REVIEW: Gavin Bryars Ensemble at Cafe Oto

Gavin Bryars at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Gavin Bryars Ensemble
(Cafe Oto; day 3 of 3 day residency, 2 February 2018; review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, the most widely recognised work in Gavin Bryars’ extensive portfolio, is one that, on the surface, would seem to demand a specific interpretation. Yet, Bryars revisited the original 1972 recording in 1993 for a range of new recordings, including one with Tom Waits singing alongside the tramp’s single, sung phrase which had been captured and looped so effectively. In his introduction at Cafe Oto, Bryars said how much he had grown to enjoy playing the piece live and how fresh the composition and the old man’s voice stayed in a variety of settings, which include a performance with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. It was, he said, his equivalent to the Stones’ Satisfaction, but different every time!

The ensemble’s rendition at Cafe Oto was acutely sensitive, beautifully paced, and surprisingly uplifting. Usually characterised by a melancholy, sadly moving timbre, on this occasion the clarity of the pre-recorded voice shone through with an optimistic streak resonating in the tramp’s echoing, heartfelt faith in the words which constitute the essence of the piece and its title.

A long, respectful silence from the Bryars nonet, which included all his children, allowed the song to seep in to the room before the strings dropped in to gently accompany the repeated, recorded phrase, with arrangements woven in and around the central figure, and the group meshing as one as their musical and emotional partnership with the disembodied vagrant blossomed. Ambient sounds captured in the audio offcut rescued from the cutting room floor nearly 50 years ago, indistinct voices in the park, a seagull, added a sense of place, but also of shared memory tinged with nostalgia.

The concert had opened with a performance of the only private commission Bryars has accepted, The Flower of Friendship (2009), for a retired Canadian law professor. There was no deadline, “hence years passed …”. Bryars settled on an instrumental quartet based on a 13th century call to prayer after learning that the dedicatee was phobic about vocal music and other musical forms, and extracted the title from that of an extended poem by Gertrude Stein. James Woodrow’s electric guitar, flushed with delicate, hanging reverb, integrated gracefully with the Morgan Goff’s viola, Audrey Riley’s cello and Bryars, overseeing proceedings, on string bass. Their warm tones blended the wistful and melancholy with an autumnal intimacy, trading mild drones with plucked notes and even some fleeting jazz lines from Bryars, going back to his sixties roots.

The second half focus, A Man in a Room, Gambling, was the counterbalance, a complex mixture of subterfuge and sleight of hand that comprised seven of the ten five-minute programmes contrived by Bryars with sculptor Juan Muñoz in 1992 for an Artangel commission to jointly compose for the radio. Bryars’ perfectly vignetted compositions accompanied each of the late sculptor’s recorded readings of his mind-twisting texts, based on those by S W Erdnase, which describe the dark arts of playing card manipulation. Bryars’ wish was that the music might momentarily deflect the listener from the insights given away in the explanations, mirroring experience at the card table. The sequence was deftly executed by the quintet (viola, two cellos, bass and guitar), with a lightness of touch which intensified on reaching the Three Card Trick, ‘dealing from the bottom of the pack’. The precision of the instructions to the player, notably, to carry out the manoeuvres ‘without looking at the pack’, was finely balanced by the scores and enclosed in an artifice of mock, good-humoured formality.

Acutely sensitive; Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet by Gavin Bryars Ensemble at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2018. All Rights Reserved.

This was in the spirit of the original BBC recording at Maida Vale Studios, at which, I am reliably informed by a friend who was present,  the iconic voice of the Shipping Forecast, Peter Donaldson, made the introductions. Each piece preceded the evening shipping forecast over a ten-day period in 1997.

The brief Epilogue from Wonderlawn, with its stress on the interplay between viola and the other string players, maintained the delicate balance between the structure of composition and the bright, individual contributions that made the whole evening work so well.


Gavin Bryars – double bass
Orlanda Bryars – cello
Yuri Bryars – double bass
Ziella Bryars – cello
Alexandra-Maria Tchernakova – viola, piano
Nick Cooper – cello
Morgan Goff – viola
Audrey Riley -cello
James Woodrow – electric guitar

Categories: miscellaneous

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