Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the premiere of “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” by minimalist British composer Gavin Bryars.
On 1 December 1972, fifty years ago, the Queen Elizabeth Hall of London’s Southbank Centre hosted the live premiere of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, one of British composer Gavin Bryars‘ earliest minimalist works. The work is a 1971 composition created from a loop recording of the voice of an unknown homeless man singing this kind of religious hymn. The discovery of the recording was fortuitous: Bryars was collaborating with a friend of his, Alan Power, on the soundtrack of a documentary about the many homeless people who could be found on the streets of London at the time. Power gave Bryars a few discarded tapes to reuse, recording his music over them. However, Bryars reviewed by chance the contents and, among the statements of many of the homeless people interviewed, which included drunks, drug addicts or people with mental disorders, he found that some of them had taken to singing musical pieces such as opera arias or old folk ditties. Bryars was surprised by the voice of an elderly homeless man who appeared to be completely sober, singing an old religious song.
Obsessed with how to sing the beggar’s brief melody, Bryars spent several days thinking about how he could use the recording. Inspired by recent looped recordings of Steve Reich’s vocals – It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out – the English composer created a twenty-five-minute musical accompaniment of repetitive harmonies, with a series of subtle and gradual harmonic variations in a distinctly minimalist style. The work was first released in 1975 on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records, along with The Sinking of the Titanic. Years later, in 1993, a new, much longer version -74 minutes- was recorded, in which the voice of the beggar was replaced by that of Tom Waits.