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Gavin Bryars - The Sinking of the Titanic

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Artist: Gavin Bryars

Album: The Sinking of the Titanic

Label: Touch

Review date: Jun. 24, 2008

Bryars has been reworking this piece since 1969, slowly incorporating different approaches to sound into his meditation on death and memory. It’s interesting to consider the centrality of loss to Bryars’ conceptual worldview, and not just as a general category: two of his most arresting pieces, this one and “After the Requiem,” deal with transportation disasters that end in water graves. Though Bryars had a personal connection to the Lockerbie crash that inspired the latter piece, one gets the sense that he’s reckoning with some larger forces.

The instrumentation for the piece has varied over the years, incorporating string quartets and now (on this extraordinary version) turntablist Philip Jeck and the ensemble Alter Ego (strings, brass, winds, percussion, keyboards, tapes, sound design). On some level instrumentation is absolutely central, as something about the vibrato of the strings Bryars highlights in his music (here focused on his own limpid playing, honed for years in free improv circles, notably in Joseph Holbrooke, and often at the center of his composing) suggests a watery quality. But on the other hand, instrumentation matters less to the success of the piece than the resonance of environment (both performative – this one is the 2005 Festival of Contemporary Music in Venice – and conceptual) and the degree to which the piece successfully interpolates the multiple sources that are its inspiration.

Bryars has often built his more interesting pieces from fragments – simple chords that billow in different colors, haunting melodic kernels, or fragments of text and speech, as in “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” or the incredible way in which the Episcopal hymn “Autumn” surfaces in this piece, through turntable crackle, a sonic buoy that emerges here and there just as in the memory of survivors. Bryars is as interested in the reverberation of memory as he is in sonic reverberation, and he chases down these big ideas throughout the 72 minutes of The Sinking of the Titanic, even as he ensures that the music remains heart-achingly intimate and direct.

It unfolds slowly, opening with turntable crackle as the music’s bottom end coalesces, like a deep, black layer of mud (and Bryars has always been able to generate a uniquely spectral sound from his contrabass). Then, a clarinet, a wave of electronics lapping against the time-locked vinyl noise. One sixth of the way through the journey, a lonely bell tolls, and allows for the first passage (as turntable crackle fades) of the gorgeous hymn, played with languid melancholy by the strings and clarinet of Alter Ego. At the 20-minute mark we hear the recording of a patrician British female recalling the layout of the deck, the alarms issued by officers, and so forth, as mildly bovine sounds and bowed metal slowly overtake her like the deep – until she comes back singing “Nearer My God to Thee.” It’s an extraordinarily powerful moment in a powerful piece, one of the rare ones that simply stop you in your tracks each time it’s played.

Around the mid-point of the piece, things unsettle and fragments of crowd noises – both cheers and jeers – interrupt the flow of the hymn, almost as if the passengers and players awoke once more to what was happening. But then another recollection, muffled but insistent, begins just as the hymn resumes, with the piece now emphatically suggesting water noise. The latter sections feature some dense arpeggios from the strings that actually sound strikingly similar to “After the Requiem.” Gentle chirps and whirring from Jeck return as the melody gets slower, drops of water filling the cavernous space that has by now become your own. All the elements of the piece return, swirling, confining, and a bell returns, along with it the certainty that it tolls quite differently now. Finally everything fades out and we’re left with only a grainy recording of a music box melody, lulling us sweetly until the piece ends with a sudden, nasty click. It’s an intense piece, more so each time I listen to it. And after living with this one for several months, I’m inclined to say that it’s the best performance I’ve heard of Bryars’ best piece.

By Jason Bivins

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