July 10, 2010

Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet & The Sinking of the Titanic - Gavin Bryars

Testimony that experimental and intellectually constructed music has the power to move. The two pieces here pack a sometimes overpowering emotional punch.

Gavin Bryars has worked within a variety of methodologies, including jazz, free improv, minimalism, avant-garde and neoclassicism. He was a founding member of the Portsmouth Sinfonia - an orchestra whose membership consisted of performers who “embrace the full range of musical competence” (There’s a euphemism in there somewhere). Sinfonia members have included erstwhile pal Brian Eno whose Obscure Records label put out several of Bryars’ works in the mid-70s including a recording of the Titanic piece here.

Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971) has as its basis a recorded loop of a homeless man improvising a hymn of that name. On top of that loop, rich harmonies played by a live ensemble are built, always increasing in density, and spiritual impact before the gradually fading away.

The piece was first recorded for use in a documentary chronicle of street life in and around London’s Elephant and Castle. When later listening to the recordings, Bryars noticed the clip was in tune with his piano and that it conveniently looped into 13 bars.

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 tramp'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.
Quietly transcendental in equal measure is The Sinking of the Titanic (1969), an indeterminist work which allows the performers to take a number of sound sources related to the sinking of the RMS Titanic and make them into a piece of music. A perfectly poised use of Amazing Grace melodic motif against an ambient backdrop of chilly oceanic noises is heartbreaking and somehow uplifting.

Oddi wrth y brawd

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