Sometimes I think that the crucial question in evaluating music is not simply whether it is good or not, but in how many ways. There are plenty of pieces in every category that excel in one way or another. But once in a while one finds a piece that crosses many boundaries, has many facets, and somehow manages to excel from a whole lot of points of view. That is the case with a piece by the British composer Gavin Bryars. The work, ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet,’ occupies a side of a recent album issued on the new and modestly named Obscure label.
To begin with, ‘Jesus’ Blood’ is good as a piece of avant-garde minimalism. One little vocal tune repeats over and over and over, maybe 50 times in all. It’s just another tape loop really, but as in all good minimal works, the material keeps revealing more and more about itself. The tune never changes, but my perception of it shifts continually.
‘Jesus’ Blood’ is also excellent religious music. Neither the melody nor the voice are at all refined, but I believe the man totally as he sings. ‘Jesus’ blood never failed me yet. This one thing I know, that he loves me so. Jesus’ blood never failed me yet.’ He conveys the kind of sincerity and conviction that any cantor or gospel singer tries for, but which only the best ones achieve.
‘Jesus’ Blood’ also excels as a documentary recording. The singer is not a professional gospel singer at all, but just an ordinary London tramp. This recording of his meandering song reminds me of some of the best photographs I’ve seen. It’s one of those everyday street images that somehow turns out to be utterly poignant. Incidentally, a filmmaker, Alan Powers, deserves credit for capturing this anonymous tramp’s song on tape. But Bryars deserves credit for rescuing it from Powers’s outtake file.
On yet another level, ‘Jesus’ Blood’ is some of the best easy listening I’ve heard in some time. After the bum’s tune is heard six or eight times, strings begin to accompany him. Later on, Bryars gradually adds guitar, bass, woodwinds, horns, harp, brass, oboe, organ, and vibes. The arrangement moves through a series of lush orchestrations, worthy of the classiest Muzak arrangers.
Call it minimalism, call it religious music, call it documentation, or call it easy listening. Any way you look at it, Bryars has put together a good piece, and it is impressive that he could make it work on all these levels at once. Incidentally, the piece is also likely to make you cry, which I suppose makes it good kitsch, too, but that’s another problem.
The other side is devoted to ‘The Sinking of the Titanic.’ This is also a first-rate piece, though in only two ways. Most important and most unusual, it is a first-rate documentary. That is something that is rarely done in music, and it is a most interesting direction. In this case, Bryars did a great deal of research about the sinking of the Titanic, reading all the reports, diary notes, and recollections he could get his hands on. He investigated the story about the ship orchestra playing hymns on the deck as the ship went down. He tried to determine what hymns they played and what the composition of the sinking orchestra was. He found names, dates, times, and places, and, with an obsessive thoroughness, went about attempting to recreate the general sequence of events.
The music itself is an Iveslike collage, and that is the second way in which it is good. The strings play very slow uncoordinated versions of the authentic hymns, while choirs, voices, and unidentifiable elements obtrude faintly in the background, like ghostly memories.
Brian Eno, a former member of Roxy Music with a reputation in avant-garde English rock, founded the label and has also produced three other Obscure albums that I know of. One, his own work, is a refinement of the kind of static sound, that he and Robert Fripp used on their largely electronic album, ‘Evening Star.’ The new ‘Discreet Music’ is lush synthesizer music, with simple melodic materials that vary mostly at the whim of a digital recall system. The other side, ‘Three Variations on the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel,’ collages snatches of Pachelbel at different tempos in the various instruments of the string orchestra.
The effect on both sides is slow, gentle, abstract, and relatively unchanging, and the mood reminds me of Morton Feldman. Unlike Feldman, however, Eno presents his work strictly as ‘discreet’ background music. The album doesn’t have the kind of careful detail that allows Feldman’s work to hold up under repeated hearings, but it is effective on its own terms.
Two other Obscure albums offer some fascinating shorter pieces. One is devoted to homemade instruments by young British composers, and the other contains unique ensemble pieces by Christopher Hobbs, John Adams, and Bryars.
All in all, these four Obscure records add up to one knockout, one standout, and several bands of worthwhile novelties, and that is an excellent batting average for a new record company. If it keeps going like that, the label is not going to be obscure for very long.