GAVIN BRYARS plays THE SAMUEL BECKETT SONGBOOK at the Crossing Border Festival 2018

Ah, I hear you say, I never knew Samuel Beckett wrote songs. Well, he didn’t and the title of this show was a bit of a come-on. The poems, half in English, half in French, set to music were only about a quarter of the programme and, although we were not encouraged to join in the chorus, jolly good they were too.

Now, I have to confess to not knowing a great deal about Englishman Gavin Bryars. He has been around a long time, he is in his mid-seventies, and from my researches I see he is a widely known and respected contemporary composer and bass player.

He was appearing with his Ensemble which was basically viola, cello, electric guitar and himself on double bass. The band was augmented by his daughter, Orlanda Bryars, and James Cave on cellos. The pair were also the band singers, Orlanda with a very pleasant soprano voice and Mr Cave with an astounding counter-tenor.

The first half of the show consisted of a couple of instrumentals followed by the vocal rendition on Lauda 43 Spirito Sancto from a very large pile of mediaeval manuscripts through which the composer is gradually working his way. Both singers excelled and the blended harmonies of the two voices and the instrumentation worked brilliantly. Ms Bryars and Mr Cave then retreated to the back of the stage and picked up their cellos for what, for me, was the high-spot of the concert – Gavin Bryars’ signature piece, Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. It was absolutely beautiful but the story behind it made it moving as well.

Bryars has been playing the song for nearly fifty years and it was the result of the chance discovery of an abandoned audio cassette (that’s what came before CDs, if you are too young to remember). The tape contained a twenty-six second fragment of a tramp (as we used to call homeless people) singing a couple of phrases from a hymn or religious song. So taken with this was Bryars that he made a loop (by hand with a bit of Sellotape, I suspect) and set it to music. The result is a ten or fifteen minute composition of this old man singing away in quite a jolly fashion, quite convinced that Jesus had never failed him. Blessed are the meek . . .

The second half contained what we had been expecting from the start – the Samuel Beckett bit. Now, I am a big fan of Beckett and have been for most of my adult life but I have to say his poems did not really gain an awful lot by being sung. Although the singing was again amazing, it was very difficult to make out the words and the music was almost identical to the early music song from the first half. Nevertheless it was all very nicely done.

I am very pleased to have discovered Gavin Bryars and I will almost certainly become a fan. An excellent concert which I really enjoyed and it was a very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon.    Michael Hasted    4th November 2018

Listen to the ArtsTalk Radio feature on Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet

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