Archive for Gavin Bryars

Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet

Posted in Music with tags , , on August 30, 2018 by telescoper

And now for something completely different.

I heard part of this on the Radio the other night, and thought I’d share it here. It’s definitely one of the strangest pieces of music I’ve ever heard, but I find it very moving and, in its own way, compelling. The full story can be found here, but is summarized the composer Gavin Bryars:

In 1971, when I lived in London, I was working with a friend, Alan Power, on a film about people living rough in the area around Elephant and Castle and Waterloo Station. In the course of being filmed, some people broke into drunken song – sometimes bits of opera, sometimes sentimental ballads – and one, who in fact did not drink, sang a religious song “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”. This was not ultimately used in the film and I was given all the unused sections of tape, including this one.

When I played it at home, I found that his singing was in tune with my piano, and I improvised a simple accompaniment. I noticed, too, that the first section of the song – 13 bars in length – formed an effective loop which repeated in a slightly unpredictable way.

I took the tape loop to Leicester, where I was working in the Fine Art Department, and copied the loop onto a continuous reel of tape, thinking about perhaps adding an orchestrated accompaniment to this. The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping.

I was puzzled until I realised that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man’s singing. This convinced me of the emotional power of the music and of the possibilities offered by adding a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the homeless man’s nobility and simple faith. Although he died before he could hear what I had done with his singing, the piece remains as an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism.

Several versions of this piece exist. This one, recorded in 1993, is 74 minutes long. It begins with the unaccompanied voice of the old man to which instrumental accompaniment of increasing depth and texture is gradually added and, for the last twenty minutes or so, there is also the voice of Tom Waits…

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Ars Nova Copenhagen

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2012 by telescoper

Yesterday being the day of my last revision lecture I decided to mark the end of the teaching year last night by going to a concert which was part of a series belonging to the 2012 Vale of Glamorgan Music Festival and was held in All Saints’ Church, Penarth. I would like to have been to more of these performances, but unfortunately it’s the busiest period of the academic year and I just couldn’t spare the time.

I made a special effort to make sure I could get to last night’s concert by the choir  Ars Nova Copenhagen partly because of their illustrious reputation as choral singers but also because the programme featured music by Danish composer Per Nørgård, whose music I have only just discovered. Ars Nova Copenhagen consists of twelve singers of extraordinary individual ability and wonderful collective cohesion under the direction of Søren Kinch Hansen. Last night’s performance was truly marvellous.

To the left you can see a picture of the venue, just before the concert started; we had seats in the gallery giving an excellent view of the whole performance. The choir made full use of this space, sometimes dividing into groups and standing in different parts of the church. I’m not all that familiar with the terminology of church architecture, but that includes just in front of the sanctuary (where the altar is), in the choir, and in the aisles either side of the central one. Incidentally, I have been told on more than one occasion that the central passageway through the nave is not, as is often stated the aisle; the aisles are the smaller parallel passageways to either of the nave. I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong!

Anyway, the programme consisted of a mixture of sacred and secular music (some of the latter actually rather profane), starting with a longish  piece by Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen which had the choir not only singing but also tweeting like birds and doing animal impressions. I was initially unsettled by this, but pretty soon decided that I liked it.

There then followed three pieces by the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt – all of which were lovely, but I particularly enjoyed the piece called Morning Star – and then three beautiful pieces by Per Nørgård bringing the first half of the concert to a close.

Somewhat surprisingly for a concert in a church, there followed an interval at which we had a glass of wine. Then there was a second half which had a rather different, rather eclectic flavour. It started with two new works commissioned especially for this Festival, by Peter Bannister and Gavin Bryars, the latter being a moving setting of Psalm 141. A subset of the male voices of the choir then performed a piece by minimalist composer Steve Reich. Finally we heard a fascinating work by Anne Boyd called As I crossed the bridge of dreams which was bore the hallmarks of an oriental influence.

All in all, it was a fascinating and adventurous evening of music, by a wonderful and versatile group of vocal artists, helped by the intimate yet rich acoustic of All Saints’ Church.

You can’t beat live music. What with the various concert venues and the Opera here in Cardiff there are so many opportunities to hear the real thing that my CD collection is steadily gathering dust.