About this work
In Gavin Bryars' opera Doctor Ox's Experiment, there is a scene in which a happy young couple spend a leisurely afternoon on the banks of the River Vaar, which runs through the countryside of Flanders not far from Bruges. Known for his judicious recycling of musical materials, Bryars, in considering the musical materials to accompany the scene, developed an entirely independent composition. The piece, bearing the title By the Vaar, emerges in snatches and hints in the opera proper, but stands as a venerable concert work in its own right. The most important influence on the piece was not its original dramatic context, however, but rather that it was commissioned by the Camden Festival for performance by virtuoso jazz bassist Charlie Haden. Certain aspects of Haden's unique tone and style stood out to Bryars and ultimately find their way into the score of By the Vaar, particularly the dark, dry sound of Haden's gut strings. This dark quality is further enhanced by the piece's unusual scoring for solo bass, bass clarinet, percussion, and strings, as well as by Bryars' characteristic tendency to favor the lower ranges.
The work begins with low, somber pulses in the strings against which the bass articulates a meandering pizzicato melody. As the strings move into the upper range, their harmonies become increasingly affiliated with jazz. Their lush seventh-chord progressions are soon joined by an insistent ride cymbal; at the same time, the bass soloist's part becomes gradually less "composed" and more "improvisatory" in character, highlighted with occasional appoggiaturas and portamentos. The work's subsequent middle section is propelled by more active accompaniment in the low strings, above which the whistles of high string harmonics and bowed metal percussion instruments faintly hover. The soloist's performance is clearly of a more improvised (or at least convincingly "improvisatory") nature at this point, the ensemble's proto-minimalist murmurings creating a kind of scrim for the soloist to perform against. Bryars pays careful attention to harmonies and his chord progressions suggest a taste of nostalgia and even neo-Romanticism. By the arrival of the work's epilogue, the soloist's improvisations weave coyly around the bass clarinet's plaintive melody, while a busier but hushed accompanimental texture churns in the strings. The momentum slows once again near the end, coinciding with a descent in range that brings the work to a close.