The Tanks, Tate Modern, London
This was a truly unique musical experience, though I can admit to only enjoying about 15% of the complete performance.
Some forty years ago, Gavin Bryars got hold of a fragment of tape of a homeless man singing an unknown religious melody – “Jesus’s Blood Never Failed Me Yet”. He created a loop of it, so that it ran for as long as anyone cared to play it for.
Bryars composed music to play along with the voice. Over the years he has released a number of versions of performances of the piece, constrained only by the medium – a vinyl version (24 minutes), a tape (30 minutes), the on to a CD version at 74 minutes. There was also a version performed with Tom Waits.
Last night through to this morning Never Failed Me Yet had its ultimate performance. A non stop 12 hour rendition, starting at 20:00 Friday evening and ending at 8:00 this morning, performed at The Tate, with free admission.
I went along for the first hour and arrived back in time to catch the final 45 minutes.
The performance opens with the old man’s voice. He sings for about 25 seconds, then it loops back to the start (so will be heard some 1,700 times in this performance). For four minutes or so that’s all we hear. Then strings start playing, gently, almost apologetically with more joining in; layers of sound are added then subtracted. The tempo never wavers, Bryars himself starts playing double bass (alongside his son, also playing bass). There’s a choir who start singing about 20 minutes in. Initially they are seated and sing quietly accompanying the single voice “Jesus’s Blood Never Failed Me Yet, Never Failed Me Yet, Jesus’s Blood Never Failed Me Yet, There’s One Thing I Know, For He Loves Me So”. The voices swell. They stand and sing repeatedly just “Jesus’s Blood” then “Never Failed” then stop and retake their seats.
There is a percussion section made up of a number of homeless people whom Bryars has recruited that joins in. There’s a xylophone as well.
The Academy players also have woodwind and brass and a piano. The problem here is the venue: The Tanks in The Tate basement is a semi-circular venue. It’s probably about 10 metres high and 40 metres diameter. The walls are concrete. The floor is polished concrete. there are no seats. You either sit on the floor or stand. The acoustics are appalling. I was seated about 5 metres from the piano and I couldn’t hear a note from it. I could see that the wind players were performing but couldn’t hear them at all.
Nonetheless this whole thing is mesmerising.
Bryars moved to the centre, leaving his bass, in order to conduct. Layers of sound move in and out. The strings are very quiet – I think I heard some flute. The strings are back. The choir sings again…
I have to leave to rejoin my wife, who couldn’t be tempted to sample this performance. I’ve heard the first hour and depart wondering how the musicians will fare through the night.
I hadn’t originally intended to return, but having awoke early at around 5:30, I was lying thinking of the musicians continuing to play and then decided I had to get up and rejoin them.
The audience was much smaller. I was amazed to see that the same musicians were there. There was a front section of two violins, a viola, two cellos, an electric guitar and a double bass. Exactly the same musicians as on the evening before. I presume that the rest of the orchestra was also the same. There were more strings in front of the position Bryars has assumed to conduct the piece.
I selected a different position (much easier to do with a far smaller crowd) where I could hear the piano (same pianist) and the wind section as well as the rest of the orchestra.
As I lay back, though essentially the same music as the night before it seemed to me to be more fragile and more beautiful.
I was also amazed to see that the musicians were still reading the score. One would have thought that after all that time they would have it off pat, but I saw the first violin lift and discard a sheet of music in order to read the next part. As well as that I could see that the pianist, as well as his sheet music, had a plan visible on his music stand. Presumably Bryars’ vision of how the various sections began and ended.
The choir joined in for one last time. Whether it was due to relief that the end was approaching, there seemed to be an a quiet power in their singing that added much more to what I’d heard the night before. It was quite awe-inspiring (and I say that as a non-religious person).
Gradually sections of the orchestra drop out. The it’s just the looped solo voice and a single violin. The voice gets quieter and quieter, then fades to nothing. The solo violin continues, slowly, gracefully for another couple of minutes. It too quietens, fading away and then stops. Then silence. It’s absolutely quiet. I can hear the blood in my head. The silence continues. All is still until someone behind me feels the need to start applauding with about 20 seconds to go on the clock, before the full 12 hours is up. The applause slowly spreads and then we are all on our feet clapping. It continues and continues. Bryars turns to face us. Makes a gesture that he needs sleep and it dies away.
I’ve witnessed two parts of one of the most remarkable musical performances ever to take place in this country. I feel strangely privileged and very happy. I’m pretty sure nothing like this will be played again in my lifetime.
It was outstanding and, in its own way, astounding. And quite, quite beautiful.
When I arrived back I noticed there were a number of sleeping bags on the floor. Some people had planned for the full 12 hours. I felt bit of a lightweight.
It made me think..
I’m glad I resisted the impulse to shout “More” at the end.