English composer Gavin Bryars has had an unconventional career, but an important and influential one. And it began, in the 1970s, with a couple of releases on Brian Eno’s short-lived but remarkably prescient series of albums called Obscure Music. (Other notable composers Eno recorded included John Adams, Michael Nyman, Harold Budd, the late Simon Jeffes and his Penguin Cafe Orchestra, and John Cage — though I’m sure people had heard of him before Eno came along.) This album became something of a collector’s item because each of its side-long works is a gem.
“The Sinking of the Titanic” is a precursor to the use of sampling and found sound, and to Eno’s own ambient music. Using the dark instrumental colors and depth of texture that would characterize so much of his later work, Bryars created an evocative sonic meditation on the famed shipwreck, and on the strangely appealing idea that the music being played by the band as the ship sank might still be echoing in the thicker audio medium of the ocean. Bryars uses vocal clips from Titanic survivors, but buried deeply in the mix so that they are just fleeting glimpses into the past, popping up in the periphery of the music’s stereo field. The acoustic sounds, based on the possible hymn tunes the ship’s band might have played, are stretched and darkened, giving the piece its elusive aspect.
Even more striking is the album’s other side, given over to a piece called “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.”
This composition is simplicity itself: Bryars uses a 30-second fragment of the titular hymn tune, sung an elderly homeless man living on the streets of London, loops it so that it repeats, and then begins to slowly, quietly, introduce instrumental accompaniment. Eventually, a full ensemble is playing a stately, dignified chorale behind the repeating vocal loop. Bryars knew that any sort of emoting in the band would tip the piece into something sentimental and mawkish. Instead, the effect is poignant to all but the most hard-hearted.
Both of these pieces were later rerecorded, with each one blown up to album-length. The singer Tom Waits, a fan of this original recording, added his voice to the extended version of “Jesus’ Blood,” but in both cases, bigger was not necessarily better, and with the original Obscure release now available again, this is the one to get.