Gavin Bryars studied philosophy at Sheffield University and became a professional jazz bassist and a pioneer of free improvisation working especially with Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley. In the late 1960s he worked with John Cage and this influenced early works such as the indeterminately scored The Sinking of the Titanic of 1969 and the classic Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet of 1971.
A major turning point in his development was his first opera Medea, premiered at the Opéra de Lyon and Opéra de Paris in 1984 (directed and designed by Robert Wilson). He has written two further operas, both with libretti by his long time collaborator Blake Morrison: Doctor Ox's Experiment (English National Opera 1998, directed by Atom Egoyan), and G (directed by Georges Delnon), commissioned by the Staatstheater Mainz for the Gutenberg 600th anniversary.
Bryars has been particularly drawn to vocal and choral music in recent years resulting in fruitful collaborations with the Latvian Radio Choir and Estonian Male Voice Choir, both of whom have recorded CDs on his own label, GB Records. This has prompted an extended sonnets series setting Edwin Morgan's sonnets for American and European male voice choirs. For many years he has worked with early music performers and has embarked on a series of books of madrigals: the first for The Hilliard Ensemble (texts by Blake Morrison), the second for the Trio Mediaeval Sextet (Petrarch sonnets), and the third for Red Byrd (Petrarch, translated by Synge). A fourth has been started (longer Petrarch poems) and there are two books of Irish Madrigals. He has written a large number of "Laude", many for the soprano Anna Maria Friman, has set old Irish texts for the singer Iarla O'Lionaird, and composed Trondur Ã Gotu, a setting of Faroese saga poetry for the Faroese bass Runi Brattaberg, following their work together on settings of old Icelandic saga poetry.
He has produced a large body of chamber music both for his own ensemble and for other performers. He has also written extensively for strings as well as producing concertos for violin, viola, cello, double bass (plus one for jazz bass), saxophone, bass oboe and, most recently, for piano. He completed a theatre piece, To Define Happiness, with Peeter Jalakas for Von Krahl theatre in Tallinn in 2007, and a project around Shakespeare's sonnets, Nothing Like the Sun, with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Opera North which toured the UK.
He taught for a number of years in art colleges and has collaborated with many visual artists such as Bruce McLean, Tim Head, James Hugonin, Bill Woodrow and Will Alsop (Valencia Architecture Biennale). In 2006 he was a guest speaker at the 10th Alvar Aalto Architecture Symposium in Finland. He has made installations/performances for Tate Liverpool, Tate St. Ives, Chateau d'Oiron among others and worked closely with the late Juan Munoz, notably on A Man in a Room, Gambling.
Numerous choreographers have been drawn to his music and he has worked closely with Lucinda Child (for Rambert Dance Company), Laurie Booth, and William Forsyth (Frankfurt Ballet). In 1999 he collaborated with Merce Cunningham on BIPED and from 2002 he worked closely with Carolyn Carlson on Writings on Water for the Venice Biennale. A collaboration with Edouard Lock for La La La Human Steps in 2006 resulted in Amjad which toured the world for two years. A new project, based on the music of Purcell, has been touring through 2011/12. He has most recently written music for David Dawson, The Third Light, a commission from the Royal Ballet of Flanders to mark their 40th Anniversary in January 2010.
He is currently developing a number of theatre projects, and continuing to add to his vocal repertoire.
Gavin Bryars' work is widely recorded on ECM, Incus, Point, Philips, Argo, Clarinet Classics, Dapheneo, CBC Records, Touch, Mode, and on his own label GB Records.