The magic of Gavin Bryar’s music

Most people know of Gavin Bryars through hearing Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, a remarkable and deeply moving piece of orchestral music built around a looped tape of a London tramp’s singing, quite musically, a little hymn fragment. It is one those works whose first hearing is powerful. I heard it first when the AustralianChamber Orchestra presented in Canberra a decade or more ago, and have heard it since on Classic FM, with Tom Waits in the background. I heard it again two days ago at the 19th Canberra International Music Festival, with Bryars conducting a large force of singers and orchestral players. Again, it moved me almost to tears. The frail voice sings his lines again and again and again, the accompaniment starting quietly and simply, and building up over time to a triumphant crescendo, then diminishing to quiet high strings, and then to nothing.

Where did the hymn come from? No one knows. It doesn’t seem to be part of any known collection. It’s the sort of verse that you associate with religious revivals, but others have searched for its origins without success. And that makes the piece even more special, because at the end its cadence has so entered your mind that you feel you must always have known it. It is running through my head now, as I write.

But Bryars, who was one of three composers in residence at the festival, has written much more than this haunting piece, and we heard some of it during the Festival. In fact, he became the genial and witty presence in the last days of the Festival, serving as a stand-up comedian at one point when the absence of a key player brought the Festival to a halt for a few minutes. When his music is being played, however, he is intensely serious.

His music fits into no straightforward genre. Above all else, it is beautiful. Much of it is slow and lyrical. He has written a number of books of madrigals, and we heard some of them, performed superbly by the Song Company, a group that is the Antipodean counterpart of the Hilliard Ensemble in Britain, for whom Bryars writes a lot of music. In a concert devoted almost entirely to his own music we heard Bryars’s recreation of an even earlier music form, the Laude, songs sung outside a church by a group, perhaps encouraging people to go inside. ‘Lauda spirituale’ means spiritual praise, and laude have been popular in Italy for hundreds of years, right up to the 19th century. A collection of them exists in the mediaeval city of Cortona in Tuscany, and Bryars has written music to accompany the texts, following the rules of the genre — and breaking them by adding instrumental accompaniment. They are lovely pieces.

Next came The Adnan Songbook, eight love poems written by the Lebanese writer Etel Adnan, sung in this case by Susannah Lawergren of the Song Company, whose high, pure soprano voice and perfect diction were just what the songs demanded. These love songs didn’t sound at all like either the madrigals or the Laude, yet you were beginning to hear the Bryars voice, the characteristic sound that distinguishes the true composer. Then came  a piece for a percussion ensemble, in Canberra Synergy Percussion with the American composer and percussionist J. B. Smith — Bryars certainly had the top Australian forces at his disposal! One Last Bar, then Joe Can Sing is utterly unlike the songs, yet before long I could once again hear the composer’s true voice, a delight in musical beauty.

The high point in this concert was Jesus’ Blood, which drew a standing ovation. The stage was crowded with instrumentalist and singers, and Bryars drew an excellent performance from them all. One of the marvellous aspects of music festivals like the Canberra one is the way in which players are put together to do something none of them has ever done before. The Festival is not a set of concerts so much as the presentation of works most of which you simply can’t hear in the ordinary way — and two dozen of them in ten days. No wonder the players and singers rise to the occasion.

There was more of Bryars before a fine Wagner concert,  his Porazzi Fragment for 21 solo strings. Wagner wrote out this short melodic theme  in two bursts more than twenty years apart, the last a year before he died. Bryars arranged and developed the theme for strings, and once again I could hear the voice of the composer. He does love musical beauty, and so do I, which is why I am determined to obtain more of his music. I have really given up buying CDs, or downloading music. But in Bryars’s case I will make an exception.

It is a tribute to his musicianship,  hard work and capacity to involve himself in many different areas of creativity that he has been able to work simply as a composer for the last twenty years. Long may he continue to do so!


Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Felix Hayman says:

    I first heard Gavin Bryar’s “Jesus Blood” in 1973, released on a disc on Brian Eno’s Discreet Music catalogue.As I loved the work I would play it to many of my friends in the new music world.They hated it.Why? Because it hadn’t been discovered by them and they didnt really want to be seduced by any “minimal” works,and it was many years (some 14) before this work suddenly became “noticed” by the glitterati.Even then they did not wish to look beyond this work as “The Sinking of the Titanic(also found on this disc) was all too indeterminist for their listening pleasure..It is good to see that Gavin’s works are now listened too,but I can still remember the time when his works were shunned.Perhaps people listen with a more open mind today.I don’tb think so/ but I can only hope that curiosity may bring us another Bryars in the near future…..

    • Martin Wesley-Smith says:

      Me too, Felix. I had it on an LP, and played it to lots of my friends, most of whom thought it was just silly. But most other composers were fascinated by it, even loved it. Mind you, this was in York in England, a place where at that time a lot of cobwebs were being blown off old notions.

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