Of the Refrain: Tramp with Orchestra

I am eternally grateful to Robert Elms for introducing me to Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. To hear this piece of music, so extraordinary in itself, emerge from the radio one morning was a truly astonishing experience. Elms apparently made a principle of playing the piece a couple of times every year, and the station was always inundated by listeners phoning up in tears asking for the title of the piece. Hearing it was a ‘life-changing experience’ not in the sense that it led to any momentous decisions or sudden realisations, but simply that it divided time into a distinct before and after, hearing it altered you somehow. It was not actually for some years that I found the CD, and earlier this year I was lucky enough to see Bryars conducting a live performance of one of the very few pieces of 20th-century orchestral music that have touched me in any way.

In 1971, Bryars had isolated a small loop of tape from the offcuts of a documentary he had done the sound for, about the vagrant population who lived in the ramshackle cardboard city’ in the centre of the roundabout at Waterloo. This, of course, was, until they were evicted and replaced in the centre of the roundabout by an Imax cinema, an architecturally null steel-and-glass number, and almost always empty of custom, a real symbol of (as the marketing has it) LondOn (presumably capital of Cool Britannia).

Having left a tape loop of one of the tramps giving an impromptu rendering of a (still unidentified, and possibly extemporised) hymn, playing in his studio, he returned five minutes later to find

the normally lively room unaturally 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 unaccompanied singing.

It was obvious that, if his idea of creating an orchestral piece around this repeated phrase was to work, it would have to be treated with great sensitivityin order not to overwhelm whatever subtle magic was frozen forever in the medium of those few seconds of magnetic tape.

Jesus blood never failed me yet
Never failed me yet
Jesus blood never failed me yet
This one thing I know
For he loves me so

It is hard to describe the piece (simply the tapeloop, repeated for 20 minutes, and accompanied by an orchestral score) without it sounding religiose or sentimental. Or just a curious piece of avantgarde nonsense. More remarkable, then, that it is none of these things. It became Bryars first great success and set the course for all of his work to date, with its huge sensitivity to sonic texture and its refined harmonic sensibility regardless of the combination of media he uses (the choice never owes anything to modishness or technophilia, he often uses new technology but much of his work it is simply orchestral). Bryars does not studiedly avoid harmony or melody (unlike many of his new music peers) but has developed a characteristic and sophisticated way of enrichening it and delicately building up harmonic textures through impressionistic washes of sound (bringing to mind that other Engish master of sonic impressionism, Delius) whilst preserving the essentially tonal nature of his craft.

He shares this attitude with Erkki-Sven Tüür, an Estonian composer whose pieces Passion and Illusion Bryars included along with Jesus’ Blood on his programme at the RFH. As Tüür says:

the world of modern composers is divided between two poles…there are composers who are writing tonal, quasi-tonal or modal music and…composers who are very rational. What I’m trying to do is connect these two worlds in a single composition so that it’s not a mixture but a structurally-felt and built musical totality.

It is a similar outlook that makes Bryars one of the few composers of “new music” who is immediately listenable by the untrained ear.

The Novelty of Monotony

While much of the twentieth-century music, popular and avant-garde, that is built on the tape loop and its technological successor sampling, has been concerned primarily with the disclocating effects of brutally cutting and repeating found sounds, Bryars took an entirely different path. The vastly predominant form of the use of found sound is to submit it to a regular metric beat, ironically counterpointing its ipseic idiosyncrasy, its meaning or sense, with its new role as abstract sonic building material. Few have taken the more difficult route of following those idiosyncrasies, pursuing that sense, through repetition.

So while Steve Reich’s repetition pieces such as ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ cut human voices into metrical segments, making pulsing, inhuman squawks of his street corner preacher, Bryars takes a complete musical sung phrase and builds an orchestral piece around the intricate peculiarities of its meaning, diction, timbre and inexact rhythm.

This marks out Bryars as one of the few artists to have stood the demand of the 20th century on the (non-conceptual) artist: to craft the manifest inevitability of the work of art from the mass of recorded fragments, rendered contextually senseless, that constitutes our situation, rather than cynically redoubling that desolate situation. To make a symphony from accident. Where Reich’s work has a kinship with the cold, fascinating mechanicity of Pop Art, we might call Bryars a fellow of the lyrical, malerisch Francis Bacon, a painter who created inevitability from accident, either in the shape of the informality and visual artefact of a photographs, Muybridge’s images of bodies caught in motion; or, ultimately, from the random play of the matter of paint itself, whose suggestions he monitored with attentive eye.

More Pop than Pop

For me at the time, this idea related to both Pop Art and Minimal Art: a kind of non-abstract repetition but with emotional overtones. However I soon found that Jesus Blood Never Failed me Yet was far too complex and rich a resource for such a simple idea.

Indeed, the project immediately exceeded the remit of Pop Art: for where pop art inserts found images into a strictly metric rhythm, thus amputating their soft edges, sawing off meaning, Bryars is engaged in a far more subtle practice. His route to sonic abstraction is both less brutal and more rewarding. Instead of an easy dehumanisation through stark metricisation and mechanisation, he allows the voice its natural periodicity, and builds his score around its every detail, calling attention to the traits, the timbre, of this one human voice, captured at one moment in time.

The piece begins with the voice alone. The gently cresting, lightly inflected melody punctuated by the blunt pauses of the word blood. Other, indecipherable voices flutter in the background of the field recording. The hymn feels like a faltering attempt at flight (we cannot tell how much the trembling in the voice is the man’s own, how much an artefact of the worn-out tape), with each never failed a wavering, attenuated arc, each yet an exhausted respite from the effort. And the strangely cheerful, almost humorous curling of the words I know, followed by the deliberate speed of the last line, which then fades into silence; and the whole begins again.

Bryars’ characteristically rich but oblique, subtly interlacing chords wash around the voice, buoying it up without overwhelming it. A lesser composer, more nervous of the monotony of repetition, might have had the accompaniment swell and hush in counterpoint to the vocal loop, but not Bryars, who puts his trust in the sonic and musical depth of the frail cycle of words. The orchestral score underlines its unusual authority and the faltering inexactitude of its rhythm, even showing its fidelity by petering out at the end of each repetition, together with the voice, to return again in another repetition.

The accompaniment, then, is allowed no liberties. As Bryars says there is an innate, untrained musicality in the old man’s voice. And it this that the piece explores, doing nothing more than developing what is already present. Bryars background is in jazz, and one way of understanding his approach in Jesus’ Blood is to understand the tiny snatch of song as a ‘standard’ which Bryars is approaching from shifting harmonic angles. He uses the hymn ‘Autumn’ similarly in The Sinking of the Titanic, applying the jazz principles of harmonic exploration to this methodist ‘standard’, approaching it from slowly kaleidoscopically-changing harmonic perspectives. We could say that his intimate knowledge of jazz explains Bryars’ persistent belief that there is always more to a simply melody than meets the ear, and his consequent refusal to abandon tonality even in its most apparently obsolete form, the popular hymn. Because for jazz, the very simplest melodic pattern, the most mawkish popular tune, constitutes an inexhaustible potential.

Much of Bryars’ work also shares the brooding, oblique harmonic textures of film scores, and in fact the Jesus’ Blood tape loop proved to be the coincidental element that completed an idea Bryars already had for a piece inspired by film:

For some time, I had had the idea of making a piece of music which repeated in a gradually incremental was but which had something of the emotional tone of the late 1950s American war films…I had in mind in particular the end of a film…where we hear the distant sound of the Mormon tabernacle choir humming….as the faces of the dead heroes appear superimposed on the clouds above the desert.

It is entirely typical of Bryars’ approach that he would set out to evoke, to distil and purify, a nameless, fleeting emotion: an emotion, moreover, made possible only by the medium of film. It is this that makes him a truly contemporary composer. And although as he says Jesus’ Blood overpowered this initial conception and turned it into something far more ambitious, it entirely succeeds in realising this filmic vision. Since the tramp’s voice is recognisably English, recognisably from London even, in my mind it takes on more of the spirit of an imaginary closing sequence of a monochrome Dickens film adaptation of the 30s, or a wartime kitchen-sink drama, the camera slowly backing away from the family now reunited around the fireside after their tribulations; gliding back through the glass panes of the window; into the street where the snow swirls down beneath the gas lamps. With the camera still gradually rising, the shot would take into its compass the whole street, with a few people hurriedly crossing with armfuls of presents, and finally the whole snow-shrouded, silent, sleeping city, with its sooty chimneys belching smoke, its snowcapped roofs, its thousands of inhabitants “each with their own story”. Such a valedictory climax might last for thirty seconds, as a choir, of the sort Bryars had been so struck by, joins the theme music, swelling into a crescendo, and…roll credits. But Bryars concentrated patience has this slow elevation last for the best part of an hour (with each version since 1971’s vinyl LP, Bryars extends the length of the piece to the maximum length of each new recording medium). The listener has ample time to explore the richness of this celluloid emotion, guided by the gradually transforming orchestral accompaniment to what has now become, in my imaginary soundtrack, a peculiar christmas carol; emphasising our implication in the universal struggle of joy and sorrow, the preponderance of the latter meaning that simply continuing takes a measure of the same faith or absurd hope expressed in the tramp’s song. The endlessly-repeated cyclical journey of the old mans voice is the fabric of tragedy, the sound of the wheel of fate in its turning. A perceptive comment on Amazon.com pinpoints my film reference perfectly, saying : Critics might say that what we are doing is adding cheap Hollywood (or Ealing) imagery to the music. It is to Bryars’ credit (and again perhaps this is due to his involvement with jazz) that he realises that ‘the potency of cheap song’ is a worthy object of concentrated investigation, of development.

Finally, let us distinguish once more Bryars use of the mechanically-repeated phrase from the dominant, metric model. The voice in Bryars piece exceeds the human, not through its subjection to an external machine and reduction to ready-material, but through an appreciation of its own molecular grain, and the peculiar relation of this consistency to our ears, its musicality in other words. The piece is thus an inquisition into music itself, music as infinitely complex, still-unanswered question. It is defamiliarisation through total absorption, not dislocation. The loop as a magnification device, an intensifier. Again, we can refer to Bacon, who ultimately had such regard and such a singular passion for the human form, who was able to delve into the body so deeply that he showed its inhumanity, its constitutive suffering, its untapped power and its brokenness. Bacon knew that the photographs he was so fascinated by exposed the vulnerability of the temporal, the pain, in a trapped glare, of being lacerated by a slice in time, isolated and consigned to eternal repetition.

How to address, augment, intensify, the uncanny images of ‘ourselves’ caught in the particles of a recording surface, was one of the challenges of the twentieth century artist. With the ironic evidence of our absurdity reproduced and distributed on a massive scale, it was an act of great audacity to reassert that artistic synthesis stll had anything to add, and few had the vigour to make this assertion. Bryars met the challenge, and if tragedy represents the keenest attunement we can attain with the irremediably faulty human instrument, he managed to capture its resonance here as fully as anyone, with a contemporaneity and a technical subtlety that is still not fully appreciated.

He proved that we do not yet know what music can do, even in its simplest forms. That the vast compass of the emotions, their extent and their recombination, remains for the most part uncharted.

The rhythm of his vocal line may be erratic and there is considerable irony in the relationship between what he is singing, and his circumstances at the time. But for me there is great poignanccy in his voice and, though I do not share the simple optimism of his faith, I am still touched by the memory of my first encounter with what Grainger would call the “human-ness” of his voice, and through this piece I try to give it new life

Let me do you the same favour as that errant DJ did for me: buy this CD, sit down, turn off the lights, if you have loved one(s) insist that they do the same: Listen through the whole piece without interruption. Let yourself be altered by it.