I remember vividly the very first moment I listened to Gavin Bryars‘ composition and recording of ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’. There is something truly profound about this 25:27 minutes long recording. Today I know that it has influenced me into developing myself as an artist and musician as it has shifted me to further exploring the stillness and soul that you find in music.
It was about four years ago. I was in the kitchen preparing a supper and just changed my radio to BBC 3. There was almost nothing to hear so I needed to turn the volume up. There was only one voice singing and no instruments; a thin, crackling and fragile male singer chanting just one line in endless repetition. Some strings and brass appeared from the ether, gradually overlaying the stanza. The layers of sounds carried me away. All sorts of images moved in front of my eyes; I saw an endless sky with rays of light shining through distant clouds. The clouds gave way to warm lights falling into a wide-open sea. That sort of images kept appearing in my mind. The voice sang a religious line: ‘Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet, this one thing I know, for he loves me so’. The words kept sinking in. I came to realize that this was just one short voice recording, repeated in endless loops. The layers of strings and brass changed he colouring of the stanza profoundly; the same voice that just sounded fragile and anxious now appeared deeply soulful and optimistic. I could hear a whole life story in this short voice recording. Strings gently glided along the chanting, opening one grand room after another, into which I was flying with the music. The longer the recording carried on the lighter I felt, making place for a deep sense of serenity. The song gradually faded out and I was there sitting in silence.
I went on to find out about this musician. I found Gavin Bryars Ensemble, a 25:57 recording, in different versions released and first performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in December 1972. Gavin Bryars is a modern composer and artist. He was working with another artist on a film about people living rough in the area around Elephant & Castle and Waterloo. In the course of being filmed, some people broke into drunken song, as Bryars described “sometimes bits of opera, sometimes sentimental ballads.” (Read the full article on Wikipedia) One, who actually was not alcoholic, sang a religious song. Bryars found this recording on unused filming material. The singing was in tune with his piano and he also realised that the first section of the song formed a perfect loop. He eventually decided to add an orchestral arrangement around this loop. The homeless person, his name unknown, passed away before Byrars could play the recording to him.
The composition not only made me aware what music can convey. It also reminded me about the grace that is in everyone when you look only close enough.
(The photography I took in Malta last year, facing the sea from the island southwards)