Gavin Bryars : Two Experimental Masterpieces

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Richard Gavin Bryars (1943) is an English composer and double bassist. He has been active in, or has produced works in, a variety of styles of music, including jazz, free improvisation, minimalism, historicism, experimental music, avant-garde and neoclassicism.

Bryars’s first works as a composer owe much to the New York School of John Cage (with whom he briefly studied), Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and minimalism. One of his earliest pieces, The Sinking of the Titanic (1969), is 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.  Another well-known early work is Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971), which has as its basis a recorded loop of a vagrant singing a musical fragment that the old man had improvised.

The Sinking of the Titanic was inspired by the story that the band on the Titanic continued to perform as the ship sank in 1912, it recreates how the music performed by the band would reverberate through the water for a period of time after they ceased performing. Composed between 1969 and 1972, the work is now considered one of the classics of British experimental music.

The work was first recorded in 1975 when it became the first release on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records. It was subsequently rerecorded in a much longer version in 1990. A third version was released in 2007 in a collaboration with Philip Jeck and Alter Ego.

Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet is a 1971 arrangement a composition by an unknown composer. It is formed on a loop of an unknown homeless man singing a brief stanza. Rich harmonies, comprising string and brass, are gradually overlaid over the stanza. The piece was first recorded for use in a documentary which chronicles street life in and around Elephant and Castle and Waterloo, in London.

When later listening to the recordings, Bryars noticed the clip was in tune with his piano and that it conveniently looped into 13 bars. For the first LP recording, Bryars was limited to a duration of 25 minutes; later Bryars completed a 60-minute version of the piece for cassette tape; and with the advent of the CD, a 74-minute version. It was shortlisted for the 1993 Mercury Prize.

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