Gavin Bryars \ The Sinking of the Titanic: Live in Bourges April 1990 [LTMCD 2525]
A new CD and download edition of a celebrated live performance of The Sinking of the Titanic by acclaimed modern composer Gavin Bryars. Originally released on Les Disques du Crépuscule, this extended 60 minute performance of his haunting masterpiece was recorded by the Gavin Bryars Ensemble at French festival Le Printemps de Bourges in April 1990. The unique performance location was the Chateau D'Eau, a disused water tower.
Featured Ensemble musicians are Dave Smith, Roger Heaton, Martin Allen, Alexander Balanescu, Jon Carney and directed by Bryars himself. The Bourges recording is much longer than earlier versions of Titanic, and takes account of the peculiar nature of the performing environment. The six musicians were located in the basement area of a three storey water tower, where the public heard the pieces through a specially designed sound system on the middle floor, but only after the sound had passed through the cavernous top floor.
1. The Sinking of the Titanic (live)
CD features extensive liner notes by Gavin Bryars, as well as revised artwork.
"This version is the most romantic and the first to exceed one hour. By removing the shrill edge of the violin that led the strings previously, it gives the mournful moments more depth, especially when a bass clarinet offers a dark counter-lament in the closing stages. There is much light in their performance for such a dark project, much softness in its ripples" (The Wire, 07/2009)
"A compelling and often moving piece which draws the listener in through a series of tableaux. Neither rock nor classical nor new age, this release should nevertheless find a place in the hearts of adventurous listeners anywhere" (Top, 03/1991)
"The live environment makes for a particularly evocative experience, and the sheer ghostliness of the event translates well onto CD" (Record Collector, 04/1991)
"Still a strangely haunting work" (Music Week, 03/1991)
"One of the strangest musical experiences one is every likely to enjoy. Incredible" (Melody Maker, 04/1991)
'A stunningly evocative and moving realisation of Bryars' music, and one that shouldn't be missed - even by those of you already familiar with its various other recordings' (Boomkat, 06/2009)
Gavin Bryars, born 1943, was first of all a jazz bassist and pioneer of free improvisation with Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley. Recordings of his early works The Sinking of the Titanic (1969) and Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971), achieved great popular success. He has written three full-length operas and dance works for, among others, Merce Cunningham, Edouard Lock and William Forsythe. He taught for a number of years in art colleges and has collaborated with many visual artists such as Bruce McLean, David Ward, Tim Head, James Hugonin, Bill Woodrow and Will Alsop (Valencia Architecture Biennale). In 2006, he was a guest speaker at the 10th Alvar Aalto Architecture Symposium in Finland. He has made installations/performances for the Liverpool Tate Gallery, the Tate St. Ives, Chateau d'Oiron, among others and worked closely with the late Juan Muņoz. He has a long list of instrumental, orchestral and vocal works to his credit, for artists such as the Hilliard Ensemble, Red Byrd, Trio Mediaeval, Latvian Radio Choir, Estonian National Male Choir, Opera North and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. He has recently completed a project for the Faroe Islands on the 10th century Trondur of Gotu and a series of works for the Irish singer Iarla O'Lionaird setting Irish spiritual texts in Gaelic from the 8th to the 16th centuries. Future projects include three ballets, a piano concerto, two chamber operas and much vocal music. He lives in Leicestershire and British Columbia and, as well as composing, performs internationally with his own ensemble. He has made many critically acclaimed recordings, most recently on his own label GB Records.
At the time of this recording, he was Professor of Music at Leicester Polytechnic (he stopped teaching in 1994) and Musical Associate at the Leicester Haymarket Theatre. Now LTM are proud to re-release his classic Sinking of the Titanic, first released on CD format by Crépuscule (TWI 922) in 1990. Then unavailable on record, this piece more than any other established Bryars' international reputation and has always been envisaged as a multi-media event. Titanic was staged in April 1990 at Le Printemps de Bourges (a leading modern music festival). The performance location was the Chateau D'Eau, a disused water tower on three storeys, in an environment conceived by L'Académie de Muséologue Evocatoire, showing works by French artist Christian Boltanski and featuring documentation relating to the discovery of the wreck of the Titanic supplied by Taurus International.
The Sinking of the Titanic (1969)
A sketch version of the piece was written in 1969, consisting of simple notes as to what such a piece "might be". It was an attempt to make the musical equivalent of a piece of conceptual art - a form of art that was actively discussed at that time and which, working as I was in an art college environment, I found of great interest. It was not until 1972 that I was forced to make a concrete version of the piece for public performance, and this formed part of an evening of my work at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, December 13 1972. The concert also included the first performance of Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, Derek Bailey and John Tilbury playing The Squirrel and the Ricketty-Racketty Bridge, as well as a guest appearance by the Portsmouth Sinfonia.
In 1973, I performed the piece in Brussels with a mixture of Belgian and English musicians, and in 1974, the piece (unlike the Titanic itself) reached America, when John Adams and I put on performances in California (Oakland, San Francisco and San Diego). Eventually in 1975, a recorded version was produced for Brian Eno's Obscure label, the first of the ten Obscure records, and this version, lasting about 23 minutes, remains the best known. With one or two exceptions, which bear little aural relation to the recording, this recorded version provided the basis for most subsequent performances.
On 14 April 1912, at 11.40 pm, the Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank at 2.20 am on 15 April. Of the 2.201 people on board only 711 were to reach New York (32.3 per cent). The piece is based wholly on the circumstances surrounding that event and from the equation of facts that emanate from it, in one direction or another. It is an "open" piece, into which material subsequently discovered can be incorporated, and the present version takes account of information acquired since the 1975 recording, while discarding material now shown to be doubtful.
The initial starting point for the piece was the reported fact of the band having played a hymn tune as the ship went down, the lack of any report of their having stopped playing, and a number of other features of the disaster that generate performance materials or aesthetics, and which "take the mind to other regions". The first question to be answered was: precisely what hymn had the band played, under what circumstances, and with what orchestration. Many other questions follow, relating to other musical activities and other acoustic elements over the period of the disaster - broadly, from the time the Titanic left Southampton until shortly after it submerged (though incidents 14 years before the Titanic sailed, and research and discoveries in the recent past all colour the treatment of the piece).
The final hymn, played during the last five minutes of the ship's life, is identified in an account by Harold Bride, the junior wireless officer, in the New York Times of 19 April 1912, "...from aft came the tunes of the band. It was a ragtime tune [This refers to the music that preceded the hymn]... The ship was gradually turning on her nose - just like a duck that goes down for a dive. I had only one thing on my mind - to get away from the suction. The band was still playing. I guess all of the band went down. They were playing Autumn then. I swam with all my might. I suppose I was 150 feet away when the Titanic, on her nose, with her afterquarter sticking straight up in the air, began to settle slowly... The way the band kept playing was a noble thing. I heard it first while we were still working wireless, when there was a ragtime tune for us, and the last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebelt on, it was still on deck playing Autumn. How they ever did it I cannot imagine."
The Episcopal hymn Autumn, then, becomes a basic element of the music. Bride's evidence is particularly strong - he was, after all, the wireless officer responsible for handling the reception of messages at the end. However, different tunes were used in other circumstances relating to the Titanic immediately afterwards, (in pieces by Siegfried Karg-Elert, in the Titanic Memorial concert of 24 May 1912 at the Albert Hall), each of these being versions of Nearer My God to Thee. Sir Ronald Johnson, the hymnologist, maintains that the tune was in fact Aughton and that Bride, although hearing the music correctly, had been misquoted by the press reporters - quite plausible given their professional habits and, more importantly, the words associated with Aughton:
And when my task on earth is done,
When by Thy grace the victory's won,
E'en death's cold wave I will not flee
Since God through Jordan leadeth me...
Unlike those of Autumn ("see the leaves about us falling" or "see the whit'ning harvest languish"), these are quite appropriate. However, since the music was played by a string sextet and since there is no evidence of any singing (except at a church service several hours earlier - April 14 was a Sunday), the question remains open, and all possibilities remain to be included in the piece.
What actually happens to the music is taken further by the effect of the water. The music, once generated in water (Bride did not hear them stop playing), would descend with the ship and be dissipated laterally, sealed in the sound efficient medium of water by the "ceiling effect" of the water's surface. That such an avenue of enquiry should be pursued was encouraged by the views of Marconi. This occasion was the first extensive use of wireless telegraphy in ocean rescue, and when Bride arrived in New York on the Carpathia, Marconi rushed on board to shake his hand. Towards the end of his life, Marconi became somewhat mystical and was convinced that sounds, once generated, never die; they simply become fainter and fainter until we no longer hear them. For him, to enable us to hear these past, faint sounds, we only (sic) need to develop equipment of a sensitivity sufficient to pick up these old sounds and to avoid subsequent, stronger sounds from the present and immediate past. Ultimately, for Marconi, it would be possible to hear Christ delivering the Sermon on the Mount.
Such scientific concepts are no stranger than the term "to Marconi" used by Laurence Beesley in Lifeboat 13, who wondered whether "our gratitude was sufficiently intense and vivid to "Marconi" some of it to him that night". The music that was played, then, is preserved in the ship itself 2,500 fathoms below the surface at about 41.46 N, 50.14 W, as well as being dispersed up and down and across the North Atlantic. The size of the North Atlantic makes it suitable for such experiments with long-distant acoustics as those carried out by Stephen Alcott and his sons (in Roussel's Impressions d'Afrique). Hence, the music continues until Taurus International, who rediscovered the sunken ship at 1.04 on 1 September 1985, brings the ship to the surface. At that point, the music returns to its previous acoustic state.
Parallel with the 'reality' of the Titanic (and its treatment) is the fiction of a 'ghost' version (accorded the same treatment). 1n 1898 Morgan Robertson wrote a novel called Futility about a ship called the Titan. The ship was triple screw and could make 24.25 knots (the same as the Titanic): its tonnage was 70,000 tons (Titanic was 66,000), it was 800 feet long (Titanic was 882.5), it could carry about 3,000 people, it struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage in the North Atlantic in April, and, like the Titanic, only had lifeboats for a portion of them. It is possible, but unlikely, that Captain Smith may have been performing a very strict realisation of The Sinking of the Titan when the Titanic went down...
This recording was made during a live performance by my Ensemble in the Chateau d'Eau, Bourges in April 1990. It is much longer than earlier versions and takes account of the peculiar nature of the performing environment: an extraordinary early 19th century three-storey disused water tower. The French authorities completely renovated the basement area, where the six musicians were located, dispersed in three separate locations around the internal perimeter (three strings, percussion, winds and keyboard). The public heard the pieces through a specially designed sound installation by Chris Ekers in the middle floor, and the cavernous top floor was used as a massive reverberation chamber where the sound passed before reaching the central location. One effect of this was that the piece could be heard in the outside air via the top chamber for considerable distances. In a very real sense, the acoustic of the space, previously an underwater one, conditioned the way in which the music was heard. This is similar to the way in which I had worked with the late Bill Cadman on The Invention of Tradition for the special characteristics of the Albert. Dock, Liverpool in 1988 and where Chris Ekers was his assistant. This recording is dedicated to Bill's memory.
A number of new musical elements were used in this performance. The strings comprise two violas and double bass rather than the string sextet of three violins, two cellos and bass, and additional music was written for them. Percussion was used extensively for specific effects - the hymn tune on marimba, the woodblocks giving a sequence of Morse, the use of the bell and bass drum relating to specific aural images. The wind instruments gave a sequence of hymn possibilities as well as creating delay effects. A bass clarinet "lament" was added in homage to the young Scottish piper who died in the disaster. Specific sound effects were added relating to the descriptions given by survivors of particularly striking sounds. There are reminiscences about the disaster from two survivors who I had interviewed, Miss Eva Hart and Miss Edith Russell.
There was one very dramatic, and potentially fatal, aspect of the recording that occurred in its making, and which had a powerful resonance with the original disaster. The water tower had been left derelict for many years, and our use of it for the performance and recording formed part of the celebrations of its recent renovation. When it had been working, water flowed in a small cascade down the outside of the tower forming a narrow stream that trickled gently down the hill. Shortly before the performance, we located the tap that had been used for this purpose and found that it still worked. I reasoned that, just as the sound emanating from our reverberation chamber in the top floor of the building served as an acoustic signal of the building's new life, I thought that reactivating the stream during the performance would give a visual affirmation and connect with its past.
However, it never occurred to me to wonder about what ultimately happens to the water. In fact, it transpired that it drains back into the water tower, into the very space where we were performing. About ten minutes into the performance, I noticed water starting to lap around the base of the wooden risers on which we played and which had a number of electrical plugs and sockets. I was conscious that we were not only performing to an audience on the floor above, who could see us via a video link, but that we were also making a live recording and that we shouldn't stop. The situation was very dangerous but we kept going, keeping an anxious eye on the gradually rising water level and got to the end as the water reached the level of the risers. We left very quickly and had the basemen drained, and the tap shut off, before we did a second performance an hour of so later.
Some extracts from the extensive notes about the piece serve as a kind of score and were published in the American music magazine Soundings (Vol 9, Summer 1975).
..................... La 'Pataphysique est la science'
June 1990 (revised February 2009)
The Gavin Bryars Ensemble (1990): Alexander Balanescu - viola; John Carney - viola; Gavin Brays - double bass (occasionally with octave pedals); Martin Allen - percussion (bells, marimba, cymbals, woodblocks, tam-tam, bass drum); Roger Heaton - bass clarinet; Dave Smith - tenor horn, percussion (woodblocks, tam-tam), Korg M1 keyboard.
Bourges project coordination: Cyril Lefebvre, Jacques Caumont, Jennifer Gough-Cooper. Sound effects by Paul Bull. Engineered by Chris Ekers. Mixed direct to 2-track digital by Mike Furness. Digitally mastered at Autograph Sound Recordings Ltd by Nick Gilpin and Chris Ekers using a DAR sound station. Produced by Chris Ekers and Gavin Bryars.