Score draw

June 26, 1998

When things hit a low note at De Montfort University for head of music Gavin Bryars he chucked it all in to do what he loves most, with great success

Swoosh over the hump-backed bridge, accelerate, spray flying, into the straight. This is the driving of a man who has just got his licence back: fast, concentrated, buoyant. Over 18 months ago composer Gavin Bryars had "a difference of opinion with the police over the level of alcohol in my blood''. Back in the driving seat of his large red estate, he takes the route to his Leicestershire home with practised speed.

Bryars has his freedom in another sense too. Now 54, having supported himself for years as head of music at De Montfort University, he has done what all creative people in universities must dream of, shucked off his day job. Economically he could have done it ten years ago, but he loved the job. Recent changes in the university culture, however, speeded up the disengagement.

Bryars is one of those contemporary minimalist composers whose popular success makes certain establishment critics sniff. "He trades on the pop market,'' says the BBC Music Magazine's Barry Millington, who finds his music "rather empty''. It is unsentimental, aquatic-sounding stuff.

Despite his determinedly maverick outlook - "I had a pathological urge to say yes to anything dangerous'' - Bryars found focus in the 1980s and his profile has risen steadily. The English National Opera is performing his latest project - an opera based on an obscure Jules Verne novella, Dr Ox's Experiment, with libretto by poet Blake Morrison. Bryars's 1993 recording, Jesus Blood, a tramp repeatedly rasping out a hymn, became the fastest-selling classical CD ever.

For two years after retiring in 1994, Bryars taught postgraduates part-time but all ties are now "completely severed'' with De Montfort, although he still lives near the Scraptoft campus. His speech is rapid and impassioned, particularly when discussing how De Montfort has changed. "Music doesn't exist there now in the form it did." The music course he set up - "open-minded, catholic in range'' and based on music history, instrumental tuition, practical ensemble work and one-to-one composition tutorials - came to be viewed as "expensive and unwieldy''. The music course was modularised, class sizes increased and instrument tuition cut.

Dr Ox's Experiment tells of the disastrous effect of a scientist's secret attempt to galvanise a phlegmatic Flemish town with huge doses of electric current, generating argument, speeding courtships and provoking warfare. There are parallels with the effect the changes at De Montfort had on Bryars. What he hated most about modularisation was the loss of a sense of community. "You suddenly find you are in this group with people who are from other areas and you don't have the same sense of identity,". he says.

He is nostalgic about the years when David Bethell was director at DMU and staff pitched in to help each other with their creative work. "He took the line that having someone engaged creatively could only benefit students and the institution ... it didn't mean that you got lots of time off.'' A single honours in music is no longer an option at DMU and the new head of music, Andrew Hugel, has shifted the emphasis to music technology and appreciation. Bryars is disparaging about "musical criticism which doesn't involve technical analysis''. As for music technology, he's quite happy with it - "just not at the expense of music". He has seen students "pushed around by the computer'' and uses a pencil and paper to compose his work.

Hugel himself emphasises Bryars's contribution to De Montfort's music department ("his spirit still lingers"). But "that for me is history now'', says Bryars firmly. Dr Ox eventually abandons his experiment and the town reverts to its natural pace. Gavin Bryars is clearly glad to have been able to be true to his temperament. KW

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