Known as a minimalist and experimental composer, Richard Gavin Bryars unleashed an emotionally intimate constructed piece out from a lone old vagrant singing, Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, this one thing I know, for he loves me so… Originally recorded from footage of a documentary by his friend Alan Power in 1971 (Grimshaw), this aged voice served as the focal point and backdrop for Bryars’ poignant yet challenging work unfolding and reiterating itself over the course of 74 minutes in length.
Whereas music that falls under Minimalist movement, sometimes associated the emotional neutralization of repeated materials, Bryars’ has the reverse effect in which rather than numbing the listener’s sensibilities, he heightens them and instead of imposing postmodern indifference toward the subject matter, it forces confrontation with it (Grimshaw). The entire lengthy music might deflate the interest of its listeners as the lines simply repeated over the recording, but Bryars managed to extract the spirit of the tramp’s captive song as he slowly introduced an accompaniment.
The first part was merely the sole voice of the old man then eventually enhanced by string quartet, followed by plucked bass and guitar. Moreover, as the instruments subsequently fade out, the tramp’s song continues and eventually underscored by a much richer sounding ensemble of low strings, then woodwinds, brass, and delicate percussion and finally full orchestra and choir (Grimshaw). The soul of the music originated from the compassionate nature of the old vagrant who sang the religious tune during the recording of Power’s documentary that was about the life of street-people around Elephant and Castle and Waterloo in London.
Bryars’ recounted; while they are filming the documentary, some people broke into drunken ballad or opera songs, but there was a particular homeless old man sang “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”. When he played it at home, he noticed the exact tune of the singing to his piano, and, he discerned that the first section of the song that is 13 bars in length formed an effective loop that repeated in a slightly unpredictable way. Therefore, he took the tape to Leicester and copied the loop onto a continuous reel of tape having the idea of adding orchestrated accompaniment to it.
During the act of copying, he left the door that lead to the large painting studios, and when he came back, he found people weeping and silently listening over the old man’s singing, at that point, he realized a great emotional influence from the noble faith and tranquil music (Howse), a merely accidental root behind this epic. This particular Bryars’ piece was a breakthrough as there were other versions made during the latter years. Tom Waits singing along with it in 1990 and Jars of Clay released their own version on their album Who We Are Instead in 2003, aside from the fact that it was also used for several theatrical presentations.
Covering credits for its very straightforward message to the people, the unyielding constancy of the lyrics—repeated over 150 times—essentially keeps the music from achieving greater feats. It is said that no matter how many times you paint a house, it remains to be the same house. Still, that verse holds together the entirety of the minimalist piece, a factor that you cannot simply neglect. Focusing on keeping his music very simple yet haunting, this composer and double bassist is a native from Goole, East Riding of Yorkshire, England and born on January 16, 1943.
His first musical reputation was as a jazz bassist working in the early sixties with improvisers Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley. He abandoned improvisation in 1966 and worked for a time in the United States with John Cage, until he collaborated closely with composers such as Cornelius Cardew and John White. He taught in the department if Fine Art in Portsmouth, Leicester from 1969 to 1978, and there he founded the legendary Portsmouth Sinfonia, an orchestra whose membership consisted of performers who “embrace the full range of musical competence” — and who played or just attempted to play popular classical works.
He also founded the Music Department at Leicester Polytechnic (later De Montfort University) and served as professor in Music from 1986 to 1994. Meanwhile, his first major work as a composer owe much to the so-called New York School of John Cage—with whom he briefly studied, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and minimalism. His earliest piece was The Sinking of Titanic (1969) and was originally released under Brian Eno’s Obscure Label in 1975 and the Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971) both famously released in new versions in the 1990s on Point Music Label, selling over a quarter of a million copies.
The original 1970s recordings have been re-released on CD by Virgin Records. A major turning point in his development was his first written opera Medea, premiered at the Opera de Lyon and Opera de Paris in 1984. He has written another two operas, both with libretti by his long time collaborator Blake Morrison: Doctor Ox’s Experiment, and G, commissioned by the Staatstheater Mainz for the Gutenberg 600th Anniversary. Aside from that, Bryars has also produced a large body of chamber music including three string quartets and a saxophone quartet 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, saxophone and bass oboe. He has also written choral music, chiefly for the Latvian Radio Choir, with whom he has recently recorded a second CD, and for the Estonian Male Choir. From being a jazz bassist, composer, professor and opera writer, he also made a name as he collaborated with visual artists, worked with choreographers who have used his pieces, and written numerous Laude for the soprano Ana Maria Friman, to name a few.
And to date, he recently completed a theatre piece, To Define Happiness, with Peeter Jalakas for Von Krahl theatre in Tallinn, and a project around Shakespeare’s sonnets, Nothing Like the Sun, with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Opera North. Gavin Bryars is an Associate Research Fellow at Dartington College of Arts and Regent of the College de ‘Pataphysique. And married to Russian-born film director Anna Tchernakova with three daughters and a son. He is currently living in England and British Columbia, Canada.
WORKS CITED Howse, Christopher. “The Assurance of Hope”. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006. xix. ISBN 0-8264-8271-6 Mckeating, Scott. http://www. stylusmagazine. com/articles/seconds/gavin-bryars-jesus-blood-never-failed-me-yet. htm Grimshaw, Jeremy. “All Music Guide”. http://www. answers. com/topic/jesus-blood-never-failed-me-yet-orchestral-classical-work http://www. gavinbryars. com/ http://www. myspace. com/gavinbryarsmusic http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Jesus%27_Blood_Never_Failed_Me_Yet
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