Gavin BRYARS (b. 1943) Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971) [25:55] The Sinking of the Titanic (1969-) [24:24]
The Cockpit Ensemble Derek Bailey (guitar), Michael Nyman (organ), John Nash (violin), John White (tuba), Christopher Hobbs (bassoon), Sandra Hill (double bass), Gavin Bryars (piano), Angela Bryars (music box), Miss Eva Hart (spoken voice).
rec. 1975, Basing Street Studios, London. GB RECORDS BCGBCD22 [50:28]
This was the first in a series of 10 albums released on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label in the 1970s. While I collected a few of these over the years, my first encounter with Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet was in fact on a recording in which the Gavin Bryars Ensemble joined forces with Tom Waits – a reflection of the cult status this piece had achieved, appearing as a CD single and as a memorable six-track album in which the piece is taken through versions from string quartet to full orchestra.
The impact of the original is something which enters your soul and alters you, unbidden, in subtle ways. This is of course a byproduct of long repetition of brief patterns of words or music but is undeniably something hard to ignore. The effect of the music is connected with the genesis of the piece as described by Gavin Bryars himself: “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 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.”
This sums up both the content and effect of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. The original voice tape is a bit foggy, but clear enough to catch the tramp’s wheeze when taking a breath. The instrumental harmonies enhance and ennoble the voice with a simple and unpretentious progression that nevertheless has plenty of subtle expressive variations in its inner lines. I was never entirely convinced by the guitar contribution and can see why it was dropped in later versions, but there you go. Apparently the late Derek Bailey told the composer that “he had had more drinks bought for him because he was the guitarist on the original recording of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet than for any other reason”, while other unnamed professional musicians at the session “really hated the music… insisting that their names should not appear in the credits on the album.” The richness of the bass line with all those low instruments is in fact very fine, and the whole thing is essentially an icon captured in sound.
The Sinking of the Titanic is pretty much an ongoing project, with numerous different recordings available, all of which have their own special effect. The more extended version on Gavin Bryars’ own label is the most recent I’ve encountered (see review). The work “is based wholly on the circumstances surrounding” the Titanic’s fatal impact with an iceberg on 14th April 1912, “the initial starting point [being] the reported fact of the band having played a hymn tune as the ship went down [and] the lack of any report of their having stopped playing, combined with a number of other features of the disaster that are both reproducible and that ‘take the mind to other regions’.”
Further thought provoking ideas and details are outlined in the booklet note, and it is the imagination being taken on this doom-laden journey that is one of the most powerful aspects of this work. Our inner-eye is sent into a space in which the music resonates through an infinite and ever-changing pedal tone, instruments barely audible through muffled filters, fragments of dissonance, voices talking, a music box… and always that sensation of submerged music echoing on forever.
As concepts this pair of pieces belong in their time during the avant-garde 1960s and 70s, but as with all good music prove timeless through their qualities and effect both intrinsic and in terms of artistry and poetry of communication. You may find the late 1990s CD release with original cover art still available but I don’t have this to hand to compare re-mastering. This ‘Archive Series’ re-release sounds as good as I remember hearing from these recordings anywhere, and there is no lack of detail or added artificiality in the final result.