Gavin Bryars' haunting multimedia work The Sinking of the Titanic is a mixture of musical narrative, documentary, and meditation, drawing heavily upon various historical accounts of the sinking of the famous ship and weaving numerous details of the story into a surreal and multi-layered web of music and sound. The project began in 1969 and over the subsequent 25 years underwent numerous additions and alterations. Many of these enhancements grew out of new information that emerged about the ship, including the discovery of the ship's hull and remaining contents in 1985.
In composing the work Bryars brought together a wide range of sonic elements, including strings, winds, a variety of percussion sounds, bass, and electric guitar, as well as a number of electronic effects -- many of them evoking the sounds of large metal objects being bent, scraped, and twisted. These instrumental timbres and sound effects are joined by two distinct but equally poignant vocal elements: a children's choir, and recordings of interviews with survivors of the disaster.
The inspiration for the work came from the composer's discovery of a report by a survivor that, in the last moments before the ship tipped and sank into the water, a band on the deck of the ship continued to play. The observer, who was working frantically to send out a wireless communication for help, first heard the band playing ragtime music. Later, as he was swimming away from the sinking ship, he heard strains of the Episcopal hymn Autumn. The hymn continued, the observer recalled, even as the ship tipped upright on its nose and plummeted into the ocean.
This hymn serves as the central musical layer of the work, performed primarily by strings and joined at various points by other instruments and ethereal choir voices. The hymn music proper is subjected to a number of variations and tropes, and is interrupted by the occasional chime or woodblock. This musical layer is joined by a variety of sustained sounds, including tam-tams, bass drums, and highly evocative water gongs (a gong whose pitch is lowered by dipping it in a tub of water while it is being struck). Intermittently, barely decipherable excerpts from news reports and survivor interviews emerge from the mix as well. The various layers of sound are subjected to careful sound engineering, with heavy reverberation and other alterations applied. This element is crucial to the piece's narrative quality, so much so, in fact, that on the 1994 recording the sound designer is listed among the instrumentalists. The idea, the composer explains, is that the band continues to play even as they and their instruments are submerged in the water. At the end of the work the reverberation effects disappear as the musicians emerge once again from the depths as an apparition.