The Sinking of the Titanic at Xebec (1990)

In the various performing versions of The Sinking of the Titanic made since its inception in 1969, the starting point for the piece has been the hymn-tune "Autumn," following the evidence of the surviving wireless operator Harold Bride. He told the New York Times in April 1912 :"....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 after-quartet sticking straight up in the air, began to settle - slowly.... the way the band kept playing was a noble thing..... 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. That, and the way Phillips (the senior wireless operator) kept sending after the Captain told him his life was his own, and to look out for himself, are two things that stand out in my mind over all the rest.."

As Walter Lord wrote: "Bandmaster Hartley tapped his violin. The ragtime ended, and the strains of the Episcopal hymn Autumn flowed across the deck and drifted in the still night far out over the water."

The hymn tune was played between 2.15 and 2.20 am, the last five minutes of the sinking, and this unit becomes the building block for the music. Following a time plan - a kind of time=space in side elevation - the music goes through a number of different states, reflecting an implied slow descent to the ocean bed which give a range of echo and deflection phenomena, allied to considerable high frequency reduction. This presupposes that the music was played as the water engulfed the ship and, from Bride's account, there is no reason not to think this. Remember that the band were not only playing ultimately in water, but with the ship standing perpendicular in the water for these last 5 minutes. Bride cannot imagine how "they ever did it", but we know that the band were playing outside the gymnasium doors, and these open doors would have become the horizontal floor that served as their last bandstand (in the ship's vertical configuration).

The prolongation of the music into eternity, however, comes about from another "scientific" point of view. Marconi had developed the principles of wireless telegraphy over great distances and this was the first extensive use of wireless in ocean rescue. In fact, when Bride arrived in New York on the Carpathia, Marconi rushed on board to shake his hand. Towards the end of his life, Marconi became convinced that sounds once generated never die, they simply become fainter and fainter until we can no longer perceive them. Curiously enough, one of the rescue ships, the Birma, received radio signals from the Titanic 1 hour and 28 minutes after the Titanic had finally gone beneath the waves. To hear these past, faint sounds we need, according to Marconi, to develop sufficiently sensitive equipment, and one supposes filters, to pick up these sounds. Ultimately he hoped to be able to hear Christ delivering the Sermon on the Mount.

Perhaps Xebec is not yet quite ready for such a task, but through the sensitivity of its personnel and the sophistication of its environment, I was able, along with the Balanescu Quartet, four excellent Japanese musicians, and my sound engineer Chris Ekers, to give substance to this metaphor in the extraordinary Xebec Hall itself, at the Museum of Modern Art in Nagoya and in the Christian Boltanski exhibition at Art Tower Mito.

Gavin Bryars February 1993.