INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Age APRIL 29, 2011 - by Chris Johnston
GAVIN BRYARS: JESUS' BLOOD NEVER FAILED ME YET
This is an obscure but landmark recording in the fields of minimalism, avant-garde classical and free jazz but, despite those markers, it should appeal to anyone with an interest in life itself. More than, say, the new Snoop Dogg would. The backstory is long and talks to the notion that in performance art or conceptual art - for this record is a piece of conceptual art as well - the idea is everything. All it takes is one good one. Gavin Bryars, a British composer, former student of John Cage and peer of Brian Eno (who he often collaborated with in th 1970s golden age of ambient), was recording drunk, homeless men singing in 1971 on behalf of a filmmaker friend who was shooting vision for a documentary. One old bloke, a rare non-drinker, sang Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, an ancient religious standard: the audio wasn't used in the film and Gavin Bryars got the tapes. So he did what all good experimental musicians do, even in the '70s - he looped it. And played piano and minimal orchestral stuff behind it. The result is a delightfully hypnotic and terribly sad piece of music in which the quivering, faltering but lovely old man's voice drifts as if on the air itself, repeated so that it becomes the air, the room, the blood. At first Bryars performed the work as an installation, with film of an old man walking towards the camera repeatedly. He recorded a version for an Eno record label in '75, building up to crescendos with about a hundred classical musicians. The record was redone in the '90s with the fitting inclusion of Tom Waits. The end result is essentially six versions of the same stanza, the differences subtle but important, the idea brilliant and unsurpassed, the spirit of the anonymous old man, who died shortly after being recorded by Bryars, still living and generous, thanks to the composer.