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Gavin Bryars Never failed me yet

This year, Music in the Round have moved their annual Chamber Music Festival into a two-day digital event. The digital festival will consist of talks, screenings and concerts by their resident Ensemble 360 musicians plus some exciting guests. On Friday 15 May at 6pm they will be screening two past projects - one documentary and one performance - by the celebrated composer and double bassist Gavin Bryars.

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Although now living in the Midlands, Gavin has strong ties to both Sheffield and Yorkshire. While studying philosophy at the University of Sheffield he began experimenting as a jazz bassist, and played with a variety of musicians before forming the Gavin Bryars Ensemble. "When I started my own ensemble I worked on the principle that it should comprise musicians I really wanted to work with," says Gavin.

It should be noted that this interview was conducted with Gavin pre-lockdown.

Tell us a bit more about 'Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet'.

I lived in London in the early 1970s and I was working with Alan Power, a filmmaker, on a film about people living rough at tube stations. We came across lots of drunken songs, snippets from operas and ballads. One homeless man caught my attention as he sang a religious song, 'Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet'. This part wasn't used in the film and I was given the unused tapes, including this one.

When I re-listened to this tape I found that the man's singing was in tune with my piano, so I improvised a simple accompaniment. I noticed that I could make an effective loop out of this song, so I took the tape to Leicester and copied the loop onto a continuous reel of tape. I thought about adding an orchestral accompaniment to the song. I left the studio to go have a cup of coffee, and when I returned I found that the lively studio was somewhat sombre. People were moving more slowly, with some even weeping. I realised then that I'd left the tape rolling when I went for my coffee, and this made me realise the emotional pull of this song.

The emotional power of the music and the possibilities offered by adding a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the man's nobility and simple faith, were huge. The work remains an eloquent but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism.

Due to the ever-evolving nature of your ensemble, are there different versions of 'Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet'?

The piece was originally recorded on Brian Eno's Obscure label in 1975, with the small ensemble I had at the time. After many revisions and other changes I created versions that last 25, 40, 60 or 74 minutes. Each can be used for different kinds of events. In Sheffield this year we'll be performing the 25 minute version.

I changed the work extensively for the 1993 Point Records' version. This was specially created for my ensemble, plus the pre-recorded tape, to coincide with this last recording. We did a twelve-hour version at the Tate Modern some years ago. Between 8am and 8pm we performed this work with the tape and a dozen or so players. The performers enter in small groups to quietly accompany the tape, and this was on loop for a whole twelve hours!

How do you approach writing for different soloists?

I like to meet the players themselves. Get to know their characteristics, what they can make sound really good, and what not so good. I also listen to their sound and how it carries across an ensemble. It's a personal thing but it's rather essential that I get to know them before being able to pen something.

After composing a work, how involved are you in the process up to the premiere?

I'm often a part of the premieres themselves, either performing on stage or being present. I'll always hear my works before they premiere, because I need to know if it works or not. I wrote an opera called Marilyn Forever, which was about the last night of Marilyn Monroe's life, and I wrote for there to be an onstage jazz trio in some of the scenes. I played bass in the trio, so I got to really see my music come to life.

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Your works are all about collaboration and experimentation. Do you have any particular highlights?

I've composed the music for five operas and 30 ballets. Be it dance, poetry, text or fine art, collaboration is always brilliant. Working across art forms is something I've done throughout my career. I enjoyed working with the Latvian Radio Choir on a piece to be performed in the cathedral at Riga. The space is incredible and I'd highly recommend going. I also recorded an album full of music inspired by the Faroe Islands. Through doing this I learned a lot about the language, which has made me think about the ways that I approach different venues and acoustics.

Are you excited to be coming back to Sheffield?

I love Sheffield and South Yorkshire. Although I grew up in East Yorkshire, Sheffield never seemed that far away. Now that my children live in London, and the rest of my family live in Yorkshire, I'm really looking forward to stopping off in Sheffield. I could always see myself living there, it's a great city. The last time I performed in Sheffield was a very long time ago, in a time where pubs used to close so early that we'd hop on our motor scooters and whizz over the county borders to get last orders at another bar! I can't wait for Sheffield to hear my ensemble and its current sound. You'll get the essence of the ensemble in this one-hour concert.

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