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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - GAVINBRYARS WORDS BY ÉAMON SWEENEY

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.”

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