Never failed yet
As he turns 75, acclaimed composer Gavin Bryars reflects on a life in music, writing operas with no experience whatsoever, the joys of football’s lower divisions and his deep appreciation of Irish culture
Composer Gavin Bryars
The late Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz called Gavin Bryars one of the 10 most intelligent people on the planet. Bryars is best known for Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, an unforgettable piece featuring the haunting voice of a homeless man in London affirming his faith.
A later version Bryars recorded with Tom Waits received a nomination for the 1993 Mercury Music Prize, which was eventually awarded to Suede for their self-titled debut album.
“People constantly tell me how they encountered Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet for the first time, or what it meant to them at key moments during their lives. When I worked with the French actress Delphine Seyrig (star of Last Year at Marienbad) she told me it sustained her during her mother’s last days and gave her immense comfort. It is now 47 years since I first heard that voice. You’d think I’d be completely fed up by it by now, but not at all. I get a little shiver every single time I hear it. I still hear new things in that voice.”
Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet always gets a response, if not always positive. “I did a second recording with Tom Waits,” Bryars says. “It got played on Classic FM. The presenter, Paul Gambaccini, told me it got a bigger reaction than anything else he has ever played. Back in the 90s in Canada, a music critic called Robert Everett-Green played a version of Jesus’ Blood on national radio that lasted nearly two hours. This caused absolute uproar and even made the front pages of the newspapers. People were calling for the resignation of the chairman of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and all sorts of crazy things. It really seems to get under people’s skin in very different ways.”
Despite the steadfast faith of the nameless homeless man, who died before he could hear it, religion is not a clear cut issue for Bryars. “I was brought up going to church on Sundays,” he says.
“My uncle was an organist and I sang in the choir in a small town in East Yorkshire, where amateur musical groups and youth clubs all revolved around the church. I studied religion and became agnostic, but I still value what one could loosely term a spiritual experience. I discovered ancient Christian mystics and Buddhism, which is the only religion that doesn’t involve praying to a god or an external deity.
“However, I don’t go around telling everyone that I’m Buddhist. People might think it’s all a bit like Richard Gere meeting the Dalai Lama, which is not my world at all.”
Bryars divides his time between his native Yorkshire and Canada. “I met my wife, Anna (Tchernakova) in Canada, who is a Russian film director who moved there with her daughter in the 90s,” he says. “My son was born in Canada, and we keep a house here, even though our children were mainly raised in England. My family have dual nationality and I hold a resident’s card, so we move backwards and forwards all the time.”
Bryars sincerely hopes Brexit won’t disrupt his life and work too much.
“It probably won’t affect me a great deal, unless a load of bureaucracy comes for performing in Europe or receiving payments and royalties,” he says.
“My life has always been very international. I’m absolutely horrified by the possibility of Ireland having a border again. The fact that the UK didn’t join the Schengen Agreement in the
When I started composing I developed a habit of always saying yes to anyone when they asked me to do a project, and then I’d later figure out how to do it. My first opera, Medea, is an extreme example
first place was a very bad idea. If things go really badly wrong, I could take out Canadian citizenship, but I’ve no great desire to do that.”
Iarla Ó Lionáird is just one of a lengthy list of friends and collaborators from over the years.
“I arranged music for Father John Misty on his Pure Comedy album, so I got to know Thomas Bartlett of The Gloaming,” Bryars explains. “I think The Gloaming are a supreme group. They’re one of the best around. I’ve always been massively interested in Irish literature and culture. When I was in my first year in university I spent my whole first term reading Irish plays by Yeats, Synge, Beckett, Shaw, Wilde, Behan. I’ve read John Millington Synge’s translation of Petrarch, and I’ve done a Beckett songbook.”
Bryars’s back catalogue features numerous other unusual projects. He has worked with the aforementioned Juan Muñoz, Blake Morrison, John Cage, Etel Adnan, Marilyn Bowering and Michael Ondaatje.
“When I started composing I developed a habit of always saying yes to anyone when they asked me to do a project, and then I’d later figure out how to do it. My first opera, Medea, is an extreme example. I knew absolutely nothing about opera at the time, but I wrote a five-hour opera in ancient Greek that got staged in some of the most famous opera houses in the world.
“It nearly killed me, but it brought me to a different level in terms of compositional ability. When you work with someone else you share ideas and force yourself to think sideways. Visual artists think completely differently from musicians, which I find very refreshing.”
One of the many creative paths Bryars has crossed belongs to Richard D James, aka Aphex Twin.
“I was recording for Philip Glass’s label and Richard was working with Philip. Richard asked me about doing something with The Sinking of
the Titanic. I’ve always enjoyed anything I’ve ever heard him do, so I was fine with it. I gave him a lot of component material and data to re-ensemble. I thought what he did was really lovely, so I sometimes try to incorporate fragments of it into my live performances.” Bryars is also a huge football fan. “When I’m not working, my son and I will go to a football match. We go to watch Nottingham Forest, a great old fashioned football club. I’m actually happy enough for Forest not to be in the Premiership or the Champions League, which I feel are very artificial and sterile. I prefer the cut and thrust of the Championship and lower divisions.
“I also support my home town, Goole in Yorkshire, who were relegated last season. I read a lot and don’t watch much TV, which is strange considering my wife is a film director and I do the music for her films. When I’m in Canada, I love to swim. I eat organic vegetables and wild salmon from the Pacific Ocean.”
Bryars loves to involve his family in his work. “I’ve two daughters from my first marriage and a daughter and a son from my second,” he says. “All four of them play in the ensemble from time to time. We did a live performance in Café Oto in London, which we hope to release as an album soon. As well as being family, my four kids are my best friends. I enjoy their company immensely.”
Bryars will perform at the National Concert Hall as part of their NCH Perspectives series, which also marks his 75th birthday this year.
“Well I’m not 100 yet, so I’m still relatively young,” he laughs. “If I can live for another 10 or 15 years I’ll be doing alright. If my brain stays active and my body doesn’t fall apart, I want to enjoy every new challenge.”
Gavin Bryars performs at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on Monday, November 26 th
Gavin Bryars: “People constantly tell me how they encountered Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet for the first time, or what it meant to them at key moments during their lives.”