Gavin Bryars: The Sinking of the Titanic

D.M. Edwards

Bryars’ magnificent treatise on the persistence of sound, and the courage and invention of human beings renders comment superfluous. Listen to it before you read any review.

Gavin Bryars

The Sinking of the Titanic

Contributors: Gavin Bryars, Alter Ego, Philip Jeck
Label: Touch
US Release Date: 2007-12-11
UK Release Date: 2007-12-10

Several of the interlinking theories behind this composition relate to the sounds that actually accompanied the Titanic disaster. The ship's band apparently played music during and after the ship sank beneath the ocean. It has also been reported that signals were broadcasting to and from the liner as this was the occasion of the first major use of Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless telegraphy in sea rescue. An audio transducer was also attached to the hull of the ship in order to hear acoustic signals from underwater bells attached to floating buoys near coastal rocks. These are the building blocks with which Bryars’ turns an obsession into a mesmerizing contemplative work.

The Sinking of the Titanic is a composition that seems to be stretching into the future with no sign of abeyance; this latest incarnation is more than four times the length of the original. The evolution of the piece also hints at the idea (espoused by Marconi in later life) that sound waves never actually disappear but continue on indefinitely, becoming increasingly quiet, until they can no longer be heard by the human ear. He felt that with sensitive equipment and filters, we would have the ability to hear all the sounds ever created. Certainly, sound has a mysterious life beyond our control: signals originally emanating from the stricken liner were picked up by a rescue ship, the Birma, 88 minutes after the ship sank beneath the ocean.

There remains some debate about whether the last song played by the Titanic's band was an Episcopal hymn called "Autumn" or a popular French waltz titled "Songe d’Automne". Bryars comes down in favor of the hymn, and his hypnotic masterpiece succeeds in freezing the momentous event for all time, as if the liner had become embedded in the iceberg rather than had sunk. There should be no debate, though, on the fact that it is incorrect to call The Sinking of the Titanic either an ambient or an electronic work. Ambient music thrives on inattention, whereas Bryars’ pieces warrant mental immersion. Further, the piece is clearly an orchestral one, despite turntablist Philip Jeck’s creation, at times, of a bristling sonic fog. Indeed, at the risk of evoking Alan Partridge’s house band (Glen Ponder and Chalet) the choice of collaborators in Jeck and Alter Ego is inspired. I can only imagine that those lucky enough to have heard this rendition in concert with the film by Andrew Hooker will never forget it.

An approximate log of the sounds in this recording would commence with crackles, a distant horn, raindrops and humming, typing or telegraphing, and waves of almost mournful strings. There is an amalgamation of intensity and a puzzling, lonely, ominous, yet comforting, repetition. Nine minutes pass almost as quickly as the first ten seconds of a punk song. There’s a sense of calm procession, punctuated by occasional low level thrashing electronic echo, voices, and distressed sound. The emergence of the hymn brings a mood of simplicity, peace and grace. The voice of a survivor: a woman talking about the hymn and the water. Then we hear bells. She bursts into song, chats about a quartet and the tune, and remembers singing alone in bed as a child. As well as Bryar's doublebass, we hear lovely snatches of piano. Sometimes the mood is tinged with a hard Salvation Army sentimentality, that is, kindness imbued with a worldly, frosty, sad reality. The elegant, muted strings are tantalizingly close to being dominant, but never really take over. There’s a sensation of ebbing, clanging bells, an incongruous bird or cricket-like twittering before the hymn returns. The composition descends as slowly and certainly as its subject. It lingers and yet there is a constant sense of everything ebbing away. An atmosphere akin to a surging soccer crowd intrudes for a short while: crowd noise as waves of energy and sound, full of ritual and portent, always the same, always changing. More verbal testaments are overlaid, signals throb and waves of sound flicker like embers of hope. Woodwinds suggest an abrasive death rattle. The crackle which began the piece returns as if to suggest that we have come through static or darkness, glimpsed some incredible scene, and then moved away into the mist.

Apparently, there were two wireless operators onboard the doomed vessel. Second operator Bride, who was receiving signals, survived and made it to New York (where he was greeted by a delighted Marconi). Senior operator Philips continued to transmit even after being told by Captain Edward Smith that he was relieved of his duties. Captain Smith is a famous son of Stoke-on-Trent, though some distance behind its most famous one: Sir Stanley Matthews. The unfortunate Captain has attracted conspiracy theories, and even the slurs of religious bigots, whereas anyone familiar with Matthews knows that he could have side-stepped a meteor shower, never mind an iceberg.

Gavin Bryars’ brilliant conceptualism has at times overshadowed the simple power and beauty of his music. If you doubt the residue of controversy that lies on some of his work then all you would need to do is try playing Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet on the radio and gauging the passionate reaction. The piece draws vitriol and rapture from listeners on about a 75-25 percent ratio. Bryars' approach can sometimes be said to echo the way that history reveals itself gradually, with appropriate revisions afforded by new technology. He composed The Sinking of the Titanic in 1969, and in 1975 it became the first release on Brian Eno’s Obscure label, with Jesus Blood ... on the other side of the LP. Perhaps it is fitting that this latest recording of The Sinking ... was recorded in Marconi’s native country, in the watery environs of Venice, at the Teatro Malibran, constructed on the site of the former home of Marco Polo. Bryars’ work bears an incredible fluidity, and yet seems as still and permanent as monuments or landscape. In his latest blog, he tells of composing music for Shakespearean sonnets and mentions a poem by George Bruce, called The Stones of the Arch:

”Let us then unlabel these stones.

Let the sea swallow them.

Let them be with that other universe

where no time is kept.”


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