Taken from the Gavin Bryars Ensemble 2012 Live Tour, this version of The Sinking of the Titanic is a different prospect to the 1994 recording on the Point label (446-061-2). This included a Boys Choir as well as strings and the variety of effects which make up the core of the work, but as is the conceptual nature of the piece you can expect each performance to have unique features, let alone each version. The genesis of The Sinking of the Titanic is outlined by the composer in the booklet, but more importantly, Bryars’ approach and his artistic response to the disaster is also made clear.
The basis of the piece is the hymn tune “Autumn”, which was reported to be the last piece the band was playing as the Titanic finally sank. According to Walter Lord its sound “flowed across the deck and drifted in the still night far out over the water”. The Sinking of the Titanic is a kind of monument in music: a moment in time and history, stretched and elongated, but encapsulating the idea of eternal music sounding beneath the icy water, and expressing a sense of distant time as well at times as the immediacy of the tragedy, and perhaps the looming of vast metallic shapes, submerged and distorted.
The Sinking of the Titanic is a kind of meditation, but is also more than this. I always find it a moving experience, as much for the understated respect it shows for those involved but also in creating a space to reflect on mortality and humanity in general. Particularly poignant in this version is the music box playing La Maxixe – like the one played in one of the lifeboats to “amuse and distract” the children. All of the sounds which emerge have symbolism or basis in reports from the scene, and the multi-layered nature of the piece is a large part of its fascination.
There are a few distant coughs on this live recording, but other than some unnecessary applause at the beginning and end this is a well-produced release and comes highly recommended, even if you already have one of the other recorded versions – there are now around five available. Each one has its own character, and this one is every bit as remarkable as any of the others and perhaps even more so.