Photos: Rory Coomey
“…what happens to music as it is played in water” (Gavin Bryars)
Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic, originally composed as far back as 1972, is a piece of music conceived from the report that a string sextet played the hymn tune ‘Autumn’ on deck as the famous ship sank. Over the years, the conceit has been extended to incorporate other material (extracts of interviews with survivors and other sounds based on survivor descriptions), to create an enduring and intriguing piece. This particular performance featured the Gavin Bryars Ensemble, with Philip Jeck providing live sampled sound, and a film projection which was designed by Bill Morrison and Laurie Olinder.
The musical line-up consisted of two string quartets, though not in conventional format, with two double basses (one of them played by Bryars himself), three cellos and the rest violins or violas. There was also a guitarist hidden away at the back, two horn players (bass clarinet and tuba, at best guess), an extensive percussion section including hanging bass drum, standing cymbals, hammer bell-chimes, wood blocks and other things, and the inscrutable Philip Jeck seated at a table containing turntables and a mixing desk, from which he brought forth the bed of sound effects which were the one continuous audio feature of the performance. The most prominent part of this backdrop was a filtered, decaying loop of the string tune of ‘Autumn’, swaying in and out of phase, as if swamped under ocean currents.
The projection consisted of a mirrored split screen showing an assortment of images of the Titanic before departure – the captain standing proudly surveying the deck, the ship’s wheel and cheering crowds on the quayside, were some of the early ones. Later, images of telegrams, letters, invoices and other documents with some connection to the ill-fated ship appeared, overlaid with the ominous picture of the churning ocean in the ship’s wake.
Contrary to expectations, the string players interacted very little, with the centre stage quartet taking the lead mostly, echoing Jeck’s sampled string fragment of the hymn, then at intervals making way for the second quartet to take up the baton. This had the effect of a more careful atmosphere than you might have thought thirteen people on stage capable of. No doubt this was deliberate, as it was admirable, but it meant the performance was less than completely engaging at times.
As the musical and supporting sound themes established themselves, though, a gradual sense of the dignity – you might even say nobility – of the conceit took hold, particularly taking into account the scale of the tragedy involved. However, as a list of the Titanic’s 1st Class Passengers appeared on screen, I found myself wondering where everyone below deck was in this film narrative. Then, as if in answer to my question, a shot of Francis Bacon’s On Counsels, Civil and Moral came on screen, shimmering under water. I may be reading too much into this, but it seemed to suggest some similar misgivings about “the official narrative” on the part of the filmmaker.
The percussion was impressive and evocative throughout – Morse code woodblocks, a very liquid-sounding saw and chaotic bass drum and cymbals. For me, the most successful parts of the “soundtrack” were where the strings fell back and Jeck’s wonderfully modulated sound design took centre stage. In particular, the hiss of the vinyl tended to bring you back in time, suggesting the breadth of history. These were also the moments which seemed to best capture the floating, weightless quality of being at sea.
Bryars left the stage with his arm around the other double bassist – who I took to be his son – clearly delighted with the prolonged applause. The less than full main room of City Hall did not take from the power of this thought-provoking and moving piece of work.