Music

Earworms are the internal soundtrack of our lives. What's yours?

Gavin Bryars' 1971 piece is a frequent earworm for this writer. Catch his ensemble in concert, this month and next

A man playing a double bass

Gavin Bryars. Image: Alf Solbakken

Earworms are curious creatures. They arrive unannounced and bury into the soil of your brain, sometimes dormant for months – or years – only to emerge without warning, wriggling their melodies. These replays can happen at the most inconvenient times: when we’re trying to concentrate on work, to remember something, or during a serious moment of reflection.

The process is beautifully depicted in Disney’s 2015 film Inside Out, where the musical snippet from a chewing gum commercial is preserved among the memory balls. “Sometimes we send that up to headquarters for no reason and it plays in Riley’s head all day,” laughs one of the engineers as he adds the memory to the chute, much to the annoyance of the protagonist’s emotions.

We have no control over these sub-conscious dwellers, they lie dormant, ready to swell ranks with new comrades.

Among my earworms – including that fictional TripleDent gum jingle – is Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, the 1971 piece by Gavin Bryars that loops a recording of an anonymous homeless man singing a half-remembered old gospel hymn. For an hour or longer (depending on which version you listen to), the words “Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet, Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, this one thing I know – for he loves me so,” repeat seemingly in perpetuity.

Without warning, the musical memory is sent up to my own headquarters, and I’ll find myself singing the phrase – mostly in my head, but sometimes out loud – for days. It can be quite alarming to hear a dedicated atheist suddenly espouse the crucifixion.

The recording was captured during research for a documentary about homelessness in London. Bryars saw potential in the 13-bar sample, using it as the solo line and embellishing the texture with strings (and in some versions, brass and electronics).

Whether intentional or not, the composer was following in the footsteps of Steve Reich, whose 1965 piece It’s Gonna Rain looped a fragment of a sermon about the end of the world, while Come Out (1966) was based around the recording of a falsely accused young man who was attacked by the police. It fitted with the growing interest in minimalism – music largely based on repeated motifs – and in 1993 Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize.

My own earworm resurfaced in 2019 when attending a 12-hour overnight performance by an ensemble that included two groups of homeless people at the Tate Modern. As part of Bryars’s 80th birthday celebrations, performers from Streetwise Opera – a group that supports people who have experience homelessness – and The Choir with No Name, an organisation that helps homeless and marginalised people across six choirs in Birmingham, Liverpool, London, Brighton, Cardiff and Coventry, join the Gavin Bryars Ensemble to perform Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet at London’s St Martin in the Fields on 9 November. The work also features in ‘Gavin Bryars at 80′ held at Milton Court on 19 December.

Listen and watch

Blockbuster films about conductor-composers are like buses: you wait for ages and then two come along in swift succession. However, unlike pseudo-biopic Tár, Maestro is based on a real-life musician – Leonard Bernstein. Bradley Cooper’s movie focuses of the relationship between Bernstein (played by Cooper) and his wife Felicia (Carey Mulligan), from early courtship to family life and her early death.

It’s a flattering portrayal (Cooper worked closely with Bernstein’s three children, Jamie, Nina and Alexander in preparation for the filming), and references the conductor’s male lovers, who often joined the entourage (sometimes with Felicia’s blessing, sometimes without).

Cooper was given conducting lessons by Michael Tilson Thomas, Gustavo Dudamel and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The latter (music director of the Orchestre Métropolitain, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Philadelphia Orchestra) was present on set to ensure the performance was as authentic as possible.

All the music for the soundtrack – including excerpts from West Side Story, Candide, On the Town, Chichester Psalms and Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 – was chosen by Cooper, with new recordings made by London Symphony Orchestra and Nézet-Séguin.

The soundtrack will be released digitally on 17 November, and on CD and vinyl on 1 December. Maestro is out in cinemas on 24 November and on Netflix from 20 December.

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