Photo: CROWHURST / Courtesy of Prophecy Productions via Bandcamp

Crowhurst + Gavin Bryars Demonstrate the Powers of Collaboration With “Dead Swans of Dreams” (premiere + interview)

Veteran composer Gavin Bryars and "noise guy" Crowhurst present a new LP recorded in a 17th century hotel and brimming with musical imagination. Says Bryars, "To watch what Jay does was, sometimes, beyond my comprehension and I thought, at times, that Jay may be more intelligent than me. But it didn't last long!"

Crowhurst and Gavin Bryars release their new collaborative effort, Incoherent American Narrative on 24 January via the Prophecy imprint. At first, the collaboration may seem like a case of strange bedfellows. Jay Gambit is, essentially, “a noise guy”, while Bryars has spent much of his life in the classical world. But Bryars has also collaborated with a wide range of artists in his 77 years, including Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, and Tom Waits. He cut tracks with Dusty Springfield and has created string arrangements for Father John Misty. Meanwhile, Gambit’s work as an aural sculptor suits Bryars’ work perfectly, as demonstrated on the album’s closing track, the 25-minute “Dead Swans of Dreams”.

A study in subtle dynamics and evidence of Gambit’s ability to transform his mentor’s work into something positively new and excitingly strange, “Dead Swans of Dreams” imagines Sunn O))) melding minds with Robert Fripp at the height of his 1990s ambient swing. The track is not merely a pastiche of where music has gone but where it is going.

” I provided the components, but the artistic decisions and the final thing is Jay’s. It’s his work and I love it,” says Bryars.

Gambit adds, “I don’t really go back and give meaning to stuff. I think it’s a really pretty piece. I’d love to find a way to transcribe it for a live orchestra. If I were to find something that could be played in an opera house but stayed in the framework of what we both do, what would it be? That’s it.”

The pair spoke with PopMatters via Skype, Gambit from Philadelphia and Bryars from England.

Who initiated this collaboration?

Gavin Bryars: I was working on a project in the French Pyrenees. I was running a week with different composers, musicians, performers, people doing experiments. Some people would make environmental recordings in the hills. Jay decided to work on various samples, which I provided for him. He worked on that the whole time and produced a lot of interesting work. We became friends. We would sit next to each other in these very nice village restaurants at night.

Jay Gambit: There were a lot of computer programs there. I forget what I was using. It might have been Reason. Different programs than what I usually use. I was just trying stuff out. It was a lot of trial and error.

Jay, you’ve said that this made you think about your compositional process differently.

JG: For a long time, I just looked at myself as a noise guy. In the past couple of years, guys who have been considered “noise guys” have gone on to do things that have gone beyond that. Oneohtrix Point Never has scored movies. I was recently scoring a documentary in France with Dwid from Integrity, Pictureplane, Tanya Byrne (Bismuth), and Sam Thredder (Slabdragger).

The genesis of me feeling comfortable enough to do that was me going up to France and working with Gavin. I learned that the process I’ve had that I’ve been working with for the last ten years isa process. I have a sound, and it’s a sound that people enjoy.

Gavin, once you gave Jay the files how many conversations did you have about where the music was going?

GB: Not a lot. But one of the things we did with all the musicians at this camp was that each one would talk for 15 or 20 minutes about what they do so that everyone else could get an idea. I had some idea about Jay’s work from that context. Each day, I’d talk about my work for about an hour or so, so all the musicians would get an idea of how I approached making music. There was this free exchange of information.

I found various things in my computer that I thought were useful samples, extracts, fragments from pieces, segments of ambient things. Those were things I thought Jay might find attractive or useful. He’d work on them, show me what he was doing. At the end of the week, all the artists would present their work to the people in the village. I think the mayor and the guy we had drinks with came up. Jay showed a work-in-progress that I thought was terrific. It was really strong, and everyone enjoyed it.

How inspiring is it to hear that exchange of ideas?

JG: I had not viewed myself, in any way, as a composer, so it was incredibly intimidating for at least a good day or two. Then I realized that everybody does their own thing. Eventually, you realize that it’s like a rock context. One person may be the most magnificent soloist on guitar, somebody else could be absolute trash at solos but be incredible at hooks and rhythm. You want to work with what each person’s strengths are.

Gavin, do you learn from the students?

GB: Sure. I’ve been composing for about a century, and I have my own ways. But it’s very healthy to get outside this ivory tower world, which a composer can very easily get into. I was a professor at university for 25 years. I gave it up 26 years ago to go back to the dangerous world as a freelance composer, but I do miss the contact with students that I had. In a way, this is similar whereby you hear other peoples’ questions, approaches, problems, ideas, and it sometimes makes you reevaluate your own. I’m not someone who works a lot with technology, I work mainly with acoustic instruments. To watch what Jay does was, sometimes, beyond my comprehension, and I thought, at times, that Jay may be more intelligent than me. But it didn’t last long!

[Laughs.] Sometimes we can find competency in our shortcomings.

JG: Oh yeah. I have friends in the black metal community who have one-man projects. A lot of those people will feel like they have to play every instrument. Their music will develop a particular “sound.” After nine or ten albums, you can predict the twists and turns, but they have to work within their skill set. I have no skill set. So, it becomes a matter of saying, “I know a guy who is amazing at really technical guitar. He plays this really weird, evil stuff. I know he loves Rush. I’m going to tell him to play a fake Rush riff. It won’t sound like Rush. It’s going to sound like himplaying Rush.” That’s what I want. If I know what I want the end product to sound like and I know how to achieve it, it’s much easier than me trying to learn how to play it myself. I could spend all the time learning how to play and never actually playing.

Gavin, would you say that virtuosity is not the goal, that it’s more about expression?

GB: I think virtuosity is overrated. It’s great, but virtuosity is a means to an end. To have a full grasp of your technique is great, but showing skill in a very showy way is not interesting. If you find one of the world’s greatest pianists and ask them to play something very simple by Erik Satie, you hear thought. You hear things being considered. It comes from the wealth of experience. It’s not just about fast hands; it’s about having a good brain.