EAST IS EAST | Gavin Bryars & Me

The East Yorkshire town of Goole lies on the river Ouse. To the west is the confluence with the River Don, formed in the seventeenth century by Dutch civil engineer Cornelius Vermuyden at the instigation of Charles the First.  

“The Ouse at Goole is fantastic,” says composer Gavin Bryars. “It’s such a powerful river and people underestimate it.”

Local legend has it that plans to link the town with Gibraltar in 1969 came unstuck when the Mayor of that territory insisted on swimming across the river. Getting into difficulties he was swept three miles downstream by the current and staggered ashore at Swinefleet.

Today, Goole is twinned with the Polish town of Złotów.

The story is told in Goole-Hull Stopping Train, a collaboration between Bryars and his long-time friend and associate, Blake Morrison.

Commissioned by the Yorkshire Festival in 2016, and subsequently revived for Hull 2017, Bryars says it is “a homage to East Yorkshire,” where he grew up.

A real-time score for the train journey between Goole and Hull (and back), the piece is intended to be experienced through headphones.

‘A town where nothing happens,’ whispers Morrison in your ear as Goole’s neat espalier of streets and houses gives way to the interlocking patchwork of fields, hedgerows and rivulets beyond.

“That area is important,” explains Bryars. “There is the whole topography, the fact how incredibly flat it is. Because of the flatness you have this huge amount of sky and any sort of incident on the land is a major one.”

The gliding interplay of Morrison’s verse with the sonorous yearning and jazz inflected arpreggios of Bryars’ setting makes a wistful virtue of this surreal ambit: “You’ll see ships appearing to sail across the land, but in fact they’re coming around bends in the distance, and eventually they appear.”

“A tree will be a dramatic moment in a landscape like that. It’s rather like some beautiful Flemish landscape painting. You get that quality of focus on really tiny things. In terms of the feeling, there is a sense of melancholy or a kind of – not nostalgia – but a feeling of the elegiac that I find in East Yorkshire.”


The perplexing nature of place names such as Brough (‘pronounced bruff as in tough, as in Brian Clough’) suggests a cosy Northern playfulness at work, but Morrison strikes a chill note at the Humber Bridge, checking off the names of some of those who have leapt from ‘high in the rigging.’

“People say that Yorkshiremen are miserable buggers anyway,” says Bryars, “but I think it’s more than that. I think there’s a sort of depth in Yorkshire that I don’t find in many other places. People tend to have roots there and, if they’ve left, they retain those roots.”

For eighteen years, before he left to study Philosophy at university in Sheffield (“In my second year I was a professional bass player and a very bad Philosophy student”), Bryars says he happily composted in Goole. One summer he spent working as a riveter’s mate in a local shipyard.

“If we went away, we went to Hornsea or Bridlington or Whitby. Once or twice I hitch-hiked to Leeds or Sheffield to hear a jazz concert, and a couple of times down to London, but that was it,” he says. “So my world was East Yorkshire and I love that area.”

“My moving down to London – and later other parts of the world – was really because that was where the work was, that was where there was a cultural environment where I could thrive. But, at the same time, these places are my roots. It’s been particularly nice in the last couple of years to go back there.”

Photo courtesy of Opera North.
The Gavin Bryars Ensemble (Photo: Opera North)

In May, Bryars brought his chamber ensemble to Junction, the local civic venue in Goole. The performance included Lauda 46, based on a thirteenth century quasi-liturgical text. “That’s the first time I’ve ever played in Goole since I was part of an amateur orchestra conducted by my uncle when I was nineteen,” he says.

Winestead, commissioned by Opera North Projects for Hull’s City of Culture celebrations draws on his love for the bleak, isolated beauty of the Holderness region east of Hull. It is a funerary setting for the works of metaphysical poet, Andrew Marvell, who grew up there.

Premiered at the tiny twelfth century village church of St. Germain, where Marvell’s father was vicar, Bryars layers together solo voice, violin, cello and treated electric guitar. The composer himself plays the church’s ‘small, but quite beautiful organ,’ a Climenti positive.

Accounts that the Marvell may have witnessed his father’s drowning in the corpse grey waters of the Humber, lends John Potter’s plaintive tenor voice a keening melancholy.

The music teeters on dissonance and threatens to decay and dissolve during its twenty minutes duration.

In the end, like Marvell’s own father, the arrangement succumbs, dragged down into the depths by the dark rallentando currents of its final drawn-out throes.

Bryars’ compositions purposefully evoke the distinctive topography of East Yorkshire, an unbroken line of beauty where the land meets the sky.

For the composer it is a returning, a homing instinct, something deep set: after all, as Morrison says of his friend: ‘If water is the wellspring of music, where better to be born?’

Previously unpublished text commissioned by the website Caught By The River.

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