas Wroe (November 12, 2004, The Guardian)

Vikings were in the air," says Gavin Bryars, recalling his east Yorkshire childhood. "I come from Goole and we were always being told that the place names near us had Viking origins. I even played football for a team called the Goole Vikings." Now the composer has delved into the region's Scandinavian roots - and beyond - for his latest work.

From Egil's Saga, which premiered yesterday and will be performed around the UK over the next four weeks, is a setting of classic Icelandic poems based on the verse of the 10th-century warrior-poet Egil Skallagrimsson. Bryars energetically recounts the dramatic story of the shipwrecked Egil, finding himself off Spurn Point in the mouth of the Humber, being compelled to visit Erik Bloodaxe, Viking king of York and his mortal foe. In the face of apparently certain death, Egil wrote a poem to Erik. It was so skilfully flattering that, despite their longstanding enmity, it saved his skin.

"The poem is very technically sophisticated in terms of verse form, alliteration and rhyme scheme," explains Bryars. "And it is remarkable that Egil should be such a wonderful poet as well as a larger-than-life archetypal Viking. There are also stories of monumental drinking bouts and him lopping someone's head off for no apparent reason. When asked why he did it he replied that the man's head was at the perfect angle to be lopped off."

Also included in the Bryars piece - commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and the Eastern Orchestral Board - are laments written by Egil for the death of his sons, and late verse in which, King Lear-like with his powers and health fading, Egil describes disposing of his vast treasure by throwing it into a swamp.

Bryars, 61, has been a leading, and sometimes controversial, figure in British contemporary music for over 40 years. He operates from a small studio in a converted garage at the bottom of his Leicestershire garden and is a cheerful and lively presence despite being seriously ill earlier in the year. His conversation reveals a vast range of interests - how many people can honestly say they are both QPR fanatics and authorities on Lord Berners? - and this is reflected in his approach to composition. [...]

Bryars taught at Portsmouth College of Art and then Leicester Polytechnic where, later, he became a professor of music. His most notable early works were The Sinking of the Titanic in 1969 and the 1971 Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet in which he added orchestration to the voice of a tramp singing outside Waterloo Station. The piece was later re-recorded by Tom Waits in a chart-topping "single" version.

Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet is one of the most affecting and haunting pieces you'll ever hear, comparable too, though quite different than, Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony.

-Gavin Byars' Website
-Gavin Bryars - From Egil's Saga: A new music commission inspired by Viking legend - premiere performance 11 November, broadcast 20 November Radio 3 (BBC)
-BIO: Gavin Bryars(b. Goole, 16 Jan 1943) (BBC)

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 10, 2004 7:46 PM

Everytime you mention Gavin Bryers I feel it necessary to chime in and second it.

Jesus Blook Never Failed Me Yet is an incredible work of art. One of the masterpieces of modern music.

Posted by: H.D. Miller at December 11, 2004 10:27 AM