The Sinking of the Titanic (1969- )

This piece originated in a sketch written for an exhibition in support of beleaguered art students at Portsmouth in 1969.

Working as I was in an art college environment I was interested to see what might be the musical equivalent of a work of conceptual art. It was not until 1972 that I made a performing version of the piece for part of an evening of my work at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.

During the next three years I performed the piece several times, including an American performance directed by John Adams in San Francisco, and in 1975 I made a recorded version for the first of the ten records produced for Brian Eno's Obscure label.

That recording formed the basis for most subsequent performances until I re-recorded the piece 'live' at the Printemps de Bourges festival in 1990 when the availability of an extraordinary space - the town's disused water tower dating from the Napoleonic period - and the rediscovery of the wreck by Dr. Ballard made me think again about the music. In any case the piece has always been an open one, being based on data about the disaster but taking account of any new information that came to hand after the initial writing.

All the materials used in the piece are derived from research and speculations about the sinking of the "unsinkable" luxury liner. On April 14th 1912 the Titanic struck an iceberg at 11.40 PM in the North Atlantic and sank at 2.20 AM on April 15th. Of the 2201 people on board only 711 were to reach their intended destination, New York. The initial starting point for the piece was the reported fact of the band having played a hymn tune in the final moments of the ship's sinking. A number of other features of the disaster which generate musical or sounding performance material, or which 'take the mind to other regions', are also included. The final hymn played during those last 5 minutes of the ship's life is identified in an account by Harold Bride, the junior wireless operator, in an interview for the New York Times of April 19th 1912

"...from aft came the tunes of the band..... The ship was gradually turning on her nose - just like a duck that goes down for a dive. I had only one thing on my mind - to get away from the suction. The band was still playing. I guess all of the band went down. They were playing "Autumn" then. I swam with all my might. I suppose I was 150 feet away when the Titanic, on her nose, with her afterquarter sticking straight up in the air, began to settle slowly.... The way the band kept playing was a noble thing. I heard it first while we were still working wireless, when there was a ragtime tune for us, and the last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebelt on, it was still on deck playing "Autumn". How they ever did it I cannot imagine."

This Episcopal hymn, then, becomes a basic element of the music and is subject to a variety of treatments. 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.

In addition, this new recording includes two different ensembles of children: one of girls, the other of boys (the presence of children on the ship adds greater poignancy to the disaster, especially when one looks at the statistics relating to survivors). One is a string ensemble made up of my two daughters, on cellos, with two of their friends on viola and cello, all of whom have been students of the London Suzuki Group. The other is a fine choir from Suffolk - the Wenhaston Boys Choir - which I encountered through my bass-maker Michael Hart and whose son sang with them for many years.

One of the features of the Bourges recording was the extraordinary acoustic space in which we played. The band were in the basement of the round (disused) water tower, the audience heard the music through Chris Ekers' sound system on the ground floor, and the empty top floor was used as an enormous reverberation chamber. The present recording adds the sound of other ambience spaces to this, including that of the swimming bath in Brussels where the piece was performed 'live' on a raft in 1990. Although I conceived the piece many years ago I continue to enjoy finding new ways of looking at the material in it and welcome opportunities like the present recording to look at it afresh.

Gavin Bryars.

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