Gavin Bryars

Gavin Bryars: The Sinking of the Titanic

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One of the two works for which composer Gavin Bryars is best known (the other being "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet"), his epochal "The Sinking of the Titanic" had been recorded three times in the 25 years since its creation. The first, for Brian Eno's Obscure label, was a landmark recording, but went swiftly out of print and became a much sought after collector's item, while the third, a relatively bland performance on Point, was widely distributed in the late '90s. In between, on the independent Belgian label Les Disques du Crepuscule, Bryars recorded what is possibly the definitive version though again, it is a difficult disc to locate. The composition is an attempt to metaphorically replicate the disaster of 1912 utilizing various elements associated with it, including the songs and hymns reported played on board that evening both before the iceberg was struck and as the ship was sinking. It's structured as an "open" piece, in that material subsequently uncovered may be added and information that becomes discredited may be discarded. The overall mood is, befittingly, sub-aqueous with long sustained tones on the strings, bass clarinet, and horn written to give the impression of sounds traveling great distances beneath the sea. This album was recorded in a large, abandoned water tower that adds enormously to its reverberative nature. The hymns used (particularly "Autumn," which modern listeners will recognize as being very similar to "Amazing Grace") take on a remarkably plaintive and ethereal character as the image of an undersea orchestra takes form. Bryars also incorporates taped narration from survivors and various underwater sounds, including the forlorn pinging of sonar, carrying the enormous and melancholy weight of searchers for the wreckage. Indeed, much of the great success of this work is its combination of minimalist compositional technique, the emotional impact of the hymns, and the scientific examination of the event from a distance over time. Always in the background is Bryars' romantic notion of the sounds of the drowning orchestra still reverberating beneath the waves. The Sinking of the Titanic is arguably one of the signal compositions of the 20th century and an extraordinarily beautiful work. While the performance on the Point label is serviceable, the interested listener is well advised to search out either this recording or the original on Obscure.

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