Dark Mofo Concert 2


June 18, 2021


Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, Tasmania

Event Web Site:

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra

Gavin Bryars – Conductor

Andrea Keller – Piano

Arvo Pärt: If Bach had been a Beekeeper

Carla Bley arr. Bryars: End of Vienna  Andrea Keller, solo piano

Bryars: Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet 

The second concert ends with one of my earliest, and perhaps best-known pieces Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Met Yet, (which has a link with Tom Waits from the first concert) I have also included two works by my friends Arvo Pärt and Carla Bley, both of whom I have known for many years but whose pieces here are unusual in terms of their overall body of work.

If Bach had been a Beekeeper came at a critical point in Arvo’s output, just a year before the composition of his most well-known works Fratres, Cantus and Tabula Rasa. Those more familiar with his later work may be surprised at the humour and energy of the first part with its brisk marching tempo, wide dynamics and strident solo horn punctuations. He uses the well-known musical spelling of Bach’s name B A C H (the notes B flat-A-C-B natural) in the constant ‘buzzing’ of tremolo strings throughout the lively first section, overlaying different transpositions and metres. There is wit too, albeit of a more restrained kind, in the extremely slow, stately and elegant second part, which emerges like the slow movement of an imaginary Bach orchestral suite. And bass players everywhere will relish his use of the fifth string at the end, a powerful pedal low B…

End of Vienna for solo piano and chamber ensemble comes from one of  Carla Bley’s few ventures into the world of classical music, for a project called “Fancy Chamber Music.” Whenever I am asked to name my “favourite composer, I usually reply, “Carla Bley” and although I cannot admire any composer without reservation, in her case my reservations barely exists. In the 1980s, when I was still teaching, I ran The Leicester Bley Band, with a mixture of staff and students, using parts given to me by Carla herself, and on one occasion, at the Camden Jazz Festival, we played the first half of her own concert. I made this orchestral version of End of Vienna specially for Dark Mofo. The title refers to the fact that, being in 4/4, unlike most Viennese music, this is not a waltz…

Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet began life 50 years ago, and the story is perhaps fairly familiar, but I’ll restate it briefly. In 1971 a friend, Alan Power, was making a film about people living rough in London, around Waterloo and Elephant and Castle. While filming he made a number of tape recordings, some synchronised with the film, others not, and he eventually brought them to me for mixing. He gave me those tapes that he didn’t need for his film, and which were to be discarded. For some reason I listened to them all. On these tapes people talked about their lives, sometimes they would break into drunken song – sentimental ballads, loud operatic extracts. But one man, who didn’t drink alcohol, sang “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” which, as I later discovered, he improvised. I was struck by his singing, which was very touching, musical and also happened to be in tune with my piano. I made a loop from the short fragment of his singing, and wrote a simple accompaniment, arranging it for a small ensemble with a simple, gradually evolving orchestration. We know almost nothing about the old man: as he didn’t appear in the film here are no images of him and members of the crew had vague recollections that he was fragile and with not long to live. Over the years I have made many different versions ranging from just a few players to full orchestra – and The Song Company has recently recorded a special a cappella version that I made for them. Performance durations have ranged from 12 hours through the night one, to a tiny one lasting just 58 seconds for an album of “miniatures…” The accompaniment, though, does not seek to draw attention to itself but forms a constantly evolving support to the old man’s voice, respecting its dignified humanity and simple faith. It remains an understated testimony to his honesty and optimistic spirit and, in spite of having heard this fragment many thousands of times over the last 50 years, it still touches me each time the performance begins.

Gavin Bryars