A mesmerising musical experience: Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet at Tate Modern

Guest review by Doug Thomas

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Gavin Bryars

In 1971, the British composer Gavin Bryars looped the recording of an unknown homeless man singing what was thought to be the religious hymn “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” over a dense minimalistic orchestral arrangement. The result is a mesmerising musical experience; first limited to twenty-five minutes on LP, then sixty minutes on cassette and finally seventy-four minutes with the CD version. Unfortunately, it appears that the old man never heard Bryars’ composition – and the composer himself later came to conclusion that the hymn had actually been improvised by the unknown man. Last Friday, 12th April 2019, a handful of lucky people gathered in the Tanks at London’s Tate Modern to experience for the very first time for a full twelve-hour live performance of the piece.

The event, scheduled at eight in the evening and running until the early morning, was organised so that the audience could stay for the entire duration of the concert, but with constant open doors to allow people to come and go throughout the night. Contrary to Max Richter’s eight hour lullaby “Sleep”, no beds had been arranged; actually no seating had been arranged at all. The audience spontaneously sat, and later lay down, in a semi-circle in front of the orchestras, while some people stood up and moved around, as one would do in a museum room. The orchestras were the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Southbank Sinfonia and the Gavin Bryars Ensemble (including my arranging teacher at university, Audrey Riley). On the side of the orchestras, Street Wise Opera, a choir of people with experience of homelessness, and in the middle of all that, on contrabass and later on the conductor’s seat, Gavin Bryars himself.

The piece started quite spontaneously with no announcement or introduction. And then something happened. To the words of the old man’s voice and the sweetness of the instruments, the entire audience remained silent and immovably mesmerised. Stanza after stanza, the instruments introduced themselves, then the choir started singing. There was the beauty of the music, the honesty of the musicians and the singers, the admiration and attentiveness of the audience. When I checked the time, I realised that what felt like minutes had actually been hours. Throughout the night, members of the orchestra took turns in performing while part of the audience remained, as night owls, until the early morning.

Everything about this experience was right. The venue, which broke with the austere standards of classical concerts venues, and allowed everyone to come, and go. The spontaneous audience: musicians, curious wanderers or simple art and music lovers. The performers: amateurs and professionals gathered around a communal sense of honesty and authenticity. And of course, the music. What had always seemed to me like a beautiful two-dimensional musical painting became a sonic sculptural wrapping, and a unique musical experience. How lucky I feel to have been a little piece of history of minimalistic music.


Doug Thomas is a French composer and artist based in London.

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