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World Premiere of Gavin Bryars's Viola Concerto at the Dark Mofo Festival in Tasmania

Jun. 01, 2021

On June 17, Gavin Bryars conducts the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere of his Viola Concerto at the Dark Mofo Festival in Tasmania. The work was written during the pandemic lockdown and features soloist Morgan Goff on viola. It is inspired by the southern winter solstice and a 12th-century Japanese book by Kamo-no-Chomei, about living in an isolated ten-foot-square hut he built in the forest after earthquakes, storms and fires devastated Kyoto.

The following evening, Gavin Bryars will lead the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in the 15th anniversary performance of his acclaimed work, Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet as part of the same festival. The composer notes:

"In 1971, when I lived in London, I was working with a friend, Alan Power, on a film about people living rough in the area around Elephant and Castle and Waterloo Station. In the course of being filmed, some people broke into drunken song – sometimes bits of opera, sometimes sentimental ballads – and one, who in fact did not drink, sang a religious song “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”. This was not ultimately used in the film and I was given all the unused sections of tape, including this one.

When I played it at home, I found that his singing was in tune with my piano, and I improvised a simple accompaniment. I noticed, too, that the first section of the song – 13 bars in length – formed an effective loop which repeated in a slightly unpredictable way. I took the tape loop to Leicester, where I was working in the Fine Art Department, and copied the loop onto a continuous reel of tape, thinking about perhaps adding an orchestrated accompaniment to this. The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping.

I was puzzled until I realised that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man’s singing. This convinced me of the emotional power of the music and of the possibilities offered by adding a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the tramp’s nobility and simple faith. Although he died before he could hear what I had done with his singing, the piece remains as an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism.

The piece was conceived as a flexible work for any forces and any duration, over its lifetime it has been performed in countless different versions and is regularly used by choreographers.  It was first recorded on Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975, other notable versions include an extended version for Point Records in 1993, a choral version written for The Song Company in 2018 and a 12 hour overnight version with orchestra and homeless choir presented at Tate Modern London in 2019.  The version presented here for orchestra (fixed forces and 30 minutes duration) was developed for performances with Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in 2015 and BBC National Orchestra of Wales in 2017."


(Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet/Gavin Bryars/PsapphaEnsemble)

To learn more about Gavin Bryars, visit schott-music.com.

Gavin Bryars
Viola Concerto (2020)
("A Hut in Toyama")
for viola and chamber orchestra
0.0.bcl(cl).2(2.cbn)-2.0.0.0-pno-str(12.10.8.6.5)
30'

Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971)
for digital tape / CD and ensemble / orchestra
Instrumentation flexible with instrumental groups optional but based on the following maximum scoring: 1.1.1.bcl.1-4.2.2.1-perc(glsp.vib)-gtr.hp.cel.org-string quartet.2db
35'

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