The Sinking of the Titanic

Description: 

Instrumentation: Indeterminate (possible materials include stereo tapes, string ensemble, percussion, low brass, brass quartet, bass clarinet, cassette tapes of speech, keyboard, 35 mm slides, visible sound effects, music box).
Duration: versions of 25’, 35’, or 1 hour (plus)
Published in Soundings 9 (USA).First performance: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 1972

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 and during the next three years I performed the piece several times. In 1975 I made a recorded version for the first of the ten records produced for Brian Eno's Obscure label. In 1990 I re-recorded the piece 'live' at the Printemps de Bourges festival 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. This version forms the basis for the 1994 recording on Point.

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 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 was identified in an account by Harold Bride, the junior wireless operator

"...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...  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...  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 the principle element of the music and is subject to a variety of treatments and it forms a base over which other material is superimposed. 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 to look at it afresh.