Just over one hundred years since the sinking of the Titanic. The tragedy was immortalized with emotional intensity and delicate musical sensitivity in The Sinking of the Titanic, written by British composer Gavin Bryars, and performed by him and his Ensemble at the Barbican on April 15. Bryars is recognised as a diverse musician and composer, his roots as a jazz bassist never far from the surface of this Titanic work. The Sinking of the Titanic (1969) was originally released on Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975 and is the composer’s first major work. Along with Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971), this work sold over a quarter of a million copies when re-released in more recent performances. The Gavin Bryars Ensemble was founded in 1981 and continues to perform across the world.
According to some reports of the tragedy, the ship’s string ensemble kept on playing the hymn tune Autumn as the ship sank on April 14, 1912. This was the inspiration for the piece and, as a result, a string quartet forms the core of the ensemble. Fragments of the hymn tune can be heard throughout this work which lasts just over an hour. Philip Jeck’s turntabling added an additional layer of sonic material to the live music, creating sounds that never gratuitously attempted to recreate the sounds of the Titanic yet always suggesting an air of nostalgia. Two large mirrored screens played visuals prepared by Bill Morrison and Laurie Olinder (the images showed footage of the Titanic.) The music was never overstated, and the looped hymn tune became something of a meditation on the disaster rather than an attempt to recreate the experience through the visuals and music, which were always in synergy.
The slow opening accompanying footage of the Titanic about to embark on its journey was coloured by Jeck’s turntabling, rich in crackling sounds that were further coloured by percussion that sought to capture the creaking of the ship commencing its journey. The first time we heard the hymn tune performed by the quartet, we were confronted by the faces of the passengers: a poignant moment. The music always had the hymn tune at its core yet the material that encased it flowed like water, Jeck’s material adding something rather real to the experience: voices and sounds reminiscent of what one would imagine could be heard on the ship. Even with the ebb and flow of the material it remained something quite static, not in a disconcerting way, but rather in a moving meditative way. The silent close to this work was nothing but fitting. This was something beyond a concert but it represented a powerful and moving tribute to the disaster.
Steven Berryman is a composer and teacher working and living in London. Follow him on Twitter: @Steven_Berryman