Larry Goves: The Devotions - music as secular prayer

As a lover of music from a young age I thought I knew a little bit about music; what music does for me and what music means to me. But that was before my intership at BIT20 Ensemble had started.  Just after finishing my masters degree in Literature the University of Bergen sent me to BIT20 Ensemble to work for them for a 5-week period. I got a chance to take a deeper look at a small genre: Contemporary and experimental music!

After a week with the ensemble I have discovered that a very complex and interesting world of art had almost passed me by – but just almost. Non the less contempory music is very much art, and art is something i think about daily. We all know the french phrase ”l´art pour l´art” and this is very much true; art stands alone and needs nothing to be what it is. But i think it is also true about art that it can mirror society in many different ways. And that this mirror is very interesting and unpreditable.

For Borealis 2015 the ensemble will be performing different works by two of Europes most exciting young composers: Manchester-based Larry Goves and German composer Johannes Kreidler.

The work composer Larry Goves has written for BIT20 Ensemble, The Devotions, is inspired by J.D. Salingers famous novel Franny and Zooey (1961). In this piece the composer uses the character Franny Glass as a starting point for a sequence of musical explorations. Franny is the protagonist of the Franny section of the novel; a 20-year old college student who is having a spiritual breakdown. She is desillutioned with college life - both academically and socially. The society Franny belongs to; middleclass america, is both exposed and questioned in the novel. Mayor themes from Salingers literary work emerge when Franny describes college life as “phony” and “fake”.

She carries a small green book with her at all times: ”Jesus Prayer”; a repetitive prayer which is meant to cleanse ones spirit. The prayer is a response to Frannys frustrations with both society and culture. She struggles between her devotions and her own conformity. She questions her reality. Through prayer and meditation she gets an outlet to something bigger and more powerful than everyday life – something holy. Music can do this too, just as prayer can get us closer to notions of holiness; music can be the space and the link between us and what is holy.

Larry Goves has translated this ideas of prayer based on Frannys character into an exploration of musical repetition and transformation. He describes The Devotions as ”music as secular prayer”. Does this mean music and prayers without God? Goves explores ideas of prayer separated from religious faith; ideas of prayer as private rituals and repetitions in everyday life just as Franny is starting to do.

Prayer in everyday life is very much possible without God, but not without some notion of holiness. The devotion prayer and music can awaken in us does contain elements of holiness. In a secular society I believe music can be a way to experience feelings of holiness and greatness. After listening to The Devotions at rehearsals prior to the concert (march 13), seeing the musicians at work, the sound waves making their way through the room; there is no doubt in my mind that the moment was exalted through the art of music.


Photograph: Andy Sawyer. 

Photograph: Andy Sawyer. 



What would you say characterizes your music?

This is such a big question it is difficult to decide how much detail to go into. I suppose I can say some broad things; most of the music I write, even when I don’t really mean it to, seems quite intimate and fragile to me. I think of my music as experimental is certain respects in that there is a degree of uncertainty in where an idea might lead and I aspire to generate new things. I have a strange love/hate relationship with romantic/19th century music and my own writing; some of those sounds are things I find difficult to leave alone although the music I write rarely sounds particularly romantic. My favourite ways of thinking about the music I write are as interacting patterns that I find pleasing and way of thinking about and exploring people interacting.

You have characterized your music as fragile and intimate and in The Devotions it is Frannys most personal and intimate worries you take inspiration from, what do you think the personal, private and ritual can offer as a cultural perspective? 

In this piece I'm interested in the role of ritual outside of a religious context. Really I was just inspired by the connection between mantras, christian prayer, and repetition in music which I find moving and comforting although I am not religious at all.

I like the dichotomy of musical composition as a private process and a public one. Even pieces of music with conceptual content contains so much ambiguity and moves people in different ways. I love artwork where I feel like I can see a privileged insight into someone through their work so my own work is often preoccupied with this. 

Can you tell us about your work process as a composer for and with BIT20? And what qualities does the ensemble bring to the piece?

For this new work I started with, in the first movement, a new approach to an existing structural idea of three kinds of material that gradually slow down, overlap and transform in a variety of different ways. The second and third movement reflect of this through different kinds of repetition and exploring some of the sounds raised by this ensemble and this sounds of the first movement. 

BIT20 are a wonderful ensemble. They have played this piece so well in Huddersfield so I can't wait to hear it again. I believe a collaborative relationship with an ensemble takes a long time to develop but BIT20 were very generous in the workshop and their approach. They manage to be honest about the difficulties of the work while also giving the impression that nothing is too much trouble. This is the best scenario for a composer coming to a group for the first time.

 By Karen Rosenstock, intern at BIT20 March 2015