Bryars: The Sinking of the Titanic

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COMPOSERS: Bryars
LABELS: Point Music/Polygram
WORKS: The Sinking of the Titanic
PERFORMER: Various artists
CATALOGUE NO: 446 061-2 DDD
After the artistic vandalism perpetrated on Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet in 1993 by its composer, I feared the worst. Gavin Bryars’s The Sinking of the Titanic dates, like Jesus’ Blood, from the early Seventies; the two works appeared together on an LP in 1975.

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Titanic is based on the ill-fated maiden voyage of the ship in 1912. It takes its starting point from a report that the ship’s band played a hymn tune as the Titanic sank. Anything relevant to the disaster – interviews with survivors, hypothetical reconstructions – then becomes potential material for reworking. What, Bryars asks for instance, might the hymn tune sound like under water?

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In fact, some of the original’s idiosyncratic spirit remains. A version issued on the Belgian Crépuscule label in 1990 had already incorporated new elements: the indulgent CD length, Chris Ekers’s sophisticated sound design, a moving bass clarinet ‘lament’. Bryars’s concern to maximise sales at the current National Maritime Museum’s Titanic exhibition may now be detectable in the more dramatically manipulated structure and the way in which the hymn is often allowed to emerge more clearly from its surroundings. A boys’ choir, too, seems horribly gratuitous. Thankfully, however, the old magic proves unsinkable. But why are the booklet notes printed in such a perversely unreadable way? Keith Potter