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PORES - A Journal of Poetics Research
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Realising Gavin Bryars’ Far Away and Dimly Pealing

- James Saunders and John Lely

 


One of a series of nine of his pieces published in the Experimental Music Catalogue’s Verbal Anthology (1972),1 Gavin Bryars’ Far Away and Dimly Pealing is a challenge. The directness of the first sentence is qualified by the remainder of the text, constraining possible realisations so as to make the activity difficult. It does not make it impossible, but does enough to require planning and consideration from the performer. This distancing of possible active realisations from the first reading locates the score conceptually: the consideration of approaches is a very real outcome of engaging with the piece. But as with many such pieces, it is only the realisation of the score which reveals its subtleties and generates experience for its performers. It asks two questions: how would you realise this piece (concept, reading/thinking as realisation), and how can you realise this piece (practice, action as realisation)?

In his ‘A Summary of the Characteristics of Scores’, Lawrence Halprin suggests that ‘Scores themselves open up options rather than closing them down’.2 The openness of Far Away and Dimly Pealing clearly exemplifies this: although it is relatively specific with regards to the goal as expressed in the first sentence, it is mostly open in its determination of the means by which it might be achieved. This demands a creative approach, engaging the reader-performer in a consideration of potential methods to activate the score. The openness of the first sentence, ‘Cause sounds to occur at least one mile from the performer’, results therefore in a number of potential interpretations, each of which shape the resultant performance. Consider this sentence separated into its constituent parts:

cause (how?)
sounds (which? more than one?)
to occur (when?)
at least one mile from (how much more than one mile?)
the performer (who?)

The indeterminacy of each of these five elements requires a decision to be made by the reader-performer. Each raises a further question, the answer to which defines the realisation. These are constrained further by the resources that the score specifies elsewhere:

at least one mile
the performer
not explosives
not someone else
the sound 3

The other elements of the score – the title and the final anecdote – also define the piece, albeit by implying constraints rather than stating them explicitly. They provide additional information about what should be done and may be read as documentation of Bryars’ only attempted realisation of the piece and its general context. But it is hard to ignore the way in which they suggest performance practice, implying the presence of a bell as the sound source (title), and a physical connection with the performer (anecdote). This is confirmed by Bryars comments on his sole attempted realisation:

Well it was in Goole, and where I was, I’ve forgotten why, but for some reason I had to go in a particular direction and it did cross the railway line, and I didn’t have time, there wasn’t a tunnel or anywhere nearby so I had to go across the railway line and I thought I had enough time but I’d mistimed the time that this express train was going to come and it just severed the rope, the string, before I had time to do it. And I thought, ‘Oh sod it, that’s it’.4

Later in the same interview when asked about the sound source, he stated simply that ‘It was a bell’.5 So, although not explicit in the score, this can be seen as a component of the piece, and a statement of intent with regards to the choice of sound (it is after all both poetic – the image of distant tolling – and practical: bells are audible at a distance). Equally, the origin of Far Away and Dimly Pealing has the physical connection of performer and sound source at its heart, as Bryars suggests in relation to the genesis of the piece:

We had done this [Toshi] Ichiyanagi Distance, and that does involve producing sounds at a distance … it’s nowhere near that … it’s like three metres or so. I did that quite a lot at Portsmouth [College of Art], and there were some incredibly inventive solutions to that. I remember Jimmy Lampard, who was part of the [Portsmouth] Sinfonia. … he did this fantastic realisation of Ichiyanagi Distance which involved a kind of length of chain and a box of matches and Andrew’s liver salts and all sorts of fizzing, it just went on and on, it was just sort of wonderful. So you’ve got that invention with the art students, and maybe that piece came out of that experience, but more extreme, a much more extreme version of it. You can see what you’re doing. You’ve got to try and control it, but from a reasonable distance, the length of this room, but a mile is something else. So maybe it was an extreme form. I’d be lost to guess another… there may well have been some other trigger, because there were some things which did have particular triggers, I’m sure.6

The method by which sounds might be made to occur is where the most explicit restrictions are imposed though. Bryars states ‘Do not use explosives and do not allow someone else to make the sound for you’. Whilst explosives are perhaps the most dramatic way to make audible sounds at a distance, they are not the most practicable: it is revealing that he did not, for example, specify electricity as a banned triggering medium, thereby ruling out most technologies.7 This sentence also prevents other people from making the sound, but it does not preclude their involvement in the performance in other capacities, such as assisting in setting up the piece, or monitoring its progress.

The ‘when’ of the piece also restricts possible realisations, forcing the consideration of the chronology of a performance. The requirement that sounds must be caused to occur at least one mile from the performer prevents the use of time-delay methods, given that the performance might be deemed to have started once the performer triggers the process through which the sound is to be made. For example, turning on a tap which gradually fills a vessel at a slow enough rate for the performer to retreat one mile before this generates a sound is not possible: the act of turning on the tap is the point of causation, and occurred in close proximity to the sound.

Although the distance of one mile is relatively extreme, it does facilitate a number of solutions which would be prevented by much longer distances. The weight of a string to be pulled, for example, increases to the point where it either becomes too heavy to move, or not strong enough to take the stress imparted by the action. Past this point it becomes impractical, and other solutions must be found. It would be interesting to determine the longest distance possible for a performance of the piece.

The key phrase however, which is easy to overlook, is the comment that ‘the sound should be able to be heard by the performer’. It does not state that the sound should be heard by the performer, or indeed must be heard by the performer. This requirement as to the possibility of hearing the sound prioritises audition over causation. It is simply necessary to make sounds at a distance of at least one mile, not to hear them. As such, the content of the piece lies in the challenge of making sounds at an extreme distance. This is reinforced by Bryars’ comments on the origin of the piece, where the setting up of the apparatus seems central to the experience.

So causing sounds to happen is the starting point: Far Away and Dimly Pealing is perhaps a reworking of Distance, but this translation gives it an entirely different meaning. It shifts the nature of the performance from event presentation to private challenge.8 It asks whether it is possible to cause sounds to happen a mile away, and if so how this might be achieved. Bryars also comments on inventiveness, and the fact that it requires a particular type of engagement with the score. There is clearly a great deal of consideration, planning, and effort implied by the score. Although it is relatively straightforward to create a version of this piece, using a telephone for example, there is a spirit here which is lost if the performer does not seek to engage with the task at hand in a considered way.  As such, it shares similarities with Private Music and Marvellous Aphorisms, both of which are relatively open in the possible ways they may be realised. This is noticeably different to other pieces from the Verbal Anthology, such as 1,2,1-2-3-4 or Serenely Beaming, which provide very specific instructions for performance. In the more open pieces, Bryars requires complicity from the performer: there is an attitude which must be located through the performance.

Making a Realisation

There are two principal, and interdependent, decisions to be made in realising Far Away and Dimly Pealing: how, and where. It is impossible to fix one without attending to the other as they enforce mutual constraints on the performance. Our starting point for the realisation was to begin discussing how we might make the piece. Whilst it is straightforward enough to use recent technology, we felt that there needed to be something of the original context for the piece retained in our performance. The score also hints at Bryars’ preference for a physical connection between the performer and the sound, so we began by exploring practicable ways to do this. We settled almost immediately on the use of a suspended bell attached to a long piece of string. This was implied by the score, is a cost-effective way to make the piece, is easy to set up, and should be fairly robust given suitable materials.

After researching various types of string, we bought 3km of three-ply sisal in 750m balls (about the size of footballs) to make sure.  The string needed to be strong in order to prevent snapping when put under tension, but not so heavy that it would be impossible to pull. As it turned out, overbuying by almost double (a mile is 1660m) was a good decision. We ran out of string after unfurling three balls (supposedly containing 2250m of string) some 250m short of the distance required. The string was to be attached to my father’s old Great Eastern Railway station bell. In preparing the performance, we made numerous tests with short lengths of string tied to the clapper to determine the optimum means of producing the sound. We were aware that the weight of the string might be such that once the clapper was pulled, it could prevent it returning to its original position, giving us only one chance to make the bell sound. By angling the bell with the handle pointing away from the direction of pulling, the weight of the clapper would provide it with the best chance of multiple strikes on release of the string. We mounted the bell on a wheeled tripod, placing it about a metre off the ground (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Bell mounted on wheeled tripod

After making various estimates by looking at maps and measuring distances against landmarks on motorway journeys, we discovered a mile is a very long way.9 Once we had decided on the method of realising the piece, our principal problem was to find a site where the attempt might be made. Bryars’ parenthetical comment in the sc ore served as a warning here: the likelihood of interference was high along what would most likely be an unguarded stretch of land. Sabotage could not be prevented in a public space, so we looked at sites where either there was no public access, or the probability of being disturbed was low. We considered beaches, remote parts of Norfolk, and linked fields before settling on airfields as the most practical location: they are not generally accessible and have long straight tarmac runways. Unfortunately many of them are less than a mile at longest width,10 which ruled out most of those within travelling distance. Other possibilities were in active, if only occasional, use and required a permit and sizeable fee to secure their use. After about a month of searching, we came across Upper Heyford near Oxford, a disused airfield now home to industrial units and small businesses. We were granted a day’s use of the main taxiway,11 which was more than a mile long and closed to the public (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Map of Upper Heyford airfield, showing the access route and performance site

First attempt

On arrival at the airfield we measured out and marked the mile required using GPS and decided at which end to place the bell, based on the wind direction. The taxiway additionally had a thick yellow line running down the centre which served as a useful guide for walking. Next, we set up the bell, tied the string to the clapper (see Figure 1), and walked the mile unfurling the string, tying additional lengths on to the previous one once a ball ran out. After walking the mile we attempted to make the bell sound. It was a very exciting moment: after having spent the previous two months talking to people about realising the piece and working to make a practicable solution, this final action would be the test of our preparations. I pulled the string and we did not hear anything.

At this point, John drove to the instrument end of the runway and we tested it to make sure the bell was working. It was ringing, albeit fairly quietly, so John took the brakes off the stand, allowing the bell to be pulled and gain a better release after each strike. This proved to make a much louder sound, but was still inaudible from a distance.

Second attempt

Fortunately we had come with two backup solutions: a personal alarm and an air horn. In order not to waste time, and the rapidly diminishing life of the video cameras’ batteries,12 we tried both devices manually. The personal alarm was inaudible, but the air horn could be heard quite clearly, if quietly. Given this, we rigged up our mechanism for activating the air horn, which can be seen in Figure 3. This comprised the air horn placed in a long tube, above which were suspended lots of beach pebbles loaded into a flower pot, supported by a short piece of dowel. A hook attached to this was tied to the string, so when pulled it would whip the dowel away causing the pebbles to fall onto the air horn making it sound.

We drove back to the tugging end of the taxiway and John pulled the string. The tension was taken up gradually, before a final tug released the pebbles. The air horn was clearly audible with an initial blast. The weight of the stones caused more of the compressed air to gradually seep out, before regaining enough pressure moments later to cause a second, dying and slowly falling sound. In the video, you will need to listen very carefully: it is a quiet sound.13

Figure 3: Apparatus for second attempt using an air horn

Figure 3: Apparatus for second attempt using an air horn

It should be noted that the first performance was in fact successful, given the requirement of the score only to make sounds. We felt though that, given the effort involved, it would be a shame not to hear them as well.

 

Notes

1 The original publication was reissued by the Experimental Music Catalogue, now run by Christopher Hobbs and Virginia Anderson, in 2000. It is available from http://experimentalmusic.co.uk

2 Lawrence Halprin, ‘A Summary of the Characteristics of Scores’, The RSVP Cycles: Creative Processes in the Human Environment (New York: George Braziller, 1969), p. 190.

3 It should be noted that initially Bryars refers to ‘sounds’, and later ‘the sound’. This could be interpreted literally: sounds are to be made, but it is only necessary for one sound to be able to be heard. Or it could indicate that the initial sounds become the piece’s singular sound event (the sound of bells ringing). Or it is an error.

4 John Lely and James Saunders, Interview with Gavin Bryars, Bath Spa University, 24 November 2008 (unpublished).

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 The question of a historically informed performance is important here, in respect of the ready availability of mobile phones or the Internet as a means of triggering sounds. The issue is the same as with realising all music of a different period, however defined: should the initial conditions be preserved as far as is practicable in a contemporary performance? Here however, the spirit of the piece is, arguably, in maintaining a physical connection with the sound, rendering any telecommunication device obsolete within the piece’s remit.

8 In the context of other pieces published in the EMC’s Verbal Anthology, this is not surprising. Aspects of privacy are central to many pieces here, such as Private Music, 1,2,1-2-3-4, Marvellous Aphorisms are Scattered Richly Throughout These Pages, and Serenely Beaming and Leaning on a Five-Barred Gate.

9 The method we used to visualise this distance will give a sense of the scale involved: drive along a straight stretch of motorway, begin measuring at a landmark such as a bridge, and note the distance on the milometer one mile further along the road. Taking due care, observe this distance.

10 The measuring tool found in Google Earth was invaluable at this point.

11 We were extremely grateful to Colin Theobald of Lambert Smith Hampton and the North Oxfordshire Consortium for providing access to the airfield free of charge for a full day.

12 In the film, the sporadic disappearance of video was due to tape and batteries running out over the course of the day. We initially had two video cameras, one at either end of the runway, but when one ran out we ended up recording most of the setup of the second attempt on an iPhone.

13 The sound follows the performer throughout the film as the audio was recorded using binaural microphones, so that what the listener hears is as close as possible to what the performer hears.

 

Bibliography

Gavin Bryars, Christopher Hobbs and Michael Nyman (eds), Verbal Anthology (London: Experimental Music Catalogue, 1972).

Lawrence Halprin, The RSVP Cycles: Creative Processes in the Human Environment (New York: George Braziller, 1969).

Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (Cambridge: CUP, 1999).

 

PORES webjournal, Professor William Rowe,  email: w.rowe@bbk.ac.uk