June 7, 2016

Gavin Bryars - The Sinking of the Titanic, 1990

A piece of music with a long and dense backstory which exists in many different iterations. As such, The Sinking of the Titanic feels very much like a living work-in-progress, just as contingent on the live performance as on composition, which is part of what makes it so special. Bryars explains the piece's inspiration here and details its growth and performances here. The piece is a consideration of the sounds generated by the string sextet who played on the boat deck of the Titanic as it sank, and what the sounds would do if the music had continuously played into the water:
Bride did not hear the band stop playing and it would appear that the musicians continued to play even as the water enveloped them. My initial speculations centred, therefore, on what happens to music as it is played in water. On a purely physical level, of course, it simply stops since the strings would fail to produce much of a sound (it was a string sextet that played at the end, since the two pianists with the band had no instruments available on the Boat Deck). On a poetic level, however, the music, once generated in water, would continue to reverberate for long periods of time in the more sound-efficient medium of water and the music would descend with the ship to the ocean bed and remain there, repeating over and over until the ship returns to the surface and the sounds re-emerge. The rediscovery of the ship by Taurus International at 1.04 on September 1st 1985 renders this a possibility. This hymn tune forms a base over which other material is superimposed. This includes fragments of interviews with survivors, sequences of Morse signals played on woodblocks, other arrangements of the hymn, other possible tunes for the hymn on other instruments, references to the different bagpipe players on the ship (one Irish, one Scottish), miscellaneous sound effects relating to descriptions given by survivors of the sound of the iceberg's impact, and so on.
Bryars began writing it in 1969 and recorded a 25 minute version of it in 1975 as a first release for Brian Eno's Obscure Records (Eno himself produced the recording). After Robert Ballard discovered the Titanic's wreck in 1985, Bryars dramatically reworked the piece to include additional sonic elements detailed above, as well as two children's choral ensembles. The work was performed at the Printemps du Bourges festival in Belgium in 1990 in a Napoleonic-era water tower, with the musicians performing in the basement of the tower and the audience listening on the ground floor. The empty top floors of the tower acted as a giant reverberation chamber. For this recorded version of the live performance, Bryars added the sound of other ambient spaces, including that of the swimming bath in Brussels where the piece was performed "live" on a raft in 1990.

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