Out of all the concerts I never got around to reviewing during this blog’s long period of inactivity, last year’s visit to Geneva by the British composer Gavin Bryars was definitely one of the highlights. So it makes sense to start at the top when trying to make up for lost time during this current period of enforced isolation.
I can’t remember where I first heard Bryars’ two minimalist masterpieces The Sinking of the Titanic and Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, both of which were performed in Geneva. I do remember attending a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1994 or so, at which Bryars and his ensemble performed an extended version of The Sinking of the Titanic. This was, I believe, the same version of the piece that was later released on CD on Point Music – a label associated with Philip Glass, fact fans.
Somewhat to my chagrin, Bryars had not brought his ensemble with him to Geneva. Nor did he play or conduct during the evening, his input consisting as far as I could tell of sound projection, mixing or some such from the back of the hall. The performers came instead from the Nouvel Ensemble Contemporain and the Haute École de Musique in Geneva. But there was absolutely nothing lacking in their flawless interpretations of both pieces.
The Sinking of the Titanic is perhaps the saddest piece of music I’ve ever heard. As is by now well known, it takes as its starting point the recollection of several survivors of the disaster that the ship’s band did not abandon their station, but continued to play as the ship sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean. Bryars imagined the sound continuing to reverberate as it disappeared under the waves, resulting in a slow, melancholy unfolding that interwove exquisite threads of melody with haunting fragments of spoken testimony from survivors of the tragedy. As the unnerving strains of violins, violas, cello and double bass descended further into the depths, the piece achieved a desolate beauty that was utterly overwhelming.
After the interval, it was the turn of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. This, of course, is the piece that achieved a certain public profile in 1993 when Bryars recorded an extended version with Tom Waits singing the words of the homeless man. As one who has always remained steadfastly immune to the gravelly charms of Waits’ voice, that version is for me entirely superfluous when compared to the original 25-minute version, featuring Michael Nyman on organ and Derek Bailey on guitar, that was released on Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975 with The Sinking of the Titanic on the other side. In Geneva, the NEC’s performance amply met the requirement of Bryars’ score that “the performance should be undramatic, understated and subdued, without pomp or show”. Perfectly catching the piece’s undertone of quiet optimism, the music swelled and receded with stark precision around the central recorded loop.
In the bar after the concert, I asked Bryars to sign my original copy of that 1975 release. We chatted about free improvisation, Cornelius Cardew and AMM, and about his never-ending quest for a supply of Aztec Scoremaster 101 pencils. (The interesting story behind this quest can be read on Bryars’ website.) In the weeks before the Geneva concert, I had scoured eBay and other websites in the hope of securing a box of these precious items. It would have been lovely to surprise Bryars by presenting him with such a box, but it was not to be. Still, I’ll keep looking. And if you ever come across a box of Aztec Scoremaster 101 pencils, preferably in yellow, well, you know where to send them.