Composer Gavin Bryars comes home for University of Hull performance

Best known for his extraordinary 1971 work Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, Bryars has since collaborated with the likes of Brian Eno, Tom Waits and David Byrne.

Acclaimed composer Gavin Bryars and his Ensemble will be joined by singer and songwriter Gavin Friday for a performance of Nothing Like the Sun, Bryars’ commission for Opera North and the Royal Shakespeare Company, at the University of Hull’s Middleton Hall on 4 April.

The haunting, dramatic piece for chamber group and voices weaves Bryars’ music through eight of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The performers include Bryars himself on double bass, tenor John Potter, and American soprano Claron McFadden. 

The selected poems focus on themes of time and memory, and each sonnet is spoken by Friday before Potter and McFadden sing Bryars’ setting, allowing for both close contemplation of Shakespeare’s words, and the uncovering of unexpected readings for them.

Opening the evening, The North Shore, an evocative piece for viola, piano and strings, is Bryars’ “response to the Idea of North”, inspired by the coastline around Whitby where he spent summers as a child.

Bryars, who was born in Goole, is one of the most respected and influential composers in contemporary music. From a background in jazz, he went on to work with the composers John Cage and Cornelius Cardew in the 1960s, and as a teacher at Portsmouth School of Art in 1970 he established the infamous Portsmouth Sinfonia. One of his first major works, 1971’s Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, scored an orchestra along with a field recording of a homeless man singing a hymn, to unforgettable effect. 

He has written four full-length operas, worked with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and English National Opera, as well as creating several commissions for Opera North, and collaborated with the likes of Brian Eno, Tom Waits and David Byrne. In 2016 he turned the journey between Goole and Hull into a work of art with The Stopping Train, a recorded piece featuring poetry by Blake Morrison, designed to be listened to on headphones on the route, and timed precisely to coincide with each station.

Gavin Bryars comments:

“I am very much looking forward to performing Nothing like the Sun, along with other works, in Hull. Although it’s 15 years since I last performed in Middleton Hall – with the London Sinfonietta and another work with local links, From Egil’s Saga – over the last few years I have been drawn back to my roots in East Yorkshire more and more, with works including The Stopping Train.

“I have also performed twice in my home town for the first time since I lived there as a schoolboy. And, again through Opera North, I made a work called Winestead for Hull City of Culture 2017, inspired by the mysterious area east of Hull, Holderness, which sets the poetry of Andrew Marvell. This was performed in Marvell’s own church in Winestead itself, as well as in Hull. 

“My love of the whole of East Yorkshire has intensified over the years and performing again in Hull will be a very real pleasure for me.”

Cult Irish singer-songwriter Gavin Friday first collaborated with Bryars on an improvised reworking of the composer’s classic 1970s piece The Sinking of The Titanic in Dublin, and the two have worked together several times since. For Friday, Nothing Like the Sun was a revelation, “an extraordinary way to listen to Shakespeare, because it isn’t hitting you over the head. The music is coming in and almost embracing you and then you can hold onto the words.”

The Gavin Bryars Ensemble is joined by Gavin Friday for a performance of The North Shore and Nothing Like the Sun at the University of Hull’s Middleton Hall on 4 April. Tickets, priced at £8.00 for adults, £6.00 for senior citizens and £4.00 for students, unwaged and registered disabled, can be booked via

[Rowland Thomas – Opera North]