Gavin Bryars (with Philip Jeck and Alter Ego): The Sinking of the Titanic

Gavin Bryars and Philip Jeck might at first seem like strange bedfellows but their respective talents dovetail perfectly in The Sinking of the Titanic. In fact, Jeck's decayed turntables—the first thing one hears in this latest version, a live performance recorded on October 1st, 2005 at the 49th International Festival of Contemporary Music at The Venice Biennale at the Teatro Maliban—complement Bryars' opus so naturally the only question is why no one thought to combine them earlier. Suggestive of the hazy scrim of memory, Jeck's crackle is analogous to the ocean that concealed the ship's resting place for so many years, and musical themes often struggle to be heard when they must fight their way through Jeck's dense mass. The composer himself plays double bass while Italian septet Alter Ego (not the identically-named German electronic duo that records for Klang Elektronik) contributes strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion (bell tones, wood blocks, tinkles, marimba), tape recorders, and sound design to the process. Composed in 1969, the work inhabits an unusual zone: it's experimental, yes, and electronic too in certain respects, but also classical, given the work's spiritual center: the elegiac Episcopal hymn “Autumn” that was performed by a string chamber group while the ship sank after striking an iceberg during its 1912 voyage, and which first appears fourteen minutes into this seventy-three-minute version and whose haunting themes re-surface throughout.

Like Bryars' kindred 1971 work Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, The Sinking of the Titanic is elastic by design, a malleable work designed to accommodate different presentations. The work has been issued four times: the first in vinyl format on Eno's Obscure label in the seventies (the piece's short duration influenced by the playing time of the vinyl side), an hour-long 1990 version issued on Crépuscule that was recorded in a water tower at Bourges, a 1994 version released on Philip Glass's Point imprint which incorporates and expands upon the Bourges material, and now this even longer treatment. The contributions of Bryars' guests help make the Touch release the most expansive treatment to date; the Point version, by comparison, hews to its submersive downward trajectory in more straightforward and linear fashion. Still, the new version is arguably the most perfect realization of the project concept to date, as its variegated sounds capture the hallucinatory sonic mish-mash that would have filled the air during the ship's sinking (though it is a bit strange to hear crickets chirping at the half-hour mark, given that insect sounds wouldn't be the most likely noise one would hear as a ship disappears beneath the waves). The work's handling of time is appropriate too; it isn't so much suspended as elongated which again is in keeping with one's phenomenological experience at moments of heightened intensity: seconds and minutes appear to race past yet, paradoxically, also seem to slow down, as if everything happening does so in slow motion. By allowing its melodies to unfurl so unhurriedly, Bryars stretches out the hymn to all eternity.

April 2008