TELEVISION / It's the thought that counts: Gavin Bryars, founder of the hopeless Portsmouth Sinfonia, is back. And this time it's serious. Robert Hanks reports

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It's always tempting to try to read into a composer's early work signs of what was to come. Certainly, with Gavin Bryars' first major work, The Sinking of the Titanic - conceived in 1969 and first performed in 1972 - it's no strain to spot many of the elements that have characterised his work: the slow tempos; the grace of the harmonies; the demands it makes on the listener's patience (long spans of slowly evolving sound spread, in the most recent recording, across one hour and 13 seconds). And beyond all this there is a consuming interest, as the title suggests, in what happens beneath the surface. For Bryars, what you hear is only part of the experience of music, and not necessarily the most important part: it's the thought that counts.

This sturdily cerebral attitude has perhaps contributed to Bryars' neglect in Britain. For a long time - from 1970 to 1987 - he had no pieces at all played on Radio 3. His opera Medea, written in collaboration with the director Robert Wilson, was a hit in Paris and Lyons in 1984, but little notice was taken over here. That's all changing. The main event of next Thursday's BBC Symphony Orchestra concert at the Festival Hall, which Radio 3 is broadcasting live, is the first performance of a BBC commission, The War in Heaven. June sees the release of a new CD version, on Philip Glass's Point label, of his 1971 piece Jesus' Blood Never Saved Me Yet, with the voice of Tom Waits. And Bryars is the featured composer on tonight's edition of Radio 3's contemporary music programme Midnight Oil, which includes his piece Effarene, setting texts by Jules Verne, Marie Curie and Pope Leo XIII. In modern music terms, this is mass-market.

That is rather satisfying for Bryars, now 50. It has always been important to him that his music should have appeal: 'When I did Jesus' Blood for the first time, I was interested in making a piece which could, even loosely, go out on Radio 2 and could at the same time be, if you like, a work of high art . . . that's something that interested me in music, actually making things well.'

This perfectionism hasn't always been apparent. He first came to public attention as a jazz double-bassist in Sheffield in the mid-1960s. He was studying philosophy at the university and taking lessons in composition from George Linstead, the organist at the cathedral. In his spare time, he played in a trio with the drummer Tony Oxley and the guitarist Derek Bailey. They began by playing 'a kind of very refined type of harmonic jazz' in venues like the Greaseborough Workingmen's Club (Palladium of the North), but soon moved into the more arty and distinctly non-perfectionist world of free improvisation.

Bryars became frustrated with the limitations of improvising: 'There's an appearance of freedom, an appearance of 'anything can happen', but in reality what you're hidebound by is your musical habits you've accrued over the years.' He leaned more to the kinds of aleatory techniques pioneered by John Cage - typically, for reasons that were anything but superficial. 'The field is much more wide open if one is composing by chance than if you're letting things happen which are not by chance in a real-life situation. There can be a resemblance acoustically, they may end up sounding similar: but what's happening behind is different.'

He gave up the bass in 1966, and took a job, like Tom Sharpe's Wilt, teaching 'Liberal Studies' to day-release students - welders and motor mechanics, most of whom felt they were there to learn about welding and motors, not contemporary culture. He's stayed in education - since 1970 he has been at Leicester Polytechnic (now De Montfort University), and became Professor of Music there in 1985. The only break came in 1968, when he took an opportunity to go to America: he visited a friend at the University of Illinois where (as chance would have it) Cage was teaching, and worked with him on his massive realisation of Mozart's musical dice-game, HPSCHD.

Returning to London, Bryars fell in with London's new music set, centred around John Tilbury and Cornelius Cardew. He also began teaching at Portsmouth Art College, where his first flirtation with fame came in the summer of 1970, when he was instrumental in the founding of the notorious Portsmouth Sinfonia. Again, the philosophy behind the playing was far more important than the actual sound, which was just as well. 'They were all people who would've liked to have played classical music, but had never had the ability or the opportunity . . . the conductor was the person who looked most like a conductor, but really had least knowledge of music. He had read the first page of a Penguin book called Understanding Music.' Bryars played a euphonium he had bought in a bicycle shop. At a concert in the college's main quadrangle, they were a huge hit. They made a single of the William Tell overture and sent 1,000 copies to people they admired around the world: Mao Tse-Tung, Rodney Marsh, Pierre Boulez.

What is striking about Bryars is the variety of his interests. It is not coincidental that he is an expert on the composer / novelist / what- you-will Lord Berners, known in the 1920s as 'The Versatile Peer', and he was attracted to the Renaissance humanist philosopher Pico della Mirandola by his proverbial status in France as a touchstone of versatility. His range is reflected in the music he has written over the decade since Medea propelled him into the European mainstream. Pico supplied him with the texts for two works, Glorious Hill and Pico's Flight - in the latter, combined with settings of Francis Bacon. He has used texts by Jules Verne, Dante, and the seventh-century Anglo- Saxon poet Caedmon - this last in his Cadman Requiem (written for his friend Bill Cadman, who was killed in the Lockerbie aircrash), and in the new piece, The War in Heaven, where it is conflated with a monologue by Sam Shepard in a large-scale cantata. His great hero, though, is not a writer, but the painter Marcel Duchamp: what he admires in Duchamp is that 'he was emphatically against what he called 'retinal art' - art which actually stops at the eye and titillates the senses without penetrating the brain.' And for Bryars, penetrating the brain is still what matters, deeply.

'Effarene' is broadcast tonight on 'Midnight Oil' (11.30pm R3). 'The War in Heaven' is premiered by the BBC SO at 7.30pm on 29 April at the RFH (071-928 8800): tickets pounds 9, conc pounds 4.50.

(Photograph omitted)