The Sinking of the Titanic

The Sinking of the Titanic | 1990

Crepuscule TWI 922-2 CD only


Gavin Bryars Ensemble

Play Tracks:

  1. The Sinking of the Titanic (excerpt)

Note : The Sinking of the Titanic (1969- )

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 was 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.

Note : The Sinking of the Titanic at Xebec (1990)

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