Obscure #9: Tom Phillips/Gavin Bryars ‘IRMA’

IRMA LP front coverIRMA side AIRMA graphic scoreTom Phillips selfportrait

This version of IRMA/An Opera was a collaboration between British visual artist Tom Phillips (b.1937), composer Gavin Bryars for the music and art critic  Fred Orton for the libretto. Completed 1969, Phillips’ IRMA graphic score (pictured above) is based on a 19th century novel he bought in 1966, A Human Document, by W.H. Mallock, and which subsequently served as the basis for numerous drawings, paintings and collages made directly on the book’s pages, some of them collected in the life-long, monumental masterpiece of visual poetry, A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, first published 1973 with several expanded reissues since [+]. A Humument is a regular graphic novel with a plot and recurring characters Grenville and Irma, also appearing in the opera. The graphic score of IRMA was first published in Henri Chopin‘s sound poetry magazine OU in 1970 and was staged in a concert version in Bordeaux, France, that same year. The UK premiere took place at the University of Newcastle in 1972.

A self-taught pianist himself, Phillips had included a music part in his graphic score – see the “Sounds, etc” section. As far as I understand, this LP uses completely different music and is actually a re-creation of IRMA. Gavin Bryars entered the map in 1977, when Brian Eno asked him to write a score for IRMA, to be published in the Obscure LP series. Eno knew Phillips since 1964, when, aged 16, he became a student at Ipswich School of Art, in the West of England, where Phillips was a teacher. A Phillips’ painting was used on the cover of Another Green World in 1975. The elliptic, almost semaphoric texts surfacing in Phillips’ IRMA score certainly resonated in Eno as a possible entry in British Minimalism, providing the appropriate music would be added.

The cast includes Howard Skempton as Grenville, Lucy Skeaping as Irma,
(Angela Bryars and Tom Phillips joining for chorus), with orchestra directed by Gavin Bryars. The instrumental parts are pure Gavin Bryars, that is, elegant, delicate ensemble musings going absolutely nowhere in the most charming way. The arias are exquisite melodies, softly enunciating the elliptic sentences of the libretto as if surrounded by a soft white gaze which sounds very British to this listener. The music makes more sense when gazing at Tom Phillips’ drawings and collages, a selection of which is included in the download file. British improv trio AMM revived IRMA in 1986 for a London performance at the Serpentine Gallery, with Elise Lorraine as Irma, Phil Minton as Grenville, John Tilbury, Keith Rowe, Eddie Prevost and Lol Coxhill as musicians (CD on Matchless Recordings in 1988).

Thanks to koshka for the music..

IRMA/An Opera:
01 Introduction (11:50)
02 Overture and Aria – I tell you that’s Irma herself. . . (5:35)
03 First Interlude (1:39)
04 Aria – Irma you will be mine. . . (2:43)
05 Second Interlude (5:00)
06 Chorus – Love is help mate. . . (4:53)
07 Postlude (4:15)

Howard Skempton, Lucy Skeaping, voice
Angela Bryars, Tom Philips, chorus
Michael Nyman, piano, marimba, glockenspiel
John White, tuba, marimba
Jo Julian, vibraphone, marimba
Dave Smith, horns, vibraphone
Roy Babbington, bass
Rodney Slatford, contrabass
Rory Allam, clarinet
Adam Skeaping, violin
Tim Kraemer, violin
Stuart Deeks, violin
Roddy Skeaping, violin
Mark Caudie, violin
Gavin Wright, violin
Gavin Bryars, conductor

Total time 36:00
LP released by Island/Obscure Records, UK, 1978


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8 Responses to “Obscure #9: Tom Phillips/Gavin Bryars ‘IRMA’”

  1. 1 icastico May 31, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    GB is under-appreciated imho. Thanks for this one…hadn’t heard it before.

  2. 2 continuo May 31, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    Not sure what you mean by underrated — Bryars is famous, after all. But he might be a Medieval composer in Modern Times, as Debussy famously said of Erik Satie. Thanks for your comment, Icastico.

  3. 3 icastico June 2, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    I said under-appreciated, not under-rated…as in not enough people know his work relative to its merit. But, yes, compared to a lot of what you post here he is a down-right celebrity.

  4. 4 Diehl Art Gallery June 29, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    Great images, especially the portrait!

  5. 5 continuo June 29, 2010 at 7:13 pm

    Thanks. The Tom Philips portrait above is from the 1st edition of A Humument, 1980. In the 4th edition, published 2005, Philips glued the picture of a cricket player over the left part of the face. In fact, A Humument is constantly being updated and modified and the author plans a 5th and 6th edition in the future. I strongly suggest getting yourself a copy.

  6. 6 Herr Ärmel August 6, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    wow, you´ve made my day . . many years ago the book “a humument” found its way into my bookshelf and since than I was saerching this IRMA project . . .

    I´m very curious now . . thank you very much

    may your days be sunny as mine will be today : Herr Ärmel

  7. 7 continuo August 6, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    “A Humument” is also a favorite. Did you see Tom Philips has a new book out on African (Ghana) gold weights?

  8. 8 Obdulia Toplk September 13, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    I was reading through some of your articles on this site and I believe this web site is very instructive! Keep on posting .

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