In 1971 a twenty eight year old double bass player and freejazz enthusiast called Gavin was working on a documentary film about people sleeping in rough in London. Trawling the streets they came across a bunch of winos and bums. So they began filming. At one point they broke into a drunken song, which was duly recorded for the film. Another tramp who didn’t drink also started warbling. This song was never used in the film, though somehow Gavin ended up with the recordings. When he got home he quickly realised both the emotional depth of the music and more importantly that this particular song was in tune. So he decided to orchestrate it. The song is Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, and Gavin is of course Gavin Bryars. Repeatedly looping a couple of verses, he extended the tune to almost twenty six minutes, slowly and subtly bringing in the orchestration, which actually added an additional (almost cinematic) gravity to the song, but really it served to highlight the fragility and damage of the singer. Yet despite the trials and tribulations there’s a real sense of hope and optimism here, and it’s made all the more poignant by the almost naive hopelessness of the singer. With material so raw, there was a real danger that Bryars could have overcooked it, sensationalising the material, yet as we cycle through the waves of the song, he builds density slowly, gracefully, highlighting the pathos of the singer and the song, without ever feeling like he is competing. Bryars of course had form, a couple of years earlier he produced The Sinking of the Titanic, a modern classical piece that is based on accounts that the final tune the band played before they drowned was a hymn. The tune at about 25 minutes feels like it is sinking under water, descending into washed out drones and submerged strings. The effect is uncanny.
Novelist Michael Ondaatje (The English Painter) speaks of Bryars ability to put ‘slapstick’ and ‘primal emotion’ alongside each other, his ability to make the listener approach sound from a completely new angle, with a ‘third ear.’ And you would need one when listening to Portsmouth Sinfonia, an ensemble he founded that mixes professional musicians like Brian Eno playing unfamiliar instruments with complete novices. They have a few LP’s out, murdering popular rock or well-known classical tunes. They’re both despairingly hilarious and very slapstick.
On Sunday the 1st of May at Anytime Place in Brunswick, on the 40th anniversary of its premiere, Barnaby Oliver and Steph Brett, in association with Dreamland Recordings, present a live performance of Bryars’ Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Whilst the original tune went for about twenty-six minutes, the organisers have elected to take some liberties, viewing their approach as something of a ‘bootleg’ performance.
“Bryars always stretched the duration of the piece to the limits of whatever recording medium was available (first vinyl, then cassette, then CD),” offers Barnaby Oliver, “and I’m taking it even further, to 2 hours plus. I’ve always been interested in long-duration performances – impractical as they are, they can take you to places that are otherwise unreachable.”
It will include over 20 Melbourne musicians including the likes of Adam Simmons, Dave Brown (both of Bucketrider fame), Tim Pledger (Bohjass) Barnaby Oliver (Infinite Decimals), and numerous more. They’ve each been given a chart of the original accompaniment to the piece and are all working alone to create their interpretation. On the night it is expected that performers may duck in and out of the music while the loop plays throughout. In the main they will be unamplified and spread throughout the space with no clear delineation between performer and listener.
Musically Oliver was attracted to the minimalist approach of the work, ‘combining very simple ideas to create something very complex,’ though there’s clearly a lot more going on. He suggests it’s about “taking someone who’s ended up at the very bottom of society’s heap, and then placing him at the centre of a piece of ‘high art’, where the performers are obliged to follow his irregular and idiosyncratic beat.”
“We all rely on something to get us through the tough times, be it alcohol, religion or whatever – in that way we’re all the same. The piece is perhaps about celebrating this common humanity – which is both strength and weakness – in an ambivalent and non-judgmental way. That realisation was what made me want to do something with the piece.”